A “punctuated equilibrium” is a term used by biologists in reference to a “theory that claims that evolutionary change in the fossil record came in fits and starts rather than in a steady process of slow change” (“punctuated equilibrium”). The origin of Irish music seems to have occurred in a similar fashion. Music in general can touch many areas of our lives.
We have an endless array of purposes for music today; to grieve the loss of a loved one, to celebrate marriage or birth, to graduate from an educational institution or simply to create a feeling in ourselves such as nostalgia when we hear a certain tune. Like species of animals, Irish music has evolved over many centuries, fighting back from the oppression of England, inspiring love songs and dances, helping church goers express their faith and continuing on today to influence popular music on an international level.
There was no instant when a harp was owned by all the townspeople in sight, nor did the invention of the harp create a genre of music to get itself heard. The origin of Irish music was much more like the music itself, slowly evolving with grace and patience in the face of adversities. Farthest back in Irish music history we find that “In ancient Ireland the systems of law and medicine, (among others) were set to music, being poetic compositions” (Flood 1). As early in time as the 3rd century the Irish harp was referred to in writing (Flood 18).
Since these ancient origins, Irish music has evolved and become of the most celebrated musical genres in existence. One impetus has been political. “In 1893 there was a revival in interest in Irish music that was closely linked to Nationalist calls for independence” (Music 2). Irish independence from Britain took a few years, but the interest in Irish culture weathered the storm through that period. In the 1960’s and 70’s, there was yet another revival.
This helped mold the Irish music that we know today; artists such as Van Morrison and Sinead O’Conner, among many others, have sampled Irish music for their nspiration (Music 20). In the earliest centuries “Viking raiders destroyed most books from this period, thus there are few written records of any dances” (Haruin 1). The language of Ireland is on record from as far back as the third century, proven by the discovery of Ogham stones with Irish alphabetic inscriptions on them (Flood 3). As W. H. Grattan Flood writes, “The very word ogham suggests at once a musical signification, and, therefore, it is of the very highest importance to claim for Ireland the earliest form of musical tablature”.
In the sixth to ninth centuries, folk songs, chants, dance songs, and hymns began to infiltrate the Irish musical repertoire (Flood 19). In these early centuries Irish music also had “influenced the Gregorian chant, they were the first to employ harmony and counterpoint, they invented the musical arrangement which developed into the sonata form and they generously diffused musical knowledge all over Europe” (Flood 19-20). By the 16th century there were many Irish dances recorded including Fading, Irish Hey, Jigs, Trench mores and sword dances (Haruin 1).
At this time in history, English suppression of Irish culture felt heavy among Irish culture. This smothering of culture was exemplified by the banning of piping and the subsequent arrest of pipers who were found practicing (Haruin 1). “By a Royal Commission dated April 7th, 1538, a clean sweep was ordered to be made of the Irish monasteries, and pensions were promised to those religious who surrendered” (Flood 145). Clerks were to be placed to teach boys music in these religious institutions and the early church music of Ireland continued to flourish in this time of oppression (Flood 147).
It has been well said that the lyrics of the Jacobite period are among the finest in the whole range of Irish poetry” (Flood 243). This form of poetry was based on the poet as a wanderer and upon finding a female also wandering, he inquires as to who she is and why she is wandering (Flood 244). “She replies that she is Erin, who is flying from the insults of foreign suitors, and in search of her real mate” (Flood 244). At this time in Irish history King James III was intent on invading England (Flood 244).
King James recruited many Jacobite poets for his cause and in May of 1714 one hundred and fifty of these men were arrested and three were subsequently executed (Flood 245). Many songs were written at this time poking fun of the opposition in England including a favorite with the lyrics; “Let our King James come over / and baffle Prince Hanover. / with hearts and hands, in loyal bands, /we’ll welcome him at Dover” (Flood 245). “During the 1800’s, a popular event was a cake dance. A cake would be placed on a stand in the center of a field, it being the prize for the best dancer” (Haruin 2).
Whoever was chosen the best dancer would “take the cake” and the modern use of that phrase emits the same meaning as it did then (Haruin 2). The dancing aspect of Irish music has evolved much like that of the music itself. There are four different types of traditional Irish dance; the jig, the reel, hornpipe and set dance (Haruin 4). Thought to be the oldest of Irish dances, the jig is an up tempo dance with emphasis on the first beat in a series of six (Haruin 4). A variation of the jog, known as the “soft jig” is performed gracefully in soft shoes and only women perform this type of jig (Haruin 4).
The reel, now the favorite dance tune among traditional players…appears to have evolved around the middle of the eighteenth century” (The Origins 10). Scottish culture seems to have influenced this particular type of dance greatly. “Both men and women dance the reel. For women, it is a light, rapid soft shoe dance that allows for plenty of leaping and demands an energetic performance from the dancer” (Haruin 4). Men dancing the reel are accustomed to a more laid back performance. “The hornpipe began around 1760, evolving from English stage acts” (Haruin 4).
In the early days of its popularity, it was danced almost exclusively by men, but today both men and women participate, although it is still felt to be a masculine dance (Haruin 4). “A set dance is performed to a specific tune which has remained set over time” (Haruin 5). Set dances come in two forms: ancient sets, which include “The Blackbird” and “Garden of Daisies” and more modern sets, for example: “The Hunt” and “Rub the Bag” (Haruin 5). The instruments that accompany the before mentioned dances are as varied as the styles of dances themselves. The bodhran is an Irish frame drum, which means that the skin is stretched over a frame anywhere from ten to eighteen inches in diameter” (Armstrong 12). The drum is held close to the body of the person playing it and he or she slaps the back of the skin with their hand or a mall piece of wood called the “tipper” to keep the beat (Armstrong 12).
The tin whistle is also a staple of Irish music. The tin whistle, also called the “penny whistle” can play the “two scales that cover the large majority of Irish tunes, so it is no wonder that the tin whistle became so popular” (Armstrong 12). The uillean pipes are what all tin whistle players want to play when they grow up” (Armstrong 12). These pipes are very difficult to play and they are known as the Irish version of bagpipes (Armstrong 12). Another very important instrument in Irish music is the fiddle. There is an old joke that says “the difference between a violin and a fiddle is that, with a fiddle, you don’t mind when beer gets spilled on it” (Armstrong 12). The fiddle has been known to fit in with many musical genre’s and many people call it “the king of all instruments” (Armstrong 12). These instruments make up a large amount of ancient Irish music.
The May Day Festival in Ireland is a once a year event that joins together the music and dancing of the culture. At this time of the year on “May Eve” many games and rituals take place, such as boys and girls joining hands to dance in the street and these dancing circles can be up to a mile long (The May 1). Fireplaces are swept very well on May Eve and legend has it that if, in the morning, a footprint is seen facing the direction of the door to the house, someone will be sure to die before that day in the next year (The May 1). Irish culture also held many superstitions about love surrounding the celebration of May Eve.
A popular superstition is for a young girl to pick nine yarrow roots and place one of them in her mouth. She then recites the following: “Good morrow, good morrow, fair yarrow; and thrice good morrow to thee; come tell me before tomorrow; who my true love shall be” (The May 2). The girl is then supposed to dream of her true love that evening, but the spell is broken if she speaks after the time the yarrow is put into her mouth and before the next morning (The May 3).
Many traditions are still alive and well in the modernized Irish music that we hear today. “Traditional music played a major part in popular music of he twentieth century, with artist such as Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor using traditional elements in popular songs” (Music 20). “Enya achieved enormous international success with New Age/Celtic fusions” (Music 20). The Irish music that we hear today on the radio is much different then we would have heard it at the May Day Festivals hundreds of years ago. The culture and staying power of Irish music will continue to evolve into the next centuries, reinventing itself by merging with other forms of traditional music. The culture and music of Ancient Ireland is still alive and well, as long as we are willing to listen for it.