Found the attached which is interesting.

The following discussion on the origins of Irish traditional music was assembled from several posts made by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh to the IRTRAD-L list. Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is an expert on the fiddle music of Donegal, which he has been collecting and studying for many years. 

I feel that some confusion may have entered based on two concepts, namely the relativity of time and secondly the history of harp playing in Ireland.


What is traditional?

Stad a haonThe first point derives from the music being labeled "traditional". What does this mean? For every player/singer, there is a definition, but the prime common factor is typically some notion of "age"-it's being an "old" form of music. As Einstein might indicate to us, time is relative. Look at the Bunting, Joyce and Petrie Collections (the works of the early "great" collectors). They all invariably describe certain tunes as "ancient". This is the typical terminology of the "antiquarians" of their day (which they all were themselves). BUT, how old is old and ancient? A house in North America built in the 1700s is rare and considered very old. Alone in the small town in which I live, Ballyshannon in County Donegal there are several of them. How old is ancient? When Christ was born! That is a pretty good stab at ancient. Twice a day every weekday, I drive by a man-made religous structure that was very old when Christ was born!

We have a notion about "traditional" Irish dance music as being ancient. Certainly we have read as much in the great collections. The evidence (and this is critical and forms the basis of investigation into this subject) can only be derived from published collections and other literary accounts of what was played at various periods and it must be noted that these sources also contain their inaccuracies. If publications are examined through time, there is a clear indication that the body of tunes we now generally consider as traditional were composed in the 1700 and 1800s. For some, this is old, for others, it is hard to conceive of this as being ancient, and therefore not traditional.

Those who don't accept that this is old enough to be "traditional" often discount this music and maintain that the "traditional music of Ireland" was the music of the harpists, a tradition which has died out in a direct aural, passing-on tradition. They commonly note that this music was music which was revered and was performed in venues of high status.

What the latter view fails to recognise is that running exactly parallel with the harp history was a history of performance of music amongst the general public and there are numerous accounts of this music. In short music performed in houses by ordinary people on such instruments as primitive fiddles, flutes, pipes and whistles. I would call this music as traditional as the music of the harpists. It has evolved directly into today's dance music which we discuss so passionately on the IRTRAD-L list. Personally I suspect that the "elite status" of the harp is true but also masks the performance at citizen level. I base this on accounts of harpists (at the end of the period) who note that while they certainly played for the upper echelons of society, they also did so for the general public with warm receptions.

Furthermore, if one were to argue for the sole elevated status of harpists, they would in fact find themselves in difficulty. Much of the evidence for this high standing comes from State Papers, not in patronised harpists amongst royalty. In these same papers are accounts of pipers (presumably playing mouth blown pipes) holding equal status!

Repressive laws designed to stamp out a Gaelic order lifestyle played a large part in the decline of the harp tradition but it is worth while to note that with the demise of the national musical symbol came a quick replacement of it in the upper echelons of society by the uilleann pipes. Over a short period of time, the harp was wiped out and pipers quickly filled the gap with "patronised pipers" and "gentleman pipers" emerging rapidly as a distinct musical group which performed in the vacant venues left by the harpists.

In short, to say that the true "traditional" music of Ireland died with the harpists is to fail to recognise the parallel tradition of dance music played by the ordinary public on instruments which have been evolving in an unbroken development history to today's instruments. Full Article

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Interesting article Tony.

Clearly, it is nonsense to say that:

"the true "traditional" music of Ireland died with the harpists"

... because of course there would have been common ground between the elite music being played by the Harpists & the music being played by the ordinary folk. Each would, of course, have been very familiar with the other's music & to a greater or lesser degree, would surely have been influenced by it, especially when it came to composing new tunes.



Thanks Tony. This is very interesting. I reposted it on my facebook.

Clearly, the "ancient" Irish harp music, as noted by Bunting in the 19th Century, was played in the 18th and probably a little earlier by  traveler musicians like the well known blind harper O'Carolan, for an elite, living in 'big houses'.

AFAIK, we have no idea of what was played (and how) by the ordinary people. According to the known iconography, it seems that the pipes, in a primitive form,  was used since the 17th (probably earlier ). It has evolved into the pastoral pipes (England - 18th) and the uilleann pipes (19th) as we know it.

Some people said that a primitive form of the fiddle (home made in wood or metal) was in use. I tend to agree. I have personally seen one of these (newly) home made fiddles (trapeze-shaped) in use by a musician in Feakle in 1999. (the instrument was built by himself with a very few tools, as an experiment to proof the concept)

About the flutes and other whistles, I have doubts. AFAIK, there is no evidence of the existence of such instruments before the 19th (I mean among ordinary people). The common story says that the flutes has began to arrive to Ireland since the half of  the 19th century, when the Böhm system has begin to fight and finally defeat the older system, putting a lot of seven-keyed flutes on the second-hand market. (when not directly dumped into the fireplace ...)

Concerning the tin whistle, it appears that Clarke has invented it in England (Original C Clarke) at the same period. The flutes and whistles seems to be rather recent instruments, compared to the harp and the pipes. I would add a special mention about the fifes. It is possible that the fife was introduced into the Irish tradition by the military fifes and drums marching bands since the 18th (or brought back to Ireland by some survivors of the Wild Geese at early 19th).

My 2 pence 


Hi Emmanual,

We know that Vikings were making & playing Whistles in Dublin: Viking Dublin

So I think it's safe to say that Whistle playing goes back a long, long way in Ireland & certainly long before the C19th.

Granted, it may have taken a while to evolve into the 6 hole instrument we know today, but I think we can say that ordinary folk in Ireland have been probably been making music with Whistles for maybe 1,000 years.

"The earliest bone flutes in Ireland date from the Viking era but there can be no doubt that bone instruments were common in Ireland much earlier and were probably introduced with the first human habitation after the Ice Age."

Prehistoric Music Ireland


As for Wooden Flutes, they can actually be traced back to 2,000 BC in Ireland & the Early Bronze Age.

Add to that, the fact that:

"A number of prehistoric musical instruments made from bone, including simple flutes and whistles dating back more than 100,000 years, have already been uncovered in Ireland."

4000-year-old wood pipes discovered in Ireland


& you begin to realise that clearly, music in Ireland goes back a long, long, long way!


As for the Fiddle,

"There are many early medieval references to the fiddle in Ireland, as a plucked instrument based on the lyre, but the earliest evidence as a bowed instrument was uncovered during an excavation in Dublin in the 1700's when a fiddle and bow from the 11th Century were found."

Irish Music


... so clearly, that instrument clearly goes back much further in Ireland too & both the Fiddle & Whistle were actually around, in one form or another, before the Harp.


We know that the Lyre & Bowed Lyre were here in Ireland from the C8th:

" ..the majority of carvings depict lyres or quadrangular ecclesiastical instruments that date from the 8th to the 12th century."

Origins of the Harp in Ireland


However, you don't see many Lyres in Irish Sessions these days! :-)




Very nice answer. I will dig deeper.



Yes indeed, the terms "traditional" and "ancient" are both subjective and relative, as is time itself.

So, here's my theory about the origins of Irish traditional music:

Due the geographic positioning of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean, the island nation must have been continuously subject to many types of western seafaring and Indo-European cultural influences, including musical.

Influences have been arriving to Ireland since before the time western men first became seafaring, likely arriving to Ireland from many origin points along the Atlantic coastlines.  Prior to that, the original Indo-european root likely had musical influences coming from the east to the west (as supported by Indo-European linguistic evidence). Multiple eastern and western cultures must have repeatedly come into contact with Ireland, influencing and assimilating into Irish culture and components of the music.

My background is engineering, so I've little formal education as a historian, linguist or musician. I've gathered no evidence to support my theory.  It just seems like common sense with a minimal knowledge of global history.

Maybe this theory could somehow explain why the Irish diaspora can seemingly adapt with ease all around the world? Maybe such evolution of music could explain adoption of unlimited musical styles becoming natural to the Irish, including elements of the Irish "traditional" music?

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