What is Irish Music?
The traditional music of Ireland has been handed down over several centuries, though new tunes have been continually added along the way as each generation of musicians makes their contribution to the repertoire. Traditional Irish music includes both vocal and instrumental music. At our school we are currently mostly focusing on the instrumental ensemble music, which was primarily written to accompany solo or social dancing, as well as song through our Gaelic Youth Chorus.
Traditional Irish music is played on a variety of acoustic instruments including violin/fiddle, flute, tin whistle, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, piano, accordion, concertina, bodhrán (Irish frame drum), harp, and uilleann pipes (the Irish form of bagpipes). It is performed sometimes for listening, sometimes to accompany dancing, and sometimes just for the fun of it!
In the past, Irish traditional music was largely written to be used in dancing at celebrations for weddings, saints’ days or other observances. Tunes are most usually divided into two eight-bar strains which are each played twice, then the whole tune is repeated several times with variations improvised by the performers. The “tunes” as they are called (the word “song” in Ireland is reserved for music that is sung) include many different rhythms and styles, and each style is associated with a particular type of dance. Some of the musical forms, such as reels, jigs, and hornpipes, probably originated in England and then spread to the rest of the British Isles. Others, such as polkas, mazurkas, and waltzes, migrated to Ireland from nations further east in Europe. In either case, however, the people of Ireland put their own stamp on the music as they combined it with distinctly Irish dance styles. So to many of us this music is now recognizable as part of the Celtic tradition, and both the music and the dance have become popular all over the world!
Why Play Irish Music
Some people can be surprised by the passion people have for playing traditional Irish music. It is certainly not the only type of Celtic music around. But it has a way of captivating and inspiring people that can be hard to describe. Many fans of Irish music have listened to it for many years through the music of the Chieftains, Clannad, Altan, The Bothy Band or soloists like James Kelly, Randal Bays, and Martin Hayes. In recent years, the major musical performances of Riverdance as well as the Celtic Women franchise have opened up the world of traditional Irish music to so many who only had a casual exposure to it. In some cases, people may not have realized the music they were listening to was Irish until then. But there is no denying how appealing the music is, especially to those who have some Celtic heritage. Since then, there has been a major resurgence in the interest of traditional Irish music, and we see continued growth and interest in it every year here in the North Texas region.
Many players of the music become strong Irish culture enthusiasts also, learning about Irish dance, language, arts and crafts, history, and even Irish dogs. The Irish community in North Texas has a number of venues for adults and kids to explore this wonderful culture. Irish step dancing schools are abundant in the Metroplex with at least five or six offering instruction. The Ceili dances held monthly in Dallas offer adults a chance to have Irish social dances. The Irish American Society of Dallas has many events including Bloomsday, a yearly gathering to celebrate the work of James Joyce. And, we cannot forget St. Patrick’s day, a yearly celebration of Irish culture that is one of the largest ethnic celebrations in the nation. In the Dallas Area, the highlight of our cultural year is the North Texas Irish Festival in early March where all aspects of Irish arts and culture are put on display for a huge festival second only in size to the State Fair of Texas.
To those who play traditional Irish music with some regularity, there are many things about it that are appealing. The lyrical nature of the music just seems to get in your head and it is infectious. The fact the music is memorized and learned by ear makes it very different than other music which can be played casually. People invest time in learning a repertoire and they largely have to play it in the company of other like minded people. This makes Irish music a very social style of playing. It also gives people from often a very diverse background something amazing that they have in common and a great reason to socialize and interact with each other.
And last, but not least, the inter-generational aspects of Irish music make it one of the few common types of music where children, parents and grandparents all play the music together in one social venue. Home sessions are frequently organized around the Metroplex, and a number players and their families will gather and play for 4 or more hours. Seeing a nine year old girl sitting beside an adult engineer or a retired therapist, each smiling and enjoying the music and each others company, is something that is so rare today in our culture where children and adults socialize separately and live in such different worlds.
So whether you fell in love with Riverdance, want to revel in all things Irish, or want a great way to play music with a wonderful community of players as well as involve your whole family in the art, traditional Irish music has a lot to offer and can provide a lifetime of wonderful experiences and memories.