Celtic Harp

Foremost among the traditional instruments of Ireland is the harp, the symbol of the Irish Republic, and also of that country's most popular beverage - Guiness Stout!

The harp is a truly ancient instrument, with a history spanning almost 5,000 years. It has been used in Ireland for well over 1,000 years, surviving periodic doldrums of persecution and social upheaval. Queen Elizabeth I, who saw harpers as foci of local resistance to her rule, bid Lord Barrymore "hang the harpers wherever found and destroy their instruments". The queen was a tough critic.

The Irish wire-strung harp used by the earliest harpers began dying out around the turn of 19th century, supplanted in part by the gut-strung harp, and in part by the European pedal harp that was invented about this time. This break in the tradition means that players of modern reconstructions of the Irish wire-strung harp use a technique that would probably have sounded quite foreign to their 18th century counterparts.

The modern Irish harp stands about 4 feet high, and has 34 strings, as opposed to 47 strings on the modern orchestral harp. The so-called Neo-Irish harp, strung with gut or nylon, is the most popular. It's tone is soft, like water dripping into a crystal bowl. Contrast this with the penetrating, fuzzily resonant, bell-like tones of the wire-strung harp.

Reed Instruments

Before proceeding with my summary of Irish traditional instruments, I'd like to take a moment or two to discuss an integral part of many wind instruments. The reed is a narrow, thin piece of wood, plastic or metal that vibrates when air is blown past it. Reeded instruments include the clarinet, oboe, saxophone and harmonica. Wind instruments that do not use reeds include the flute, recorder, tin whistle and trumpet.

Reeded instruments are either "wet reed" or "dry reed" instruments. Wet reeds are moistened by the breath of the musician. Wind instruments that use some means other than the musician's breath to move air are dry reed instruments. Most reeded wind instruments used in traditional Irish music are dry reed instruments.

Uilleann Pipes

Bagpipes, while not quite as ancient as the harp, have been played in Ireland three or four hundred years longer. The bagpipe features a bladder made of leather that is inflated through a pipe by the breath of the musician. The inflated bag is held under the arm and pressed with the elbow to force air through several reeded pipes that are attached to the bag. The musician plays by alternately covering the various holes on one of the pipes, called the chanter, producing the melody. The remaining pipes are drones, each tuned to a single note, that provide a continuous background tone. Bagpipes were used mostly in armies to provide marching music.

In Ireland the war pipes were gradually supplanted by the Uilleann (pronounced "illyun") pipes, which were invented sometime in the 16th century. This instrument is smaller and quieter than the war pipes, with a greater range: two octaves, as opposed to one for the war pipes. Uilleann pipes are not blown; instead, air is provided to the bag by means of a bellows that is held under the opposite arm and is worked with the elbow (hence the name Uilleann, or "elbow", pipes). A neat little animated image that shows a piper playing can be seen on the Ceol Rince web site, which also provides some pipe tunes in midi format.

A full modern set of Uilleann pipes has seven reeded pipes: the chanter, with its two octave range; bass, baritone, and tenor drones that can be turned on or off at need; and three regulators, which are chanters fitted with keys like those on a flute, and can be used to produce various chords. The Uilleann pipes are the most complex and versatile of all the bagpipes.

A Piper
by Seumas O'Sullivan

A piper in the streets today
Set up, and tuned, and started to play,
And away, away, away on the tide
Of his music we started; on every side
Doors and windows were opened wide,
And men left down their work and came,
And women with petticoats colored like flame,
And little bare feet that were blue with cold,
Went dancing back to the Age of Gold.
And all the world went gay, went gay,
For half an hour in the street today.


Fiddle,n. An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse's tail on the entrails of a cat.

from The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce

Despite Bierce's rather puckish definition, most fiddles these days are strung with steel instead of gut or nylon. This difference, along with variations in technique, is all that really distinguishes the fiddle from the violin. It was first used in Irish music in the 17th century, and has remained a popular fixture of Irish music ever since. Many distinctive regional styles have cropped up over the centuries, the most popular today being the quick-paced bowing of Donegal, although the music of other counties have also made their mark.

Tin Whistle & Flute

The high, shrill notes of the tin whistle have long been a fixture of traditional Irish music. It is cheap to make and simple to play, and produces a wonderful music that is by turns lively or plaintive. Most tin whistles, or "penny whistles", as they are sometimes called, are metal cylinders, sometimes tapered, with a mouthpiece and six holes, or "stops". They've been used in Irish music since at least the 18th century, replacing the bone whistles that had been used from time immemorial.

Flutes have been about in various designs for centuries. The modern flute, with its pure, mellow tones, was the invention of a 19th century musician named Theobald Boehm, who made his flutes from silver instead of wood, enlarged the holes and equipped them with padded stops. However, Irish musicians tend to prefer older style wooden flutes with six open finger holes, as they feel it gives a tone more appropriate to their style of music.

Bodhrán & Bones

The bodhrán (pronounced bow-rahn) is a member of a class of percussion instruments known as "frame drums". The best are made from a sheet of treated goatskin stretched over a wooden frame. The older models had frames made of green wood and were liable to warp, so a crossbrace was added. Modern versions are often made of laminated woods that are less prone to this fault, although the crossbrace is often included to provide a handle for beginners. The instrument is held in one hand and played with a beater in the other. Styles of beaters vary, but it is commonly a wooden rod about 7 inches long, held in the center so that the player can strike the drum with either end. A decorative design of some sort will often be painted on the drum-head.

The tone of the bodhrán depends on its size and method of manufacture. The homemade bodhrán used by Davey Fallon for the Chieftans I recording had a higher tone than most I've heard since (he'd also built cymbals into the rim in the manner of a tambourine, which he was prevailed upon to tape down for the recording). A modern bodhrán of standard size, about 18 inches in diameter, provides a deeper, rumbling resonance. Some bodhrán are also equipped with tuning screws. Differences in manufacture also affect the sound of the instrument - craftsman have developed their own special techniques, particularly regarding the treatment of the goatskin drum-head, and by and large they don't share them.

Another percussion instrument used in Irish music are the "bones". These are typically laths of wood or bone (the ribs of sheep are common for the latter), which are held between the fingers and tapped together. Spoons have served as substitutes of expedience, from time to time.


In the early 19th century, Charles Wheatstone invented the symphonium, a brass-reeded instrument that was a precursor of the harmonica. In 1844 he modified it so that the air that powered the instrument was provided by a bellows, and the concertina was born. It was a generally popular instrument in the 19th century, and was even used in orchestras from time to time, but has been pretty much defined as a folk music instrument ever since. The concertina and the accordion, an instrument that works on a similar principle, are often used in Irish folk music.

Other Instruments

Irish folk music is a living tradition, not a museum music, and as such continues to evolve. Other instruments that have become popular in Irish music include the guitar, stand-up bass, the banjo, and the Irish bouzouki, the latter a modification of the Greek bouzouki.

Derek Bell, who plays harp and keyboards for the Chieftans, plays an instrument he calls a tiompán, or tympan. The tympan is an ancient Irish instrument related to the dulcimer. Little is known about the instrument, as its use died out in the 17th century, shortly after the fiddle made its arrival in Ireland. What Bell plays is actually a hammered dulcimer. The instrument has a number of strings, usually twelve, stretched over a hollow, trapezoidal sound box made of wood, with a bridge at either end, and a set of tuning keys behind one of the bridges. The strings are struck with hand-held "hammers", evoking bell-like tones. Bell insists that this is the tympan of old, and who can say he is wrong with any authority?

I have also heard keyboards, mandolins, harmonicas, and bongos used in arrangements of Irish folk music from time to time. I won't even try to guess what might be used in the future.

Tim Eagen
June, 2000