Traditional Irish music is one of the most distinctive art forms in the world. Its deeply rooted connection to the place and its people makes for a beautiful experience — energetic, joyful, and sometimes wistful. Overall, it’s all about having fun. If you’re looking for some traditional Irish tunes to add to your playlist, we’ve got a few of the “greatest hits” to recommend.
But first, some background info. Traditional music has its roots in oral traditions, when stories were passed down the generations by listening and learning songs by ear. The songs were not written down, but passed down through memorization.
The traditional music of Ireland features a distinctive set of musical instruments: the fiddle, the tin whistle, the bodhran, the harp, the uilleann pipes, and occasionally the concertina. Here’s a bit about each:
The Fiddle: The fiddle is, in fact, a violin. However, the different names refer to the different types or styles of music. A folk musician plays fiddle, while a classically trained violinist plays violin.
Tin Whistle: This simple instrument actually takes a lot of skill to master. It’s similar to a recorder, although slimmer, and has a range of two octaves. The Scottish penny whistle is basically the Scottish version of the same instrument. (And if you want to pick up the tin whistle for yourself, head over to ShamrockGift.com and browse our selection of whistles, instruction books, and CD packages.)
Bodhran: The bodhran (pronounced “bow-rawn”) is a simple handheld drum, usually played with a short stick used to beat the drum in a fluid motion. The bodhran is always played while resting on the drummer’s knee, held vertically. (If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, the steerage class dance scene features a band with a drummer playing the bodhran.)
Harp: The harp is Ireland’s national instrument, appearing on currency, government documents, and on varying other symbols of the country (even on some Guinness packaging).
Uilleann Pipes: These are the Irish version of bagpipes — quieter than their Scottish relatives. These pipes have a range of two octaves and usually have keys, drones, and regulators to achieve their distinctive sound.
Concertina: While the concertina is not Irish in its origins, it is a staple of traditional Irish music. A small hexagonal accordion with a keyboard on both ends and no bass, it became especially popular at the beginning of the 20th century due to the rich, multi tonal sound musicians are able to coax from it.
Together, these instruments that have given Irish music its distinctive sound have produced hundreds of songs that express the hearts and souls of the Irish people. If you’re looking for amazing tunes to add to your playlist, give these a listen.
THE BEST TRADITIONAL IRISH SONGS
Some may think this song overplayed, but this haunting ballad has come to symbolize the spirit of the Irish Diaspora. Surprisingly, the author of the lyrics, Frederic Edward Weatherly, was an English lawyer who also wrote novels, children’s books, and the lyrics to over 1000 ballads and songs. The words were written in 1910, and Weatherly paired the words with a tune just a couple of years later, when his Irish sister-in-law sent him the music to a folk tune.
As for the tune itself, no one knows for certain where the music originated, or how long it has been played. What we do know is that “Danny Boy,” with its great lament about separation, death, and the great power of love, speaks to people beyond the Irish nation.
Whiskey In The Jar
We can’t talk about traditional Irish music without mentioning “Whiskey In The Jar” — a song that has made the rounds through the musical world, both traditional and modern. There are hundreds of versions of this song that have been recorded, from Metallica and Thin Lizzy to bar-band versions, Irish-punk covers, and acoustic renditions.
Folklorists have tied the basic outline of “Whiskey In The Jar” to the 1650s and an Irish highwayman named Patrick Flemming, who was caught only because his weapon was intentionally dampened to cause it to malfunction. Various versions of the tale circulated through the centuries, and over time the tale of the highwayman became simpler. Instead of a bandit who robbed and killed civilians galore, the main character’s downfall was narrowed to a one-on-one interaction, and the person being robbed generally tended to be English.
Because “Whiskey In The Jar” is considered a traditional song, there is no definitive version of the song or its lyrics — in some versions, the protagonist’s weapon does work, and he kills the person who confronts him; sometimes he languishes in prison for his crimes; sometimes he manages to escape into the mountains. No matter the origin, or the version of the lyrics that are performed, this tune is a fun, rollicking song that inevitably ends in a communal sing-along. (And if you’re able to get your hands on the version performed by The Dubliners, you’ll see why.)
The Rocky Road To Dublin
“The Rocky Road To Dublin” is a quick, rattling tune that tells the story of a young man’s adventures as he sets off from his home in Galway to seek his fortune in the world. While he leaves home confident, his fortunes quickly change along the road, and he ends up in Liverpool, where he gets into a fight with locals who insult the protagonist’s native Ireland. He refuses to back down, and defends his homeland with his trusty shillelagh.
“The Rocky Road To Dublin” is popular with musicians, but can be a difficult song for singers to perform due to its fast tempo and quick words. The words themselves are generally attributed to a Galway poet named D. K. Gavan, although it’s possible that Gavan’s version was based upon an earlier Irish folk song.
“Arthur McBride” is another song that tells the story of Irishmen who meet an English soldier — and the encounter is less than pleasant. While Arthur and his cousin are out on a pleasant stroll one morning, they happen to meet an English sergeant and a few of his men, who are attempting to sign up new recruits. While the sergeant makes a smooth, persuasive argument, Arthur calmly but firmly refutes the English sergeant’s points, declining the offer because the army would have no hesitation in sending them to France where they would surely be shot. Tempers flare, a fight ensues, and Arthur and his cousin have the better of the sergeant and his men.
The lyrics of the song are paired with a soft, lilting tune that parallels Arthur’s calm response to the English sergeant’s persuasion. The song itself was first collected in Ireland in 1840. The surname “McBride” is a popular name in the Donegal area, and researchers believe the song may have originated there. While there are some references to the song in Scotland as well, it is most closely associated with Ireland.
Molly Malone (or Cockles and Mussels)
This song tells the story of Molly Malone, a fishmonger who pushes her wheelbarrow through the streets of Dublin, selling her cockles and mussels. Molly is pretty and sweet, and a fixture of the town as she calls out her wares. However, poor Molly dies of a fever — leaving her ghost to keep calling out the wares and pushing the wheelbarrow through the city.
“Molly Malone” (or, as it is also known in some areas, “Cockles and Mussels”) is closely associated with the city of Dublin, but it may not have originally been an Irish song. It is actually attributed to a Scottish songwriter from Edinburgh, James Yorkston, who has named as the composer when the song was published in London in 1884.
Of course, while Yorkston has the credit, there are other songs that refer to a character named Molly Malone, suggesting that there were versions of a Molly Malone song long before Yorkston. While we may not know for certain where the song originated, Molly is such an iconic part of Dublin that there is a statute of her, pushing her wheelbarrow down the lane, on Grafton Street.
The Rising of The Moon
“The Rising of The Moon” is considered one of the great anthems of the 1798 Irish Rebellion, capturing the spirit of the movement rather than focusing on one particular battle. A group of rebels armed with pikes face an army of trained soldiers armed with muskets and artillery, and are easily routed by their opponents.
The lyrics first appeared in 1865 as a poem in the Irish nationalist newspaper The Nation, under the name Leo Casey (a pen name for poet John Keegan Casey). The song itself adopts a conversational tone, giving an informal account of the preparations for battle without focusing on the actual fight. It celebrates the efforts of Irish nationalists, painting the rebels as brave heroes, and ends with affirming that the same spirit still lives in Ireland, because there are still Irishmen who will follow their brethren to defend the land — at the rising of the moon.
Star of the County Down
Not only is Rosie McCann the Star of the County Down, she is the most beautiful girl in all of Ireland. While the singer of the song is immediately smitten with Rosie, he doesn’t approach her. Instead, he tries to think about how he might win her heart from afar.
The tune itself is a folk tune called “Kingsfold,” a melody of English origin that has also been used in hymn settings. While the melody may come from English beginnings, the story itself is purely Irish. The chorus sweeps the four corners of Ireland, from “Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay and from Galway to Dublin town.” But nowhere in the entire island is there anyone so fair as to compare with the Star of the County Down.
“Carrickfergus” has no clear origin or historical lineage; it’s thought to be based on a Gaelic song called “Do bhi bean uasal” from the 18th century, but there is no real reliable reference to it before it was recorded by Dominic Behan in the mid 1960s. Behan claimed that he learned the song from actor Peter O’Toole — but where O’Toole learned the song remains a mystery.
There are many versions of songs like Carrickfergus, in which lovers are kept apart by a stretch of water, either the sea or a river, but there was no known version of Carrickfergus prior to the Behan/O’Toole version. It’s possible that O’Toole helped to preserve an old Irish ballad that may otherwise have been overlooked or forgotten.
Si Bheag, Si Mhor
The title of this air is often misspelled and translated differently. Often incorrectly written “Sheebag, Sheemore,” or other variations thereof, it can be translated as “Big Fairy, Little Fairy” or “Big Hill, Little Hill,” or “Big Fairy Mound, Little Fairy Mound.” What remains consistent is that the “Si” in the title designates a connection to the fairies or fairy mounds of Ireland.
The tune itself was composed by the blind harpist Turloch O’Carolan (1670-1738), who was inspired by a story about Si Bheag and Si Mhor, two ranges of hills near Lough Scur in County Leitrim. The local stories held that the hills were the seats of two groups of fairies who clashed in battle, even including the great Irish hero Finn McCool in their fight. Some versions of the legends claim that the fairy mounds were topped with ancient ruins, and the fairy castles are located underneath where the heroes were entombed after the battle.
This tune is often played as an instrumental, and is one of the most haunting airs of traditional Irish music.
The Parting Glass
This song has seen its fair share of play — not only as a traditional song, but also in pop culture. The Clancy Brothers often sang it as the final song at many of their live concerts. Other versions have been performed by musicians like Ed Sheeran, bands The Pogues and Celtic Woman, and it was also featured in an episode of the television show The Walking Dead.
This is a song of farewell, bringing together both joy and sorrow as only the Irish can. It is thought to have been a popular New Year’s Eve song in both Ireland and Scotland, but has since been replaced by “Auld Lang Syne.” “The Parting Glass” still remains popular, despite being displaced from New Year celebrations.
The story is a combination of wistfulness and joy. The singer must depart, but it’s never made clear where he is going — whether he is going on a journey, or coming to the end of life. However, it is clear that there are no regrets for a life well spent. All that matters is the current moment, the here and now, and time spent with family and friends.
If you’re looking for bands that play traditional Irish music, of course streaming services are a good place to search. You can find music by bands like The Dubliners, Planxty, The Clancy Brothers, and the Chieftains, and from individual artists like Christy Moore and Dolores Keane. Other bands have cast traditional Irish music into their own styles, such as The Pogues and even Metallica, with their popular version of “Whiskey in the Jar.” No matter the musical arrangement, the music of Ireland has a knack for capturing the imagination and haunting the soul with its aching beauty, ready sing-along quality, and lyrics that reflect life, love, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Do you have a favorite traditional Irish song? Let us know in the comments below!