The unmatched magic of Irish music
Music will get us through a second St. Paddy's Day in lockdown.
All music is magic. Classical, choral, pop, funk, rock, soul, jazz – you name it. It’s magic. We all have different genres and styles and artists that we personally connect with, often with no real rhyme or reason.
But when it comes to Irish music, there is something markedly, particularly divine. Take this 51-second clip of Dublin-born artist Hozier lamenting on Irish whiskey and tell me I’m wrong.
I mean, come on. Is your soul soothed?
Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs
Layers upon layers of history and culture underpin the magic of Irish music.
Across generations of troubled Irish history, very few outlets of expression were available to people. So song and poetry and music and storytelling became core creative outlets of many. People sang and played not for fame, fortune, for applause nor for praise – but for communication, for expression, for connection, for protest. Especially when thinking about the fight for Irish independence, the songs and tunes that have made it to the 21st century largely represent reclaimed history.
“The greatest achievement of the Irish people is their music”Thomas Davis, Irish poet
There is an overwhelming sense of community and solidarity imbued in Irish music because of this powerful connection to the past. There’s something mystic about listening to and learning tunes that fiddlers and flautists played centuries ago that have been passed down through generations like Chinese whispers.
Often, the Irish songs that have stood the test of time are stories of oppression or war or death, but look a little deeper and they are matched in number by the upbeat tunes of triumph, hope and rebellion. Each an important and raw little nugget of history.
A certain kind of magic
Admittedly, traditional music – i.e. pure instrumental ‘diddley dee’ as my Mother so wonderfully refers to it – would put your head clean away if you listened to it for too long. This is partly due to the raw nature of the way the instruments are played. It’s not about the sound being pretty. A polished sound is not, and never was, the goal.
‘Trad’ music in Ireland is mostly played on violins/fiddles, guitars, whistles, mandolins, banjos, accordions, concertinas and bodhrans. It’s largely created through improvisation and instinct. Learning tunes on any of these instruments isn’t really taught – it is learn-as-you-go, just sit in the back and pick it up. If there is sheet music, it’s hand-written and scrappy and often inaccurate and you feel like an eejit using it. There’s less emphasis on individual technique and more emphasis on the feeling, the tune, the emotion, and the group. It uses the full range of the instrument – often regions and capabilities of an instrument that in classical music would be deemed ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.
Aside from the history of the tunes, the magic of Irish music is in the fact that there is something inherently more creative about it, less prescriptive. I dreaded going to classical violin lessons and orchestra on a Saturday morning (I know, I was very fortunate to be going in the first place) – but when the Tuesday lunchtime trad group met up or we could muck in at a pub session, I couldn’t get the violin case open quick enough. It’s a different setting – you’re learning from each other. You’re learning your own history, not Vivaldi’s or Tchaikovsky’s. There is no judgement, no conductor’s baton. I developed more skill from watching someone else playing a tune and having to figure it out and play it for myself than I ever did in a classical setting.
The proliferation of Irish music
The coastal summer towns of south New Jersey are awash with Irish bars – and between 2014 and 2017 I was lucky enough to fiddle and sing at some of them. We all know Americans go bananas for Ireland and all of the cultural accoutrements attached, but I simply couldn’t believe it – a $20 tip for a bog-basic jig? A full scale round of applause for a standard reel? A legitimate hundred-dollar bill for “Danny Boy”? Surely not.
Irish people and Irish musicians often complain about or ridicule the commercialisation of Irish music across America and beyond. And they have a right to – Irish music has been bludgeoned, hacked at and commercialised almost to death. Certainly, this ‘evolution’ contributed to the dip in traditional Irish music in our own charts – The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, Paddy Reilly amongst many others dominated in the 60s but fell out of favour in subsequent years.
The so-called Irish music in the States ranges from mildly gauche to aggressively tacky, and you wouldn’t be wrong to think the St. Paddy’s Day Parades and Irish Festivals have long been perched not-so-delicately on the cusp of cultural appropriation.
But experiencing this as a musician is another thing entirely, and actually, despite the undeniable gracelessness of it all, is ultimately quite endearing.
Just like it was for me and my peers, Irish music is, for many Americans and Irish ex-pats across the world, a direct link to their heritage and history. What we forget is that Americans do have a claim to it. For many of course, their ancestors are Irish. Perhaps what we don’t also acknowledge is the direct impact of Irish music on American music in the first place; country music and bluegrass largely derive much from traditional Irish instrumentation and sonic patterns.
Americans love the craic as much as anyone else does, and go hell-for-leather in trying to find a piece of that Irish magic. Shamrock doodley-boppers ‘n’ all. Can anyone blame them?
Back to Ireland. Or shall we call it the boy’s club?
I asked a few of my extended family members for their top 5 songs from Irish artists last week – out of the 35 songs I got back, 32 were from male artists. My personal top 5 would also be male. This is a real problem.
When we think about current big stars from Ireland we think Hozier, Dermot Kennedy, Kodaline, Fontaines DC, The Script, Picture This, and a few years back we’d be talking U2, Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Thin Lizzy, The Clancy Brothers – the list goes on. And on. Can you name me one, really big, young, new female artist from Ireland? Are you scraping the barrel there? Me too. And no, Sinéad O’Connor doesn’t count.
Ireland are truly leagues behind the rest of the world in their female:male artist ratio output, and this is a problem stemming from both culture and the media’s lack of progression. The disparity between the number of female vs male singers played on Irish radio stations is vast – with some radio rotations featuring 85% male artists. WhyNotHer? launched a movement calling for Irish playlisters and radio stations to implement more diversity across their channels.
Last month, Ed Power from The Irish Times validated my thoughts that female Irish superstars – Enya, The Cranberries, The Corrs – don’t get anywhere near as much attention or adoration from their own country as they do abroad.
It’s not all jigs, reels, airs and sunshine
Despite the clear problems with diversity and inclusion across the Irish music industry from the top down, the music scenes in Ireland – both within and outside the genre of traditional folk – are positively thriving. And the young musicians forging their way into the music industry from Ireland at the moment are without a doubt a more diverse bunch than the musicians who have come before them. Not that I don’t adore Christy Moore. But let’s move into the 21st century please.
Bicep from Belfast are continuing to shape the EDM scene across Europe, Dublin-based Orla Gartland is without question the Irish Avril Lavigne, Erica Cody’s 90s-esque RnB bop “Where U Really From” dissects her experience as a mixed-race woman in Ireland, and female rock trio Dea Matrona are “set for rock stardom” according to The Irish News.
And as for the traditional folk side of things, there is continuing and worthy excitement around the trad groups operating across genre boundaries; The Olllam gained a cult following on their first album, presenting a masterful mix familiar folk instrumentation with synths, proper drum kits (!) and complex metres, whilst The Gloaming tackle a combination of ancient Irish verse and melody with contemporary jazz and finish it all off with a truly breathtaking, romantic, modern filter. Beoga are one of the “most exciting folk bands to emerge out of Ireland in this century” as described by the Wall Street Journal, but I’d recommend never bringing up their appearance on Ed Sheeran’s God-awful “Galway Girl” record. Entirely tactless, but you would do it too for a cheque.
St. Paddy’s Day
There’s no better way to understand the magic of Irish music than to listen. So here’s the DLMDD St. Paddy’s Day playlist – a mix of traditional tunes and timeless Irish classics. Best served with a cold can (…ugh) of Guinness and a generous helping of trying to forget that this is the second year of a St. Patrick’s Day in lockdown – entirely sinful and we shall never speak of it again.
Keep an eye out in the future for a broader playlist of burgeoning and more modern Irish talent, but for now I simply couldn’t bring myself to put Bicep and The Pogues in the same playlist.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Sláinte!