18 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Irish Singers Of All Time

Last updated

When one thinks of Irish music, the sounds of fiddles, banjos, and dancing jigs spring to mind. Despite the powerhouses from other countries, the Emerald Isle has produced some of the world’s most talented musicians whose voices are still influential today. 

Below is an entertaining list of the 18 greatest and most famous Irish singers of all time, spanning generations alongside every style and genre of music. 

1. Bono (U2)

Paul David Hewson, better known as Bono, is the lead singer of the world-renowned Irish band U2. 

He and his friends formed the group in high school not knowing they would make history, recording eight number-one albums over four decades and earning more than 20 Grammy awards. 

The iconic rock n’ roll band produced number one hit singles in the US like “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” both songs from their most influential album The Joshua Tree (1987). 

He grew up in Dublin with a strong religious upbringing. So, it’s not surprising that much of the lyrics and songs have undertones infused with religion and societal issues.  

Besides music, Bono is also a global human rights activist, using his fame to call attention to poverty, AIDS, and hunger. 

2. Hozier

Andrew John Hozier-Byrne or more commonly known as Hozier is a native of County Wicklow, Ireland, where he grew up in the countryside. His interest and passion for blues music were due to his father’s talents in blues-rock. 

He taught himself to play the guitar and devoted himself to writing music. This passion led to him cutting short his time at Trinity College. 

He finally got his breakthrough with the chart-topping popular hit, “Take Me to Church,” featuring a music video that went viral for its LGBTQ+ and religious themes. He produced another number one hit, “Nina Cried Power,” from his 2019 album Wasteland, Baby! 

Ever since, Hozier has produced many more romantic ballads influenced by folksy tones and poetic lyrics. 

3. Enya

Enya was born in Donegal as Eithne Patricia Ní Bhraonáin. Over her decades-long career, she has crafted a voice rich in Celtic melody and ethereal notes that have made countless listeners feel like they’re on the Emerald Isle itself. 

Most of her family were musicians, so it wasn’t long before music made its way into her life. She joined the band Clannad but soon left to pursue her distinctive style. 

She released a soundtrack for the TV show, “The Celts, which didn’t receive much attention. However, her next two albums, Watermark (1988) and Shepherd Moons (1991), sold millions of copies each and produced chart-toppers in the UK. 

Her famed singles “May It Be” and “Only Time” received worldwide recognition, solidifying her breathy and light voice and placing her as one of the most famous Irish singers of all time. 

4. Van Morrison

Like earlier Irish guitarist and songwriters, Sir Van Morrison fueled his musical passions with influences like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. 

He formed the band Them in 1964 after traveling as a musician for years. As the frontman for the Irish rockers, he wrote and performed the upbeat, folksy song “Gloria.” But that was only the beginning. 

His trailblazing blend of rock, blues, and jazz, with a nod to his Celtic heritage, positioned him as one of the most prolific musicians to come out of Ireland. 

Songs like “Brown Eyed Girl” quickly became fan favorites and set the tone for his broad range of musical influences. 

5. Niall Horan (One Direction)

Niall Horan is no stranger to world stages, screaming fans, and number one hits. 

He first gained stardom during his run on The X-Factor after being paired with four other contestants to form One Direction.

As a Mullingar native, he stayed true to his Irish roots and was dubbed as the “Irish one” in the band. He went on to break out as a new solo artist, combining folk, pop, and rock into his music. 

Horan delivered his first album, Flicker in 2017, topping the charts in both the US and Ireland and featuring popular hits like “Slow Hands.” His second album, Heartbreak Weather (2020), reached number one in the UK, Ireland, and Mexico. 

6. Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries)

Dolores O’Riordan was the lead singer of the Irish alternative rock band, The Cranberries, where she and her bandmates produced several hits like “Linger” and “Zombie.” 

As a Limerick native, she used music to find peace in a troubling childhood, singing in and playing the piano in church. From there, she auditioned for The Cranberries (then Cranberry Saw Us) and got the lead singer position. 

After the band split (but not for long), she focused on her solo career and produced her first album Are You Listening? in 2007.

In the later stages of her career, she worked with a band named D.A.R.K and produced their album Science Agrees (2016). She passed away in 2018 in London, England. 

7. Dermot Kennedy

Dermot Kennedy is a singer-songwriter born in Dublin. He began to experiment with the guitar in his early teens but became more serious about it later on. 

He went from performing in the streets to selling out arenas at the beginning of 2018. His big break came with his debut album, Without Fear (2019) which featured top hits like “Power Over Me” and “Outnumbered.” 

Kennedy’s music is a mix of acoustic and folk with influences of pop-rock. His raspy, deep voice contributes a passionate tone to his music. 

8. Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher was born in Donegal but grew up in County Cork where he discovered the musical phenomenon of Elvis and other rock n’ rollers. 

Ireland’s new era of rock music swept through, allowing him to offer a taste of a different sort of style. This encouraged him to form Taste, releasing two studio albums and two live albums with the band. 

His electrifying notes and chords paved the way for a solo career to take off. His first album, Rory Gallaher, set the stage for a sound-defying career. 

The hits he produced like “I’m Not Awake Yet” and “Tattoo’d Lady” from his iconic Irish Tour 74’ embrace his folksy roots and electric riffs to leave their mark on the rock n’ roll world. 

9. Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)

Phil Lynott, a pioneer in poetic rock music, was born to a Brazilian father and an Irish mother. He was born in England but moved to live with his Irish grandparents in Dublin.

His early years in music were influenced by musical greats like Van Morrison, and he eventually formed the band, Thin Lizzy, in the mid-70s. 

His evocative vocals and upbeat guitar riffs allowed his band to gain popularity in the rock world. Their iconic song “The Boys Are Back in Town” from Jailbreak (1976) became a favorite of rock n’ roll fans. 

And “Whiskey in the Jar” debuted at number one in the British charts, making it the band’s biggest hit. In 1982, he released a solo album that featured much of the same storytelling lyrics and riffs.  

Sadly, his rocker lifestyle led to his downfall when he passed away in 1986, but not without establishing his dominance in classic rock and lyrical songwriting.  

10. Christy Moore

If there is any musician that captures the sound of traditional Irish folk music, it’s Christy Moore.

As a true County Kildare native, he blended Celtic, soft rock, and upbeat rhythms to form the early image of his band, Planxty. 

Tunes like “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” showed the heavy Irish accent that Moore sang with and the influence of energetic, folksy strings. 

After leaving the band in 1985, he embarked on a successful solo career, producing albums Live in Dublin (1978) and songs like “Ordinary Man” which never left out his emblematic Irish voice and vibrant live performances. 

11. Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats)

Sir Robert Frederick Xenon Geldof, better known by his stage name “Bob Geldof,” was born in Dun Laoghaire and began his music career after discovering a lack of inspiration with the jobs he had. 

Soon after becoming a music journalist, he formed the band Boomtown Rats which put his name and image on the pedestal in the UK. In 1978, he produced their first hit “Rat Trap” and later “I Don’t Like Mondays.” 

His punk rock image served him well but soon took the backseat as he moved more towards philanthropy and world-changing initiatives. He continues his activism today and was knighted in 1986. 

12. Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)

Despite being born in England, Shane MacGowan’s family eventually made their way back to Ireland. They didn’t stay there long, but he still got to experience the lull of traditional Irish music. 

There wasn’t much of an Irish presence in his early career, and his notorious rockstar lifestyle seemed to threaten his image. But, he blended Irish folk with his favorite punk themes when forming The Pogues, a well-known Irish rock band. 

He quickly rose in the ranks of the music industry with hits like “Fairytale of New York,” which contrasted strongly with the upbeat karaoke vibes of other popular songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes.”

13. Sinéad O’Connor

Sinead O’Connor never played by the rules or standards of society. As a native of Dublin, her childhood was not as easy as others. However, like most successful artists, she found solace in music. 

Her early career started with studying voice in college and singing for telegrams to support herself.

Taking an alternative path from traditional Celtic, she produced her acclaimed album Lion and the Cobra (1987) which helped her rise to a higher status. 

Her sometimes controversial, rebellious displays placed her as a target for criticism. Still, she continued to release albums and eventually returned with strong odes to female empowerment. 

14. Luke Kelly (The Dubliners)

Luke Kelly was the founding member of the popular Irish band, The Dubliners. Hence the name, he was a native of Ireland’s capital city, but soon moved to England where he became a figure in the revival of folk music. 

Some Irish stars took the road of rock or pop, but Kelly kept it traditional and produced the folksy hit “Raglan Road” and “Whiskey in the Jar” alongside fellow bandmate Barney McKenna. 

He and the band stayed true to their roots and used the banjo and pub-style lyrics to offer charismatic performances. 

His style helped the rest of the globe appreciate the romantic, folksy ballads of traditional Irish music and he is still considered an icon in the folk music scene. 

15. Barney McKenna (The Dubliners)

Affectionately known as “Banjo Barney” McKenna, he became the other founding member of the Dubliners, alongside Luke Kelly. 

His presence on the banjo could never go unnoticed, contributing authentic Irish sound to the band’s albums like Irish Drinking Songs (1993) and top hit singles “Seven Drunken Nights” and “Black Velvet Band.” 

He was the last surviving member of The Dubliners but still holds his place as a waymaker for the revival of Irish folk music. 

16. Imelda May

The youngest of five children, Imelda May began her professional career at age 16 on Dublin-based stages. Her deep alto voice lends itself to musical styles including rockabilly and jazz. 

She released six studio albums between 2002 and 2021, toured extensively throughout the world, and performed on several international television shows. 

Her second album, Love Tattoo, shot up the Irish charts in 2008. That album helped May win the 2009 Meteor Award for female artist of the year. Next, she won the 2010 RTE Radio Album of the Year award for Mayhem.

17. Mary Black

Fans of Irish folk music from around the world may have no better troubadour and stateswoman to follow than Mary Black. She has performed almost nonstop for the past 40 years. 

A soulful and interpretive balladeer, Black combines all the classic Celtic tunes with newer ballads to keep her sound fresh. 

The Irish Recorded Music Awards (IRMA) named her Best Female Artist five times between 1987 and 1996, and Irish Music Magazine awarded her Best Female Folk Artist in 2000, 2001, and 2005. Her 1989 album No Frontiers spent 30 weeks at No. 1 in Ireland.

18. Andrea Corr (The Corrs)

Another singer-songwriter who is almost as well known for her charitable work as her singing, Andrea Corr gained early fame as the lead singer of her family folk group The Corrs. 

With her three siblings from the small town of Dundalk, The Corrs released six studio albums and two live albums before Corr embarked on a solo career. Her crisp, uplifting vocals often mask some powerful statements. 

Her first hit single “Shame on You” (2007) blasted men and women who left their families behind to fight wars abroad.  

She has since lent her voice to numerous fundraising efforts to fight poverty and raise AIDS awareness.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Irish Singers

Even today, Ireland produces talented musicians who stay true to the traditional style of folk music or pave their own path in the industry. 

Regardless, each musician that comes from the land of greenest fields and vibrant pubs has given the world a vivid taste of what it means to be Irish. 

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.