Exploring the Music of Ireland

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Feb 16, 2016 / 0 comments

The music of Ireland: it is a source of connection, a way of celebration, a path for reaching across borders and boundaries. It can be a way of sharing and creating stories, of connecting families and welcoming strangers, remembering absent loved ones, and gaining perspective on present troubles.

Exploring the Music of Ireland

Each year in spring -- the Irish season, around the time of Saint Patrick's Day -- thoughts the world over turn to Ireland and music is often a way of celebrating this connection. The subject matter of Irish music is endless, a thought which at times gets overlooked in the hearty drinking songs and overly sentimental ballads often played at this time of year.

For ideas a bit beyond those sorts of songs, take a listen to the ideas these musicians have to share:

The members of Altan -- Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on voice and fiddle, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Ciaran Tourish on fiddle, vocals, whistles and low whistle, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice, Mark Kelly on guitar and voice, and Martin Tourish on accordion and keyboards -- are grounded in the music of Donegal in Ireland's far northwest. Donegal's landscapes and legends and sense of community and storytelling always find their way into Altan's music. They have taken that across the globe and found welcome. For their album The Widening Gyre, the band decided to explore more deeply the connections between the music of Donegal and Appalachia

They traveled to the Nashville studios of Compass Records to record a collection of song and tune that invites and expands ideas which run between the distinctive music of these two diverse yet connected communities. For instance, the grit and silk pairing of the singing of Americana artist Bruce Molsky with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on the song No Ash Will Burn illuminates the lyrics of this love song of regret even while it opens doors to thinking about the regret people felt when leaving home for a new life. The Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches/Leslie's Reel instrumental set, which explores connections between fast paced bluegrass and fiery Donegal style, evolved from the musicians sitting around in the studio swapping tunes. There are several songs in Irish as well as lively tunes and slow airs. There's a creative version of Gypsy Davey, a song which lives still in traditions on both sides of the Atlantic. Many guests add flavor to the recording, among them Alison Brown and Tim O'Brien. Perhaps the most haunting song of the set is the quiet piece that two friends of Ní Mhaonaigh wrote for her after her father died several years ago. It is called Far Beyond Carrickfinn, sung by Mairéad with harmony from Scotland's Eddi Reader. It could apply to journeys of many sorts. "Stars light the way, as your journey begins..." 


For an album to celebrate twenty years of the band, the members of Danu chose the title Buan, which means lasting. They chose, too, to draw the songs and tunes for it from many places in the island, only fitting as the band members themselves come from east and west and north and south of the country. In fact, they open with a lively group of slides and reels called the Kerry to Donegal set, a meeting, they point out, of two very different regional styles. Band members Eamon Doorley on guitar and bouzouki, Oisin McAulley on fiddle, Benny McCarthy on accordion, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh on flutes whistles and voice, and Donal Clancy on guitar and voice chose Irish music legend Donal Lunny to produce. They say he made them polish up their game; the music on Buan is evidence the challenge is well met. There are marches, hornpipes, reels, and jigs in plenty in well thought out sets, and songs in English and in Irish,  both light hearted and serious, from the tradition as well as those more recently composed. Every track is a keeper -- a thing which is true os all the albums I am speaking of here, in fact. Two songs to note especially: the lively outlaw ballad Willie Crotty, sung by Donal Clancy, and Passage West, sung by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh. If you were thinking Irish music is all from the past, you might want to know that these two songs were written by contemporary writers, Robbie O'Connell and John Spillane, respectively.


Many of the songs and tunes on Nuala Kennedy's album Behave the Bravest have their origins in or near County Louth, where she grew up in Ireland. At times, flavors of her long time residence in Scotland come in, along with hints of her world travels with her music. There's the song Mo Bhuachaill Dhubh Dhonn (My Brown Haired Boy), in which the fiance of a woman from the isle of Barra in Scotland's Western Isles turns out to leave her, his Scottish lady, for an Irish one. Kennedy had a friend translate the song from Scottish Gaelic to Irish, which is how she sings it here. Turns out, too, that the man who was leaving sailed off to Newry, a town not far from Kennedy's hometown of Dundalk. Whether you will understand the words or not, it makes a fine song with a lovely melody, a melody which Kennedy sourced from the resources in the collection of Scotland's Tobar an Dualchais. It's finished off with the jig Young Tom Ennis, a pairing she and guitarist Eamon O'Leary came up with while on tour. 

From all that, you'll discern that Kennedy is a interested and creative musical searcher; she's an equally creative and interesting singer and flute and whistle player. There's a generous balance of song and tune in the ten cuts in Behave the Bravest. The Broken Lantern set brings together a bit of the international aspects of her musical searches and travels, while Fair Annie of Loch Royanne is a Child ballad Kennedy included in Astar, a commission she created for the Celtic Connections Festival in 2007. The Glenn Where the Deer Is/The Ivy Leaf/The Dublin Lasses is a set of tunes Kennedy plays on the whistle, the instrument on which she first began making music; Urchnoc Chein Mhic Cainte (The Fair Hill of Killen) is a love song in Irish from Kennedy's home area. With all of the songs, Kennedy thoughtfully weaves in words and instruments, and the instrumental sets provide the right balance to keep the stories going in another way. To see how word and instruments come together in one song, take a listen to Lovely Armoy, an emigration song from County Antrim.


"I threw my heart in the wishing well..." Cathie Ryan sings in the song The Wishing Well, with which she opens her recording Through Wind and Rain. The song is a lively story of love explored, lost, mistaken -- and the courage to go out and go on towards love again. The melody is from the tradition and the words are Ryan's. Ryan is both Irish and American, first generation daughter of parents who emigrated to the United States. As a child, she spent summers visiting family back in Ireland. As an adult, she has lived long in both countries. Her deep knowledge of and love for the music of both countries and the wisdom of their storytelling traditions comes through in the music on Through Wind and Rain. To follow The Wishing Well, Ryan chose I'm a Beauty by Canadian writer Laura Smith, which, while may not at first strike you, could be taken as telling the wishing well story from a slightly different standpoint or perhaps from a main character a few years further along. 

Ryan often enjoys songs which feature characters facing dilemmas, and that's certainly the case for the woman in Go From My Window. Liberty's Sweet Shore, an emigration song by John Doyle, is a vivid story. Ryan's quiet restraint highlights that story and the beauty of her singing. The title of the album comes from Kate Rusby's fine song of the strength of friendship, Walk the Road. Mo Nion O is a song originally written in Irish by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan, whom you met above. It is a reflection of wishes for a child framed in images of the natural world. Ryan has translated some of the verses to English and kept others in Irish. Images of the natural world, ideas from an old Irish blessing, and the understated grace of Ryan's musicality come together, too, in May the Road Rise to Meet You. Here's a song from her album, The Farthest Wave:


Lovers of tradition and artists who carry it forward, players of tunes, singers of songs, creators of music and of connection, writers of songs and tellers of story in music and in word: music of Ireland to listen to, to learn from, to share and to love, at the time of year round Saint Patrick's Day or any season.



Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site, Music Road.