of Irish music
The banjo in irish music
During the twenties and thirties at the height of the Irish
music recording industry in America the banjo was one of the
most popular instruments playing Irish music. In fact on the
very first disc of Irish traditional music to be made by Ellen
O Byrne De Witt in 1916 the musicians were Eddie Herborn on
melodeon and George Wheeler on banjo. Those early recordings
started the ball rolling and the Irish music recording industry
really took off. The banjo featured strongly in many of those
early recordings especially in bands such as Dan Sullivan’s
Shamrock Band where Neil Nolan was the banjo player for many
The banjo in the early days seemed to be often used for accompaniment
to the dance tunes or the songs and one great example of this
was PJ Conlon’s classic recording of ‘The Newfoundland
Jig’ where the banjo provided the accompaniment to the
driving melodeon playing of PJ Conlon from Miltown North Co
Galway, one of the first Irish born musicians to record commercially
on the melodeon. One of the earliest to record on the tenor
banjo was Co Roscommon musician Michael Gaffney.
Gaffney arrived in New York in 1915 and although at home he
had been better known as one of the best fiddle and flute players
in his locality, on arrival in the United States he turned to
the banjo and made many fine recordings both as a solo player
and in duet with among others the great Leitrim flute player
John McKenna. Michael Gaffney was born in 1896 and grew up just
over a mile from one.
Mick Moloney wrote:
Undoubtedly, the first Irish banjo player to record commercially
was Mike Flanagan, born in County Waterford in 1898, who emigrated
to the United States at the age of 10. Like many of the Irish
banjo players in this century, he started on the mandolin and
learned on his own simply because there was nobody to learn
banjo from. Mike, who at the time of writing  is very
much alive in Albany, New York, recorded prodigiously with his
brother, Joe, accompanied during the early years by another
brother, Louis, who passed away at a young age. Other banjo
players to record in the 1920s were Michael Gaffney from New
York and the late Neil Nolan from Maine, who played with Dan
Sullivan's Shamrock Band in Boston.
There was great life and exuberance in those early recordings,
in part because the music was designed for lively dancing, but
also because the banjo was at that time traditionally tuned
higher than nowadays—still in fifths, but with the top
string pitched at B or sometimes even at C. There are a few
players in America who still favour the old tuning, most notably
Jimmy Kelly in Boston. Most of the younger players, however,
favour the GDAE tuning, which is by now "standard"
for Irish music on the tenor banjo.
not hard to pinpoint when this "standardization" occurred.
Before 1960, a number of styles and instruments co-existed in
the modest fraternity of banjo players in Ireland. Some players
favoured the 5-string banjo, some the banjo-mandolin, while
others favoured varieties of the 4-string instrument. Some players
used a pick, while others used a thimble.
the early 1960s, the meteoric rise to commercial success of
The Dubliners in the Irish and English folk revival was to have
a profound effect on the fortunes of the banjo in Irish music.
Bearded, affable Barney McKenna, ace tenor banjoist in the group,
became a household name among traditional music fans. Barney's
skill and wide visibility helped bring scores of new devotees
to the instrument, almost all tuning their banjos as Barney
did—GDAE, an octave below the fiddle.
in the mid-1980s, there are literally hundreds of accomplished
Irish banjo players in Ireland, England and America. The instrument
has most certainly come of age, after years of occupying a marginal
position in the traditional music.
Traditional Irish Music is known
today throughout the world. It is an oral tradition and its
prolific nature has captured the attention of listeners everywhere.
Though it is only in the past tow decades that Irish Music has
gained such recognition on an international scale, its origins
can be traced back to almost two thousand years ago when the
Celts arrived in Ireland. They brought with them, among other
skills and crafts, music. Having been established in Eastern
Europe since 500BC, the Celts were undoubtedly influenced by
the music of the East, and indeed, it is speculated that the
Irish Harp originated in Egypt.
While travelling to Ireland, the Celts left their mark on the
musical cultures of Spain and Brittany (Northern France) as
well as in Scotland and Wales. However, it is here in Ireland
that the tradition has evolved most articulately, thrived most
strongly and survived most courageously.
harp is best known of all the traditional Irish instruments
and was most dominant from the Tenth to the Seventeenth Centuries.
In the Nineteenth Century it evolved into the Neo-Irish Harp
which, in structure, is much like that of the classical concert
harp. Before the Seventeenth Century, the harp tradition was
at its height and all the harpists were professional musicians.
The ruling Chieftains employed them, under a system of patronage,
to compose and perform music.
The tradition enjoyed a steady and secure status under this
arrangement. However, in 1607 the Chieftains fled the country
under pressure from invaders. This came as a serious blow to
the professional harpists and the tradition as a whole. They
no longer held the title of professional musician and were now
called "travelling" or "itinerant" harpists.
Turlough O’Carolan is the best remembered of the harpists
during this period and many of his compositions are still played
by traditional musicians today.
first written collection of Irish music appeared in 1762, containing
49 airs and published by Neale brothers in Dublin. However,
it was not until the Belfast harp festival of 1792 that the
most significant notation of Irish music was made by Edward
Bunting. The manuscripts survive to this day and are among the
most important documents in the history of the tradition.
as the flight of the Chieftains in 1607 affected the harping
tradition, attempts at colonization adversely affected Irish
culture in the decades following the initial invasion. Many
of the laws introduced by the British crown were aimed at crushing
the Irish culture and, in the case of the penal laws, it was
forbidden to participate in any traditional or cultural activities.
Many would believe that such laws were to some extent successful
in suppressing the hampering the growth of music in Ireland
during the period of their enforcement.
to the Great Famine of the 1840’s, one million people
died and there is no doubt that much of the tradition in the
form of songs, stories and tunes, died with them. The subsequent
wave of emigration, of over two million people, which accompanied
the Famine, though a devastating factor in Irish life, did help
to bring the music tradition further afield. Thousands of Irish
people were spread across the world from the USA to Australia.
On leaving Ireland, the immigrants brought with them their songs
and music and a traditional Irish music network was quickly
established in cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston where
there was a concentrated Irish population.
By the 1920’s, recordings of a number of Irish musicians
were being made in the USA, most notably the fiddle players
Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and the Uilleann
Piper, Patsy Tuohey. When these 78-RPM recordings made their
way back to Ireland they had a dramatic effect on the tradition
here. To the surprise of the listeners, piano accompaniment
was given to the fiddle and uilleann pipes and the dance tunes
were played at a quickened pace. As a result of these recordings,
musicians in Ireland also began to speed up the tempo of the
tunes as well as using the piano as an accompanying instrument,
an idea previously unheard of in the tradition.
to the 1960’s, Irish music still had as its main setting
the houses and pubs of rural areas, and music was played mainly
to be danced to. It was not until Sean O’Riada’s
involvement in the tradition that the music found a wider audience.
O’Riada had a wide knowledge of Western Art Music and
while working as a music lecturer at University College Cork,
he became aware of Irish traditional music. As his interest
in it grew he began to explore it in greater depth. He set up
a band of traditional musicians in the early 1960’s called
Ceoltoiri Chualann, with the aim of creating a new music built
on the tradtition. He made use of many Classical music forms
within the workings of the band which was made up of fiddle,
flute, uilleann pipes, accordion and bodhran, and came up with
a formula of playing solos within the group.
His music was played to be listened to and not danced to, thus
bringing the musc across a social divide. It was no longer associated
solely with rural areas and poverty. When Ceoltoiri Chualann
performed their first concert, it did not take place in a public
house or a concert hall but in the grandeur of the Gaiety Theatre
in Dublin. O’Riada created the concept of an Irish music
ensemble, which gave rise to the whole idea of arranging the
the 1900’s were to become known as the traditional music
revival, the 1970’s were to earn the title the golden
age of traditional music, and not without good reason, for it
was in this decade that the music saw possibly its finest years
in term of popularity and innovation.
the most obvious development was the espousement of influences
such as contemporary, American and European folk, into traditional
music and with the arrival of the group Planxty in 1972, a new
sound had emerged. The arrangements of pure traditional music
in folk and ballad style, played with the virtuosity of Liam
O’Flynn’s uilleann piping, along with the intricately
captivating bouzouki, mandolin and guitar accompaniment, created
a sound that was to prove them as the leader in a new musical
movement, and to play a vital part in the inspiration for many
groups,too numerous to mention here, that formed around this
They were the prototype for what was to be arguably the most
influential and ground-breaking band during the period and possibly
to date for it was the Planxty man, Donal Lunny, who in 1975
formed The Bothy Band. This professional group, characterised
by a powerful core of pipes, flute and fiddle with a driving
rhythmic accompaniment, not unlike that of rock music, played
on bouzouki, guitar and clavichord, achieved one of the most
exciting combinations of traditional music talents ever gathered.
Their greater use of harmony and occasional interdependence
of instruments: their more intricate use of O’Riada’s
model of arrangement: their professional rock-group like approach
to performance and mainly their master musicianship and explosive
sound, all served to win them the imagination of a new generation
the world over.
Bothy Band’s influence from their heyday to the present
is undiminished. It is because of bands such as Dannan, Planxty
and perhaps mainly the Bothy Band, that certain traditional
musicians can stand alone on stages throughout the world and
be appreciated and acclaimed for playing in their own pure style.
the ‘70’s, many interesting ventures in new areas
have been attempted, such as the traditional rock-fusion initially
tempted by Moving Hearts: experimentation with the arrangement
of traditional instruments with orchestras: the attempted fusion
of traditional music with world music and jazz, etc. All these
developments are notable in their own right and have served
to popularise the music, contributing to the apparent situation
today where it is seen to be thriving.
if we were to study how music is performed at the present time,
one would notice some dramatic changes: (1): more attention
to tone and technique: (2) : material acquired from public performers
as opposed to one specific region: (3): an increase in the tempo
of dance tunes: (4): a greater awareness of harmony and (5):
the acceptance and popularity among traditional players of accompaniment
instruments such as the Greek bouzouki which has been adapted
in style and structure thus further increasing its versatile
in the twenty-first century, with traditional music enjoying
every success, it would seem as if its future is secure, but
today more than at any other time, this is the foremost topic
of debate among musicians and commentators. Through the profusion
of media, the influence of groups and individual musicians filtering
back into the tradition is viewed with great concern by many
as corrupting and detracting from the essential purity and integrity
of traditional music. Indeed, it has been recognised that with
few exceptions, regional styles have, since the advent of recording,
been eroding at a frightening rate and are almost completely
to conclude, it should be simply stated that never before has
Ireland seen so many young and talented traditional musicians
and singers. I can see not reason why traditional music in its
purest form is coming under threat. Music, traditional or otherwise,
lives in its musicians and therefore must be relevant to this
generation. If it’s not we will have failed to keep it
alive for the next. With one eye on the past and one on the
future, traditional music knows no boundaries and will continue
to reflect the nation’s spirit for generations to come.