10 ICONIC instruments used in traditional IRISH music

Music and dance is an intrinsic part of Irish culture and storytelling. We have a look at ten iconic traditional Irish musical instruments.

10 iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.

Traditional Irish music is as old as the hills and is one of the most important Irish cultural traditions and customs. This ancient cultural pastime and art forms part of the fabric of Irish identity. Irish people have a great deal of love and respect for their musical heritage.

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.

Have a look at ten iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for these Irish instruments the next time you head to an Irish pub to enjoy a trad session!

Ireland Before You Die’s top facts about traditional Irish instruments

  • The tin whistle is a simple six-holed woodwind instrument familiar with all people from Ireland. It is very good for beginners who wish to get into traditional Irish instruments.
  • The Uilleann pipes are played whole sitting down, unlike their Scottish bagpipe counterparts, and the use a bellows system worked on by the player’s elbow.
  • The bodhrán, is a traditional Irish frame drum. It is regarded as a crucial percussion instrument in Irish folk music.
  • The Irish flute, another of the most popular traditional Irish instruments, is a wooden flute played horizontally like a classical flute, but with its own unique tone. They often have wire strings and modern harps have levers allowing players to change the pitch.
  • The harp is steeped in Irish history and culture, and is the Irish national symbol.

10. Accordions & concertinas – bellows operated reed instruments

The accordion is a bellows operated reed instrument.
Credit: Flickr / [puamelia]

These box-shaped Irish instruments often appear in traditional Irish performances.

They have the cool colloquial name of “the squeezebox,” as sound comes from the instrument by means of squeezing and releasing the box while pressing buttons in tandem.

The most popular concertinas played today have 30 buttons!

9. Low whistle – for a mellow sound

The low whistle produces a mellow sound.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

This Celtic instrument also pops up in many an Irish trad session.

This instrument appears similar to a standard tin whistle (see number eight), although it is larger in size and produces a deeper, lower tone than that of its sister instrument.

The low whistle is one of the fipple flutes that came to prominence throughout the 16th century.

8. Tin whistle – a common Irish wind instrument

The tin whistle is a common Irish wind instrument.

The tin whistle would be more popular throughout Irish culture in comparison to the aforementioned. This instruments has great links to Irish music. Most Irish school children pick up the tin whistle during early education.

The simple mechanism has a mouthpiece that is blown into while air holes are covered and released to produce various sounds. Factory made tin whistles were first produced throughout the 19th century.

Nicknames for this popular instrument used in Irish music include the penny whistle, flageolet, Irish whistle, Belfast hornpipe, or feadóg stáin.

READ MORE: Read IB4UD’s article on the top 5 Irish instruments to learn to make a trad band, and the tin whistle’s place

7. Irish flute – gained popularity throughout the 19th century

The Irish flute gained popularity in the 19th century.
Credit: Instagram / @atthefleadh

Next on our list of musical instruments used in traditional Irish music is the Irish flute. Again, many Irish children would have learned 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.

These wooden flutes have been popular since the early 19th century and modern flutes are suited to various different playing styles.

LEARN MORE: The MAGIC of the IRISH FLUTE: history, music, & more

6. Banjo – a lively Irish instrument

The banjo is lively.
Credit: Flickr/ Mic JohnsonLP

Another popular instrument often seen in Irish traditional music would be the Irish banjo. This instrument can be found with four, five, or six strings and has a round body.

Oftentimes, Irish banjos can be seen at an impromptu traditional Irish music session that kicks off at the local pub. Banjos can either have nylon or steel strings.

SEE MORE: Want to see some of these Irish instruments in action? Then head to the capital and have a pint in any of the top 10 best traditional pubs in Dublin

5. Irish bouzouki  similarities with an acoustic guitar and a mandolin

The Irish bouzouki is one of the most iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.
Credit: Flickr / Geoff Holland

The Irish bouzouki is, in fact, a Celtic adaptation of a fourth century Greek instrument of a similar build. This instrument, often featured in Irish music groups, was first seen in the 1960s.

In 1969, English musician Andy Irvine presented Irish musician Dónal Lunny with a Greek bouzouki. Lunney played left-handed, so he reversed the string order.

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 – Ireland’s ancient pipes

Uilleann pipes are one of the most iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.
Credit: Twitter / @CobblestoneDub

Uilleann pipes are warmly known as “the Bagpipes of Ireland.” Similar to Scottish bagpipes, this instrument first gained traction in the Irish music scene between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Formerly, the English language dubbed this instrument the “union pipes”. A mechanism assists in the inflation of the bag, while a wide range of notes allows for varying tones.

Willie Clancy is one of the most well-known professional players of the wind instrument, known to many as a type of bagpipe.

3. Celtic harp – one of the most important instruments in Irish music

The Celtic harp is one of the most iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ G Mitchell

The Celtic harp is an ancient instrument associated with Ireland. So much so, that the Celtic harp is a cultural heritage symbol synonymous with the country. Ireland is, in fact, the only country in the entire world whose emblem is a musical instrument.

While the Irish harp 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 harp’s percussed strings lead to its consideration as a string and percussion instrument. This beautiful instrument is one of the most well-known Irish string instruments and is one of the traditional instruments associated with Ireland.

2. Bodhrán – a frame drum known for its deep tone

The bodhrán is one of the most iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Rob Durston

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) creates a sound drumming against the goatskin.

Some well-known bodhrán players are John Joe Kelly and Tommy Hayes.

RELATED: Do you agree with Ireland Before You Die’s choices of the top 10 best Irish traditional folk bands of all time?

1. The Irish fiddle  everyone loves the Irish fiddle player at the trad session

The fiddle is well loved.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Failte Ireland

It may come as no surprise that one of the most popular instruments used in traditional Irish music is the Irish fiddle.

In comparison with lesser-known Irish instruments, traditional musicians use the Irish fiddle worldwide and it is one of the central players in Ireland’s rich culture.

This instrument, so often associated with Irish music and Irish bands, originated in Western Europe in the early 17th century 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. The typical playing style of the Irish fiddle is very fast and you can’t beat some fast-paced fiddle tunes!


Your questions answered about Irish instruments

Read our article on Irish instruments used in traditional Irish music but still have some questions? Then you are in the right place! Below, we have put together some of the most frequently asked questions about this topic.

Top 10 most iconic instruments used in traditional Irish music.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Rob Durston

What is the oldest traditional Irish instrument?

The Irish harp is the oldest traditional Irish instrument.

What is the oldest Irish tune?

Dinnseanchas from the year 544 is the oldest Irish song we know of today.

What is the Irish national instrument? 

Many consider the harp the Irish national instrument.

What is a Celtic flute called?

A Celtic flute is called a tin whistle. In Irish it is called a feadóg stáin.

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