Traditional Irish Musical Instruments

Historically, the primary instrument of any culture would tend to be the voice, closely followed by the advent of percussive accompaniment. Irish musical heritage chose a slightly deviant evolutionary path, however, unaccompanied vocalisation remaining an extensive part of the modern tradition in the guise of ‘Sean-Nos’ (ie ‘Old-Style’) singing, and our indigenous drum being all but excluded from the annals of musical history until relatively recently.

Here are some of the other instruments with which you are likely to come into contact on an Irish musical odyssey.

The Harp

The traditional symbol of Ireland and an instrument that is gaining in popularity with the huge trend that is the Celtic revival globally. It is smaller than the concert harp and has one set of strings in comparison to the Welsh harp, which has three. Today’s harpists are modern and well-trained in the intricacies of counter-point and harmonies.

Evidence left by stone carvings made before any others in Western Europe would seem to suggest that the harp existed in Ireland at a very early stage and occupied a privileged position in both society and culture. It is thought that the harp originated in the Middle-East – possibly Egypt – and the Irish harp in it’s present triangular form had emerged by the Twelfth century AD as an instrument unique to this country. Those who played it were recognized as having a special status in society. The ancient harp was s solid structure, with a large, hollow sound box and a deep heavy neck. Its strings were made of thick brass and were plucked by the fingernails.

The oldest model of the harp is preserved at Trinity College, Dublin and dates from the fourteenth century: this harp is one of the oldest instruments to have survived intact from medieval Europe. Harpists at this time did not use any system of notation and it is difficult to know the exact nature of the music or the type of melody, which would have been fashionable during the period. However, evidence left by the scholar, Giraldus Cambrenis, at the end of the Twelfth century, indicates that though the music played was refined it did not differ greatly from the music in the courts of Europe. Peculiar to Ireland was the inclusion of the Harper’s at the bardic recitations.

The status enjoyed by the Harper’s had diminished by the end of the Eighteenth century and those who remained were generally blind, itinerant musicians. Turlough O’Carolan(1670-1738) was the most renowned and best remembered of the travelling Harper’s and though his actual playing ability was not outstanding, the beauty of his compositions are what has secured his memory in the Irish music tradition right up to the present day. The Neo-Irish harp, which evolved in the Nineteenth century, is the one we are most familiar with in Ireland. It has a large frame, much like that of the classical concert harp and the strings of plastic (gut), are plucked with the fingertips.

Although the harp is far from being as popular today as other traditional instruments, most of a harpists repertoire would be comprised of O’Carolans airs. There is much innovation taking place with many players throughout the country adding more dance tunes to their repertoire and thus widening the scope of the instrument.

The Bodhran

The Bodhran is a drum, consisting of a shallow circular frame with a goatskin tacked around the side. The skin is often buried in cow manure in order to cure it for this purpose. It is played in an upright position with a stick in a manner, which differentiates it from other ethnic drums.

However, before 1950, it was a combination agricultural utensil and musical instrument confined to male performers during the wren-hunting ritual of St. Stephens Day (December 26th). With the advent of the Fleadh Ceoil, the bodhran began to break its ties and participate informally with other instruments in music sessions. When Irish Composer, Sean O’Riada, included a bodhran in his ensemble Ceoltoiri Chualann, it seemed as if the instrument had completed its journey from a rural to urban environment, and from a ritual function to the concert hall.

There are traditionally various styles of using hand and stick throughout the country, although nowadays playing with the hand alone is rare and bodhran style is characterized by the percussive sound at the top of the stick, creating the rolls while the bottom leads the rhythm. But the main innovations, which lead to how we hear the bodhran, being played today, took place during the 1970’s in the hands of two players, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh of the group De Dannan and Tommy Hayes of Stocktons Wing.

Their exploration and mastery of technique and style of the instrument was to widen its parameters and popularize it to the extent we see today, while setting a standard of playing which has seldom been equalled. The main developments, for which they are responsible, include the use of the left hand to apply pressure to the skin, thereby altering timbre and pitch; use of the brush stick usually associated with jazz drumming; occasional rim – shots to accent rhythms and, perhaps mostly; the playing of rhythms independent of the tune including counter rhythm and syncopation. Bodhrans are still being made today using age-old traditions; one such craftsman is Malachy Kearns of Roundstone, Connemara, Co. Galway. He believes quality goatskin is vital to the unique haunting tone and says “making bodhrans is very close to nature and when played is very freeing for the soul, and the whole evolvement has a spiritual experience to it. Malachy made the drums for “Riverdance”.

The Irish Uilleann Pipe

The Irish Uilleann Pipe is probably the most elaborate bagpipe in the world. It was developed from roughly the 1700’s to the present time in Ireland, with contributions from the U.S. and European countries.

Today it is widely known as the “uilleann” pipe from the Irish word for “elbow” but it has earlier been called variously the “union” pipe and the “organ” pipe. Unlike many types of bagpipe, the Uilleann pipes are not blown by mouth but are inflated by a bellows. Perhaps the most important feature of the instrument is its melody-pipe or chanter, which plays more than 2 complete chromatic octaves (most forms of bagpipe can play little more than one octave). The chanter is essentially a primitive oboe and is very quiet, about as loud as 1-2 fiddles.

Like the Scots Highland bagpipe, the Uilleann pipes have 3 drones but they are very quiet. One of the most unusual features of the instrument is the set of (typically) 3 more oboes in the form of 1-octave, 4- or 5-note stopped harmony pipes with keys operated by the wrist (while the piper fingers the melody on the chanter) to provide several simple chords for accompaniment.

These pipes have the peculiar name of “regulators” although they are purely musical and do not in any way “regulate” air pressure or behavior of the instrument. The most commonly-heard or “concert pitch” pipes are tuned in the key of D. The drones are all tuned to D and the chanter plays 2 chromatic octaves (or more) starting with a D. Anciently, the pipes were set to lower pitches, and a small number of instruments are regularly heard in keys of C#, B and B-flat. These are generally quieter and are most often played solo since it is somewhat difficult for other common Irish instruments to tune to them. The instrument must be played seated with one leg lowered. The chanter bottom is placed onto this leg to seal the opening shut, so that the piper can play either continuously or, as desired, can stop the chanter to play interrupted or stacatto notes.

The Button Accordian

The Chinese Cheng, which was introduced to Europe in 1777, is generally credited with being the musical instrument that initiated the ideas that were used to develop the accordion.

In 1821, Haeckel in Vienna and then Buschmann in Germany, invented mouth blown instruments of the free reed family. Buschmann added bellows and a button keyboard in the following year to make his “Handaeoline,” possibly the first clearly recognisable forebearer of the modern accordion. In 1829, Demian added chords in the bass and patented this as an “Accordion”.

From 1830, Charles Buffet in Belgium and Fourneax and Busson in France, manufactured an accordion that had 10 to 12 treble and two bass buttons. Demian also manufactured a type of accordion he called the “Hand harmonica”. A tutor printed in 1835 (by Adolph Muller) listed six varieties of accordions, all diatonic in the keys of C, D or G. It seems that the accordion did not become chromatic in note range until about the 1850’s.

Wheatstone in England had invented his concertina in 1829 and he continued to develop it over the next several decades, but he did not attach a piano keyboard to it. Busson did, and called it the “Organ accordion”. By 1859 this had a three octave treble keyboard. Both the Wheatstone Concertina from 1844 and then accordion had uniform tone (ie were not diatonic or in one key only). It would appear that the development and popularity of the Wheatstone Concertinas actually slowed the acceptance of the piano type accordions in England, at least until the twentieth century.

The Banjo

Originally an African instrument brought to America during the slave trade. The banjo is the four-string variety (as opposed to five strings in the southern USA and ballads) and is tuned to G,D,A and E like the fiddle, except it is an octave lower. It was a controversial instrument in traditional circles for many years as it was considered to be an intruder to the tradition.