Today I want to spend some time talking about Irish music and then you’ll notice that I have a music player with some of my favorite pieces. I could talk about every single one of the songs, but more importantly I want to talk about what Irish music does for us and for the culture and tradition of Ireland.
Let me start out by telling you a story. About 10 years ago, we went to a local concert for a group of “Celtic musicians” who are from Salt Lake City. Their name is Shanahy and three of the songs on that music player are by them. They were absolutely brilliant. They played the traditional instruments, the fiddle, the pipe, the drum. They sang beautifully and there were a lot of stunning instrumental pieces as well as the great lyrics. When we got home, my mother-in-law, who had come to the concert with us, expressed deep dissatisfaction. She had expected “traditional” Irish songs like “Danny Boy” or “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” We tried to explain to her that these were actually Irish songs, from Ireland, and not from America; but she still wasn’t happy. That was maybe the first time I really started thinking about the different types of “Irish music” that exist in the world.
The first kind of Irish music would be the traditional songs that were actually written in Ireland, by Irish people, about what life is like in Ireland and what it has been like over the centuries. These are the kind of songs Shanahy sings. Pieces like “Serving Girl’s Holiday,” “The False Knight on the Road,” or the Irish national anthem. The chances are not too great that we average Americans would be familiar with this sort of music because it doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning to us, other than it being a lovely song.
Then there are the songs that arose from the Diaspora, or the scattering, of the Irish at the time of the famine and “the troubles.” These are the songs my mother-in-law expected to hear that night. These are songs written in America, or elsewhere, expressing longing to return to Ireland or talking about how wonderful it was in Ireland. These would be songs like “The Mountains of Mohr” or “Carrickfergus,” or of course “Danny Boy.” Some of them such as “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlor” talk about what life is like somewhere away from Ireland and how wonderful it is to meet a fellow countryman. To me, these are the sadder songs, although not all of them have sad music or lyrics, but the longing to return is present in them nonetheless.
Then there are what I would classify as the modern songs, written for either movies like “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Brigadoon” about Ireland/Scotland or for musicians who want to play a Celtic sound but want new material so they write in that style, but they’re new songs. The Irish Rovers, in my opinion, play a lot of these sorts of songs. I love them, but things like “Nancy Whiskey” or “The Unicorn” use more modern lyrics.
Then, of course, on top of all of that are the instrumental pieces, showing off the beautiful Irish instruments such as the fiddle and the harp and the penny whistle. A lot of these are meant to be danced to. My daughter has countless instrumental CDs with really original names like “72 dance rhythms” and things like that. There are also groups, like Leahy, that produce a lot of music that is suitable for dancing even if they throw in a few vocal pieces on the CD.
On my own iPod, I like to have a wide variety. I have songs from movies, traditional Irish, the entire repertoire of the Irish Rovers, and even some instrumental. I love to sing along with all of them, or hum and beat out the rhythm on whatever is handy if there aren’t words. You probably have your own favorite Celtic music, but don’t be afraid to try something new. All of it can get us in the mood for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.