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History 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 years.
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 [1986] 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.

It's 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.

In 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.

Now 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Just 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.

Due 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.

Up 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 music.

As 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.

Probably 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 time.
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.

The 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.

Since 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.

But 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 ability.

Now, 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 erased.

But 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.