Traditional Irish Music is known today throughout the world. It is an oral tradition and its prolific nature has captured the attention of listeners everywhere.

Though it is only in the past two decades that Irish Music has gained such recognition on an international scale, its origins can be traced back to almost two thousand years ago when the Celts arrived in Ireland. They brought with them, among other skills and crafts, music. Having been established in Eastern Europe since 500BC, the Celts were undoubtedly influenced by the music of the East, and indeed, it is speculated that the Irish Harp originated in Egypt. While travelling to Ireland, the Celts left their mark on the musical cultures of Spain and Brittany (Northern France) as well as in Scotland and Wales. However, it is here in Ireland that the tradition has evolved most articulately, thrived most strongly and survived most courageously.

The harp is best known of all the traditional Irish instruments and was most dominant from the Tenth to the Seventeenth Centuries. In the Nineteenth Century it evolved into the Neo-Irish Harp which, in structure, is much like that of the classical concert harp. Before the Seventeenth Century, the harp tradition was at its height and all the harpists were professional musicians. The ruling Chieftains employed them, under a system of patronage, to compose and perform music. The tradition enjoyed a steady and secure status under this arrangement. However, in 1607 the Chieftains fled the country under pressure from invaders. This came as a serious blow to the professional harpists and the tradition as a whole. They no longer held the title of professional musician and were now called “travelling” or “itinerant” harpists. Turlough O’Carolan is the best remembered of the harpists during this period and many of his compositions are still played by traditional musicians today.

The first written collection of Irish music appeared in 1762, containing 49 airs and published by Neale brothers in Dublin. However, it was not until the Belfast harp festival of 1792 that the most significant notation of Irish music was made by Edward Bunting. The manuscripts survive to this day and are among the most important documents in the history of the tradition.

Just as the flight of the Chieftains in 1607 affected the harping tradition, attempts at colonization adversely affected Irish culture in the decades following the initial invasion. Many of the laws introduced by the British crown were aimed at crushing the Irish culture and, in the case of the penal laws, it was forbidden to participate in any traditional or cultural activities. Many would believe that such laws were to some extent successful in suppressing the hampering the growth of music in Ireland during the period of their enforcement.


Due to the Great Famine of the 1840’s, one million people died and there is no doubt that much of the tradition in the form of songs, stories and tunes, died with them. The subsequent wave of emigration, of over two million people, which accompanied the Famine, though a devastating factor in Irish life, did help to bring the music tradition further afield. Thousands of Irish people were spread across the world from the USA to Australia. On leaving Ireland, the immigrants brought with them their songs and music and a traditional Irish music network was quickly established in cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston where there was a concentrated Irish population. By the 1920’s, recordings of a number of Irish musicians were being made in the USA, most notably the fiddle players Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and the Uilleann Piper, Patsy Tuohey. When these 78-RPM recordings made their way back to Ireland they had a dramatic effect on the tradition here. To the surprise of the listeners, piano accompaniment was given to the fiddle and uilleann pipes and the dance tunes were played at a quickened pace. As a result of these recordings, musicians in Ireland also began to speed up the tempo of the tunes as well as using the piano as an accompanying instrument, an idea previously unheard of in the tradition.

Up to the 1960’s, Irish music still had as its main setting the houses and pubs of rural areas, and music was played mainly to be danced to. It was not until Sean O’Riada’s involvement in the tradition that the music found a wider audience. O’Riada had a wide knowledge of Western Art Music and while working as a music lecturer at University College Cork, he became aware of Irish traditional music. As his interest in it grew he began to explore it in greater depth. He set up a band of traditional musicians in the early 1960’s called Ceoltoiri Chualann, with the aim of creating a new music built on the tradtition. He made use of many Classical music forms within the workings of the band which was made up of fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion and bodhran, and came up with a formula of playing solos within the group. His music was played to be listened to and not danced to, thus bringing the musc across a social divide. It was no longer associated solely with rural areas and poverty. When Ceoltoiri Chualann performed their first concert, it did not take place in a public house or a concert hall but in the grandeur of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. O’Riada created the concept of an Irish music ensemble, which gave rise to the whole idea of arranging the music.

As the 1900’s were to become known as the traditional music revival, the 1970’s were to earn the title the golden age of traditional music, and not without good reason, for it was in this decade that the music saw possibly its finest years in term of popularity and innovation.

Probably the most obvious development was the espousement of influences such as contemporary, American and European folk, into traditional music and with the arrival of the group Planxty in 1972, a new sound had emerged. The arrangements of pure traditional music in folk and ballad style, played with the virtuosity of Liam O’Flynn’s uilleann piping, along with the intricately captivating bouzouki, mandolin and guitar accompaniment, created a sound that was to prove them as the leader in a new musical movement, and to play a vital part in the inspiration for many groups,too numerous to mention here, that formed around this time. They were the prototype for what was to be arguably the most influential and ground-breaking band during the period and possibly to date for it was the Planxty man, Donal Lunny, who in 1975 formed The Bothy Band. This professional group, characterised by a powerful core of pipes, flute and fiddle with a driving rhythmic accompaniment, not unlike that of rock music, played on bouzouki, guitar and clavichord, achieved one of the most exciting combinations of traditional music talents ever gathered. Their greater use of harmony and occasional interdependence of instruments: their more intricate use of O’Riada’s model of arrangement: their professional rock-group like approach to performance and mainly their master musicianship and explosive sound, all served to win them the imagination of a new generation the world over.

The Bothy Band’s influence from their heyday to the present is undiminished. It is because of bands such as Dannan, Planxty and perhaps mainly the Bothy Band, that certain traditional musicians can stand alone on stages throughout the world and be appreciated and acclaimed for playing in their own pure style.

Since the ‘70’s, many interesting ventures in new areas have been attempted, such as the traditional rock-fusion initially tempted by Moving Hearts: experimentation with the arrangement of traditional instruments with orchestras: the attempted fusion of traditional music with world music and jazz, etc. All these developments are notable in their own right and have served to popularise the music, contributing to the apparent situation today where it is seen to be thriving.

In the twenty-first century, with traditional music enjoying every success, it would seem as if its future is secure, but today more than at any other time, this is the foremost topic of debate among musicians and commentators. Through the profusion of media, the influence of groups and individual musicians filtering back into the tradition is viewed with great concern by many as corrupting and detracting from the essential purity and integrity of traditional music. Indeed, it has been recognised that with few exceptions, regional styles have, since the advent of recording, been eroding at a frightening rate and are almost completely erased.

Traditional music is one of the most exciting and rich elements of Irish culture. Multi-faceted and always evolving, it’s no longer just a passion of the older generations – so banish those images of beige Aran sweaters and tin whistles! Over the years, traditional Irish music has been embraced by modern musicians who’ve added pop, rock, dance and electronic components, experimented with new rhythms and generally had lots of fun. Today, a new wave of acts continue to develop this unique genre, and below are some of the exciting styles and genres of talent from Ireland.


Performers of popular music began appearing as early as the late 1940s; Delia Murphy popularized Irish folk songs that she recorded for HMV in 1949; Margaret Barry is also credited with bringing traditional songs to the fore; Donegal's Bridie Gallagher shot to fame in 1956 and is considered 'Ireland's first international pop star'; Belfast-born singer Ruby Murray achieved unprecedented chart success in the UK in the mid-1950s; Dublin native Carmel Quinn emigrated to the US and became a regular singer on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and appeared frequently on other TV variety shows in the 1950s and '60s. The Bachelors were an all-male harmony group from Dublin who had hits in the UK, Europe, US, Australia and Russia; Mary O'Hara was a soprano and harpist who was successful on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s and early 1960s; Waterford crooner Val Doonican had a string of UK hits and presented his own TV show on the BBC from 1965 to 1986.


Irish Showbands were a major force in Irish popular music, particularly in rural areas, for twenty years from the mid-1950s. The showband played in dance halls and was loosely based on the six or seven piece Dixieland dance band. The basic showband repertoire included standard dance numbers, cover versions of pop music hits, ranging from rock and roll, country and western to jazz standards. Key to the showband's success was the ability to learn and perform songs currently in the record charts. They sometimes played Irish traditional or Céilidh music and a few included self-composed songs.


With the rise in popularity of American country music, a new subgenre developed in Ireland known as 'Country and Irish'. It was formed by mixing American Country music with Irish influences, incorporating Irish folk music. This often resulted in traditional Irish songs being sung in a country music style. It is especially popular in the rural Midlands and North-West of the country. It also remains popular among Irish emigrants in Great Britain. Big Tom and The Mainliners were the first major contenders in this genre, having crossed over from the showband era of the 1960s. Other major artists were Philomena Begley and Margo, the latter even being bestowed the unofficial title of Queen of Country & Irish. The most successful performer in the genre today is Daniel O'Donnell, who has garnered success in the UK, US and Australia. O'Donnell's frequent singing partner Mary Duff has also had success in this genre and most recently County Carlow native Derek Ryan has enjoyed Irish chart hits doing this type of music.


Traditional music played a part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Clannad, Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinéad O'Connor using traditional elements in popular songs. Enya achieved international success with New Age/Celtic fusions. The Afro-Celt Sound System achieved fame adding West African influences and electronic dance rhythms in the 1990s while bands such as Kíla fuse traditional Irish with rock and world music representing the Irish tradition at world music festivals across Europe and America. The most notable fusion band in Ireland was Horslips, who combined Irish themes and music with heavy rock.

Riverdance is a musical and dancing interval act which originally starred Michael Flatley and Jean Butler and featuring the choir Anúna. It was performed during the Eurovision Song Contest 1994. Popular reaction to the act was so immense that an entire musical revue was built around the act.


The 1960s saw the emergence of major Irish rock bands and artists, such as Them, Van Morrison, Emmet Spiceland, Eire Apparent, Skid Row, Taste, Rory Gallagher, Dr. Strangely Strange, Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, Mellow Candle.

In 1970 Dana put Ireland on the pop music map by winning Eurovision with her song All Kinds of Everything. She went to number one in the UK and all over Europe and paved the way for many Irish artists. Gilbert O'Sullivan went to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972 with a string of hits, and the all-sister line-up of The Nolans gained international chart success in the late 1970s. Chris de Burgh achieved international acclaim with his 1986 hit "Lady in Red".

Groups who formed during the emergence of Punk rock in the mid-late 1970s included U2, Virgin Prunes, The Boomtown Rats, The Undertones, Aslan, Gavin Friday, and Stiff Little Fingers. Later in the 80s and into the 90s, Irish punk fractured into new styles of alternative rock, which included That Petrol Emotion, In Tua Nua, Fatima Mansions, My Bloody Valentine and Ash. In the 1990s, pop bands like the Corrs, B*Witched, Boyzone, Westlife and The Cranberries emerged. In the same decade, Ireland also contributed a subgenre of folk metal known as Celtic metal with exponents of the genre including Cruachan, Primordial, Geasa, and Waylander.

Other artists well known as popular music performers include Roisin Murphy, Mundy, Paddy Casey, Jack L, Declan O'Rourke, Jerry Fish & The Mudbug Club, Phil Coulter, Dolores Keane, Damien Rice, Yasha Swag, Damien Dempsey, Eleanor McEvoy, Finbar Wright, Maura O'Connell, Frances Black, Sharon Shannon, Mary Black, The Frames, Stockton's Wing, Samantha Mumba & Soul singer Laura Izibor

Since the 2000s the music industry is continuing to grow with well-established acts such as Niall Horan, Snow Patrol, Villagers, The Coronas, Bell X1, Kíla, Julie Feeney, Hozier, The Riptide Movement, VerseChorusVerse, The Thrills, Gemma Hayes, The Script, Codes, The Blizzards, The Answer, The Cast of Cheers, Axis Of, Time Is A Thief, Kodaline, Two Door Cinema Club, The Strypes and Keywest.