Saturday, March 20, 2010

Instruments of traditional music....

The harp - the National symbol of Ireland. It's history is long, so, I'll give you just two short tidbits of info.
First off, the harp was a gentry instrument. Itinerant harpers would wander the country and play for the well-to-do. One of, if not the most famous harper was Turlough O'Carolan. At 18 years of age, O'Carolan contracted smallpox and as a result, lost his sight. At the age of 21, he set out with horse and cart to travel the Emerald Isle to play for the gentry and compose music. Many of his pieces were named after those for whom he played.
Second - the harp is the logo for Guinness with one exception - it faces the other way!
Just a small footnote - you typically will not find a harp at an Irish session.

The button accordion. Found as either a B/C or C#/D tuning, this free-wind instrument started spreading through Europe in the 1830's and there is evidence of it starting to gain popularity here in the States in the 1840's. In Irish traditional music, the diatonic accordion is most widely used, but, piano accordions are played as well.

The bodhran (pronounced baaw-run) or frame drum. A wooden frame covered with animal skin (and in present you can get synthetic also) typically goat skin. Evidence of it being around in the Irish rebellion of 1603.
If you are a good bodhran player, you are loved. If you stink, run for the hills.

The fiddle (or violin, but, since it's folk music, I go with fiddle). Long established and available in Ireland in the 1900's. Traditionally in Ireland there are four styles of fiddling - Clare, from the central West, Donegal, from the Northwest, Sliabh Luachra, from the Southwest, and Sligo, a bit south of the Northwest tradition. Each region has its own distinct sound.

The penny whistle or tin whistle. It derives from a fipple flute dating as far back 51,000BC.
The modern penny whistle is indigenous to the British Isles. Made from tin and costing a penny.

The concertina. Developed in England and Germany, most likely independent of each other. In Irish tradition, the anglo concertina is played and is a hybrid of the english and german concertina's. It was found in Irish homes beginning somewhere around the 1830's and is typically the instrument that was played on the cuaird.

The uilleann (pronounced ill-yun) pipes or elbow pipes. Though not truly represented in the tradition until the early 20th century, next to the harp, it is the instrument one relates to when naming traditional Irish music. Hauntingly beautiful is the sound of the pipes unless in the wrong hands. Then it just sound like someone squeezing a goose too hard.

After the folk revival in the late 50's and 60's, other instruments made their way into the playing of traditional music. The Irish bouzouki, tenor banjo, guitar, mandolin, and cittern all fall into this category. Pictured above is the bouzouki.

This is the tenor banjo. It has four strings and is played with a pick or plectrum, whereas the five string banjo, most associated with bluegrass music is played with finger picks.
The instruments pictured above are all what one might find if, perchance, you walk into a pub and a session is in progress. There are other instruments as well, though not as widely accepted. The most odd "instrument" I have played with in a session was a washboard. Thankfully the player had good rhythm and taste!
Now I thought I'd leave you with a few bands to check out for some more traditional Irish music. Hope you enjoy them.
The Bothy Band (you'll have to youtube them)
Just a few to sample. It'll keep you busy for a while :-)
Apologies for the lack of posting and reading all of your blogs. I even missed "Peaceful Fridays.."
I've been swamped with life at the moment. Happens to the best of us. I'll try to catch up over the week. I'm hoping all of you garden bloggers have been busy outside and getting a taste of
Spring. Actually, I hope everyone has been outside getting a taste of Spring!
With that being said, Happy Spring, everyone!


  1. Somewhere in the archives, I have a tin whistle that a boyfriend (well, ex at that point) brought back from Ireland for me. He also brought me a beeeeyoutiful shawl, that I wear sometimes and always get compliments on. I would sure like a big silver broochy-thing for it- I can't remember what they're called. Saw an absolutely GORGEOUS one at a Scottish Games festival in Florida- it had garnet cabochons on the ends. Really stunning, and it would have finished off my shawl nicely. But I digress...

  2. Some fascinating facts here Toni - I love that there are four forms of fiddling depending on region - it really keeps the unique flavour and history of those places alive. I listed to Lunasa - very good, certainly got my foot tapping.

    Talking of Guinness - have you tried it with a shot of blackcurrent - I've never looked back since!

    Jeanne x