Seán Laffey gives us a thumbnail sketch of the course of Irish traditional music in the twentieth century.

Every week I get a least one email requesting me to tell the sender "All about Irish Traditional Music" - of course it's an impossible task, how can you cover a 2000 year old culture in a 20Kb file? Nevertheless, what follows is as it says, a thumbnail sketch of the course of ITM (Irish Traditional Music and Song) in the 20th century. At the end there is a list of books that will provide you with even more detail and hours of enjoyable reading.


The following article is a revised version of the lead story in the December 1999 issue of Irish Music Magazine.

In September 1999 rock music got a pang of guilt and decided to rid the Third World of it debt. Following on the example of Bob Geldoff's Live Aid, this time round the music would be combined with the power of the Internet, Net Aid would salve the conscience and solve the debt problems at the click of a mouse. I watched the pre-concert hype on CNN (in a Hotel bedroom in Dublin) here is how they ran the story. Voice over describes the worthy cause and how it will be marketed and managed through the World Wide Web. Cut to a computer screen, the cursor browses over music types, Rock, Jazz, R and B, Blues, Soul. The little arrow pierces the button marked Celtic, click to the next set of images. The Corrs live on stage, belting out jigs and reels on fiddle and whistle. Is the underlying message that Celtic is now Cool?

For some this is the worst case scenario, Irish music has joined the ranks of the young and trendy, it belongs with all the trappings of crass commercialism, videos, the pornography of moving image over solid substance. A negation of the history of small lives that have added so much, so generously and for the most part anonymously to the survival of the music. The alternative view of course is that the music is at last coming of age, taking its rightful place alongside other popular art forms. Don't blame the Corrs for being able to play the music, don't criticise them if they don't play it as well as you'd like. They won't save the music, neither will they kill it, but isn't it great that they still keep it in their act? (And I realise these are not the only interpretations you can throw at me).

Nicholas Carolan's book on Chief O'Neill

For most of the twentieth century Irish traditional music appealed to an ethnic fraternity, it was something to be cherished, something to keep as authentic as possible, a direct link with ancestors and their aspirations for political independence and cultural integrity. If you had reached retirement age in 1920, and few folks did, you would have lost most of your friends to emigration, the majority to industrial East Coast America, many to Britain. That lifetime from a birth in 1850 saw the greatest scattering the Irish had ever undergone, a process that would continue for generations, a process that ironically would actually save the music. By 1903 after nearly two decades of tune collecting Captain Francis O'Neill published his Music of Ireland, containing 1850 tunes, and four years later in 1907 he published 1100 tunes in his The Dance Music of Ireland. These books amassed tunes collected from the Irish immigrant communities in Chicago and on occasion further afield.

In 1898 the Cork Pipers club was founded, this not only catered for uilleann pipers but also the great highland pipes and introduced the kilt into the marching band costume. These well meaning movements tried to fashion a stereotypical Irishness through the music. The Gaelic League promoted ceili dancing which had been on the decline, set dancing although more popular was considered a foreign import and not to be encouraged. Dancing was beginning the long process of becoming regimented, codified and competitive. The result would be tightly controlled footwork and the disparagement of arm movements, reducing traditional dance to a wholly twentieth century art form, which as the century progressed became more and more distant from it's roots in the nineteenth century peasant dances.

Patsy & Mae Touhey around 1900- (NPU)

This could be have been a scenario for the decline of the music had it not been for the waves of emigrants to the New World, Although they readily found employment, the weekly social dances and visits to music halls became a necessity to establish themselves in their new communities. Patrick J. Touhey was a star of the vaudeville theatres in New York in the early 1900s; he combined authentic Irish music with stage Irish burlesques and some American tunes thrown in for good measure. He experimented with the commercial possibilities of wax cylinder recordings and by 1901 was selling tunes at a dozen for $10.
Surely the most significant person in the history of commercial Irish music in America was the Cork born Elle O'Byrne De Witt who in 1916 arranged for Columbia to record the banjo and accordion duo of Eddie Hebron and James Wheeler on 78rpm. The tune played was the Stack of Barley, and the success of the recording was such as to create an Irish American music industry. By the 1920's New York based Sligo fiddle masters Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison were to have a profound and lasting effect on the music both in the States and more significantly back home in Ireland. The records that were sent back from the US were to revolutionise the playing of traditional music whilst at the same time beginning the slow atrophy of truly regional styles of music.

The dance halls of America were packed to capacity for Irish dances during the early 20's and this lead to innovations in the instrumentation used by bands, saxophones and tenor banjos were used, drummers employed and vocalists took charge of megaphones, guitars were introduced too. As working musicians, bands such as the Dan Sullivans' Shamrock Band were well aware of the need for variety and volume. The situation back home however was far less happy.

Following the civil war and the establishment of the Free State a puritanical mood gripped the country's clergy. This would eventually inform the thinking behind the infamous Dance Hall Act brought in by Fianna Fail in 1935, which sanctioned Parish run dances and simultaneously outlawed informal ceili gatherings.In the summer of 1927 the first use of the term ceili to describe Irish music was used when the Dick Smyth's Ceil Trio were announced in the Irish Radio Review. The Term Ceili Band was first applied to Molloy's Ceili band that broadcast in 1929. In these modern days of non-stop boom boom music radio, it's hard to imagine how important and fresh this new medium was in the 1920's. In a development that would be mirrored a half century later when the Bothy Band were formed and again radio took an active lead in shaping the nature of the music.In 1926 Fr. Larkin created the Ballinakill Taditional Players from local musicians in the Woodford (Galway) area. The band featured the flutes of Stephen Moloney and Tommy Whelan, fiddlers Aggie White, Jerry and Kevin Maloney and Tommy White. The piano player was the musically literate Anna Rafferty. Fr Larkin transcribed tunes, arranged sets and by 1928 they were competing in the Athlone Feis. Here Séamus Clandillon the Director of 2RN was to see them and they were subsequently invited to perform on the radio. They became the model for ceili bands, and when they recorded The Knocknagow and the Fowling Piece in London in 1931 a new era of Irish traditional music was almost ready to dawn. Dublin at the time didn't have a recording studio, and most of the traditional dance music on 78s came either from America or London. Parlophone came to Ireland in 1930 for a field trip the Ballinakill Ceili band cut their first side. As the economic war with Britain intensified, it became evident that to serve the Irish market recordings would have to be made in Ireland. The first artist to record in an Irish studio was Neilie Boyle, the composer of the Moving Cloud and a native of Philadelphia.

Aughrim Slopes Ceilidh Band (note spelling) 1930's.

Recording might have become a bigger industry had it not been for the Dance Halls Act, the strained relations with Britain, which caused the virtual collapse of the beef industry and began another wave of depopulation. Then when the politics were being sorted out the Second World War erupted. Although Ireland remained neutral, the attendant economic emergency left little spare cash to sustain a market in recorded traditional music. Dublin was attracting a large number of internal migrants from rural Ireland. Ceilis were held in the Mansion house, Leo Rowsome, Sean Reid and Tommy Reck revived the Dublin Piper's Club in 1940 giving a platform to a wide range of payers on all instruments. At this time the Potts family, who were originally from Wexford were frequent visitors to the Pipers Club, father John and his son Eddie played the pipes and son Tommy was fiddler. The latter was to have a dramatic artistic impact on fiddle playing, returning the instrument to the idiosyncratic solo tradition.

Seamus Ennis ( picture from NPU)

After the war the depopulation or rural Ireland showed no sign of abating and musicians in Dublin in particular feared for the health of the music. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann was established in Mullingar in January 1951 at the behest of the Dublin Pipers Club, the first Fleadh was held during the following Whit weekend and ran simultaneously alongside the Midlands Feis Cheoil. By 1956 the modern face of the Fleadh was taking shape, that year Ennis hosted the annual gathering with the Ceili Band competition being the highlight of the event. Having established the Fleadh early on as a competitive forum for the best of the county's players (and of course those who would return annually from the UK and America to attend the weekend's festivities), it also began a trend towards standardisation of repertoire and a narrowing of what was acceptable as Irish traditional music. In the 50's the session scene began to atke place especially in London and this pub culture soon became tagged onto the more sedate and conservative elements of the Fleadhs. The Reaction of CCE has been documented by Reg Hall (a pivotal figure in recording Irish music in London). During the famous Cross Roads Conference of 1996 Reg clearly saw that the Fleadh movement was the last great renaisence of ITM, from then on ithe music would fragment into a commercial genre on the one hand, and retreat into a music education organisation (with an unachievable political philosphy) in CCE.

For all it's good work in music education CCE has not been able to rival the work of one man , Breandan Breathnach, (1912 -85) who collected a vast body of traditional tunes, published four volumes of these as Ceol Rince na hEireann, He intiated a serious folk magazine Ceol in 1963, publsihed the Folk Music and Dances of Ireland in 1971, in that same year along with Hugh Shields and Tom Munnelly founded the Folk Music Society of Ireland. If that wasn't enough he was alos one of the founding meber sof Na Piobra Uileann.The majority of his work was being achieved during the highlight of the folk revival , his worl reflected this upsurge in interest in native music, his palate was full of rich colours and his canvass broad. His brush strokes took in the aspects of traditional tunes, songs and dance. In Fintan Vallely's "The Companion To Irish Traditional Music", Breathnach is lauded as "The single most important activist in Irish Taditional music in the twentieth century".

Folk song both in Irish and English is an integral part of the tradition, even if musicians don't always welcome it and it sometimes spoils a good session.However, it is central to an undewrstanding of the Irish psyche befiore, during and after the worst years of colonbisation and to a better understanding of the raltionships between Irealnd and both the Anglophone and Gaelic speaking worlds. The modern ear of song collecting owes a grewat deal to Séamus Delargy who appointed Séamus Ennis (who incidentally began his professional musical life with Colm O'Lochlainn's Three Candles Press in 1942) to the Irish Folklore Commission. He stayed with them for five years and at the end of his term had collected over 2000 songs and tunes. Unlike previous collections such as that by Sam Henry, the IFC were recording for broadcasting. In the late forties Peter Kennedy of the BBC also came to Ireland on collecting missions and soon Séamus Ennis would be working for the BBC. His place in Ireland was taken by Ciarán MacMathuna who presented Ceolta Tire and Job of Journey Work. His British counterparts travelled to America in search of the songs and tunes, looking at how they had evolved in the US. MacMathuna went to the States to record Irish immigrant players from the living displaced tradition.


Reg Hall (right) has chronicled the heyday of immigrant music in 1950's London.

When the Tulla Ceili band left Shannon to play in America in 1958, this was a milestone in the music, because they were going for an engagement, they would come back! Two of the Tulla players would spend a large part of their working and playing lives in America and both would change the musical landscape. Joe Cooley from Galway and Paddy O'Brien from Nenagh were accordion players, Paddy is credited with introducing the "across the rows" style of box playing, something he worked out to imitate the grace notes of fiddle players. Joe Cooley is best remembered for having the greatest 'soul' of any accordionist, there is only one recording of him, with a number of the tracks made just a few weeks before his death in 1972. The CD opens with The Wise Maid, a tune we will return to very soon.

Paddy Clancy (RIP)

In the late fifties out of the Greenwich Village scene in New York a new force emerged which, would change the music forever. In the early 60's the Clancy Brothers burst into the Irish consciousness and the world went mad for Irish songs. Frank McCourt said about this time " In the 1950's, the Clancy Brothers sang at small venues all over the country 'till Ed Sullivan wanted them on his show in l961 and that was the big time. They were the first. Before them there were dance bands and show bands on both sides of the Atlantic. There were individual performers, but not since John Mc Cormack had Irish singers captured international attention like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Their straightforward, good-humoured delivery restored life to many an Irish song that had suffocated for years under layers of syrup. They simply cut the sentiment and allowed each song its own dignity. They sang their songs. They didn't preach. And they were loved everywhere."

Well maybe not. There was a reaction to the ballad boom. Being so successful they had their imitators and many of these lacked the stage craft, charisma or sheer hard work the Clancy's had put into their songs. Paddy Tunney wrote in the Irish Press in 1965 - "Perhaps the youth of Ireland are to be pardoned if they mistake the bellowing of bearded balladeers or the juggling and jingling of guitar-propped jokers for the genuine article."

The high point of the 60's for instrumental music was the founding of Ceoltoiri Chualann by Sean O'Riada. He indulged his passion for traditional music, resurrected the compositions of O'Carolan and began to arrange the music around a jazz aesthetic, where solo playing would weave between ensemble passages. By 1969 Celotoiri Chulann had made their last and for some their best recording for Gael Linn, O'Riada sa Gaeity. An early and still extant off shoot of this band was The Chieftains, who are the direct inheritors of O'Riada's legacy.

The problem of commercial folksong however was still to be resolved. The socially aware, left wing radicalism of the folk movement in the US and Britain found little sympathy with traditional musicians and singers in Ireland. Luke Kelly of the Dubliners was championing both newly composed folk songs and political ballads and the group had big successes in Britain and was the first Irish band to break into the European market. Joe Dolan , Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine formed Sweeneys' Men in 1966, Dolan soon left but continued to write songs, his Nancy Spain becoming a big hit for Christy Moore. Sweeney's Men introduced the bouzouki into Irish music, which was to have far ranging effects on the course of the music over the latter half of the century. In 1968 Andy Irvine left for Eastern Europe where he began to extend his techniques on the instrument and to acquire Macedonian and Bulgarian tunes. Other notable bands in the sixties were the Johnstons with Paul Brady on guitar and Mick Maloney on mandolin, and the Emmet Spiceland with Donal Lunny on guitar.

PJ Curtis' book looks at the history of traditional music in Clare and beyond.

By 1970 Andy Irvine was back in Ireland and had introduced Donal Lunny to the bouzouki. Very soon Lunny would pioneer structural changes to the instrument and begin to develop a style that would become its most percussive and driving in the Bothy Band. In 1972 Christy Moore gathered a collection of musicians together in Kildare to record the Prosperous album. This was a collection of English language ballads, with a new and exciting backing. Fellow musicians on the album included Donal Lunny, Liam O'Flynn and Andy Irvine. This outfit then went on to become Planxty, one of the most innovative groups of the seventies, though very short lived. Their hallmark was complex polyphonies and modal bouzouki accompaniment to tradtional songs, (many from the Sam Henry collection). These were set against exceptional piping from Liam O'Flynn. On their debut album track two side two married the Scottish song the Jolly Beggar with Joe Cooley's version of the Wise Maid, establishing at last a credible connection between the strands of song, music and performance traditions. The band went through a number of personnel changes, Matt Molloy joined for a time, Paul Brady toured with them and by 1981 and their final appearances and the last album, Nollaig Casey and Bill Whelan were regular members. Their swan song was the interval music to the 1981 Euro Vision Song Contest; it could have been Riverdance thirteen years before its time. The choreography was just too balletic, the visuals too dreamy, the composer was Bill Whelan, his time would come around again.

The mid-seventies had seen the spectacular rise of the Bothy Band. They were in many respects a latter day Ceoltoiri Chulann, with the guitar and bouzuoki driving the music forward, they featured the clavinet of Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and the wonderful energetic wild piping of Paddy Keenan. Their music was grounded in the Donegal tradition, parrticulary from the O'Dhomhnaills and the original fiddler Tommy Peoples who was a native. By 1979 it had all ground to a halt and the band split. Donal Lunny went off to form the equally energetic and short-lived Moving Hearts with Christy Moore. Matt Molloy joined the Chieftains ( and he is still with them), The O'Domnhails formed Relativity and Paddy Keennan made an album with Paddy Glackin. The Donegal connection has remained strong in the upper echelons of Irish music ever since with Altan being the current flag bearers for the region and Clannad undoubtedly earning the accolade as longest survivors.

Gearoid O' hAllmhurain's Pocket History is great place to start your research into ITM.

The eighties saw the music in the doldrums in many ways, emigration was back on the agenda, Paul Brady sang of the inevitability of it all on Nothing But the same old story from His Hard Station album. Luka Bloom dueted with Eileen Ivers on the Kesh jig inspired You Couldn't have come at a Better Time. The Saw Doctors sang about the pain of leaving Ireland on their anthem N17. But it was Shane McGowan who was living the hard drinking life of an exiled Irish singer in hostile Thatcher's Britain was to pen the most accurate musical descriptions of the depths to which thousands of Irish could sink. His famous disbanding of the Nips in 1980 where he publicly rejected rock and roll. "Because I hate this prevalent attitude of bands these days who say, 'Oh we're just a good pop band, let the kids have fun, let's all be happy and sing a happy song.' Well, that's got nothing to do with anyone's life. It's got nothing to do with my life and I'm not going to sing some happy song for people to escape to. It's like watching television, that's not what rock's meant to be about, right? That's why I'm sick of it."

Instead he turned back to Clancy Brothers' songs and began to write his own bitter parodies on the condition of emigration, remember this was before Ireland was the Capital of Cool, before Mary Robinson sanitised emigration by interjecting that catch all little word - Diasopra. With Jem Finer, McGowan created an uneasy body of work that didn't quite fit in any established categories. Their masterpiece, A Fairy Tale Of New York and the accompanying video shot in a cinema noir style, regained the edge the folk movement had blunted once the troublesome twosome of Kelly and Weldon were no longer around to prick our cosy consciousness. Sure it ws a cliche, it sued images from the fifties to conjour up a world of desperation and lonelines, the inevitable lot of the modern day spailpin. We knew it didnt have to be like this in the silicon age, but Margaret Thatcher was still around and things at home weren't too good.

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
And I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Now at the end of the nineties Altan, De Dannan, Dervish, Clannad, Patrick Street and Coolfin are still around, new bands are emerging, Danu, Cian, Turas, North Cregg, Na Dorsa and Providence. Regional styles are being appreciated once more through the work of Hayes and Cahill, Paul O'Shaugnesy and Matt Cranitch. Irish America is providing talent as equally pure and inventive as the native stock, Solas and Cherish the Ladies being the first to come to mind. Song is going through a queer patch, with the ladies holding their own, Karan Casey and Niamh Parsons staying truest to their roots. Christy Moore has retired , probably for good this time, Andy Irvine is still ploughing his lonely furrow. In these less than troubled times we don't seem to have the stomach for radical men. There are more books and collections being written, Celtic music courses are coming on line. The quality of instruments is improving. Riverdance has extended the fan base. Celtic Music has opened up commercial possibilities. There are more sessions and ceilis and set dances than ever. The tradition is in good hands, fiddlers are fiddling and singers singing. In the age of the mobile phone and the cappuccino society it's strange and reassuring to note that there is still a place in urban cosmopolitan Ireland for the people's music.

This article appeared in a shorter format in the December '99 issue of Irish Music Magazine.

Many thanks to Harry Bradshaw for advice on compiling this article. If you would like to share your own memorable Irish music moment from the 20th century, band formations and break ups, events, concerts, album releases and so on drop me an email to


"Notes From The Heart." - PJ Curtis, 1994, Torc Publishers. ISBN - 1 -898142-07-6

"A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music" - Gearoid O' hAllmhurain, 1998, O'Brien Press , ISBN - 0-86278-555-3

"A Harvest Saved - Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago" - Nicholas Carolan, 1997, OSSIAN, ISBN -900428-11-3

"The Companion To Irish Traditional Muisc"- Ed. Fintan Vallely, Cork University Press , 1999, ISBN- 1 -85918-148-1


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