Fiddle, flute, guitar: each has a part in the sound of Ireland. Each can help you know Ireland, even when you are at a distance.
Ballads, jigs, reels, slow airs, hornpipes: those are just a few of the forms Irish music takes. As varied as Irish music is, it has a distinct sound.
That sound is shaped by the landscapes from which it arises, and the lives of the people who play the music.
It is also shaped by the instruments chosen and how the musicians use them.
Combination and interplay of instruments with each other, and with musicians’ voices in song, are part of the story, too.
Getting together, whether at home in the kitchen or down at the pub or on a stage, is often how musicians in Irish music share and learn and enjoy tune and song. Most sessions in Ireland and elsewhere are on pause at the moment. That does not stop the music. Nor need that stop you hearing and enjoying and learning about the music, and about Ireland, wherever in the world you may be.
Three instruments you will often find in the music of Ireland are fiddle, flute, and guitar. Here’s a bit of context and ideas of musicians to seek out
Fiddles are readily portable. Their sound can be loud enough to stir dancers in a big room or outdoors at a crossroads. It can become soft and evoke a quiet love song or haunting story. The sound of the fiddle backing a singer who is sharing tales adds to his or her story. Many hear the notes of the fiddle as the closest sound to human voice, as well.
All of this goes to making fiddle music and fiddle players integral parts of Irish music communities. Fiddle styles can be diverse, too, from the lyricism often found in the work of players from east Clare, to the rolling triplets from Sligo players to the fiery bowing which many artists from Donegal employ. As travel and ways of sharing and passing on music have expanded and changed, so too have the resources which musicians draw on to create individual styles.
Who to listen to? Several I’d recommend include the thoughtful style of Zoe Conway , who comes from Louth in Ireland’s Ancient East, the work of Oisin MacDiarnada who embodies a contemporary take on Sligo style, and the creative playing of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (you will often find her playing and recording with the band Altan ) for the snap and fire of Donegal style. Chicago born Liz Carroll, whose influences include players from Belfast and Mayo has written tunes have become part of the traditional song book of Ireland. Each of these players has a range of recordings to explore.
Whether you are hearing slow airs or fast paced reels you will hear flute players leading or underscoring melodic lines. The Irish flute is a wooden one, often made of rosewood . You will find the Irish flute to have a darker, more woodsy tone than a classical flute — though f course Irish music can be, and is, played on the classical flute as well. As with the fiddle there can be regional influences a player chooses to follow just as there may be tunes which cross styles and regions.
Flute players to listen for: Nuala Kennedy comes form Louth and has spent time in Scotland, Asturias in the north of Spain, Atlantic Canada, and other places around the world. She’s as adept at playing deeply traditional music as she incorporating ideas from other Celtic lands into her work. Michael McGoldrick can range even father afield in his musical tastes, and he also comes back to the tradition with creativity, too. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who is from the Dingle peninsula in Ireland’s west, is known for her singing; she is a top class flute player as well. You will find this on her solo recordings and in the albums she made when she was lead singer with the band Danu. Shannon Heaton,. who lives in the Boston area, is known for the clarity and grace of her playing.
The guitar is a more recent arrival in traditional Irish sessions. For a time it was controversial addition, but now guitars are welcome at Irish sessions. Guitar players often take a backing role, adding colour to support a singer’s voice, and to become a rhythm section on faster tunes.
Three to listen for: John Doyle, who is a gifted player, composer and singer with roots in Dublin and Sligo and connections to Americana music; Mary Coogan, whose quiet fire you will hear in her work with the top band Cherish the Ladies as well as her rare solo outings; Steve Cooney, an Australian long resident in Ireland whose work has backed up artists on more than 100 albums and who has the rare brilliant solo album as well.
In this time when many sessions have gone on line, you may find Shannon Heaton with her guitarist husband Matt offering online sessions on Saturdays, and Mary Coogan, with her multi-instrumentalist and singer husband Bruce Foley offering sessions on Sundays. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is offering fiddle lessons online that you may sign on for, as well.
What about all those other instruments you find in Irish music. among them tin whistle, bodhran, bouzouki, mandolin, and that symbol of Ireland on every Irish coin and passport, the harp? What about the songs and tunes themselves? All good ways to learn about and experience Ireland. More stories to come.
Photographs of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Michael McGoldrick, and John Doyle by Kerry Dexter; photograph of Zoe Conway courtesy of the artist.Thank you for respecting copyright.
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