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Irish Music is the generic term for music that has been created in various genres on the entire island of Irelandmarker.

The indigenous music of the island is termed Irish traditional music. It has remained vibrant through the 20th, and into the 21st century, despite globalising cultural forces. In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music influences from Britainmarker and the United Statesmarker, Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects and has itself influenced many forms of music, such as country and roots music in the USA, which in turn have had some influence on modern rock music. It has occasionally been fused with rock and roll, punk rock and other genres. Some of these fusion artists have attained mainstream success, at home and abroad.

In recent decades Irish music in many different genres has been very successful internationally. However, the most successful genres have been rock, popular and traditional fusion, with performers such as Clannad, Enya, Westlife, Thin Lizzy, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, The Corrs, The Chieftains, Riverdance, The Irish Tenors, Boyzone, Van Morrison, The Cranberries, U2, The Script and Eleanor McEvoy achieving success nationally and internationally.

Traditional music

In the seventeenth century harp musicians were patronised by the aristocracy in Ireland. This died out in the eighteenth century. Turlough Carolan (1670 - 1738) was the most famous, and over 200 of his compositions are known. He wrote in a baroque style that is usually classified as classical music, but is played by many folk musicians today. Edward Bunting collected some of the last-known harp tunes at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. Other important collectors include Francis O'Neill and George Petrie.

Irish dance music at weddings and saint's days would have included reels (4/4), hornpipes and jigs (the common double jig is in 6/8 time). The polka arrived at the start of the nineteenth century, spread by itinerant dancing masters and mercenary soldiers, returning from Europe. Set dancing may have arrived in the eighteenth century. Later imported dance-signatures include the mazurka and the highlands (a sort of Irished version of the Scottish strathspey). In the nineteenth century folk instruments would have included the flute the fiddle and the uilleann pipes.

By the start of the twentieth century the button accordion and the concertina were becoming common. Irish stepdance was performed at céilís, organised competitions and at some country houses where local and itinerant musicians were welcome. Irish dancing was supported by the educational system and patriotic organisations. An older style of singing called sean-nós ("in the old style"), which is a form of traditional Irish singing was still found, mainly for very poetic songs in the Irish language. From 1820 to 1920 over 4,400,000 Irish emigrated to the USA, creating a Celtic diaspora in Chicago (see Francis O'Neill), Boston, New York and other cities. Irish musicians who were successful in the USA made recordings which found their way around the world and re-invigorated musical styles back in the homeland. An example is Ann Moray, who included traditional Irish music in her concerts, and issued a recording titled Gaelic Songs and Legends as well as a recording of Love Songs of Robert Burns.

The 1960s saw the emergence of The Dubliners and The Chieftains.

Classical music in Ireland

Classical music Ireland has produced a number of composers including Thomas Moore and Turlough Ó Carolan. John Field, who lived in the early Romantic Era has been credited with the creation of the Nocturne form, later developed by the young Frédéric Chopin. Michael W. Balfe composer of 38 operas for London, Paris, Milan and Vienna; William Vincent Wallace composer of six operas and Charles Villiers Stanford achieved great success in England in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but invariably success for composers has come mainly outside of the Irish state. Today, the best-known living Irish composer is Gerald Barry whose operatic works have been particularly successful in the UK and Europe.

Performers of classical music of note include Catherine Hayes, Ireland's first great international prima donna, the concert flautist Sir James Galway and pianist Barry Douglas. Douglas achieved fame in 1986 by claiming the International Tchaikovsky Competition gold medal. Mezzo-sopranos Bernadette Greevy and Ann Murray have also had success internationally.

Choral music in Ireland has produced Anúna, known for their contribution to Riverdance in the early 1990s. They have also been nominated for a Classical Brit Award in the UK and were invited to give the first ever Irish Prom at the BBC Proms series in the Royal Albert Hallmarker in 1999.

In the 1980s Shaun Davey composed The Brendan Voyage, a fusion of classical orchestral and Irish traditional styles with uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn as soloist. He continued and expanded this genre with his compositions The Pilgrim, Granuaile, and The Relief of Derry Symphony.

Piano Concerto No.1, Guitar Concerto No.1 and the Variations on Bach's Inventions are some of the works of Richard Kearns another of Ireland's classical composers.

Popular music

Traditional music played a part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinéad O'Connor using traditional elements in popular songs. Enya achieved international success with New Age/Celtic fusions. The Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan, helped fuse Irish folk with punk rock to some success beginning in the 1980s, while the Afro-Celt Sound System achieved fame adding West African influences and drum n bass 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. In addition, bands such as Fáinne Lásta, Raithneach and Amhrán na nGealach have built on the elements of Celtic mysticism popularised by Clannad.

The 1980s saw the emergence of major Irish rock bands such as U2, The Boomtown Rats and The Undertones. Punk rock first emerged Ireland in the late 1970s, and flowered in the following decade with performers like Gavin Friday, Bob Geldof, 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, My Bloody Valentine and Ash.

In the 1990s, pop bands like the Corrs, B*Witched, Boyzone 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, Geasa and Waylander.

Other artists well-known as popular music performers include Phil Coulter, Dolores Keane, Daniel O'Donnell, Eleanor McEvoy, Finbar Wright, Maura O'Connell, Frances Black, Sharon Shannon, Mary Black, The Frames and Stockton's Wing.

Since the 2000s the independent music industry is continuing to grow with well established acts such as Gemma Hayes, Nina Hynes, Cathy Davey, David Gergathy, Fight Likes Apes, Jape and Hooray for Humans and Snow Patrol

Top 5 biggest selling Irish acts of all time

Irish acts Sold Genre Years active Notes
1. U2 170 Million + Rock 1976 - Present (32 Years)
2. Enya 75 Million + Celtic/New Age 1986 - Present (22 Years)
3. Van Morrison 55 Million + Soul 1967 - Present (40 Years)
4. The Cranberries 50 Million + Rock 1990 - 2003 (13 Years)
5. The Corrs 43 Million + Pop 1995 - 2006 (11 Years)

See also


  • Vallely, Fintan. "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music" Cork University Press, ISBN 1 85918 148 1
  • Carson, Ciaran. Irish Traditional Music. Appletree Press ISBN 0-86281-168-6
  • O'Connor, Nuala. "Dancing at the Virtual Crossroads". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 170–188. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mathieson, Kenny. "Ireland". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), Celtic music, pp. 10-53. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8
  • Carson, Ciaran. "Last Night's Fun", Jonathan Cape ISBN 0-224-04141-X
  • Geoff Wallis and Sue Wilson "The Rough Guide to Irish Music" ISBN 1-85828-642-5
  • Barra Boydell: Music and Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, 1985, ISBN 0-903162-22-9
  • Walsh, Basil; Michael W. Balfe; A Unique Victorian Composer ISBN 978-0-7165-2947-7
  • Walsh, Basil; Catherine Hayes; The Hibernian (Irish) Prima Donna, ISBN 0-7165-2662-X


  1. , p 28.
  2. Whistle Workshop
  3. , p 48-49.
  4. Inside Ireland
  5. , p 48.
  6. Concertinas in Ireland
  7. Country House music
  8. Sean nos
  9. Irish emigration
  10. , Liner notes to CD.
  11. Spoken Arts recording #745 and Spoken Arts recording #754.
  12. Niall O’Loughlin/Richard Wigmore, 'Galway, Sir James', Grove Music Online, [1], accessed 12 August 2007
  13. The Irish Times, "A remarkable voice of remarkable longevity", September 30, 2008
  14. Irish Rockers History

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