Traditional Irish music is as old as the hills. It is an ancient cultural pastime and art form that is embedded into the fabric of Irish identity, and it is much loved and respected by those who share in Irish ancestry.
Passed down from generation to generation, this genre of folk music stems from times far gone. It is only from the 18th century onwards that we have records of the music and songs our ancestors played.
Here are 10 iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for these the next time you head to an Irish pub to enjoy a “trad session”!
10. Accordions & concertinas
These box-shaped musical instruments are often used in traditional Irish performances.
They have the cool colloquial name of “the squeezebox,” as sound is produced from the instrument by means of squeezing and releasing the box while pressing buttons in tandem.
9. Low whistle
The low whistle is another instrument commonly found in Irish traditional music.
This instrument appears similar to a standard tin whistle (see #8), although it is larger in size and produces a deeper, lower tone than that of its sister instrument.
8. Tin whistle
The tin whistle would be more popular in comparison to the aforementioned. This instrument is greatly associated with Irish music and is taught to most Irish school children during early education.
The simple mechanism has a mouthpiece that is blown into while air holes are covered and released to produce various sounds.
Nicknames for this popular instrument used in Irish music include the penny whistle, flageolet, Irish whistle, Belfast hornpipe, or feadóg stáin.
7. Irish flute
Next on our list of instruments used in traditional Irish music is the Irish flute. Again, many Irish children would have been taught this instrument due to its simple mechanism.
Similar to the tin whistle, air is blown through a mouthpiece while holes are covered and released to produce varying tones. Unlike the tin whistle, however, the Irish flute is made of wood.
Another popular instrument often seen in Irish traditional music would be the banjo. This instrument can be found with four, five, or six strings and has a round body.
Oftentimes, this instrument can be seen at an impromptu traditional Irish music session that kicks off at the local pub.
5. Irish bouzouki
The Irish bouzouki is, in fact, a Celtic adaptation of a Greek instrument of a similar build. This instrument, often featured in Irish music groups, was first seen in the 1960s.
Dublin-based musician Johnny Moynihan of the folk group Sweeney’s Men is credited as having introduced the instrument onto the Irish music scene.
The key difference between the Irish and Greek bouzouki is that the Irish version offers the same instrument with different tuning (GDAD’) than its predecessor.
4. Uilleann pipes
Uilleann pipes are warmly known as “the Bagpipes of Ireland.” This instrument first gained traction in the Irish music scene between the 18th and 19th century.
Formerly, this instrument was known in the English language as the “union pipes.” A mechanism assists in the inflation of the bag, while a wide range of notes allows for varying tones.
3. Celtic harp
The Celtic harp is an ancient instrument associated with Ireland. Ireland is, in fact, the only country in the entire world whose emblem is a musical instrument.
While this musical instrument is not so commonly seen in traditional Irish music sessions in contemporary times, it is inextricably interconnected with the medium of Irish music.
The instrument is large in size, often with a wooden frame and wire strings. This is considered an incredibly difficult instrument to learn and requires commitment and tenacity.
The bodhrán is a hand-held, framed drum instrument that originated in Ireland. This lightweight effective instrument is commonly seen today in traditional Irish music groups.
The body of the drum is usually made from wood, while the head or covering is made from goatskin. A small double-headed stick called a beater (or sometimes a cipín or tipper) is used to create sound drumming against the goatskin.
It may come as no surprise that one of the most popular instruments used in traditional Irish music is the fiddle.
This instrument, so often associated with Irish music, originated in Western Europe in the early 1600s and is today popular worldwide.
A fiddle is the Irish colloquial term for a violin, and it consists of bow strings held across a small wooden body. You can’t beat some fast-paced fiddle tunes!