The flute used in traditional music is fundamentally a simple-system, a six-holed wooden instrument sometimes partly keyed to afford accidentals. This flute is no doubt an ancestor of the classical metal flute, but it seems to suit traditional music better, both in terms of playing technique and the sound it produces. The timbre is more earthy and rounder than the cleaner, thinner sound of the classical relation. The wood used for the traditional flute is typically a hardwood such as African blackwood or boxwood. The classical, metal flute, where the holes are covered by a key system, is generally not favoured by traditional musicians, as the execution of ornamentation can be clumsy.

Styles vary in flute-playing as much as in any other instrument. Many players 'spit' out and force breath to enhance the rhythms, whereas others have a more fluid breathing technique. Flute-playing is mostly associated with Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon.


Used by most American and European armies until the end of the 19th century to signal orders and accompany marches, the fife is an ancestor of the modern flute. And in traditional music, it was a forerunner to the tin whistle, with six holes, parallel bore and no keys. Associated in the 20th century with the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, it is a difficult instrument to blow. This has, perhaps, contributed to the staccato northern style of flute and whistle playing.

With the exception of specific political tunes, the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians would often share a similar repertoire; indeed Lambeg drummers would on occasions be 'borrowed' from one group to the other. Tunes that were altered to hornpipe time were exclusively used with the Lambeg drum and were simplified to suit the fife’s limitations. Within traditional music in general, the fife is no longer used. However, there are still some examples of fife and Lambeg playing to be found in mid-Antrim.


Fine examples of flute-playing can be heard from: John McKenna, Séamus Tansey, Matt Molloy, Gary Hastings, Desi Wilkinson and Tara Bingham


  • John McKenna

    Back in the Garden / The Flowers of the Red Mill

  • Desi Wilkinson

    Bonaparte Crossing the Alps / Down the Broom

  • Tara Bingham

    I buried my Wife and Danced on Top of her / The Tailor’s Smalls