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

Take a deep dive into this iconic Irish instrument with us! For beginners and seasoned players alike.

The magic of the Irish flute: history, music & more.

If you’re a fan of Irish music, then you will no doubt be familiar with the magic of the Irish flute. You will most likely have enjoyed the lilting tunes of this traditional wooden flute, whether you’ve realised it or not!

While not as immediately well known as the tin whistle or the bodhrán, the Irish flute has had a long history in the world of Irish folk music. Read on to find out more.

Ireland Before You Die’s top facts about the Irish flute:

  • Although it is commonly known as the ‘Irish flute’ and has been a key presence in Irish folk music for many years, this instrument is not actually native to the Emerald Isle. Read on to find out more about the history of this iconic instrument.
  • You’ll find the Irish flute in the mix in many establishments that host traditional folk music sessions throughout Ireland. However, the flute is particularly loved in the counties of Sligo, Clare, East Galway, Leitrim, West Limerick, and Roscommon.
  • The Irish flute is often confused with the popular Boehm flute, but there are a few key differences outlined below.

What exactly is the Irish flute? – a staple of traditional Irish folk music

It is a staple of folk music.
Credit: Flickr / Pierre LAÏLY

An Irish flute is actually a simple-system flute that was originally used by concert musicians. However, in the mid-1800s, they fell out of favour with this crowd, who took to playing Boehm system flutes instead.

However, they were not lost to history forever, and the magic of the Irish flute lived on. In fact, traditional Irish folk musicians recognised their value and continued to use them in their craft.

Traditionally, these instruments are made from some form of wood, such as rosewood, African blackwood, cocus wood, ebony, or boxwood. However, in more recent times, they have been produced using PVC or Delrin.

So, if you were a beginner looking to learn how to play the Irish flute, where would you find one? There are various Irish flute makers in Ireland today, including Eamonn Cotter (Clare), Martin Doyle (Liscannor), and Hammy Hamilton (Cúil Aodha, West Cork).

The two flute systems – what’s the difference?

The magic of the Irish flute: history, music & more.
Credit: Instagram / @atthefleadh

We’ve mentioned two types of flutes here: the simple-system flute and the Boehm flute, which became preferred by concert musicians. But what’s the difference?

The difference between the two instruments really lies in their scale. The Irish flute (or simple-system flute) is in the D key, whereas the Boehm is in the scale of C.

Other than this, there is little immediately noticeable difference between the two instruments.

But the more familiar you become with the instruments, you will notice that the XXX XOO fingering is F natural on the Boehm system flute, whereas it is F# on the simple system style.

If we look to the bore of the instruments, we can also see that the Irish flute has a conical bore, while the Boehm flutes have a cylindrical bore.

Matt Molloy – an iconic Irish musician

So, where might you have heard this iconic instrument before? The odds are it may have been from the recordings of Matt Molloy. This Irish musician began playing flute as a child and took home the prize at the All-Ireland Flute Championship at 19.

You may know him from being a member of one of the most successful Irish music groups in history, the Chieftains. He joined the group in 1979, but before this, he was also a member of the Bothy Band and Planxty.

Elsewhere in his career, Malloy worked with a range of legends in Irish music, including Tommy Peoples, Paul Brady, Dónal Lunny, and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, not to mention the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Nowadays, you will find him in Bridge Street in Westport in County Mayo, where he owns his own pub. Unsurprisingly, the establishment holds regular music sessions for all to enjoy the traditional Irish tunes.

Notable mentions

The magic of the Irish flute: history, music & more.
Credit: Flickr / Allan Beaufour

Traditional Irish instruments: Other musical instruments likely to appear during a trad session include the bouzouki, banjo, and guitar, as well as the aforementioned bodhrán and tin whistle.

READ MORE: Top 10 ICONIC instruments used in traditional IRISH music.

Tuning slides: Some Irish flutes come with a tuning slide to allow the flute to be tuned and to correct any intonation problems.

Irish dancing: Irish dances that you might see accompanying a flute song include jigs and reels.

RELATED: Irish dancing HISTORY: How Irish DANCING began.

Your questions answered about the Irish flute

If you still have questions about the Irish flute, read on! In this section, we answer some of our readers’ most frequently asked questions about this topic.

It uses the simple system.
Credit: Flickr / Garry Knight

What is an Irish flute called?

Although it is commonly referred to as an Irish flute, the actual name for this flute is the ‘simple-system’ flute.

What is the best Irish flute?

This is a tough one, and the simple answer is that different makes of Irish flute will have their own benefits. We recommend checking out some of the makers named above and trying a few different models if possible.

Is it easy to learn the Irish flute?

As with any instrument, the pace at which you pick it up will depend on many things, for example, whether you have played a similar instrument before.

The best way to learn is to receive lessons from a trained teacher. If paid-for lessons aren’t an option for you currently, you can still learn the Irish flute through watching online videos or by picking up books on the subject.

We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the magic of the Irish flute, one of the most loved instruments in Irish folk music. Perhaps it has even encouraged you to pick one up yourself and get learning!

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