An A-Z of music in Ireland
In 2,000 or so entries by more than 200 contributors, a new encyclopedia sets out to chart Irish musical experience across recorded history. Here are 26 of them, from Air to Zozimus
Sounds Irish: The Dubliners in 1966. Photograph: Brian Shuel/Redferns/Getty
Sounds Irish: Eurovision winner Johnny Logan
Sounds Irish: Rory Gallagher in the 1970s. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty
Sounds Irish: Miami Showband
Sounds Irish: John O’Conor playing at the National Concert Hall. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Sounds Irish: U2 in 1981. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty
Sounds Irish: Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy around 1979. Photograph: Denis O’Regan/Getty
The air, or slow air, is a piece of traditional music that is generally not set in a given time signature and is without a regular sense of metre. Preferably played as a solo piece, it has great similarities to sean-nós singing (see S, on page 9). The two main types of slow air in the tradition are song airs and laments/classic pieces. The song airs are simply the melodies of existing sean-nós songs. Laments/classic pieces are for the most part more elaborate in style and longer. Slow airs are preferably learned by ear by traditional musicians. In traditional air playing the emphasis is on the emotive and actual meaning and context of the air in question, not on the ornamentation of the individual’s playing.
Barry, Gerald (1952-)
Composer. A number of elements have remained constant in Gerald Barry’s style. He eschews the use of introductions or other gradual processes at the opening of his works and avoids the use of transitions. Instead his music is constructed in blocks that are starkly juxtaposed. In all his music the primary emphasis is on melody. Subversive humour also tends to play a role. When Barry was 15 he won a prize for a piano piece that was in fact a Mozart sonata cut into pieces and resewn under Barry’s name. In a recent interview Barry said that he had never reached the age of reason. It would be hard to find a better image for his music.
A term referring to a plucked stringed instrument of high status in medieval Ireland. In older usage it probably referred to a lyre and only later to a harp (“cruit”), when this type of instrument became dominant in the Irish courts, from the 11th or 12th century. It was used to accompany the performance of court poetry, genealogies and other oral history, the function of which was to maintain the ascendancy of leading political families. The crot was believed to have magical powers. In the mythological tale of Cath Maighe Tuireadh (the Battle of Moytirra) the Daghdha’s instrument responded to the order of its owner by leaping down from its place on the wall and killing nine men.
Ballad group. The Dubliners grew out of a regular ballad-singing session at O’Donoghue’s pub on Merrion Row in Dublin. They were founded in 1962 by Ronnie Drew (vocals, guitarist) with Luke Kelly (vocals, banjo), Ciarán Bourke (vocals, multi-instrumentalist) and Barney McKenna (vocals, banjo). The band appeared on Top of the Pops in 1967 with the bawdy but edited ballad Seven Drunken Nights, which was banned in Ireland for a time. Several other hits followed in the 1960s. The legacy of The Dubliners is the band’s contribution to developing a crossover popular-folk genre, driving the so-called ballad boom in Ireland and familiarising generations of mid- to late 20th-century Irish people with traditional ballads.
Eurovision Song Contest
When the Eurovision was first staged, at Lugano, in Switzerland, in 1956, only seven countries participated. Now more than 40 member states are eligible to participate. Ireland holds the record for the most winning performances, including two by Johnny Logan; it is also the only country to win in three successive years. Ireland first entered in 1965, with Butch Moore performing Walking the Streets in the Rain, and has participated every year since with the exception of 1983, because of a financial crisis at RTÉ, and 2002, when Ireland was relegated. The only Irish-language entry, Ceol an Ghrá, was performed by Sandie Jones in 1972.
Begun in 1951 as an annual festival of Irish traditional music incorporating competitions, concerts, presentations and less formal musicmaking, the Fleadh Cheoil has developed into a system of qualifying county, provincial (both in Ireland and abroad) and, finally, national gatherings. The climactic Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil) usually changes location each year. It has yet to be held in Dublin. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is attended by crowds in excess of 170,000, an estimated 10,000 of whom are musicians and dancers. Solo titles in core instruments, such as fiddle, flute, accordion, uilleann pipes and concertina, are greatly valued, but perhaps the most coveted title is that of senior céilí band.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter. A pioneer of Irish blues and rock, Rory Gallagher spent his early years in Donegal and Derry until 1956, when the family moved to Cork city. In 1966 he formed The Taste, a blues and R&B trio that recorded several albums before splitting, in 1970. In the 1970s Gallagher produced 10 albums, and in 1972 he was voted Melody Maker’s Top Musician of the Year, ahead of Eric Clapton. He also turned down an invitation to replace Mick Taylor in The Rolling Stones. Gallagher’s forte was live performance, and he fed off the instant reaction and feedback of his audience. On June 14th, 1995, at the age of 47, Gallagher died from complications arising from liver-transplant surgery.
Handel, George Frederick (1685-1759)
Composer, born Georg Friedrich Händel. In 1741 Handel’s future in London was uncertain after the decline in popularity of Italian opera. His visit to Dublin in 1741-2, including the first performance of Messiah, was a high point in the city’s musical history and a turning point in his career. He left for London on August 13th, 1742, fully intending to return. Back in London Handel’s fortunes as a composer of oratorio flourished, so he no longer had reason to return to Dublin.
Irvine, Andy (1942-)
Songwriter, singer and bouzouki, mandolin and guitar player. Andy Irvine moved to Ireland in 1962, and immersed himself in the flourishing folk scene in Dublin, cultivating his growing interest in the ballad tradition. In 1966 he teamed up with Johnny Moynihan and Joe Dolan (not the Mullingar singer), eventually forming Sweeney’s Men. He travelled through eastern Europe in 1968-70, and developed an awareness of Balkan rhythms that have since permeated his compositions. With Dónal Lunny he was a founding member of Planxty. A seminal album with Paul Brady mined older repertoires of song.
Joyce, James (1882-1941)
Writer. James Joyce is widely regarded as the most influential novelist of the 20th century. Joyce had a light tenor voice, and in 1904 he won a bronze medal at the Feis Ceoil. His only extant composition is a melody to his poem Bid Adieu. Joyce had a lifelong preoccupation with opera as a generic precedent for his fiction. Although Joyce scholarship has long identified an explicit recourse to musical structures in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, more recent criticism has established a decisive reliance on Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung in Finnegans Wake and an attempt to adapt the structures of opera and oratorio to the medium of fiction, notably in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses.
In Gaelic Ireland up to the 20th century, everyone who died was keened with an unaccompanied sung lament (from the Irish verb caoin, to cry). The keener was usually a close relative, such as a deceased man’s widow, although professional keening women (mná caointe) were also often employed. Keening was performed in short separate rounds. The lone keener commenced by calling on the deceased by name or term of affection (such as “mo ghrá go daingean tú”/“my dearest love”, or “a mharcaigh na mbán-ghlac”/“o rider of the white hands”). This call could be sung or spoken, often repeatedly. It was followed by the dirge: a short stanza of verse, or echoing lines from keens remembered from previous occasions. It was frequently the vehicle for altercations between rival keeners, who would each perform their round in provocation or in barbed response. At the end of the dirge the keener commenced the culminating part of the round, called the gol or cry. The whole company joined in. No words were used; the assembled mourners were giving communal expression to their grief in purely musical terms. In this respect the mourners’ voices functioned as a musical instrument. In pagan times the gol itself was a magic formula and drew on the supernatural power of music to transfer the spirit of the deceased person from this world to the spirit world.
Lunny, Dónal (1947-)
Instrumentalist , arranger and record producer. Donal Lunny is an influential conceptualist in the Irish traditional-music revival. In 1971 he was a linchpin of the rehearsals and recording that resulted in Christy Moore’s solo LP Prosperous. The disc was the immediate inspiration for the foundation of Planxty. He remained with the group until 1975, when he left to cofound The Bothy Band, self-consciously intending a rock-inflected supergroup. In 1981, continuing to move in a rock-pop direction, Lunny cofounded Moving Hearts with Moore, Davy Spillane and a rock rhythm section. The 1991 BBC/RTÉ production Bringing It All Back Home and his mid-1990s production of the series Sult: Spirit of the Music, on RTÉ, continued this cross-genre collaboration and led to the late-1990s fusion group Coolfin. In 2006 he became the first traditional musician to be elected to Aosdána.
Miami Showband (1961-75)
Irish showband. Founded in 1961 by manager Tom Doherty, the Miami became one of Ireland’s premier showbands. Featuring the charismatic Dickie Rock as lead vocalist, the band had huge recording successes, beginning with three number-one hits in 1964. On July 31st, 1975, three members of the band – Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty – were shot to death at a roadblock by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Up to that point there had been a continual and easy exchange of showband musicians to and from Northern Ireland, despite the beginning of sectarian violence there in 1969. The Miami massacre all but ended this. For some it signified the end of the showband era altogether.
National Concert Hall
The NCH, on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, opened in 1981 and is the home of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. The hall has stood on the site since the middle of the 19th century, when it was built as part of the complex erected for the Great Exhibition of 1865. For many years its main use was for exams and conferring ceremonies held by University College Dublin. In 1964 the government decided to build a concert hall as a memorial for the assassinated US president John F Kennedy at Beggar’s Bush in Dublin. The project was dropped in 1974 and replaced with a more modest undertaking, the conversion of the Great Hall on Earlsfort Terrace to a 900-seat auditorium and home for the RTÉ NSO. The hall now regularly hosts performances by many of the world’s leading orchestras and performers. Overall attendances at NCH events reached 342,568 in 2009. The hall’s bright, bass-light acoustic has never won universal approval. There were plans for new auditoriums seating 2,000 and 500, and for a modification of the existing auditorium. These plans were publicly cancelled by the government in November 2010.
O’Conor, John (1947-)
Pianist. John O’Conor has enjoyed an international career as a soloist, appearing as a recitalist and with many of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. He has been centrally engaged with Viennese classicism. His performances of Beethoven’s sonatas are characterised by a sharp awareness of the music’s dramatic range, a fine balancing of expression and formal articulation, and a distinctive clarity of tone and dynamic control. In his recordings of John Field’s music, O’Conor sustains a beauty of tone and lightness of execution that are entirely suited to the music’s blend of virtuosity and sentimentality.
Formed in north London in 1982, The Pogues pioneered a radical style based on a fusion of Irish folk and English punk. Led by Shane MacGowan, the band released their debut album, Red Roses for Me in 1984. It showcased their style, with fast melodic lines on banjo, tin whistle and accordion set against a punchy electric bass and stripped-down drum kit. This novel texture was refined on the Elvis Costello-produced collections Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and Poguetry in Motion (1986), which displayed increasingly sophisticated songwriting and musicianship. The group reached a peak with If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), which included Fairytale of New York, their most celebrated song. The Pogues’ efforts were increasingly hampered by constant touring and alcohol and drug abuse, and MacGowan and the group parted company. They reformed in 2001 for a series of reunion shows and continued to tour in subsequent years.
Quinn, Eimear (1973-)
Singer. At the age of 15 Quinn began her formal music training at the College of Music in Dublin. She went on to graduate with a degree in music from NUI Maynooth. In 1995 she became one of the principal soloists with Anúna. In 1996 she won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland, singing Brendan Graham’s composition The Voice.
This stage production was first conceived as a seven-minute interval piece for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, in Dublin. Produced by Moya Doherty, directed by John McColgan and with a score by Bill Whelan, the show featured the solo dancing of Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. It used a corps of 24 Irish dancers, the choral group Anúna and the uilleann piper Davy Spillane. Riverdance: The Show opened at the Point Theatre in Dublin in February 1995 and was a sell-out for five weeks. It then toured Europe before opening at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, in March 1996. Riverdance is still enormously successful, with a number of companies, smaller in size than that for the original production, simultaneously touring abroad. Riverdance has divided critics. Fintan O’Toole suggested in 1995 that “what was so genuinely Irish about it was not its supposed ‘authenticity’ but its cultural promiscuity”. What is in little doubt is the considerable impact Riverdance had on Irish culture in the 1990s.
Sean-nós singing is, essentially, unaccompanied singing in Irish. There are three readily identifiable, albeit somewhat arbitrary styles, based on the Donegal, Connemara and Munster regions. The Donegal style makes the least use of ornamentation, often bringing rhythm and melody to the fore. The singers of Connemara are well known for their extensive use of ornamentation, which sometimes results in more complex melodies. The glottal stop is characteristic of Munster singing, as is the subtle use of dynamics. With the passage of time, this overarching stylistic categorisation has become weakened. The voice may not always sound particularly sweet to the ear. Vibrato is not used, and dynamics, although formerly employed only rarely, seem to be appealing more and more to younger singers. Neither verses nor entire songs are sung exactly the same way twice. Singers rarely use facial expressions or bodily gestures. If the song is being sung in an intimate setting, such as the corner of a pub, the singer and the audience may engage in “winding”, where one member of the audience holds the singer’s hand, which they both rotate in keeping roughly with the tempo of the song.
One of the defining Irish rock groups of the 20th century, Thin Lizzy formed in Dublin in 1969, when two former Van Morrison band members, the guitarist Eric Bell and the organist Eric Wrixon, recruited the vocalist Phil Lynott and the drummer Brian Downey. After the release of Whiskey in the Jar, which the band protested, the single went to number one in the Irish charts for 17 weeks and to number six in the UK. The band have always been beset by personnel changes; its most celebrated line-up was Lynott on bass, Downey on drums, and Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson on guitars. That line-up played its final show on September 4th, 1983, in Nuremberg, Germany. Less than three years later Lynott died of heart failure in a Wiltshire clinic at the age of 36.
Formed in 1976 in north Dublin by Larry Mullen jnr (drums), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), David Evans/the Edge (guitar) and Paul Hewson/Bono (vocals), the rock group U2 were initially inspired by punk and new wave. Under the guidance of their manager, Paul McGuinness, the band toured throughout Europe and the US while remaining based in Dublin. Despite regularly being called the best band in the world, their musical pre-eminence has, inevitably, been challenged in more recent years. They are nevertheless still hugely successful, and have used their fame to publicise a range of causes, such as the abolition of Third World debt, and organisations, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. U2’s career has shadowed the economic fortunes of modern Ireland – a decade of boom bookended by recessions – the band’s close association with the country has lent a legitimacy, and at times a glamour, to modern Irish culture.
Founded in the late 1770s as a citizens’ militia, the Irish Volunteers were designed to protect and enforce law and order. In a short time, however, the movement turned its attention to economic and political independence from Britain. An important tool for the dissemination of the Volunteers’ message was through poetry and songs, many of which were contributed by anonymous readers. Only the words of songs were printed in its Volunteers’ Journal, for which a tune was sometimes suggested. The themes and images used are consistent. Harp imagery abounds, and Ireland is often presented as a woman, Hibernia or Ierne, calling her sons to defend her.
Willie Clancy Summer School
This is the oldest summer school for Irish traditional music, held annually in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, since 1973. The aim of its founders was to let students learn directly from tradition bearers, an idea that originated in visits that pipers made to Willie Clancy. Students must be competent players, with the exception of uilleann pipers, for whom tuition is provided at all levels. Teachers are responsible for devising their own teaching methods, and there is no competitive element. There is no formal assessment, and students receive no certification for completing the week-long courses. More than 1,500 students enrol annually, with roughly half coming from outside Ireland. In addition, it is estimated that Miltown hosts upwards of 20,000 visitors.
Ximenes, Charles (fl 1704-17)
Composer and musician. Ximenes composed the music (now lost) for the earliest recorded court ode from Dublin, Hail Happy Day, performed at Dublin Castle to mark Queen Anne’s birthday in February 1707. The surviving libretto indicates that the work followed the pattern of the English court ode of the period, with verses sung by male soloists alternating with choruses.
Yeats, WB (1865-1939)
Poet and dramatist. Along with TS Eliot, Yeats was perhaps the most significant and influential poet in English of the 20th century, a vital figure in the Irish literary renaissance and a founder of the Abbey Theatre. Seamus Heaney’s observation that “Yeats’s essential gift . . . was to raise a temple in the ear” identifies a prominent feature of the poet’s approach to writing verse that has been largely eclipsed because of Yeats’s widely proclaimed hostility to music. This in part derived from the poet’s sense of music as a rival to speech. The actor, composer and feminist Florence Farr joined with Yeats to devise a system by which his verse might be adequately declaimed. George Bernard Shaw compared Farr’s resulting chanting to “a nerve-destroying crooning, like the maunderings of an idiot banshee”. In 1937 Yeats made a series of broadcasts for the BBC in which his poetry was sung and spoken (interleaved with commentary from Yeats and incidental music composed by Edmund Dulac). Although these broadcasts do not survive, an extensive correspondence between Yeats and Dulac promotes the assertion that less than two years before his death the poet was still struggling to reconcile the claims of music and poetry.
Zozimus (Moran, Michael, 1794-1846)
Traditional street singer, reciter and song composer. Born in the Liberties area of Dublin, Zozimus was renowned for his extraordinary memory and regarded as the outstanding street singer of his time. He performed on Grattan Bridge (originally Essex Bridge) and O’Connell Bridge (originally Carlisle Bridge), as well as on Grafton Street, Henry Street and Burgh Quay. Zozimus was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, edited by Harry White and Barra Boydell, is published by UCD Press (€100)