The song tradition in Ireland embraces both English and Irish language songs. Songs are generally sung solo and there is no known tradition of harmony singing. The subject areas covered are wide and diverse and cover the whole gamut of human emotion – from lullabies and children’s songs, songs about animals and hunting, and songs of fun and celebration to songs of war and travel, crime, love, emigration, songs of longing for home, political songs and laments. If the human has encountered a situation, there’ll be a song to deal with it.

The structure of songs is generally simple, for example AABA. This means the first section of the melody (A) is sung and then repeated, a new section (B) is introduced, and then section A reappears again – that AABA would comprise one verse of the song. The music is largely modal and remains within a two octave range. Songs can be brisk or slow in tempo, metered or in free form and as always, ornamentation is central. Songs that feature both Irish and English are called macaronic songs. Here, lines or groups of lines in both languages alternate with each other.

Sean Nos Singing – ‘old style’ singing

Sean-nós (literally, 'old style') singing is a complicated, unaccompanied and highly-ornamental style of singing. The ornamentation offers movement between the main notes, a very personal ‘note-journey’ that, while essential to the song, should never actually distract from the main melody.

An intimate, understated form of music, variations of melody, rhythm and phrasing are present and can vary from verse to verse depending on the whim of the performer and the environment. The inflections should be subtle enough so as to be almost unnoticeable, but the expressivity is essential. Sean-nós can be applied to singing in both Irish and, more recently, English.


Well known sean-nos singers include Róise na nAmhrán, Joe Heaney, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill and Róisin White


  • Joe Heaney - Performs Amhrán Shéamuis Uí Chnocuir
  • róise na namhrán - Performs An Clár Bog Deal (The Bog Deal Board)


  • Joe Heaney - Carna, Co. Galway singer performs Tá na Páipéir Dhá Saighneáil (The Papers are Being Signed)
  • iarla ó lionáird - Performs Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (The Lament of the Three Marys)
  • maighread ní dhomhnaill - Speaks of her family background in sean nós singing with footage of her, her aunt Neilí and sister Tríona from the 1970s. With a performance from herself and Donal Lunny
  • róisin white - Shares some of her thoughts about traditional singing

English Language – narrative songs in English

English language ballads are narrative songs (i.e., songs that tell a story). A huge amount of material exists, both indigenous Irish material and songs from elsewhere that have been borrowed into the tradition. Given the geographical location and history of Ulster, it is no surprise that a wealth of material exists that reflects Irish, English and Scottish influences.

The Voice Squad brought an interesting dimension to the song tradition with their three-part harmony singing, something not generally found in the Irish tradition but possibly influenced by the English singing tradition.


Well-known performers include Sarah Makem, Paddy Tunney, Joe Holmes, Eddie Butcher, Frank Harte, Geordie Hanna, Davey Hammond, Brian Mullen, Paul Brady, Len Graham, Rosie Stewart, Eithne Ní Uallacháin, Mary Dillon, The Voice Squad, and Geordie Hanna


  • frank harte - He Rolled her to the Wall
  • eithne ní uallacháin of la lugh - The Emigrant's Farewell
  • the voice squad - The Banks of the Bann


  • davey hammond with mícheál ó súilleabháin - Sings the song Franklin with Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin on piano
  • geordie hanna - Perfoms Old Arboe
  • sarah makem - The Banks of the Roses
  • planxty - The Little Drummer
  • joe holmes & len graham - Perform The Beggarman
  • paul brady - Unaccompanied, sings a verse of The Shamrock Shore

Collected Songs – important collections

There are many significant song collections within the Irish tradition – among some of the important Northern collections of the 20th century are:

  • Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (1923-39);
  • Father Lorcán O Muireadhaigh’s Amhráin Chúige Uladh (1927);
  • Seán Ó Baoill’s Cnuasacht de Cheoltaí Uladh (1944); and
  • Hugh Shields’ Shamrock, Rose and Thistle (1981).

Other important collectors include Luke Donnellan, Enrí Ó Muiríosa and Peadar Ó Dubhda.


  • from the father lorcán o muireadhaigh collection - Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin sings Séamus MacMurfaidh


  • from sam henry collection - Paul Brady performs Arthur McBride
  • from sam henry collection - Paul Brady with Andy Irvine on bouzouki perform The Lakes of Ponchetrain

Ornamentation – in singing

Dungiven singer Mary Dillon here sings a verse of the song Benedy Glen. The first time round she sings it in a plain fashion, without ornamentation. She then repeats the verse and sings it as she would naturally, spontaneously ornamentating notes. These note decorations or ornaments weave the phrases and lines together and allow the singer to put her own individual stamp on the song. No other singer would sing the song in precisely the same manner.


  • without ornamentation - Benedy Glen sung by Mary Dillon
  • ornamented - Benedy Glen sung by Mary Dillon. Listen to the note decorations and ornaments missing in the first rendition

Irish Language – songs in Irish

Art MacCumhaidh, Peadar Ó Doirnín, Séamus Dall MacCuarta, Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, folk poets of the 18th century, wrote the words to some of traditional music’s most outstanding Gaelic songs, in most cases fitting the words to already-existing tunes. However, as with early traditional tunes, many of the authors remain anonymous.

Rather than solely tell stories, Irish-language songs tend to deal with the emotions of the song and its subject and the performer imparts much of his or her personality. Songs can be brisk or slow in tempo, metered or in free form, and can be humorous, bawdy, topical, or sorrowful, etc.


Róise na nAmhrán, Joe Heaney, Nicolas Toibín, Seán de hOra, Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Lillis Ó Laoire, Bess (Elizabeth) Cronin, Brian Ó Domhnaill and Nóirín Ní Riain


  • diarmuid ó súilleabháin - Performs My Pup Came Home from Claedeach, an example of a macaronic song - featuring both English and Irish language
  • diarmuid ó súilleabháin - Performs Amhrán Phead Bhuí
  • pádraigín ní uallacháin - An Bonnan Buí (The Yellow Bittern) Cathal Buí MacGiolla Ghunna


  • pádraigín ní uallacháin - On her experiences of traditional singing and modes of collection. She sings the song Dúlamán
  • lillis o laoire - Performs Eoghainín Ó Ragadáin
  • pádraigín ní uallacháin - On the background to Art MacCumhaidh's song Ag Uirchill an Chreagain. She then performs the song.

Subject Areas – from lullabies to emigration

The subject areas covered are wide and diverse and cover the whole gamut of human emotion - lullabies and children’s songs, songs about animals and hunting, about work and lifestyle; songs of fun and celebration, of war and travel; songs of crime, songs about death and ghosts; songs of praise for the home country, songs of emigration, songs of longing for home; songs in praise of love, of unreturned love, of farewell in love, of returning love and uncertain love; songs of unfaithful love and love despite one’s parents, songs of wedded bliss and happiness; political songs and songs lamenting the passing of older times.

If the human has encountered a situation, there’ll be a song to deal with it.


  • children's songs - Fair Rosa, a popular children's playground song
  • emmigration - La Lugh perform The Emigrant's Farewell
  • politics - Frank Harte sings Henry Joy, a political song
  • religion - Nórín Ní Riain & the Monks of Glenstal Abbey Perform An tAiseiri


  • len graham - The broad subject matter in northern songs, sings about a hare
  • davey hammond - Emigration and American wakes, with Gabriel McArdle singing Lough Erne's Shore
  • dusty bluebells - Excerpt from David Hammond's early 1970s film featuring street songs and games found in Belfast
  • len graham & pádraigín ní uallacháin - Duet a love song
  • brian mullen - Sings a humorous song about a mouse's ball

Lilting – a way of remembering

Lilting is a form of music that lies somewhere between song and instrumental music. Fundamentally it is the melody of a tune sung to a certain number of syllables. Lilting can act as a great memory aid, whereby tunes can be recalled and demonstrated immediately and musicians can communicate tunes to one another in a very convenient manner and without the need of instruments. It would also have been used to provide music for dances when musicians weren’t available.

No great number of recordings of lilting exist. Séamus Fay from Co. Cavan has recently been well-documented.


Seamus Fay, Kevin Conneff, Len Graham and Joe Holmes


  • séamus fay - Performs Crooked Road
  • séamus fay - Performs Fiddler Round the Fairy Tree


  • len graham & joe holmes - Perform the reel, The Girl that Broke my Heart
  • kevin conneff of the chieftains - Performs on the reel The Hunter's Purse
  • james byrne - On the importance of lilting