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TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS



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The west coast of Ireland has a rhythm all its own, where authentic and infectious soundscapes intertwine to create an unforgettable mix of buoyant Irish culture. 

To paraphrase poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy and his famous work ‘Ode’: they are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams, the movers and the shakers.

 
 
The booming heartbeat of authentic Irish music, the bodhrán has existed in Ireland for centuries, but was only wielded as part of traditional music performance in the 1960s.
 

The Wild Atlantic Way has long been a haven for Ireland's most passionate players - minstrels and merrymakers who strive to honour Irish culture through stirring traditional music that is revered the world over and boasts deep ties to native lands. Let’s take a look at some of the iconic Irish instruments that help give Ireland its distinctive voice.
 

BODHRÁN

The booming heartbeat of authentic Irish music, the bodhrán has existed in Ireland for centuries, but was only wielded as part of traditional music performance in the 1960s. It emerged as a staple of the nation’s culture over a decade later, thanks largely to composer Seán Ó Riada’s work with Ceoltóirí and The Chieftains. Now a leading component of Irish music, the bodhrán has formed the basis for rhythm enjoyed the world over, most notably as the foundation for the music and dance phenomenon that is Riverdance.
 
Debates continue to rage over the precise origin of the hand-held drum, with some believing it came to Ireland by way of Spain, having originated in Africa. Others purport that the instrument was developed in Central Asia before arriving in Europe and then Ireland by the Celtic migrations. One thing is for certain: no trad session or céilí (an Irish dance) is complete without the presence of the mighty bodhrán!

 
  • Hugely popular in ancient Ireland, the harp featured prominently for entertainment purposes in high society as harpists were regularly called upon to play for chieftains and create music for nobles.
 

UILLEANN PIPES

Something of an innovative twist on the common bagpipes, the distinctively Irish instrument, the uilleann pipes first emerged in the 18th century. The name is derived from the Irish word ‘uille’, meaning ‘elbow’, which refers to the pipes’ method of inflation, and was first applied to the instrument in the beginning of the 20th century by composer and author William Henry Grattan Flood.

Notably quieter than the bagpipes, uilleann pipes are powered by bellows instead of a blow pipe and also feature a chanter or ‘melody’ pipe with a range of two octaves in contrast to a range of nine notes on older pipes.
 

HARP

Hugely popular in ancient Ireland, the harp featured prominently for entertainment purposes in high society as harpists were regularly called upon to play for chieftains and create music for nobles. The instrument would become something of a lost art for a time following the Flight of the Earls in 1607, which saw native Irish chieftains flee the country under threat of invasion. As a result, harpists scattered throughout the land, playing where they could, before the instrument enjoyed a welcome rebirth in the 18th century.
 
The traditional Celtic harp was wire-strung and had no pedals as opposed to today’s gut-strung harp. The Celtic iteration was also a lot smaller and was originally held on the harper’s leg, leaned against the left shoulder. The famous ‘Trinity College Harp’ – also known as ‘Brian Boru’s harp’ and presently seen on the Irish one euro coin – is one of the oldest surviving Celtic harps, dating back to the 15th century. The famous instrument can be seen on display in the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin.

 
 

FIDDLE

Though the most commonly employed instrument in traditional Irish music is identical to the modern four-stringed international violin, there is a significant tweak involved. The name ‘fiddle’ is preferred due to the aesthetic and very fast and lively manner in which it is played. Said to have enjoyed its rise in Irish culture from as early as the 17th century, the fiddle continues to play a major part in both traditional and contemporary music, marking this well-travelled instrument as a rich fusion of Celtic mysticism and modernity.
 

MEET THE INSTRUMENT MAKERS

The Wild Atlantic Way is home to traditional music experts of great renown. Bodhrán maker Malachy Kearns crafts the treasured instrument in an old Franciscan monastery in the village of Roundstone, County Galway, while you can see the fruits of Achill Island resident and uilleann pipe crafter John Butler’s remarkable labour in the video below.

 
 

THINGS TO DO

There are plenty of fun musical activities to enjoy all across the west coast of Ireland, such as:

1. Learn céilí dancing and a spot of the Irish language at Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence winning Teac Jack in the Gaeltacht village of Derrybeg, County Donegal.

2. Meet the music makers of west County Clare and visit the home of Willie Clancy, one of Ireland’s most respected uilleann pipers.

3. Immerse yourself in culture at the Tintéan Ceoil in Cloghane, County Kerry.

Traditional Irish instruments also features as part of the many festivals that bring colourful life to the west. Check out our guide to the best events of 2016 or get further in touch with Ireland’s musical signature with the Sounds of the Wild Atlantic Way.

 

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