Music of Ireland: new ideas, old traditions

Kerry Dexter's picture

The varieties and traditions of music in Ireland run long and deep. Musicians who draw on the heritage and history of music in Ireland for their ideas find as many different ways to take those things forward as they do to connect them with the past.

Music of Ireland: new ideas, old traditions

John Doyle, from Ireland and living for some time in America, has worked as guitarist and producer with artists including Joan Baez, Alison Brown, Dirk Powell, and Cathie Ryan. On his own, he’s deeply connected to Irish tradition: his first two solo albums were almost all songs from Irish tradition, but he has the gift of playing traditional music so that it sounds as fresh as though it had been newly written. For his solo project Shadow and Light, he turns that idea on its head, so to speak: the songs are all ones he has composed, and yet they sound, in an unforced and natural way, is as though they are stories and melodies which could have come straight from that very tradition. There’s a song about a man who gets as far away from Ireland as he can -- to Dawson City in the Yukon, in the days of the Gold Rush -- to escape a failed love affair, and another about a man headed for Botany Bay in Australia, for which Doyle has added lyrics to make an Irish version of an English song. Songs of people caught up in history and how they feel about that, songs of myth, and a song for his young daughter round out the tales Doyle chooses to tell.

When Mary Black was choosing songs for her album Stories from the Steeples, one of the things she recognized about the song Marguerite and the Gambler was that it started off with a situation similar to that in the Irish ballad Anachie Gordon: a woman falls for a man her father despises. That eye and ear for story, for connections of tradition and present day, is an aspect which has always marked Black’s song choices and over the years led her to record songs by artists from Bob Dylan to Noel Brazil to Steve Cooney -- and songs from the tradition, as well, including Anachie Gordon. Black has one of the best voices going, too, a voice she uses with intelligence and grace to frame lyrical ideas such as the road song Mountains to the Sea (for which rising star Imelda May joins her), the ideas of love, patience, faith, and grieving in Steady Breathing, another sort of faith in the love song The Night Is on Our Side, and a relaxed and lighthearted collaboration with Finbar Furey on Walking With My Love.

The six musicians of the band Altan well know how to place their own stamp on songs and tunes, as well. The spirit and sound of Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, is at the heart of their music. For their album The Poison Glen they’ve chosen to focus on the clarity of their instrumental connections and the distinctive singing of Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh. Ni Mhaonaigh is a world class fiddle player as well as singer. That fiddling talent is especially to the fore on a set of tunes which begins with The Adara Girls and runs through with Ciaran Tourish’s Reel. That last reel was written by Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland for Ciaran Tourish, who plays fiddle and whistles with Altan. Ciaran Curran plays bouzouki with the band, Mark Kelly plays guitar, as does Daithi Sproule, and Dermot Byrne adds accordion. Among them the band members have worked with artists ranging from jazz master Stephane Grappelli to superstar Dolly Parton to groundbreaking Irish accordion player Sharon Shannon, but it is when all six gather that the magic of Donegal, and of Altan, really begins to shine. The baker’s dozen of tracks on The Poison Glen (it’s named for a place in Donegal, a place which comes with a legend) move naturally back and forth among song and tune, each cut well worth the listening. Take a listen especially to Altan’s take on the well loved song Cailin Deas Cruite mBo (Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow) and Sproule's original tune The House on the Corner.

The four women of Long Time Courting each bring outstanding credentials to their collaboration, too. Among them they’ve performed with Liz Carroll, John Doyle, Aoife Clancy, Alasdair Fraser, and others, and they each are involved in ongoing musical careers. They liked the challenges of playing together so well, though, that the four friends decided to make room for a band, a tour schedule, and an album, which is called Alternate Routes. A lively and interesting collection it is, with original and traditional songs and tunes drawn from and influenced by Celtic tradition and with, from these New England based musicians, a dash of Americana influence now and again as well. Liz Simmons plays guitar, Shannon Heaton is on flutes and whistles, Sarah Blair is the fiddle player, and Ariel Friedman plays cello. All four of the women sing, which makes for fine lead and harmony work, in addition to their well honed instrumental chops. Standout tracks include the lively Red Haired Lass set, Maggie Dean, a song with a traditional melody and with lyrics by Heaton which take an old story in a new direction, and the Rose of Sharon set, a joining of tunes new and traditional.

Long Time Courting

Long Time Courting




Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators

She writes about music, the arts, travel, and other things at Music Road. Strings, Perceptive Travel, and other places. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com


This article was written in 2012 and updated in 2017