Social History


Prior to 1600 a system of Irish traditional music existed under a structure where musicians and bards were employed by tribal chieftains. But this old Gaelic social order of tribal chieftain, musician and bard was effectively stamped out from the time of Elizabeth I (1590s) onwards. By limiting artistic outpouring, Elizabeth further controlled the country and the patronage previously enjoyed by musicians and bards lessened during the ensuing century. Eventually, the new Elizabethan gentry became the new patrons, though the practice of such patronage was by and large obsolete by the mid 18th century.

Despite setbacks during the Elizabethan period, over a period of time traditional music reasserted itself and by the late 18th/early 19th century, Irish music was certainly strong again. Uilleann pipes were fully developed (chanter, 3 drones and 3 regulators) and were integral to traditional music. Many tunes were composed around this period and various collectors began to recognise the importance of the rich heritage on their doorstep. So travel to rural parts to unearth music and musicians became more common. The famine of 1845-49 however dealt a massive blow to all of this development. The population of the country reduced by roughly 25% during this period, from 8 million down to 6 million; approximately one million people died, and a further one million emigrated to North America and elsewhere.

Ironically, Irelandís loss was North Americaís gain. The huge Irish diaspora that settled in various parts of the country - e.g. Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco - tended to stay in closely-knit communities, thus keeping much of their culture intact. The music that they brought from Ireland in the mid-19th century continued to flourish and develop, as did instruments and communal playing. For example, the Taylor brothers in Philadelphia made huge progress in the development of wide-bore concert pitch uilleann pipes around 1880, and the Flanagan Brothers made a significant impact with their hugely-popular vaudeville-style Irish shows.

However the one single contribution that had probably the greatest impact on music was Thomas Edisonís phonograph (c1877), the first 'talking machine'. For the first time, the traditional player could be in the home of the listener - no longer did aspiring musicians have to travel to hear their idols play. Its popularity was of course massive. Through the gramophone, Irish musicians who were living in America now had an influence on those musicians learning back at home. James Morrison and Michael Coleman were two Sligo-born fiddle players whose impact was very much felt in this way. Uilleann piper Patsy Touhey (himself no stranger to vaudeville) also influenced many in Ireland and America with his staccato style of playing. The advent of commercial radio in the 1920s and 30s was also to play an important part in spreading the wings of traditional music far and wide.

Back in Ireland, it wasnít until the emergence of ceili bands in the late 1920s and the subsequent folk revival in the 1950s and 60s that traditional music made any significant impression. The early 1950s saw the emergence of Comhaltas CeoltÛirÌ …ireann, a body that aimed to promote traditional music and give a platform to many musicians throughout Ireland who rarely had an opportunity to perform or be appreciated. The fleadh cheoil, born out of this time, now attracts many thousands of traditional musicians from all over the world to compete in all disciplines and to share music in informal sessions.


  • James ‘Jimmy’ Morrison

    Performs the reel Farewell to Ireland

  • The Flanagan Brothers

    The night Pat Murphy died

  • Patrick ‘Patsy’ Touhey

    The maid on the green / Jackson’s / A drink of water

  • Michael Coleman

    Bonnie Kate / Jennys Chickens (reels)