Explorations in Irish Music


Music from Ireland seems to be characterised by an unusual mixture of sweetness and delicacy combined with driving rhythm, as far as my own experience of it has shown. But that experience is limited. I’ve been a big fan of the Dubliners for many years, I love everything Planxty recorded, and the piping and singing of Finbar Furey. In a wider context I have been very impressed with Milladoiro, the piping of Carlos Núñez, and that’s virtually all I know.

The magnetic stage presence of the Dubliners, their role in preserving many Scots and Irish songs otherwise forgotten, the example of their breakthrough in the pop charts, the two greatest voices in Irish music: all this makes the Dubliners one of a kind. And the combination of one of Ireland’s best singer songwriters, Christy Moore, with his intensity of delivery, with probably the most gifted musician in the Irish traditional music field, Andy Irvine, virtuoso on mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, harmonica and hurdy-gurdy as well as folklorist, singer and composer, made Planxty at once the most influential of Irish groups, yet the one least imitated. Who could? These two are as good as the music gets.

I’ve listened to some other Irish musicians with little affect. The Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers don’t stir me. I dislike the whole Celtic music genre, a kind of new age hybrid with pop music which doesn’t work as either genre in my view, so I fight shy of Enya, Clannad, and even Altan. I know of Sweeney’s Men and Patrick Street, only because the great Andy Irvine has been a member of those groups, but haven’t actually been able to listen to their music.

Now I thought it time to explore a bit further. I discovered the context in which Irish musicians often play, called the session. This is pub music, but it’s not like what I think of as pub music: the Irish do it their way. There’s no barrier between performers and audience for instance. A group of drinkers are in an Irish pub, and some of them pick up instruments and start to play. Others shout, clap, hoot, dance if there’s room (the videos I watched showed some pretty crowded places). This strikes me as integrated music, music as part of a way of life, not something to make concert organisers a lot of money.  I found four groups to love, all well known (but new to me).

Bothy BandKevin, Matt, Paddy, Triona, Micheal, Donal: the Bothy Band

The Bothy Band
If you ever wondered what happens when musicians get together for a jam session listen to the 12 instrumental tracks on the Bothy Band’s first CD of 1975, where six of Ireland’s greatest musicians fan sparks off each other and create an exhilarating blaze of music. There’s nothing improvisational about these performances however. It’s traditional dance music from Ireland, performed with incredible discipline: and with enormous verve. By 1975 Ireland’s distinctive folk tradition had resulted in several crossover artists taking traditional ballads to the top of the pop hit parade, but dance music was still the folklorist’s domain. The Chieftains had been around for 10 years but were still playing then in the ceili tradition of the 1950s. The Bothy Band did for the dance music of Ireland what the Dubliners had done for the Irish ballad in the 60s. They melded tradition with contemporary style and kicked ‘folk’ squarely into the 20th century. As what they achieved has still not been excelled, into the 21st century.

Tommy Peoples on fiddle, Paddy Keenan on pipes and Matt Molloy on flute, all famous names in Ireland, all have opportunities to show why as they each take the lead in one of the medodies. Playing as good as this is rare to hear. When they play together, stand back. This must have made the vinyl melt in 1975. The success of the band though I think is founded on the timing and rhythm of Donal Lunny on bouzouki (a kind of mandolin from Greece) and Micheal O’Dhomhnaill on guitar. Lunny had founded the group when his previous one, Planxty, had the first of several breakups, and had long proven himself one of the most innovative of ‘traditional’ musicians. O’Dhomhnaill was a fine singer, but also a great rhythm guitarist, as well as a musical arranger of genius, perhaps the most gifted of his generation. These two grounded the group, gave the soloists space to perform then bought the sound together. Unfairly pushed to one side, in this recording at least, is O’Dhomhnaill’s sister Triona. One of the greatest and most distinctive of Irish female singers, Triona has one song on the CD, though it’s a good one. She was also a gifted harpsichordist, though you can’t really hear it here, and a folk song collector (she sings a song learned from her aunt).

All six musicians achieved fame both before and after their collaboration in the Bothy Band. There were only three recordings (and a couple of live gigs). But this was their finest hour.

If exhilaration had been the keyword for the first Bothy Band album, the second one in 1976, Old Hag You Have Killed Me, had the keyword finesse. Here Lunny plays bodhrán (Irish frame drum), scarcely necessary on the first album. This album saw the introduction of fiddle player Kevin Burke (who replaced Tommy Peoples), a fine ornamental player and another legend. More songs from Triona and Micheal, an opportunity to hear the similar tonalities of flute and pipes counterpointing in a way that sends shivers up your spine, at least at the hands of Molloy and Keenan. On this album you can hear Triona’s keyboard virtuosity. Overall a more thoughtful album, less brio, perhaps more ‘traditional’. It might be my imagination, but there could be the beginning of the dispersion of talent in incompatible directions, towards jazz improvisations by Micheal, folk tradition by Triona, ornamental variations on fiddle by Burke, rock by Lunny. Just for a moment, in 1976, they all still played together, and produced a work of genius.

Another chance to hear some of the greatest ensemble playing, not just in the folk tradition, but in the pop and classical ones as well is the Bothy Band’s third studio album, Out of the Wind Into the Sun of 1977. Triona’s keyboards and Micheal’s guitar anchor the sound and give incredible freedom to Paddy Keenan, Matt Molloy and Kevin Burke to take the music where they want to. The third album contains I believe the group’s best work, unsurpassable piping from Keenan on “Rip the Calico”, matchless fiddle playing by Burke on “The Strayaway Child”, three superb songs sung by Triona. There was much in the Bothy Band’s repertoire not recorded, some of which can be found on a live recording they made for the BBC, including Micheal’s version of the Child ballad “The Death of Queen Jane”.

Overall, this is Ireland’s greatest group, far surpassing UWho. They manage to be both contemporary and traditional (a reviewer on Amazon notes the oxymoron) but in effect they transcend genre. Yes, this is Irish traditional music. But more importantly, it is music. Hard to conceive of a soul in the world who can respond to music not responding to this, even people who dislike music of the genre. Rather than three CDs, think of this work as one, a three CD set if you like. It’s absolutely unique music, one of a kind. Van Morrison has sung with the Chieftains: the Bothy Band is closer to what the Chieftains would have sounded playing with Them. The Bothy Band: often imitated, never excelled, not even by their own members in other groups.


solasSeamus, Mick, Winifred, Eamon, Mairead: Solas 2010

It is perhaps misleading to call the music Solas plays Irish traditional music. The Kelts were an ancient people who left traces of their music in many of the places they settled: Macedonia, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Galacia, and, via their descendants, in Appalachia. Solas plays music from this culture in this wide context and tries to recreate a more comprehensive texture and sound. Séamus Egan, who founded the group, is a virtuoso on flute, banjo, mandolin and guitar. Winifred Horan on fiddle, John Doyle on guitar, John Williams on accordion and concertina are all celebrated and prize winning soloists. Karan Casey, vocalist on the first two albums, is a renowned and successful singer songwriter. The sound they create on Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers (1997), Solas’ second album, is as far from the fire of the Bothy Band as you can get. The music is delicate, precise and eerie. Try and imagine Mississippi John Hurt playing an Irish reel. Six songs from Casey, four traditional and one in Irish, are as lovely as anything Joan Baez ever did. Several are accompanied just by guitar. The reels and jigs that make up the rest of the album are played with precision and finesse, and successfully make the crossing from Ireland to America the musicians and their parents did. This is the music reimagined, and done so brilliantly.

The Words That Remain, Solas’ third album released in 1998, preserves the equal balance of dance tunes and songs seen in the previous CD. Mick  McAuley has replaced John Williams on accordion, other personnel are the same. The album blends Woody Guthrie (surely one of the most influential writers who ever lived), reels that open like a morna from Cesária Évora, a traditional song from the Orkneys, music from Brittany, traditional Irish jigs and reels, and a song from Peggy Seegar. Solas knows just how flexible Irish traditional music is, and was, jigs mutating into barn dances in America, the banjo coming back to Britain to add to the musical texture of Irish bands. But there seems just a trace of losing identity, of opening up to influences too widely. The album features the singing of Karan Casey, superb on both contemporary and traditional material, and the guitar of John Doyle, by now producing sounds reminiscent of Django Reinhardt. The album closes with a reel on accordion and guitar, with fiddle joining, which is exquisite, and a Irish song worth learning Gaelic to sing. Solas again blends delicacy and taste with virtuosity.

After performing the score for Dancing on Dangerous Ground of 1999, written by Séamus Egan, a dance drama which recreated a medieval Celtic legend, Solas released their fourth album in 2000, The Hour Before Dawn. Singer Deirdre Scanlan had replaced Karan Casey, the remaining personnel remained the same. This album continues the trend away from Irish traditional music present in The Words That Remain. Some jigs and reels notwithstanding, the material is more in the singer songwriter genre. If you insist on a genre (and I think Solas are trying to escape such categorisation) perhaps the music is contemporary instrumental pop/new age. Beautifully played, but somehow unimpressive given the type of music I had chosen to explore.

The first few albums showed Solas able to bring out the delicacy and beauty of Irish tunes without sacrificing their vigour, and made you sit up and notice something unique. Unfortunately they seem to have abandoned Irish music in favour of more self penned material. Good as this is, it makes the group’s music far from unique.


dervishLiam, Brian, Shane, Cathy, Michael, Tom: Dervish

Dervish is a group seemingly able to combine the delicacy of touch of Solas with the intensity of the Bothy Band. Their second album Playing With Fire, 1995, proves yet again, what has so often been demonstrated, that performing ‘traditional’ music is not about recreating the past, but affirming the future. Shane Mitchell’s accordion counterpoints in a very traditional way with Liam Kelly’s flute. These two instruments, combined with Shane McAleer’s fiddle, create the delicate yet dynamic tone to the group’s music. Cathy Jordan’s is another great voice in Irish music. And Michael Holmes’ bouzouki and Brian McDonagh’s mandola, together with Jordan’s voice, recreate the instrumental rhythms in songs such as Calin Rua. The five songs on the album are so well chosen and so enticingly sung they could have made a solo release by Jordan. When combined with the passionate precision of the instrumental playing this becomes one of the great albums of Irish traditional music. In fact, like the Bothy Band, it is beyond genre.

After a live album, Live in Palma of 1997, surely one of the best Irish music concerts available, the group released its fifth album in 1999, Midsummer Night. The album gives more prominence to Cathy Jordan, who sings half the material on the CD. Though to my mind the songs weres not as outstanding as on the earlier CD, there is no denying Jordan has a beautiful and distinctive voice and great skill as a vocalist. There were some personnel changes among the instrumentalists in the band, Shane McAleer departing and being replaced by Tom Morrow on fiddle. Seamus O’Down, on guitar, bought the ensemble to seven members. Perhaps the sound was a shade less spontaneous than on earlier CDs, but the combination of Shane Mitchell’s accordion with Liam Kelly’s flute still leaves the group at the forefront of Irish traditional music performers.

The sixth album, Spirit (2003) featured five songs sung by Cathy Jordan which are among the best on any Dervish album and include “Fair Haired Boy”, “Soldier Laddie” and Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. The arrangements are simply beautiful, and focus attention on the voice in a striking way. The instrumental tracks are performed with a virtuosity of which you are hardly aware, they are so full of elan and vigour. Somewhat discordantly there is electric bass, synthesiser, and one track is strangely enough electronica. I haven’t listened to enough Dervish albums to know, but perhaps they are getting as restive as Solas at the limitations of the Irish traditional music field. Without a doubt though they are the best contemporary band in that field I have heard.

Dervish have succeeded in creating, not of course always uniformly, music  both of ethereal beauty and pounding rhythm, and in so doing transcended  the genre of Irish traditional music while remaining essentially true to it. Whenever you see Dervish, you see the best.


providence 2

Yet another band working in this tradition that earns rave reviews and the usual comparison to the Bothy Band (and it’s the only one I’ve heard for whom the comparison is accurate) is Providence, made up of Paul Doyle (guitar/bouzouki), Micheál Ó Raghallaigh (concertina/accordion), Troy Bannon (flute/whistle), replaced by John Wynne (flute), Michelle O’Brien (fiddle), replaced by Clodagh Boylan (fiddle), and former member Cyril O’Donoghue (vocals/bouzouki/guitar),  with Joan McDermott now on vocals. The group has released three CDs I can find trace of, though I have not yet been able to buy and listen to any. Some details of the group are here. http://www.gignthebann.com/artists/details/?id=173. The superb sound of the band is demonstrated by this clip. It’s all I’ve heard, but enough for me to add it to my list of great bands in the traditional music field. It’s the opening set from the group’s third CD, released 2005, called, er, III.


It takes me a little while to absorb new music. Perhaps I was lucky to have found four groups I liked when I began exploring, or perhaps this music has produced scores of great artists.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


The Bothy Band (1975)
1. The Kesh Jig/Give Us A Drink Of Water/The Flower Of The Flock/Famous Ballymote
2. The Green Groves Of Erin/The Flowers Of Red Hill
3. Do You Love An Apple (song by Triona Ni Dhomhnaill)
4. Julia Delaney
5. Patsy Geary’s/Coleman’s Cross (live)
6. Is Trua Nach Bhfuil Me in Eirinn (song by Micheal O’Dhomhnaill)
7. The Navvy On the Line/The Rainy Day
8. The Tar Road To Sligo/Paddy Clancy’s
9. Martin Wynne’s/The Longford Tinker
10. Pretty Peg/Craig’s Pipes
11. Hector The Hero/The Laird Of Drumblaire
12. The Traveller/The Humors Of Lissadell
13. The Butterfly (live)
14. The Salamanca/The Banshee/The Sailor’s Bonnet

Old Hag You Have Killed Me (1976)
1. Music In The Glen
2. Fionnghuala (song by Micheal O’Dhomhnaill)
3. The Kid On The Mountain
4. Farewell To Erin
5. Tiochfaidh An Samhradh (song by Micheal O’Dhomhnaill)
6. The Laurel Tree
7. 16 Come Next Sunday (song by Triona ni Dhomhnaill)
8. Old Hag You Have Killed Me
9. Calum Sgaire (song by Micheal O’Dhomhnaill)
10. The Ballintore Fancy
11. The Maid Of Coolmore  (song by Triona ni Dhomhnaill)
12. Michael Gorman’s

Out of the Wind into the Sun (1977)
1. The Morning Star
2. The Maids Of Mitchelstown
3. Rip The Calico
4. The Streets of Derry  (song by Triona ni Dhomhnaill)
5. The Pipe On The Hob
6. The Sailor Boy (song by Triona ni Dhomhnaill)
7. The Blackbird
8. The Strayaway Child
9. The Factory Girl  (song by Triona ni Dhomhnaill)
10. Slides


Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers (1997)
1. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Song)
2. The Big Reel Of Ballynacally/The High Hill/Flash Away The Pressing Gang (Reels)
3. Aililiu Na Gamhna (Song)
4. Tom Busby’s/James O’Byrne’s/The Four Posts Of The Bed (Jigs)
5. Paddy Taylors/McFadden’s Handsome Daughter/The Narrowback/Franks Reel/Esther’s Reel (Reels)
6. The Unquiet Grave (Song)
7. The Maid On The Shore (Song)
8. Song Of The Kelpie (Air)
9. Mom’s Jig/Bill Nicholson’s 67th (Jigs)
10. The Primrose Lass/Molly From Longford/The Four Kisses (Reels)
11. Vanished Like The Snow (Song)
12. The Kilnamona Barndance/Give The Girl Her Fourpence/My Maryanne (Barndance, Reels)
13. Adieu Lovely Nancy (Song)

The Words That Remain (1998)
1. Pastures Of Plenty (Song)
2. The Stride Set (Reels)
3. The Walk Up Set (Jigs)
4. The Grey Selchie (Song)
5. Song Of Choice (Song)
6. La Bruxa (Air)
7. I Am A Maid That Sleeps In Love (Song)
8. The Vega Set (Jigs)
9. Sweet Comeraghs (A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn O) (Song)
10. Sproggies Set (Reels)
11. The Beauty Spot (Reels)
12. Sraid An Chloig (Song)

The Hour Before Dawn (2000)
1. Bheadh Buachaillin Deas Ag Sile (Song)
2. Granny Quinn’s/The Lilac Reel/Sporting Pat (Reels)
3. Last Of The Great Whales (Song)
4. A Little Child (Instrumental)
5. A Miner’s Life (Song)
6. What’s Up With Win/Sonny Brogan’s/Cahal’s Jig (Jigs)
7. When My Love And I Parted (Song)
8. Homeless (Instrumental)
9. Boy/Girl Tune
10. Bruach Na Carraige Baine (Song)
11. Bonnie Mae (Song)
12. The New Custom House/The Flavor Of The Month/The Tinkers Daughter/Dogs Among The Bushes/Pinch Of Snu
13. I Will Remember You (Song)


Playing With Fire (1995)
1. Buckleys Fancy, Name Unknown, Finns Reel (Reels)
2. Molly And Johnny (Song)
3. Last Nights Fun (Reels)
4. The Wheels Of The World (Jig)
5. Maire Mor (Song)
6. I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her
7. The Hungry Rock
8. Calin Rua (Song)
9. The Ash Plant Set
10. Peigin Mo Chroi (Song)
11. The Game Of Love
12. Willie Lennox (Song)
13. Let Down The Blade

Live in Palma (1997)

Midsummers Night (1999)
1. Midsummer’s Night (Reels)
2. Sean Bhain (Song)
3. Tenpenny Bit  (Jigs)
4. The Banks Of The Sweet Viledee (Song)
5. Palmer’s Gate (Reels)
6. Erin Gra Mo Chroi  (Song)
7. Lark On The Strand (Jigs and Reels)
8. Carirns Hill (Air)
9. There Was A Maid In Her Father’s Garden (Song)
10. Abbeyfeale Set (Jigs and Slides)
11. An T Ull (Song)
12. Bold Doherty (Song)
13. Out On The Road (Reels)
14. Red-Haired Mary (Song)

Spirit (2003)
1. John Blessings (Jigs)
2. Jig (Song)
3. Father Jack (Reels)
4. Fair Haired Boy (Song)
5. Siesta Set (Jigs and reels)
6. Soldier Laddie  (Song)
7. Beauties Of Autumn  (Air)
8. The Lag’s Song (Song)
9. Boots Of Spanish Leather (Song)
10. O’Raghailligh’s Grave (Air for flute)
11. Swallow’s Tail (Reels)
12. The Cocks Are Crowing (Song)
13. Whelans

Providence (1999)
1. Cuz Teahan’s /Lar Gavin’s Favourite /The New Found Out
2. Seven Gypsies
3. Cathair na Leige
4. Gan Ainm / The New Broom (Barndances)
5. Over The Bridge to Peggy / Paddy Finlay’s Delight / Within a Mile of Dublin
6. Ochón Ochón Mo Chailín
7. Her Golden Hair Flowed Down Her Back / Galway Bay (Hornpipes)
8. Be Still As You Are Beautiful
9. The City of Baltimore
10. J.O. Forbes of Corse
11. The Dooney Rock / The Fly in the Porter / Derrane’s Jig
12. Run from the Gold
13. Katie Taylor’s /Toss the Feathers / The Bunch of Green Rushes / I Am Waiting for You

A Fig for a Kiss (2001)
1. Road to Lisdoonvarna/Carty’s Reel/The Maid of Mullaghmore (Reels)
2. Smuggling the Tin (song)
3. Lurgadaun/Dancing Eyes/Down the Back Lane (jigs)
4. Curlew Hills/Father Dollard’s (hornpipes)
5. Will Ye Go to Flanders? (song)
6. Arragh Mountains/The Rakes of Westmeath/A Fig for a Kiss (slip jigs)
7. Providence Reel/Roscommon Reel/Fred Finn’s (reels)
8. Muiris Ó Coinnleáin (song)
9. McDonagh’s (air)
10. Jolly Young Ploughboy (song])
11. In Memory of Coleman/Farewell to London/The Sunny Banks (reels)
12. ‘Sé Fáth Mo Bhuartha (song)
13. Music in the Glen/Seán sa Cheo (reels)

III (2005)
1 The Glenntan / Sanymount Reel / The Beauty Spot / The Ravelled Hank of Yarn / The Midnight Reel
2 The Bantry Girl’s Lament
3 Garret Barry’s / Biddy the Bold / The Fairy Reel
4 Jack Haggerty
5 Dances at Kinvara / Chaffpool Post / The Roosky Polka / The Teelin Polka
6 My Old Man
7 Glen of Aherlow / The Cornboy / The Road to Monalea
8 Leslies March / Litty Come Down to Limerick / Travers No. 2 / Billy Brockers
9 Jock O Hazeldean
10 Tommy Gunn’s / Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel / Molly Ban

4 thoughts on “Explorations in Irish Music

    1. I know how you feel. I’m often appalled at my ignorance. The ‘K’ signifies the word is pronounced with a hard C or a K sound. Soft C is English.

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