Ireland is well known around the world for its landscapes, conviviality, beer, and music. We all know the celtic harp, a symbol of Ireland, but the country is the birthplace to other Irish musical instruments.
The Celtic Harp
The celtic harp is the most famous of them all. It is on coins, beer, and it even was the inspiration for the style of the Samuel Beckett bridge in Dublin. It is also a very old instrument. Some people say it originated from Scotland, others from Wales, or Ireland. The first ones were smaller than the ones we know now, and were carved out of bogwood. The harpist tradition can be traced over a millennium, however it started to become very popular around the 10th century.
During this time, harpists were nomadic and would play for food and a bed. They would travel the country and share the songs and culture of Ireland. They soon became the enemy of the English crown as they were a symbol of Irish culture and freedom. They were almost extinct by the end of the 18th century.
A festival was organized in Belfast at the end of the 18th century and the last of the harp players came to play. Some songs were transcribed but most have been passed orally and lost over time. It was the beginning of a new era for the Irish culture. While the harpist culture was repressed, the people who were interested in their origins and old traditions managed to revive it.
Nowadays, the celtic harp is a symbol of Ireland all over the world. The modern celtic harp is different from the medieval age one: the original harp was played with the fingernails while the modern one is played with the fingertips.
The Bodhran and the Lambeg
The bodhran and the lambeg are drums that originated from Celtic tradition. The name bodhran comes from the Gaeilge “bodhar”, which means “deaf” or “dull”, and is related to the sound made by the bodhran.
There are debates on when the bodhran was invented and appeared in the Irish folklore and music. Some say it descends from other European drums, and was only introduced in the 1960s while others maintain that the first trace of bodhran can be found in paintings dating from the 19h century. One way or another, it quickly became part of the traditional Irish music, being used to add a baseline to many songs.
The drum is made out of goat leather on top of a wood circle and a wood cross underneath. The player taps it with his hand or a beater/tipper on the top of the drum while moving his second hand under the leather to change the sound. Nowadays, screws are added to the drum to let players adjust the skins depending on the weather and humidity.
The lambeg is a drum from Northern Ireland and is considered to be the loudest drum in the world. It is usually carried, often by several people. The lambeg is played using a cane. Its history remains a mystery. The most common theory I found is that the lambeg was used during wars and battle, and dates from the 19th century. To this day, the lambeg is still used for street parades in summer.
The Uilleann Pipes
Very different from the Scotish bagpipes, the uilleann pipes are a typical Irish musical instrument. Its name comes from the Gaeilge “uille”, which means “elbow”. It indicates how to play the instrument: the movement of the players’s elbow is what sends air into the pipes. The sound of the uilleann pipes is said to be melancholic, with a range of two octaves, compared to nine notes on the older pipes.
The first pipes appeared as early as the 5th century, and prospered for many centuries. It shares the history of the celtic harp, and went almost extinct in the 18th century. The Scotish bagpipes were allowed under the English ruling while the uilleann were not.
Today, Ireland is claiming back its heritage and uilleann pipes are more and more present on the traditional musical scene.
The Whistles and the Flute
To someone who has listened to Irish folk music, it is not a surprise to find wind instruments in the list. The smaller whistle is called a penny whistle, or tin whistle. It is made of brass and has six holes. Even though it has been part of the Irish culture for centuries, it gained its popularity in the 19th century and is now an integral part of Irish music.
The low whistle is bigger and has a lower pitch than the penny whistle. Both whistles are easy to play but hard to master. If anyone can blow inside of the whistle, not many can produce a nice sound and make up a melody out of the small range of the instrument. It is said that the whistle is not a question of skills but a portrait of its player abilities and creativity.
The Irish flute, with its cousin the whistles, gained popularity in the 19th century. If the whistles are now made of metal, the traditional flute is made out of wood. One man remembered in flute history is Charles Nicholson. He was an English flute virtuoso and the one that invented the modern Irish flute, with a larger bore and wider tone holes. If the flute was not made for folk musicians, they made it their own.
The fiddle is often mistaken for a violin. The two different string instruments are similar, but they are not used the same way. The violin is most often used for classical, composition-based music while the fiddle is more used for folk and traditional music.
An old musician joke says that the difference between a fiddle and a violin is that we don’t spill beer on a violin. Essentially, fiddles and violins are very much alike, but because of the different types of music played on it, violinists and fiddlers do not have the same skills.
Foreign instruments in Irish music
If Irish culture has a great tradition of music, not every instrument that can be found in a typical “irish folk band” is traditionally Irish.
The concertina is similar to the accordion, but smaller, with bellows and the buttons on both ends, and not in front of the instrument. It is unclear if the concertina was invented in Germany or England, but it became part of the Irish folk music scene in the past century with the revival of the traditional Irish music.
The Celtic mandolin is shaped like an onion and has a flat back. It is made of rosewood or mahogany. It is adapted from the original mandolin from Italy.
The Irish Bouzouki is adapted from the Greek bouzouki. It was brought to Ireland in the 1960s by different bands. The shape of the instrument is closed to the celtic mandolin.
Because of its rich culture and history, Irish music and instruments go well beyond the borders of the country, and some instruments have a shared history with England. One interesting thing is that almost every civilisation has occurences of whistles, flutes and drums. Some fragments of a whistle made of bones from the 12th century were found in Ireland, and other instruments were lost over the years. It is the case of the dord, a sort of trumpet. The tiompan is more of a mystery. In some old Irish texts, it is referenced as a drum, but also as a harp. Is it then the ancestor of the Celtic harp or the bodhran ?
There is so much left to discover about Ireland, but it is no surprise that the Irish traditional music is well-known around the world.