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Irish folk music
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Ireland is internationally known for its folk music, which has remained a vibrant tradition throughout the 20th century, when many traditional forms worldwide lost popularity to pop music. In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music imported from the United Kingdom and United States, Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects. It has also been modernized, however, and fused with rock and roll, punk rock and other genres. Some of these fusion artists have attained much mainstream success, at home and abroad, including Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, The Pogues, The Chieftains, The Cranberries and the Afro-Celt Sound System.
Irish traditional music is characterized by slow-moving change, which usually occurs along accepted principles. Songs believed to be ancient in origin are respected. It is, however, difficult or impossible to know the age of most tunes due to their tremendous variation across Ireland and through the years; some generalization is possible, however, for example, only modern songs are written in English, with few exceptions, the rest being in Irish. Most of the oldest songs and methods are rural in origin, though more modern songs often come from cities and towns. Music and lyrics are passed orally, and were only rarely written down until recently. Though solo performance is preferred in the folk tradition, bands have probably always been a part of Irish music. More recently, traditional music has been expanded to include new styles and variations performed by bands. Unaccompanied vocals in the sean nós style are traditionally common, usually either solo or as a duo. Harmony is simple, and instruments are played in unison. Counterpoint is mostly unknown to traditional music. Structural units are symmetrical and include decorations of the rhythm, text, melody and phrasing, though not of dynamics.
Irish traditional music is meant for dancing at celebrations for weddings, saint's days or other observances. Songs are almost always divided into two eight-bar strains which are each played twice to make a 32-bar whole; Irish dance music is isometric. This makes for an eminently danceable music, and Irish dance has been widely exported abroad. Set dancing is the most popular of the Irish traditional dances, having been revived in the early 1980s and popularized after Riverdance's surprise success in 1994. Riverdance was a group starring Michael Flately and Jean Butler that formed to perform during an interval in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest and soon became popular throughout the world. Other traditional dances include reels and jigs, as well as imported polkas and mazurkas.
There is a type of traditional song called loobeen, in which each singer improvises a verse, followed by a chorus sung by the entire group.
Pub sessions are now the home for much of Irish traditional music, which takes place at informal gatherings in urban pubs. The first of these modern pub sessions took place in 1947 in London's Camden Town at a bar called The Devonshire Arms; the practice was only later introduced to Ireland. By the 1960s pubs like O'Donoghues in Dublin were holding their own pub sessions, and the Fleadh Ceoil music festival was sparking increased popular interest in traditional music.
The uillean pipes play a prominent part in a form of instrumental music called Fonn Mall, descendents of ancient songs, as well as in the unaccompanied vocal music called sean nós. Tony McMahon, Davy Spillane and Altan play these traditional airs, while Seán Ó Riada's The Chieftains are largely responsible for the revitalization of folk music in the 1960s. Traditional music, especially sean nós, played a major part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinead O'Connor using traditional elements in popular songs. The Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan, helped fuse Irish folk with punk rock to some success beginning in the 1980s, while the Afro-Celt Sound System achieved considerable fame adding West African influences in the 1990s.