Irish Christmas songs and carols are enjoyed worldwide throughout the holiday season. How did this seasonal musical tradition emerge in Ireland? Read more to find out!
Irish Christmas songs have been a feature of holiday celebrations dating back centuries. Fun fact of the day: Christmas carolling as we know it is rooted in pagan traditions celebrating the winter solstice through song and dance. Originally, these pagan songs were replaced by the church with solemn hymns around the 4th century, but their dirge-ish nature lacked the jovial Christmas spirit we’ve come to associate with the holiday season.
By the 12th century, St. Francis of Assisi began to establish nativity plays in continental Europe featuring religious canticles written in the vernacular and set to folk tunes. These folk tunes often contained dance measures, reintroducing the dance spirit to the Winter Solstice season.
According to David Wilson, former Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, this was “the greatest struggle of the Church with the pagan instinct in man.” It is unclear when this tradition found its way to Ireland: some claim that the famous Enniscorthy Carol was composed around the 12th century, however these claims have not been verified.
That being said, Ireland has held a rich carolling tradition featuring songs passed down through aural tradition similar to the tradition of Gaelic music. This article gives a taste of the evolution of the Irish Christmas carol from the 17th century through today. Enjoy!
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17th -18th Century
(The singing in minutes 0:00 – 2:04 closely resemble the music to ‘Song of Jerusalem’ featured in Devereux’s collection of The Kilmore Carols)
1684-1731: The Kilmore Carols collected by Luke Wadding, Bishop of Ferns, and Fr. William Devereux
These volumes of carols were collected in the late 17th century by Wadding and continued in the early 18th century by Devereux. While it’s difficult to establish when or where each piece is from, expert Rev. Joseph Ranson believes that some of the tunes within these anthologies are likely to have been composed in England at the end of the 16th century.
However, these carols are included in our nine Irish Christmas songs and carols because of their importance and longevity in Kilmore’s Christmas Traditions. For over 300 years, The Kilmore Carolers have held fast the aural tradition, unusual singing style and poetry bearing elements of Yola, a dialect of Middle English which evolved in Co.Wexford during the Norman invasion.
Additionally, in 2014 Irish trad singer and early music expert Catriona O’Leary released the album The Wexford Carols – a product of her research pairing the carol texts with Wadding and Devereux’s indicated tunes for each piece. O’Leary’s album was met with international acclaim, furthering the collections’ importance within the canon of Irish music.
1700: Whilst Shepherds Watch’d Their Flocks by Night attributed to Nahum Tate
This 300-year-old carol lyrics were attributed poet laureate Nahum Tate at the end of the 17th century. First published in Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David in 1700, the song paraphrases the annunciation to the shepherds from the second chapter of the Gospel of David.
The piece was the only Christmas hymn approved by the Church of England during this period which allowed it to be disseminated across the country along with the Common Book of Prayer.
This is largely because most carols in the era bore their roots in folk music and were considered too secular for use in the Church until the end of the 18th century. Of the 16 pieces contained within Tate and Brady’s supplement, ‘Whilst Shepherds Watch’d Thier Flocks By Night’ is the only piece still sung today. In the UK and Ireland the piece is set to the ‘Winchester Old’ tune, while in the states it’s set to a variation of a Handel aria composed by Lowell Mason in 1821.
Curoo Curoo (Carol of the Birds)
This carol is based on a traditional Irish text dating as far back as the 18th century. The piece depicts the sounds of birds singing. Little is known about the history of this traditional Irish carol, but it has been covered by a number of artists and composers including the Clancy Brothers and Elain Agnew.
1848: Once in Royal David’s City words by Cecil Francis Alexander
One of the most popular hymns in the UK and Ireland today, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was written as a Christmas poem in 1848 by Cecil Francis Alexander, a poet from Co. Wexford. One year later the poem was set to music by english organist Henry John Gauntlette. The piece has been established within the Anglican Christmas tradition since 1919 during the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This tradition features Dr. Arthur Henry Mann’s arrangement being performed annually as the processional hymn at the Christmas Eve service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.
1987: Fairytale of New York by Jem Finer, Shane MacGowan
‘Fairytale of New York’ released by The Pogues in 1987 has been confirmed as Ireland’s favourite Christmas song by a whole host of Irish media outlets including The Independent (UK), The Irish Post, and JOE.ie. A rather dark, bitter, and what some might call ‘scummy’ Christmas song, ‘Fairytale of New York’ hasn’t been a favourite since its release though. As a matter of fact, it didn’t even make the Christmas Number 1 slot in 1987.
That being said, this iconic Irish Christmas song has climbed the charts, and it has placed in the Top 20 Christmas songs since 2005. By 2017, ‘Fairytale of New York’ reached nearly 1.5 million sales, which according to Rob Copsey at UK Official Charts, is “one of the greatest and rarest pop music milestones.” It doesn’t necessarily embody the positivity and ‘good will toward men’ vibe of the holiday. The raunchy lyrics and subject matter have caused some controversy in the UK and Ireland, with BBC radio presenter Alex Dyke calling for the song to be banned for it being “an offensive pile of downmarket chav bilge.” Yikes! Still, people love it, and they listen to it every year. Merry Christmas!
1996 Christmas Tree by Dustin the Turkey (John Morrison)
Christmas songs and puppets? Yes please! This comedic Christmas song was released in 1996 on RTE during an airing of The Den and reached the top of the Irish charts soon after. Plus, it’s a turkey puppet singing a Christmas song. Who wouldn’t love that?
1999: Bells over Belfast by The Irish Rovers
This song has a special place in many northern Irish Christmas celebrations as it commemorates the ending of The Troubles by imagining peace on earth and goodwill toward men, in a city that not too long past was fraught with sectarian violence. It’s a beautiful, jovial, uplifting piece with a dancing lilt, and musicality reminiscent of many other traditional Irish songs.
2013: Drunken Christmas by Finnegan’s Hell
As scummy as scummy can be, ‘Drunken Christmas’ by Finnegan’s Hell is an imagining of a downright cartoonish Christmas in Ireland, mainly focusing on alcohol intake, although you probably already guessed that, right? The song speaks for itself so give it a listen!
2016: This Christmas by Picture This
“The sure No.1 hit of 2016”, as hailed by buzz.ie. ‘This Christmas’ was written by Picture This, an Irish alternative indie pop band. It’s is a lovely, melodical Christmas song complete with choral backings and Christmas bells. This songs ticks all the boxes for a classic 21st century Christmas song!
We’ve gone through the centuries and outlined just some of the many famous Irish Christmas songs and carols. Hopefully you’ve found a few songs to add to your holiday playlist. Have a favourite that we left out? Put it in the comments below and tell us why you love it!