A Story of Ireland’s Traditional Music

Through the Celtic Revival, Ireland’s rich tradition of folklore and mythology came to national attention at the turn of the last century. An awakening had begun. Still, it was not until sixty years later that the full emotional force of Ireland’s passion, as it is carried within music and song truly found welcome within the heart of Irish cultural identity. This is a journey of Ireland’s true voice and it continues even today: from obscurity to acclaim, out of the shadows and onto centre stage.

The native music of many a once-colonised country may rest in obscurity, displaced by the obedient rhythms of a dominant culture. Were it not for the composer, writer and musician- pioneer, Seán ‘O Riada, born one “John Reedy”, Irish Traditional music may not occupy the pivotal role it carries today. Just as memory ceases to become collective memory as stories stop being passed down through generations, the practice of playing traditional music had come to be frowned upon in polite Irish society: disregarded as part of what was then considered a backward and downtrodden culture. Tradition in all forms was once associated with the poor of the wild atlantic seaboard. Until a revival took form in the mid-20th century.

Seán ‘O Riada, a classically trained musician, took an unprecedented u-turn in his own personal life. Ó Riada was not content to simply continue in the vein of imitation – seeking approval from the established culture or limiting his own self-expression to the accepted vocabularies of the centrally progressive. As ”John Reedy”, a successful composer, broadcaster and university lecturer, he moved his family from urban Cork to the rural Gaeltacht region of Baile Mhuirne a wellspring of tradition where the Irish language continued to be eloquently spoken. This is a place of deep spirituality, song and learning. He changed his name to “Seán Ó Riada”. He started to speak the Irish language and to seek inspiration in the deeply rooted culture of that Gaeltacht community. At this time the well-connected composer, author and a lecturer at University College Cork, deliberately set about reclaiming a voice for Ireland, while planting another seed of cultural resurgence.

Through taking a cultural stand, Ó Riada formed new ground for a revival of Ireland’s consciousness. He opened a way for countless Irish people who have followed his example, authentically turning towards their roots – integrating what once was cast aside; a voice of song at Ireland’s heart. It was an opening that brings the Irish story into international relevance: how many other cultures, other songs, have been forgotten in the march of progress and amnesia ?

In his score for the film Mise Éire ( I am Ireland), Irish Traditional music role to popularity among the general Irish public. The film was named after a famous poem by the Irish patriot Pádraig Pearse. Documenting the rise of Ireland from British colony to Nation State, through use of archival footage, the film shows the birth of Ireland anew. For the film’s soundtrack, Ó Riada used the traditional song airs of Ireland, presenting them through orchestral sound. As Ireland had no film industry of its own at that time, the film Mise Éire gave form to a new sense of Ireland, an Ireland that had only just awoken . Ó Riada became a household name and what was once a marginalized national culture sounded a triumphant note of celebration.

Seen in the context of world music, Ó Riada also reframed the visual sense of Irish Traditional music. Presenting the traditional music band of which he was part, Ceoltóirí Chualann, in neck-ties after the fashion of classical musicians, Ó Riada confronted the conventional perceptions of traditional music of his time. Of course, there are many names to whom the Irish traditional musicians of today also owe their repertoire and inheritance – those countless fiddlers, box players, pipers, harpers, percussionists and whistle players. Wherever music is played and enjoyed, tunes given life through fingers and breath – the plucking of strings and sounding of notes. This music – the suantraí (hush-a-bye music), the geantraí(happy music) and the goltraí (laments), of Irish Tradition, is the living spark from an ancient distant past. Allegedly, this music has its origins with none other than the Dagdha himself (supreme father of Ireland’s Gods and suggested builder of Newgrange). And then there are the fairies. Many traditional Irish airs and tunes are said to have been learned from the fairies, including much of the music of the famous blind harper, ‘Ó Carolan. Another popular tale describes how a musician, with respect to this unseen influence, might leave a pint of ale beneath the table, mysteriously drunk by unseen beings in fair exchange.

Today Ireland’s music, as we know, is a worldwide industry with a wide variety of artists growing from strength to strength. Although increasingly, traditional music has found its way onto the stages of concert halls , the natural habitat of the traditional music scene is in the session. These can be relaxed affairs featuring slow airs or may pack an energy that can set feet tapping. Ireland is truly brimming with music and musicians so you won’t have far to go to find a local session near you. (See www.tradconnect.com for locations)

On the world stage, “Riverdance” was another well known international phenomenon that presented Ireland’s rich musical heritage, cultural roots and feisty character to the world. Today the supergroup known as the Gloaming are continuing an evolution of Irish traditional music. Combining the traditional with the innovative, as the genius of jazz pianist Thomas Bartlett joins the unique voice of sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionaird, together with fiddlers Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh – continue to surf the surging tide of tradition.

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