For more than 2,000 years, traditional Irish music has been popular among its locals since it was first brought to the country by the Celts. It was only since the late 17 hundreds that the music was officially written down as part of the carried-on tradition.
In traditional Irish music, certain instruments have always been present, creating a unique sounding experience distinct to the culture of Ireland. Over the years, some of these instruments have decreased in their popularity, whereas others have prevailed. Since the 19th century, new instruments were introduced to the Irish music scene and have remained important ever since.
Let’s take a look at uniquely traditional Irish musical instruments as well as the instruments that have improved the popularity of Irish music.
1. Clairseach (Celtic Harp)
One of the most iconic Irish instruments is the Celtic harp which is a triangle-shaped string instrument whose first true representation dates to the late 11th century.
These instruments were deemed very noble, and the musicians who played them were held in high esteem, compared to the average entertainers.
The metal strings are attached to the soundbox and plucked with the fingernails to produce a ringing sound.
Although their elegant sound was associated with royalty and prosperity, it started to decline in later years.
There were a few known harpers, before the decline, during the 16th and 17th.
The harpers Duncan Mclneor and Patrick McErnace played for Campbell of Auchinbreck and Lord Neill Campell, respectively, during the 16th century.
During the 17th century, Menzies of Culdares and the Marquis of Huntly’s have accounts, on record, for paying numerous harpers, including Angus McDonald.
However, during the 19th century, harp maker John Egan revived the instrument by developing the pedal harp.
Now, the instrument is part of the revival culture of Gaelic music and history.
Next, we have the Fife which is a high-pitched wind instrument similar to the Piccolo.
The instrument’s body is filled with sound holes to produce notes when the finger is lifted to let the vibrating sounds escape.
Due to the instrument’s simplicity, there are records of it all around the world in different cultures.
Specifically, in folk music, the fife was used to accompany dancing by all the different social classes.
In Northern Ireland, the fife was accompanied by the Lamberg drum to produce traditional-sounding compositions of the Celtic culture.
In recent years a talented musician, Wouter Kellerman, has been known for playing the fife, among other wind instruments, in his music and shows but it’s even played by actor Steve Carell of The Office.
3. Uilleann Pipes
The Uilleann Pipes are a type of bagpipe and are a popular instrument in Irish culture.
It was originally an instrument used in war, with the earliest Irish mention dating back to the 12th century, especially in Henry VIII’s siege of Boulogne.
The Uilleann Pipes are similar to the Scottish great highland bagpipes and have decreased in popularity in popular culture because of this.
However, in the 20th-century, musicians such as Séamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, and Willie Clancy played popular pieces on the Uilleann pipes.
The Uilleann pipes are immensely complex compared to their predecessors.
The bag of Uilleann pipes is filled with air using a bellow instead of the previous bagpipes that had to be filled by the performer’s lungs.
A full set possesses a chanter with a double reed, three single-reed drones, and three regulators that provide harmony.
Due to the instrument’s complex nature, very few musicians played with a full set and often didn’t use all the regulators.
According to the tradition of this instrument, it takes seven years studying it, seven years practicing it, and seven years performing it before one becomes mastered in the instrument.
The fiddle, also called the violin, has strong historical roots in Ireland with some references even dating back as far as the 7th century when O’curry first mentioned it.
However, it was only until the 17th century that John and William Neal in Dublin mass-produced fiddles.
Although the violin and the fiddle are essentially the same instruments, they are separated by a distinctive musical philosophy surrounding them.
Fiddle players usually have a bridge with a flatter arch to perform techniques such as the double shuffle.
Fiddlers also opt for steel strings to create a brighter tone.
Traditionally, fiddling focuses on creating rhythmic sounds for dancing that are often characterized as improvisational with quick note changes.
A unique fiddling style called “Sligo” was popularized by Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran in the States during the 19th century.
The “Sligo” style is distinctive of Irish music and has since become very popular among fiddle players worldwide.
The Bodhrán is a frame drum made of bent wood and goatskin to create percussive rhythmic sounds.
A fairly new addition to Irish music, it was popularized by famous Irish arranger and composer Seán Ó Riada during the 1960s.
Musicians like Seán Ó Riada were influential in the revival of traditional Irish music during the 19th century, inspiring notable players of this instrument like Liam Ó Maonlai from the Hothouse flowers, Eamon Murray from Beoga, and Caroline Corr from the Corrs.
During traditional Irish songs, percussionists might alter between bones and the Bodhrán to maintain a constant rhythm.
Although the Bodhrán is a popular percussive instrument in traditional Irish music, it is occasionally replaced with non-traditional instruments like the Djembe in musical pub sessions.
The accordion has played a major role in modern Irish music.
During the 19th century, certain tunings of the accordion grew in popularity.
Irish accordion players prefer the two-row button accordion tuned to the keys of B/C.
The rows are tuned a semi-tone apart, which allows musicians to play the instrument chromatically in melody.
Famous players of this specific accordion are two Paddy O’Brien’s, one of Tipperary and the other of County Offaly as well as Joe Burke and Sonny Brogan.
There are a few types of accordion that are popular and one such is the Concertina with the most famous type of Concertina being the Anglo system.
A unique characteristic of this instrument is that each button is a different note depending on whether the bellows are compressing or expanding.
Due to the complex nature of Irish music, the three-row concertinas are favored by musicians to perform improvisational changes.
The two main rows provide the key’s main notes, with the lower-pitched notes on the left and the higher-pitched notes on the right-hand side.
The added third row allows for sharps and flats to be played in virtually any key.
The Buinne is considered to be a primitive flute or oboe.
Historians have mentioned it to be a trumpet in the shape of a horn and a romantic bassoon.
This instrument was part of, what historians consider to be, the core foundation of Irish traditional music.
The Buinne, together with the harp, Timpan, and Fife were instruments played in Irish tradition long before these compositions could be printed or recorded.
Similar to the oboe, the instrument was played with a reed and also considered, by the Irish monks of St. Gall’s, to be a crooked flute.
Besides the fact that we know the Buinne is similar to the oboe of the present, it was also mentioned that Irish musicians did not accompany the Buinne with vocals.
Therefore, we can deduce that it was a distinctive instrument similar to the harp during this time.
Although some scholars believe that the instrument was only used for hunting and military purposes, there is evidence to suggest that Buinne players were seated at the King’s feast at Tara, which implies that it was also used for entertainment.
Although the guitar is not a traditional Irish instrument, it has grown, in its popularity, to play modern Irish compositions.
Often employed to only play chords and keep the rhythm to the songs, some musicians also used it as a solo instrument to accompany their vocals.
The 6-string standard guitar has been influential in all genres of music since Antonio de Torres Jurado first built it in the late 18th century.
It has evolved in many ways, one of which is the electric guitar used by famous Irish players like Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy and, currently, the Edge of U2.
More traditional Irish players of the acoustic guitar include Dáithi Sproule and Micheál Ó Domhnaill.
They were famous for playing in an open tuning called “DADGAD,” a popular trait among folk musicians.
Due to the whistle and flutes being prominent instruments in any Irish band, the guitar and Bouzouki often provide background accompaniment and occasionally play single melody notes.
The Bouzouki has a lot of similarities with the guitar in the sense that it is also not a traditional Irish string instrument.
However, just like the guitar, it grew in popularity and is vital to modern Irish music.
First made popular by Johnny Moynihan in the 1960’s it was also played by famous musicians such as Andy Irvine and Alec Finn.
This string instrument usually has four-course strings (strings that are strung together to be played as one) tuned to “GDAD” accompanying the guitar in the rhythmic section of the band.
10. Flute and Tin Whistle
The use of wind instruments has been a long-held tradition in Irish music, and the majority of compositions are performed by either the fiddle or these instruments.
During the 19th century, most musicians favored the metal Boehm-system flute rather than the wooden simple system.
Although some traditional musicians prefer the sound of the old wooden flute, musicians like Joanie Madden become popular for using the western concert flute.
However, the tin whistle was mass-produced in the 19th century due to its popularity.
It was made of different materials, and for traditional purposes, with the key of D being favored.
Mary Bergin is credited with revolutionizing the instrument’s place in the tradition of Irish music.
Another addition to modern Irish music, the four-string Banjo is traditionally tuned an octave lower than the fiddle in the keys of GDAE.
This instrument was only made popular in later years by returned emigrants from the United States.
The Banjo is mostly used to accompany the main instruments picking the melody with a plectrum or thimble.
There are a number of famous banjo players who are credited for making the Banjo popular in modern Irish music but one is Barney McKenna of The Dubliners
According to the book “Zeuss’s Grammatica Celtica” the Guthbuinne was a type of horn.
The Irish monks of St. Gall’s wrote that “Graice” was one of the most professional players of this instrument at the time.
Little known information is available about the instrument, but scholars have gathered that it was more a bassoon-type instrument that looked like a horn.
What makes the Guthbuinne different from the previously mentioned Buinne is that the Irish monks considered the Guthbuinne a type of horn, whereas the Buinne was much more of a flute.
Nevertheless, it was a primitive instrument with simple construction, which made scholars believe it was used far more for military purposes than entertainment.
The mandolin, although not a traditional Irish instrument, has become popular among Irish musicians.
Due to its tuning similarities with the fiddle, it was quite simple to transpose the melodies from traditional Irish music to the mandolin.
Similar to the Bouzouki, the mandolin has four-course strings often picked and strummed during songs.
Traditional musicians prefer the “Irish-style” mandolins, which are flat-topped and carved arch with an oval soundhole.
The particular instrument is favored because it is loud enough to be heard in the band but does not have an overbearing sound like the F-hole mandolins, preferred by bluegrass players.
Famous mandolinists include Andy Irvine, Mick Moloney, and Paul Kelly.
The Cnamha is a percussive animal bone instrument that was popular in Irish tradition at the time and was used to provide rhythm in folk music.
These rhythm bones were usually curved and placed between the fingers, with the convex side facing one another.
The goal was to move the wrist so that momentum would allow contact between the bones to produce sound without forcing them to touch one another.
This is a unique tradition in Ireland, and most players use one hand to produce rhythmic sounds, which is a distinctive Irish trait.
Numerous techniques can be learned to produce sounds that are similar to the rhythms of tap dancers.
The most popular technique is the triple-click, which is produced by moving the hand back and forth on the chest to create a “click-it-ty” sound.
This rhythmic instrument is used in different musical moments, accompanying other prominent percussive instruments like the Bodhrán.
The Timpan was a uniquely Irish instrument with its body consisting of a tympanum, a small flat drum, with a short neck added for the strings.
These strings were tuned by pins and a bridge, similar to the modern-day guitar and Banjo.
Due to the shape of the Timpan its brass strings could be bowed, plucked with the fingers, or strummed with a plectrum.
The last player on record, Finn O Haughluinn, died in 1490, and unfortunately, a lot of the history and details of this instrument died with him.
Due to the mysterious nature of the instrument, historians deduced what the Timpan looked like according to known carvings and descriptions.
We know that it was a small lyre-type instrument connected to a drum with a “sweet” sound.
The interest and love for traditional Irish music have grown to such an extent that there are more than 400,000 people who attend, what is considered to be, the world’s biggest traditional Irish music celebration called “Fleadh Cheoil na héireann.”
These instruments have played a vital role in developing Irish music and carried on a proud tradition of perfecting a complex art form.