December 3, 2006
Irish Folk Music
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 inspiration (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” (3). 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...