A beginner’s guide to traditional Irish music

Photo by kelly taylor

If you’re planning a trip to or around Ireland (or maybe just dreaming about one), one of the first things you’ll likely hope to experience is one of those elusively magical pub sessions where the music flows as freely as the pints and the craic is on.

Ireland’s incredible musical tradition dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when singers, chanters and harpists were employed by the main chieftains as entertainers in their courts. The intersection of music, lyric and art is not a difficult one to imagine in Irish terms, and even hundreds of years ago, these were valued aspects of society – values that have carried on to today.

Although you aren’t likely to run into too many harpists anymore (sadly), musicians abound in Ireland, some of them clinging to the ancient sounds and others exploring ways to branch those typically Irish sounds into mainstream music. It’s not difficult to think of a list of famous Irish music stars, from Thin Lizzy to Damien Rice, and no matter what your preferences about Bono may be, it’s impossible to deny that the Irish just have a knack for music.

Traditional Irish Music, or trad as it is most simply known in musical circles, comprises a combination of instruments and sounds that were easy to produce in a social setting; namely, the pub. Songs about drinking, as well as laments and ballads were a common form of social expression in Ireland, and still are today. Historically, trad music has gone through several revivals, including one near the turn of the 20th century and one during the 1940s and 50s that significantly informed what modern trad music has become.

Traditional music performances, more commonly known simply as sessions, are meant to be spontaneous affairs during which any number of musicians may arrive or depart and the audience (typically a group of drunken pub-goers) actively participates. While films often portray a rowdy side to Irish music, most trad sessions are incredibly respectful, delightful scenes where locals tap and clap to the music, sing along (in the case where lyrics are present) or dance – and there are numerous styles and types of dances that go along with the traditional music (but that is for another article).

Most trad sessions today involve two or more of the following instruments:

  • fiddle
  • flute or tin whistle
  • Uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-un) – a type of Irish bag pipe played with the elbow
  • accordion
  • concertina – sometimes referred to as just “music box”
  • banjo
  • guitar – this was a modern addition to the roundup of instruments
  • bodhrán (pronounced bow-ron) – traditional Irish wood-framed, goat skin drum
  • spoons – it is rare to see spoons played anymore, but a musician who is really good on the spoons can truly enliven a good trad session

A true trad session is an acoustic performance, meaning the instruments are never plugged in or attached to microphones. There is also a strict pecking order for an traditional session, wherein one person will be recognised (but not directly stated as) the leader of the group, while others may chime in by starting to play a song they have in mind once the previous one is finished. The older and most accomplished players might also hang back in modesty, waiting to be nudged into the session by the younger or newer players.

The musicians also nearly always play from memory, rather than by sheet music. This goes hand-in-hand with the Irish tradition of storytelling, where like the stories, the music was passed down in the musicians’ heads and rarely written down. So, in order to learn a trad song, you had to go and sit in on a trad session. With that in mind, more experienced trad players are always welcoming of new players into the group. As well, the music itself is conveniently structured around repetitive musical stanzas that were easy to remember.

Many variations on this theme exist around Ireland today, from full on trad sessions to smaller, more cohesive groups that typically play together in pre-scheduled performances, to all-out commercialised music, which may maintain the sound of trad, but perhaps less so the spirit.

To experience a real trad session, you’ll want to get away from the city centre (of any Irish city) and either out into the suburban pubs or into the countryside. Avoid areas you’ve heard about and instead look for hole-in-the-wall pubs that look inviting and perhaps intimidatingly local. If you see a notice for a live music session posted, it’s probably not going to be as authentic as a spontaneous one, although most barmen and publicans have some idea of the days and times at which their trad sessions start, so asking is never a bad idea.



by Megan Eaves



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