Many people think of Irish music as traditional only: country style music with an orchestra of traditional instruments, mostly singing rebel songs. The truth couldn’t be further away, however. Over the last 50 years, music in Ireland has had an explosion of talent in many genres. The 70s saw the dawn of punk music and metal in Ireland, a far cry from the popular showbands and trad music of the previous decades. This decade saw the formation of a new genre, Celtic-Rock, which inspired many Irish acts to come. Although there are far too many acts to name, each entry deserves a thorough listen to appreciate their place in Irish music.
Irish music in the 70s:
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Thin Lizzy is one of the best-known metal bands in the world, and one of Ireland’s most commercially successful acts. Their music draws from other influences including blues, soul and traditional Irish folk music but became a source of inspiration for many metal bands to come, including Metallica, who famously covered Whiskey in the Jar.
One of the early creators of Celtic-Rock, they fused rock music with trad instruments. Their singing and lyrics have roots in Irish folk with distorted guitar riffs blended that gave them a cult following around the world and inspired many acts to experiment with traditional instruments in modern music.
Stiff Little Fingers
Formed during a highly political time in Northern Ireland, Stiff Little Fingers early work and lyrics were inspired by their experience with The Troubles. The band changed their line-up several times over the years and their first four albums charted in the U.K.
The Boomtown Rats
With lead vocals by Bob Geldof, The Boomtown Rats had several hits in the U.K. and successful tours in Europe. Their most famous song I Don’t Like Mondays became a worldwide hit, falling within the top 10 though the career of Geldof often overshadowed the work of The Boomtown Rats.
Irish music in the 80s:
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Technically started as a band in 1976, their debut album Boy was released in 1980 and gave them international success. From there, U2 went on to take the world by storm. With over 170 million album sales, they are Ireland’s most commercially successful band.
The Saw Doctors
The Saw Doctors are a staple act at many festivals and continue to tour. Their single I Uesta Lover stayed at number 1 in the charts for nine weeks, one of the longest-charting singles in Ireland.
The Divine Comedy
Formed in 1989, The Divine Comedy has released over 12 studio albums in their career. They play a genre known as ‘chamber pop’. They use a mixture of synth, string instruments and vocals to focus on the melody and atmosphere.
Sinéad O’ Connor
Best known for her cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Sinéad O’ Connor has had a long and prolific career in music.
Irish music in the 90s:
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The Cranberries are one of Ireland’s biggest bands, with nearly 50 million album sales to their name making them one of the most successful acts of the 90s. The band were politically outspoken, and this influence can be heard in their music. Their song ‘Zombie’ may be one of their best known and was inspired by an IRA bombing.
They were formed in 1989 in Larne, Antrim. With over two million album sales worldwide, Therapy? are one of the biggest alternative metal bands to emerge from Ireland. Therapy? have a distinct style, using guitar feedback and samples from movies and documentaries to complete their songs.
Made up of the Corr siblings, their career began after auditioning for roles in the film, The Commitments, where they were given parts as musicians. They were then signed to a label have released seven studio albums, with multi-platinum releases in Ireland and abroad, and 40 million album sales worldwide.
The Frames were helped by the various projects of their lead singer Glen Hansard, including the film Once, which included one of their best-known songs Falling Slowly as part of the soundtrack. Though Hansard most often plays as a solo artist, several of the songs released as The Frames make up his setlists. His live shows also feature accompaniments from members of The Frames.
Irish music in the 2000s:
Damien Rice originally began in a band called Juniper but disbanded shortly into their career. After a number of years, Damien Rice started a solo career, and the other members of Juniper formed Bell X1, another successful Irish act. Damien Rice has released three studio albums, each charting in Ireland and the U.K.
Cathy Davey is one of the best selling, and best critically received female artists in Ireland. Her album, Tales of Silversleeve, won her the Meteor Award for Best Irish Female and a slew of sold-out tours.
Gemma Hayes has a series of awards under her belt, including Best Female Artist, Best Solo Female and Best Live Female, as well as collaborations with other successful Irish acts such as Bell X1 and Paddy Casey.
Their debut album spent 74 weeks in the Irish charts. The Coronas frontman, Danny O’ Reilly, is the son of Mary Black, a famous Irish folk singer and part of a musical family. The band achieved steady success after their debut album, mostly through a series of high profile gigs and supporting some major acts like The Script, Paul McCartney and Justin Timberlake. They have also released a number of their songs in Irish in an attempt to spur Irish musicians to return to the native language.
Two Door Cinema Club
Formed in 2007, this three-piece from Bangor have enjoyed notable international success since their first album. Their indie sound mixed with pop hooks have garnered many uses of their singles in T.V. shows, video games and as advertisement soundtracks.
Irish music in the 2010s:
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Hozier may be one of the most exciting artists to emerge in recent years. Despite having only two studio albums, his self-titled debut album achieved 6x platinum in Ireland and multi-platinum in other countries. With roots in gospel and blues, Hozier’s soulful voice and melodies made him stand out among the competition. His latest album, Wasteland Baby also features collaborations with the legendary Mavis Staples.
Reviving the punk roots of the 70s, Fontaines D.C. formed through a mutual love of poetry. Fusing the disciplines of poetic verse with rebellious punk sounds brought them a lot of attention before the release of their debut album Dogrel.
James Vincent McMorrow
With his debut firmly rooted in folk music, the musical influences of James Vincent McMorrow began to take more precedence with his later works. These influences include soul and R&B but still kept the airy nature of folk music. His falsetto voice quickly distinguishes him and lends an almost mystic attribute to his music, notably so on his cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and Steve Winwood’s Higher Love.
With 2020 just beginning, Ireland looks forward to the emergence of more musicians. Despite the setback of coronavirus, several live performances held on video calls aimed to draw attention to upcoming Irish acts to continue supporting them with the loss of a significant source of income and exposure. Though there are hundreds of acts worthy of a mention, each artist represents a legacy of Irish music that’s worth a deep-dive.