Irish Music

The Celtic "Tradition"

Anyone who enjoys listening to Celtic music will sooner or later run across notations in the liner notes of the recordings that say "traditional" or "trad". What exactly does this mean? On the face of it, the notation seems to denote a song or tune that has been performed for a long time, handed down from one performer to the next, perhaps through several generations, and that the composer's name has been lost in time's murk. Or it may be the tune had no true human origin at all, but was overheard by moonlight near a fairy mound, perhaps through an enchanted whiskey bottle. All that seems reasonable enough, if a little indefinite.

Unfortunately, this definition often does not apply. Music has been labeled "traditional" in some places, and attributed in others. She Moved Through the Fair appears on the Celtic Heartbeat CD recorded by Van Morrison and the Chieftans in 1988, and is listed in the liner notes as a traditional work. A slightly altered version of She Moved Through the Fair was sung by Sinead O'Connor on another Chieftan's recording (The Long Black Vail, 1995), and again it was listed as traditional. Elsewhere, however, the lyrics are attributed to Irish poet Padraic Colum.

Down by the Salley Gardens is an interesting case of a poem/song that could be considered traditional in some ways, but never is. It was written by WB Yeats, and originally titled An Old Song Resung. Yeats wrote in a footnote to the poem:

This is an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballysodare, Sligo, who often sings them to herself.

I can't help but think that, were the lines written by a poet less famous than Yeats, they would have long since joined the corpus of the traditional. Certainly the tune has. A regional band from Pennsylvania, called Simple Gifts, describes the tune as traditional, while the Irish band Clannad states that it was written by Herbert Hughes.

Nor need a song be particularly old to be considered traditional. Writer and composer Stephen Brust noted that in one of the music books in his collection Peter's Song is listed as traditional, while another avows it was written in 1976 by Tom Sands.

From the foregoing you can see that the term "traditional" is used rather loosely. The best definition I can manage out of this is that a song written in the Celtic tradition is one that has been generally accepted by folk musicians and singers of Celtic music as traditional: ipsi dixeunt!

The Song and Dance!

O'Neill's Music of Ireland, published in 1903, is one of the largest collections of traditional Irish music, containing over 1,800 tunes. The book has many divisions, but the music can essentially be divided into two categories: airs (which include songs and laments), and dance music.

Dance Music

Most Irish music is dance music, and is distinguished by the time and tempo in which it is played. In the following table I list the most common dances, from fastest to slowest. The time signatures noted are those most commonly listed in O'Neill's Music of Ireland.

Dance Time MIDI Sample Notes
reel 2/2, some in 2/4 The Repeal of the Union1 The most common traditional dance form; the oldest reels recorded come from Scotland.
hornpipe about half 2/2, half 2/4 The Rights of Man2 The hornpipe was originally a Welsh instrument with a wooden body and a bell and mouthpiece made of horn. The instrument gave its name to an English sailor's dance.
slide, single jig 12/8 * No slides are listed explicitly in O'Neills, nor was I able to find any midi files for slides on the web. From one source I've learned that the slides are the fastest of the jigs, but to my ear they are no faster than slip jigs.
slip jig, hop jig 9/8 The Kid on the Mountain2 A faster tempo than the double jig.
double jig 6/8 The Lark on the Strand2 Jigs are reputed to be the oldest of the Irish dances.
planxty 6/8; some 4/4 & 2/4 Planxty Burke3 The planxty is instrumental music for the harp, and not generally regarded as dance music, although I don't suppose there's any intrinsic reason it couldn't be adapted as such.

1Tune from the Ceol Rince web site.
2Tune from the DCU - Traditional Music Society at The Session.
3Tune sequenced by Barry Taylor, from Lesley Nelson's Turlough O'Carolan web site.

A warning to non-musicians like myself - don't let time signatures confuse you, nor worry overmuch about the tempo. Time signatures only indicate the number and general kinds of notes to be played within a certain "measure", but do not at all indicate the speed of playing. For example, The Chieftans play "Twisting the Rope" as a slow air on one recording (The Chieftans 1), and as a reel on another (Bonaparte's Retreat). The speed and general rhythm of the music determine the type of dance that will be performed to it.

Airs, Songs, and Laments

This is more or less a general catch-all for any music not fast enough for dancing (although some dance tunes have words that can be sung, most songs are for listening, not for dancing). Airs are generally instrumental in nature and, as previously noted, dance tunes can be adapted as airs. The following examples are songs that are, as often as not, played as instrumental works:

Air Notes
The Foggy Dew A song made in honour of those who died during the Easter Rising in 1916. Sequenced by Lesley Nelson.
Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill A song of lament for one of the leaders of the 1649 rising, who died of a sudden illness. Sequenced by Barry Taylor.
Star of the County Down A popular Irish ballad; an excellent version was produced by Van Morrison and the Chieftans for their 1988 collaboration Irish Heartbeat. Sequenced by Marian Busch.
Lyrics for these tunes can be found on the Irish Folksongs web site..

Tim Eagen
December, 2000