Irish Music and Culture:
Irish Song and Music from Sean-Nos to Jazz


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Executive Summary


Course objectives: When students have completed this course, they will:

  • Understand the distinction between diatonal and modal music.
  • Understand the composition techniques used by the Irish masters of the 17th century like O Cathain and the later development in O Carolan.
  • Distinguish between the classical period of Irish music and later imports such as the reel.
  • Recognize the main harmonic patterns now used (Dorian, Ionian, Myxolydian,and Aeolian) and their contrast with their diatonic counterparts.
  • Understand the use of microtonality in “sean-nos” and be able to evaluate theories of its origins.
  • Be able to lilt (sing) simple tunes.
  • Understand the use of syllabic poetry, both in the classical period and as used in song lyrics, and contemporary use of blank verse.
  • Follow the recent development in Irish music by Donal Lunny in Emmet Spiceland, Planxty, the Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Coolfin and others such as Clannad.
  • Be aware of the socio-economic context of the current recent stasis in the music development.

Irish music presents perhaps a unique example to the world. Originally a “high” art form, it was forced underground by colonial forces and preserved orally for hundreds of years. Only in the past fifty years or so has a nascent self-awareness allowed it to develop further. Yet Irish music based on traditional sources has failed to maintain the breathtaking development of the years 1960-1985. Having considered the history, this course looks at some techniques and projects that might redress this problem. First of all, the use both of modern and pre-Famine Gaelic poetry as song lyrics is examined.

Counterintuitive techniques which work well, such as the use of 12:8 rhythms to complement this poetry are examined in conjunction with developments of techniques pioneered by groups like Clannad in masterpieces like “Fuaim”. (Beidh mioneolas a lorg ar shaothar Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill. ) Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill’s work with groups like Kila and others will be examined, and the use of classical and jazz techniques to set this music will be examined in detail. The extension of the chordal accompaniment pioneered by the likes of Donal Lunny to jazz will be the next topic. Finally, the crossover between jazz scatting and Irish lilting will form the basis of practical exercises.


While “Celtic” is a rather nebulous term, it is possible to discern a code of music that is specifically Irish. In this course, we examine the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic techniques that historically have characterized Irish music. Students will be encouraged through praxis to create in the field.

The students should have an interest in one or all of the following: Ethnomusicology, Irish studies, post-colonial studies, Gaelic linguistics.

Session by Session

  1. Gaelic poetry as song lyrics; the classical period of syllabic verse. Later development O Rathaille, Mac Gearailt, Ni Dhomhnaill.
  2. The Classical period of Irish music. In 1621 Donncha Mac Tadhg built a harp customized for European music. What musical system did the Irish masters use?
  3. Later Imports: Reels, single Jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes. Rhythmic patterns in these and the 1970’s Balkan fusion.
  4. The Celtic Revival: the tension between classical and populist, manifested in President Hyde versus O Riada and O Gallchoir.
  5. The late 20th century boom: Planxty, Clannad, De Dannan, Moving Hearts, Deiseal.
  6. Current Stasis: Irish culture and neo-liberalism.
  7. New directions:
    1. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Celtic Jazz. 
    2. Clannad, Enya, and Celtic World music.

Methods of Instruction

Students will read and discuss material in class and over a bulletin board and do practical exercises.

Credit Requirements and Course Grade

The students will do one practical project and one written exam, each worth 50%. Both must be passed.

Required Texts and Materials

Core Materials:

O Nuallain (2002) : “On Tonality in Irish Traditional Music.” Benjamins, in McKevitt et al., eds.

“Language, Vision, and Music.”

O Tuama and Kinsella (1981)

“An Duanaire — Poems of the Dispossessed.” Mountrath Dolmen.

Brendan Breathnach (1971, reprinted 1973) “Folk Music and dances of Ireland,” Cork Mercier Press.

Background Reading:

Arts Council of Ireland (2004), “Towards a policy for the traditional Arts.” 70 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, Ireland ISBN 1-904291-09-0.

Asch, R. (ed.) (1993). Three Nations: A Common History.

Castle, G. (ed.) (2001) Postcolonial Discourses. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coogan, T. (2000). De Valera. London: Random House.

De Paor, L. (ed) (1986). Milestones in Irish History, Cork: The Mercier Press.

Donoghue, D. (1986). We Irish, New York: Knopf.

Ellis, D. S. (1999). “More Irish than the Irish themselves,” History Ireland, Vol. 7, No1, 2226.

Hamilton, H. (2003). The Speckled People, London: Harper Perennial.
Ignatiev, Noel (1996), “How the Irish became white” London: Routledge.
Lee, J (1985) Ireland 19121985. Cambridge, England Cup. Murphy, J (1986)
Litton, H. (1998). Irish Rebellions 17981916, Dublin: Wolfhound Press. Mountrath, Dolmen Press.


Students should be able to read music or show a willingness to learn, show a willingness to learn the basics of the Irish language, be open to post-colonial theory, and be other than tone-deaf.

© 2010, 2011, 2016 Melanie O’Reilly and Seán Ó Nualláin


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