A traditional music session at the Collooney Daycare centre in County Sligo.
A traditional music session at the Collooney Daycare centre in County Sligo.

Irish traditional music

The traditional music played in Ireland is one of the most wonderful aspects of our deeply historic culture remaining with us today. The story of traditional Irish music is as fascinating as any other aspect of Irish culture, and it is interwoven with the mythology and the landcape of the island.

Playing some O'Carolan tunes at Brigit's Garden.
Martin playing O'Carolan's Concerto at Brigit's Garden in County Galway. Photograph by Joe Keane.

There is a long tradition of music and melody coming from the landscape of Ireland. Music is featured throughout Irish mythology, for example when the harper Corann, a musician to the Dagda at Newgrange, puts the rampaging sow Cail Cheis to sleep with his enchanting melodies; this magical musical energy spills out from the caves in the mountain of Kesh Corann in County Sligo. This raw enegry is perfectly captured by the Bothy Band on the Kesh jig set at the start of their first album.

The Bothy Band play the Kesh set from their first album, 1975.

Hearing the Bothy Band inspired me to give the fiddle a try; I brought one in Grehan's of Boyle not long before the shop closed, and enrolled in the Drumshanbo school of music, where Roscommon fiddle player Paddy Ryan was the tutor. Now I play fiddle, banjo, and a fabulous three-quarter set of uilleann pipes made by Limerick musician Mickey Dunne.

The Harp

Paul Dooley playing his own handmade clairseach, the original Irish harp, with a willow frame and wire strings.

The harp is the symbol of Ireland, and is frequently mentioned in Irish mythology. Older tunes tend to be simpler, such as some of the medieval marches like O'Moores March and Brian Boru's march. My wife Margaret plays a clairseach made by Paul Dooley. Together we play and entertain various groups in our local pub, O'Donnell's of Cliffoney, and on our tours. Margaret also plays whistle, fiddle and banjo.

Harping at Cashel in 1910.
Harping at Cashel in 1910.

The Irish clarseach is much different to the modern Celtic harp - smaller, and so much more portable, wire strung and played with the nails, which must be kept long and strong, and no levers to change key.

Fiddles in Cliffoney.

The clarseach has two bass strings tuned to G called the Sisters. There is evidence that ogham inscriptions may be related to harp music and notation. For more information see www.wirestrungharp.com.

Traditional Session in Cliffoney.
Playing my banjo at a traditional session in O'Donnell's Bar in Cliffoney, where we hold a music session on the last Saturday of each month in memory of the remarkable Father Michael O'Flanagan.

The Fiddle

I took up playing the fiddle twenty years ago, and have never looked back! My main inspirations were the famous progressive traditional rock band from the 1970's, Horslips, who features some wonderful fiddling by Charles O'Connor. Their version of King of the Fairies is still one of my favourite tunes. The Bothy Band were another major inspiration.

James Scott Skinner, Scottish fiddle virtuoso and composer 1843 - 1927.

The fiddle was the most popular instrument in the south Sligo area surrounding Carrowkeel. Three of the best known Irish fiddlers from the 78 era came from the area around Ballymote - Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran. All were in some way influenced by the playing of Scottish fiddle virtuoso James Scott Skinner, the Strathspey King, a prolific composer.

Michael Coleman 1891 - 1945.

Michael Coleman, from Killavil near Gurteen in south County Sligo, emigrated to New York at a young age. He quickly found work on the vaudeville circuit, where he danced and played the fiddle at the same time.

The amazing, John Doherty, a prince among fiddlers.

John Doherty, a travelling musician from County Donegal was another amazing Irish fiddler. Also heavily influenced by Skinner, he had a huge repertoire of tunes of all kinds, including many Scottish tunes. John was a tin smith by trade, and travelled all over Donegal plying his trade and entertaining the people with his masterful playing.

The Uilleann Pipes

I was inspired to take up the pipes after visiting the Doran Tionl in Glendalough, held in memory of Johnny and Felix Doran, two brothers who were master pipers who travelled the length and bredth of Ireland playing wonderful music. I play a beautiful three-quarter set of pipes made by Mickey Dunne of Limerick. Mickey is not just a master piper and pipe-maker, but is also a wonderful person, and I am proud to play his pipes, which have an exciting, fiery tone.

Felix Doran, the amazing uilleann piper, younger brother of Johnny Doran.

The Doran brothers taught Ireland's most famous piper, Willie Clancy how to play, and provided him with pipes. Other legendary pipers are Seamus Ennis who was a multi-instrumentalist and a recorder and collector of Irish music. Leo Rowsome was a master player, pipe-maker and teacher who is largely responsible for keeping the tradition alive.

Singer, whistler, uilleann piper and music collector, Séamus Ennis.

Playing the fiddle at Creevykeel.
Myself and my wife Margaret playing our fiddles in our local megalithic monument, Creevykeel in County Sligo.