A Brief History Of Irish Music: From Ancient Hymns To Today’s Popular Folk Rock

SSince most of the articles on the Dotted Music blog have been addressing the business and marketing aspects of the music industry, we thought of expanding to a new series of posts covering different facets music.

The first of the series is about the music of Ireland, which has been strongly influenced by its rich history dating back to thousands of years. From the first settlers over 10,000 years ago to today’s most popular bands, Ireland’s contribution the music scene is both extensive and influential around the world.

Stone Age Notes

Known as the Wicklow Pipes, one of the oldest wind instruments ever discovered were found in Wicklow, Ireland, with carbon dating age of over 4150 years.

Celtic Music Scene

With the arrival of the Celts to Ireland at around 500 BC, several new instruments and sounds were brought to the region consisting of bronze horns and trumpets, such as the Loughnashade trumpet, which was used in battle by the Celtic people.

Image credit: canonsnapper on Flickr

Image credit: canonsnapper on Flickr

Christian Rock

Saint Patrick arrived to Ireland during the 5th-century and began teaching christian Gallic hymns, predating Gregorian chants. It is around the same period that the Irish harp was introduced, forever becoming an integral part of Irish music and culture as a whole.

From Norman Invasions to Elizabeth I

The invasions of the Anglo-Normans from the 1100s brought difficult times of war for the Irish, though the Normans had little influence on the arts of the country. It wasn’t until 1603, after England’s conquest of Ireland following the Battle of Kinsale, that Queen Elizabeth I ordered to ‘Hang the harpers and burn their instruments’ as a means of oppression.

O’Carolan’s Mark

Born in 1670, Turlough O’Carolan was one of the most influential harpists and composers in Irish history. He has over 200 pieces that are still played today.

17th and 18th Century Harps and Rebellions

It was in Dublin, in 1742, that George Frideric Handel gave his first performance of the Messiah, a piece that is still immensely popular today, particularly during the holiday season.

In an attempt to revive the harp, the Belfast Harp Festival was organized in 1792, bringing together some of the country’s best harpists.

Inspired by the French and American revolutions, Ireland failed its own attempt of a rebellion in 1798. A few years later, Irish rebellions still could not succeed in their efforts despite attempts of support from the French. The Irish involvement, and deaths, in the Napoleonic Wars inspired many songs such as Fare Thee Well Enniskillen and Arthur McBride.

The Irish Potato Famine

This well known tragedy from 1845 to 1852 resulted in the death of around a million people in Ireland, and the emigration of another million. Many songs were inspired by this dark period, notably Famine by Sinéad O’Connor as well as several songs by Brendan Graham.

Modern Folk Times

Following the Great Famine, many Irish migrants settled in northeastern United States, bringing along with them their music which somehow naturally blended with African American musical influences, notably the banjo. This multicultural fusion gave rise to genres such as country and bluegrass. In turn, these branched out to become today’s indie rock and folk rock, genres who have gained much mainstream attention in the past few years through bands such as Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver, Of Monsters and Men, the Lumineers, and many more.

The contribution to music remains vast, from U2’s iconic Sunday Bloody Sunday about the 1972 protester massacre in Northern Ireland to others have left their mark such as The Dubliners, The Everly Brothers, Bill Whelan of Riverdance, The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, Rory Gallagher and the countless more. The music of Ireland, as a reflection of its deep history, has overcome centuries of hardships and has proven a solid influence in the world of music today. The Irish will keep leaving their mark on the music scene, one green note at a time.

Sponsored by The Online Academy of Irish Music. OAIM endeavours to bring its audience a unique platform that provides quality Irish musical tuition on a global scale from only the most experienced performers and tutors.


  • The Legendary Frank

    Thanks for an excellent brief history. You mentioned St Patrick which reminds me of that lovely hymn St Patricks Breastplate. The music is set to two traditional Irish tunes, “St. Patrick” and “Deirdre”. The “bridge” bit is very moving.


  • Interesting, thanks for sharing Frank!