hy Irish folk? Why now?
The easy answer: the ubiquitous summer Irish festival. Somewhere in America, there’s one place taking right now. Music, of course, is thoroughly showcased at such festivals, though it’s frequently done so without any context. The hope is this bluffer’s guide will provide the uninitiated with enough background should they find themselves enthralled with a particularly thrilling set of reels at such a summer festival.
But really, why Irish folk? Why now?
The poet Carl Sandburg believed that studying and listening to folk songs added depth to one’s psyche, a connection to the collective human experience of the past. In a tech-saturated society bloated with plastic constructs, one can discover much-needed solace in music that possesses, to quote Donal O’Sullivan in his book, Irish Folk Music, Song, and Dance: “a beauty and tenderness beyond the ordinary; a deep and passionate sincerity; a naturalness which disdains all artifice; a feeling for poetic expression unusual in folk songs; all combined with a mellifluous assonance which renders them eminently singable.”
This guide will focus on the time period from the founding of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann in 1951, an international organization partly created to preserve a decaying Irish music scene, to the turn of the century. A fifty-year chunk that saw Irish folk music, thanks to the numbers that participated and celebrated the genre, achieve heights of popularity never attained prior. Consider this: In 1792, the Belfast Harp Festival attracted just 10 participants—and this for an instrument more closely associated with Ireland than any other.
Two caveats: 1.) Endless amounts of bandwidth have been dedicated to delineating what the genre’s proper moniker is; there’s an AMG-fueled cornucopia of selections to pick from: traditional Irish folk, Celtic folk, traditional Celtic, etc. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using the term Irish folk, as the definition of “folk” (“originating or traditional with the common people of a country or region and typically reflecting their lifestyle”) best describes the wide variety of sonances, styles, and soundmen I’ll be detailing—even though the word itself has been debased considerably since the American folk revival of the 1950s, today’s usage frequently reserved for music that’s more pop than pure.
And 2.), while I do enjoy the various dalliances into other genres, I’ll be avoiding such artists for the sake of keeping this exercise “pure.” Sharon Shannon, for example, dabbled in world beat, but her music was Irish folk at its core. Bands like the Pogues, Clannad, the Corrs, Emer Kenny, Moving Heats, and Horslips (two of the first to use electric instruments), Phil Coulter, and Paul Brady, to cite a few examples, fully crossed that threshold into pop and (regrettably) will not be discussed here.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Rising of the Moon: Irish Songs of Rebellion (1956)
This foursome’s novel approach is crystallized in two simple sentences: Said Liam Clancy during a rehearsal session, “We could belt it out like the highwaymen. Get the sound of galloping horses.” With plucky spirit and that clattering-on-cobbles approach, the Clancy Brothers (Tom and Paddy joining Liam) and Tommy Makem brilliantly preserved the once cobwebbed folk of their country.
Displaying typical Irish modesty, their hammered gold brilliance is never flaunted: the instrumentation (whistle, harp, guitar, and harmonica) and rousing harmonies on The Rising of the Moon kept to a pauper-house minimum. Even the album’s amateurish production contributes to its understated powers. Inspired by Liam Clancy’s jaunt through Ireland with American folk music collector Diane Hamilton, who taped folk numbers in family parlors, The Rising of the Moon is recorded in the Bronx kitchen of Kenny Goldstein, co-founder of the Tradition label.
The Co. Tipperary / Co. Armagh quartet spend most of the album’s 33 minutes mythicizing Ireland’s countless revolutionaries, covering the rebel ballads that become Irish folk staples over the next five decades: “The Foggy Dew,” brimming with churchyard solemnity; Jack Melady’s teardrop harp adding a pinch of mortality to the militaristic romp “The Minstrel Boy”; and the knotted emotion of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”
One of the genre’s landmark releases, The Rising of the Moon galvanized an atrophied folk scene in Ireland and helped launch the ensuing Dublin-based “ballad boom.”
[Listen to “The Foggy Dew”]
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – In Person at Carnegie Hall (1963)
Coming on the heels of a notable appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a special performance for President John F. Kennedy, In Person at Carnegie Hall cements the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s status as one of the major artists of the American folk revival.
Gone is the hearthside warmth, replaced with a backroom-pub rowdiness only hinted at on The Rising of the Moon. Accompanied by convivial banjo and guitar, the Aran gansey-clad foursome roar through covers of “Johnston’s Motor Car” and “Reilly’s Daughter,” as well as originals like Liam Clancy’s “The Juice of the Barley.” But In Person at Carnegie Hall is more than just skillful bombast. There’s a rendition of “Patriot Game,” a song that hides its bravado under a thick layer of cemetery dust (the version here miffed songwriter Dominic Behan for its exclusion of a verse that was critical of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera) and a rascally rendition of “Galway Bay,” its spicy satire delivering a message to the guffawing audience: The Irish folk standards popular once more had become just that—too standard.
Orating a William Butler Yeats poem, peppering their third-person yarns with lively banter, and giving their songs narrative context—here the group poses as a modernized form of the seanchaí, the now extinct caretakers of Ireland’s non-literary traditions, who frequently crisscrossed the island reciting tales of valor and villainy. Just listen to the Carnegie Hall crowd’s reaction; these master raconteurs are certainly at the height of their power.
[Listen to “Galway Bay”]
The Dubliners – Finnegan Wakes (1966)
James Joyce aptly detailed the environment from which the Dubliners hailed in his short story collection of the same name: “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land.”
Topers and born anarchists: this was the Dubliners, a group instantly identifiable thanks to their working-class bluster and thick, jackeen accents. Led by the inimitable Ronnie Drew (possessor of a voice reared on honey—honey laced with stinging bees), the Co. Dublin act jostled with the Clancys and Makem for the position of top “ballad boom” act.
Finnegan Wakes is their masterpiece. Recorded live at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the fractious album finds the Dubliners attacking the day’s social and religious norms (tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course). The ode to Dublin brothels, “Monto,” is introduced with Drew saying, “We’d like to take you to a part of Dublin that’s probably not in any guidebook,” and ends with a cordial Irish curse, “Póg mo thóin!” There’s also commentary on Ireland’s antipathy for its own language, British imperialism (“Nelson’s Farewell”), and an Irishmen’s inferiority complex: “Master McGrath,” a song about an Irish greyhound’s 1869 win in the Waterloo Cup, which is introduced as, “Probably the only victory we’ve ever had on English soil.”
The Dubliners are gritty everymen, sure, but their playing went beyond everyman prowess: the endearing blend of instruments (fiddle, banjo, tin whistle) in “The Dublin Fusiliers,” “The Sea Around Us,” and “The Cook in the Kitchen” (the Dubliners are credited with being the first “ballad boom” group to incorporate instrumental dance numbers into their catalogue) exhibiting a skill for arrangement; the fiddle on “Will You Come to the Bower” soaring on a corncrake’s wings; and the title track shaking the bogs of their myrtle thank to its foot-stomping, building crescendos.
Irish folk had never been so fiercely, socially conscience—and so good.
[Listen to “Monto”]
Sweeney's Men – Sweeney’s Men (1968)
Johnny Moynihan was a member of both Planxty and De Danann, but it’s his efforts with the lesser-known Sweeney’s Men that are most noteworthy. During his time with the Co. Galway trio, Moynihan introduced the Greek bouzouki to Irish folk.
According to stories, Moynihan showed up for rehearsal toting the instrument, informing his rehearsal mates he had swapped it for his mandolin. One session with the bouzouki and the rest of Sweeney’s Men petitioned him to get his mandolin back. Moynihan persisted, however, and the band’s signature sound developed soon after: traditional American, British, and Irish folks bolstered by the cross rhythms of his bouzouki, and Andy Irvine’s mandolin and guitar. “Tom Dooley” and “Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willy” are two examples. (Note: Today, an Irish bouzouki is typically used in Irish folk, an instrument that features four courses, a flat back, and different sets of turnings than its Greek predecessor.)
Sweeney’s Men finds the trio departing from the templates established by their predecessors, swapping songs of flag-waving and getting fluthered for more rustic themes: the swaying-hay-cart feel to the nomad’s jaunt “Sullivan’s John,” written by Irish Traveler and famous busker Pádraig “Pecker” Dunne, when he was just 11; the mizzen-masted puffery of “The Handsome Cabin Boy”; and banjo player Terry Woods’ tarty original “My Dearest Dear.”
[Listen to “Sullivan’s John”]
The Wolfe Tones – Rifles of the I.R.A. (1969)
Like any politically charged act, the Wolfe Tones’ reputation as folk insurgents frequently overshadows their musical output. Banned on Radio Eireann, banned at Celtic F.C.’s home park in Glasgow—even banned on Aer Lingus flights (Ulster Unionist politician Roy Beggs, Jr. compared their songs to the speeches of Osama bin Laden). The Inchicore, Co. Dublin group has sought to achieve a sort of political evenness—penning “Protestant Men,” a ballad about the Protestants involved with the fight for Irish freedom: the band’s namesake, Theobald Wolfe Tone, and Robert Emmet, among others—but for the most part, the foursome’s covers and compositions are of a pro-republican slant.
Fittingly, Rifles of the I.R.A. was released in 1969, the previous year’s chaos associated with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’s marches deteriorating into full-blown civic bloodshed. The Troubles had begun and the Tones were tapping into that spirit, recording some of the finest “rebel music” of their generation.
The billowing mandolins on the Irish Famine lament “Skibbereen” (“I’ll be the man to lead the van, beneath our flag of green / And loud and high we’ll raise the cry, ‘Revenge for Skibbereen!’”) are harsh winds dispersing the quicklime stench from the Abbeystrewery Cemetery burial pits, while the choruses on the banjo-driven “God Save Ireland” sound like a choir of a thousand Irish patriots wrapped in tribal green. Equally affecting are the songs that don’t crackle with shot and shell: the tin whistle wistfulness of “Sweet Carnlough Bay”; the foamy melody in “Ships in Full Sail”: and one of the most beautiful versions of “Slievenamon” ever committed to tape.
[Listen to “Slievenamon”]
Skara Brae – Skara Brae (1971)
Ireland’s finest folk artists typically have one thing in common: they come from good musical stock. For Tríona and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, one half of Skara Brae, the genes and influence came from father, Aodh, a celebrated singer himself in their native Co. Donegal, and an aunt, Neili, who was reported to have contributed close to 300 songs to Dublin University’s folk collection.
Recorded in one afternoon session at the Marianella Hall in Dublin (the album’s cover photo was snapped in a nearby graveyard), Skara Brae’s lone LP stands as one of the genre’s most groundbreaking releases. Guitar as soothing as a mouthful of warm tea (Dáithí Sproule was the first to use the now popular DADGAD tuning) highlight the foursome’s delicately blended harmonies (Skara Brae is also credited with introducing the singing practice to Irish language tunes).
The album is sung entirely in Irish, but take heed if vexed over any lost-in-translation head-scratching: the vocals are as emotive as the lyrics, from the flickering felicity on “Caitlín Óg,” to the black weight of “Táim Breoite Go Leor,” to “Cailín Rua” and its autumn-woodlands gilding.
Skara Brae’s journeys into other musical genres also inspired later Irish folk acts to do the same: the jazzy guitar wrinkles in “Airde Cuain” and the instrumental “Casadh an Tsúgáin,” which featured Tríona’s prickly, melodic harpsichord.
[Listen to “Táim Breoite Go Leor”]
The Chieftains – The Chieftains 4 (1973)
The Chieftains stretched new skin on an old curagh: eschewing the Dubliners’ and Wolfe Tones’ themes of ribaldry and republicanism, the Dublin act drew inspiration from Seán Ó Riada’s band Ceoltóirí Chualann (of which the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney and Martin Fay were members). The Chieftains concentrated on instrumentation and arrangements, belted out reels, airs, and jigs, and stripped away any modern nuances.
The Chieftains 4 is their crowning jewel and the album that helped cultivate their reputation as the most famous Irish folk act of the 20th century. The album features accomplished ensemble pieces, like the jaunting-car flight of “Cherish the Ladies,” Moloney’s uilleann pipes and Fay’s fiddle bleating in unison, Michael Tubridy’s flute and Peadar Mercier’s bodhrán offering occasional chirps. The Chieftains could shear their compositions, too; hear the bath-naked first half of “Mná na hÉireann,” a Riada-penned number that appeared on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 flick, Barry Lyndon; the tin whistle tickles in “The Morning Dew”; and the silken flute in “O’Keefe’s Slide.”
The group’s secret weapon? Classically trained Derek Bell and the elegant patina his harp brings to songs like “Carrickfergus” and “The Tip of the Whistle.” The harp has long been connected to Ireland—from its banishment by the British as a way of repressing nationalism, to its seraphic work by the blind composer Turlough O’Carolan, to its revival, starting with the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival—and Bell’s playing on The Chieftains 4 honors the instrument’s rich history.
[Listen to “Mná na hÉireann”]
Planxty – Planxty (1973)
Like Irish diggers, spading deep in the earth for the best turf, Planxty quarried deep into Irish folk’s traditions when crafting its sound.
Planxty’s genesis lay in Christy Moore’s Prosperous, accomplished artists Liam O’Flynn, Dónal Lunny, and Andy Irvine gathering to help the singer / songwriter Moore cut his second solo record. One year later the quartet released Plantxy’s self-titled debut (now admiringly dubbed “the Black Album” for its cover art), a work that helped initiate a second Irish folk revival thanks to its revolutionary, sophisticated arrangements and instrumental counterpoint.
“Merrily Kissed the Quaker,” “Planxty Irwin,” and “Junior Crehan’s Favourite” display such craftsmanship, sensually conflating melodies from a variety of instruments, particularly O’Flynn’s uilleann pipes and tin whistle. “Arthur McBride” is ferried by the intricate rhythm guitar of Irvine, while “The Jolly Beggar-Reel” is all village green gaiety. Planxty also cover the type of folk tackled by their 1960s predecessors, compositions like the blood-splashed “Follow Me up to Carlow” and the ode to English occupation “Only Our Rivers Run Free” (“I wander her hills and her valleys and still to my sorrow I see / A land that has never known freedom, where only her rivers run free”).
A “planxty” is the name for a composition written to express gratitude to a teacher. Subsequent Irish folk artists penned their own planxtys to these Irish giants.
[Listen to “Only Our Rivers Run Free”]
De Danann - De Danann (1975)
The Irish pub session . . . filled with imagery lifted straight from the Colin Irwin canon: men in Donegal tweed jackets, drenched in the black lees of Guinness; the aproned publican wiping a tumbler; impromptu jigs upon a flagstoned floor; ragged musicians, their hair wild with effort; good nights, good craic. De Dannan was born from such a setting, the group forming after periodic sessions at Hughes Pub in Spiddal, a Gaeltacht area of Co. Galway.
Lineups in Irish folk acts are never static, members entering and exiling, venturing forth to join others or give it a whirl on their own. Such is the case with De Danann. However, its core has always remained fiddle beserker Frankie Gavin (frequently the subject of comical stories involving even God trying to emulate his style) and fleet-fingered bouzouki / guitar player Alec Finn.
Their playing is what gives De Danann its thick, prayer-book binding: Finn’s duck-feather soft guitar and bouzouki—the latter courtesy of a six-string Greek version, not the Irish eight-stringer typically used by Ireland’s folk acts—in songs like “The Blackbird / The Jolly Clam Diggers” and “Tripping up the Stairs”; and Gavin playing with the intensity of a bare-knuckle boxer on “The Green Fields of Rossbeigh.” Other highlights include, “The Sunny Banks / Farewell to Erin” and its cauldron bog of layered fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and “The Shore of Lough Bran,” which features the maidenly reserve of vocalist Dolores Keane.
[Listen to “The Sunny Banks / Farewell to Erin”]
Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill – Tríona (1975)
Co. Donegal’s Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill otherworldly delivery made her a modern day Niamh of the Golden Hair, toting listeners off to a sonic Tír na nÓg, Ireland’s mythical land of eternal youth.
A product of the rather incestuous scene of the 1970s (she was a member of both the aforementioned Skara Brae and the Bothy Band), Ní Dhomhnaill released her only solo album in ’75. Tríona rankled traditionalists on account of the vocalist’s trademark harpsichord, but there’s no doubt the instrument gaily disturbed the genre’s crusting dirt.
The harpsichord melody in “This Wee Lass on the Brae” spins with a medieval lilt, while in “O’Carolan’s Farewell To Music,” the instrument slices and heaves like a ploughman’s spade. In between, Ní Dhomhnaill bewitches with her seductively shrill voice, from the way she flirts with pop crossover status in “When I Was a Fair Maid,” to her crucified poses in the instrument-less “Na Gamhna Geala,” to the convent-echoing harmonies on “Stor A Stor A Ghra.”
[Listen to “This Wee Lass on the Brae”]
The Bothy Band – Old Hag You Have Killed Me (1976)
The Bothy Band lifted its name from the rustic stone huts built for migrant Irish laborers toiling in England and Scotland. Ironic, since the group’s ferocious sound would have torn the roof off such a structure. Led by a dream lineup of adepts and aficionados—Matt Molloy, winner of the All-Ireland Flute Championship at just 17; Kevin Burke, expert in the Sligo style of fiddling; and Paddy Keenan, once described by bandmate Dónal Lunny as the, “Jimi Hendrix of the pipes”—the Bothy Band were swathed in a hero’s light, toting the genre of Irish folk off to new and exciting destinations.
Employing the skilled arrangements of the Chieftains while tapping into their deep-rooted, showman sensibilities, the sextet favored pure vibrancy over establishing mood. The title track and “Music in the Glen” are two of the album’s highlights: tight, melodic instrumentals that preserved each member’s individual style, yet also combined those styles into music that was truly powerful. The Bothy Band know when to rest weary hands, as well, cutting glade-quiet tracks like the breathless “Fionnghuala” and the hymnal “Calum Sqaire.”
Picking a favorite performer from the Bothy Band’s dream list is nigh impossible—from Burke and his delightful fiddle tumult in “Farewell to Erin,” to Keenan and the double-whiskey-fueled pipe work in “The Laurel Tree”—but if pressed, the answer is Molloy. The flute has long been connected with Ireland (excavated flute fragments from the 11th century have been found in Co. Dublin, Co. Cork, and Co. Waterford), the Irish playing technique closely linked to those of the tin whistle and Irish pipes. Here, Molly conjures up the specters of a thousand flutists past, adding subtle ferocity to tracks like “The Ballintore Fancy” and “Michael Gorman’s.”
[Listen to “Old Hag You Have Killed Me”]
Mary Bergin – Feadóga Stáin (1979)
Like other instruments utilized in Irish folk, the tin whistle has been associated with the genre since only the 19th century. The instrument was invented by Robert Clarke in the village of Coney Weston, England (1843), later mass-produced in nearby Manchester, and ultimately introduced to Ireland by returning railroad and canal laborers.
Mary Bergin is regarded as the world’s premier tin whistle player, employing a style that’s a mix of staccato-tonguing technique and ornamental finger work—“The tongue to punch out the rhythm,” she once described, “and the fingers for ornamentation.” Feadóga Stáin (“the tin whistle” in Irish) showcased her style, while tapping into Irish folk’s soloist traditions, forgoing an approach that Bothy Band fiddler Paddy Glackin once summed up rather succinctly: “You go to a session these days and it’s a case of let’s get in and play at two hundred miles an hour. There’ll be 25 fiddlers and you can’t hear yourself, let alone anyone else.” The 14 medleys on Feadóga Stáin find the emphasis strictly on Bergin’s playing, with only guitar and bodhrán in the background providing rhythm.
Bergin, who won the All-Ireland Tin Whistle Championship in 1969, illuminates with her performances: from the galloping cob energy of the jigs “Tom Billy’s/The Langstern Pony,” to the bleeding mirth of the hornpipes “Garraí Na Bhfeileoig/Miss Galvin,” to the reels “Seán Reid’s/The Drunken Landlady,” which are as delicate as a cottage of clay and wattle. Bergin’s playing is never about virtuoso swagger—it’s about pure emotion.
[Listen to “Tom Billy’s/The Langstern Pony”]
The Chieftains – The Year of the French (1982)
The Year of the French is the Chieftains’ leap into uncharted creative waters, Paddy Moloney deviating from traditional material towards his own compositions. Moloney penned the material here for a 1982 Radio Telefis Éireann and French television adaptation of the Thomas Flanagan novel of the same name. The book detailed the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the landing of a doomed expeditionary force of 1,000 French and Irish men in Co. Mayo.
The Year of the French is typical soundtrack fare; however, Moloney would never fully shirk tradition, so there’s enough Irish folk foliage to keep enthusiasts of the genre peeping. Working with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, Moloney crafts a number of textured, expressive numbers: “The McCarthy Theme / The Looting,” centered around the tale’s protagonist, the poet Owen McCarthy, and his tragic agon with the English; the dolorous stillness and parapet pride of the main theme (sounding like James Horner’s muse for a certain Scottish-themed soundtrack a decade later); and the elated stomp and whoop of “Treacy’s Barnyard Dance,” where the Chieftains show off their pub chops.
The album also allowed Moloney to truly showcase his prowess with the uilleann pipes, the Chieftain songwriter carrying on the tradition of this distinctive Irish instrument, which reached its zenith in popularity during the early part of the 19th century before being squelched by the Irish Famine, immigration, and a ban by the English government. (According to renowned piper Brendan McKinney, the sweeter, meeker uilleann pipes were developed to hide the instrument from the English, who would frequently hang pipers.) Moloney’s display brings heartfelt emotion to tracks like “The Hanging/Sean O Di” and “The Irish March: March of The Mayomen.”
[Listen to “Opening Theme / The Coach Ride”]
Paddy Reilly – Greatest Hits LIVE (1985)
After being discovered by Mick McCarthy during a session at the Embankment Pub in Tallaght, Co. Dublin, Paddy Reilly quit his job at the Clondalkin Paper Mills, the first step in his journey to becoming one of Ireland’s top balladeers. Greatest Hits LIVE finds the Dublin native at his performing zenith, tackling: “The Old Triangle,” writer Brendan Behan’s paean to the soul-fraying four years he spent at Mountjoy Gaol; the bawling Irish Famine lament “The Fields of Athenry,” the customary show-ender at his gigs; and the exuberant “The Crack Was Ninety,” which finds the dexterous Reilly wrapping his tongue around lyrics like, “The Isle of Man woman fancied Whack / Your man stood there till his mates came back / Whack! They all whacked into Whack, and Whack was whacked out on his back”—all after spending the night imbibing in his drink of choice, Johnny Walker on the rocks.
Reilly hushes the gallery with more poignant material, all delivered in his warm, baritone voice: “The Cliffs of Doneen” and its member of the Irish diaspora wailing for home; “The Old Rustic Bridge,” a tale of decayed rapture; and Phil Coulter’s ode to his sectarian-divided home of Derry, “The Town I Loved so Well.”
Reilly’s profound passion and austere approach transform other songwriter’s classics into his own.
[Listen to “The Fields of Athenry”]
Altan – Harvest Storm (1992)
Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and sister Tríona, as well as Enya and the group Clannad, all hail from Gweedore, a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area of Co. Donegal. The unacquainted ask, “What’s in the water up there?” Those familiar with the area know better; according to one Irish myth, Balor, the one-eyed king of the Fomorians, cried a toxin tear in a Gweedore valley, blighting the water supply and leading to the area’s familiar name: the Poison Glen.
Queries and cheeky myths aside, Gweedore is also the birthplace of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (daughter of the world renowned Proinsias Ó Maonaigh), who is the fiddler, vocalist, and backbone of one of the top Irish folk acts of the 1990s: Altan. The band’s signature sound, unspoiled and inspiring on Harvest Storm, is a Northern Irish-melded twin fiddle attack, made up of Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciarán Tourish (who often sound so perfectly in sync you swear their parts was double-tracked). The countervailing fiddle adds feverish potency to sets like “Pretty Peg/New Ships a Sailing/The Bird’s Nest/The Man From Bundoran” and “Drowsy Maggie/Rakish Paddy/Harvest Storm,” where the pair sound like their frenzied bow strokes will saw their fiddles in half.
Equally alluring are the songs where Altan favors mood over pace: “Mo Choill,” which digs a grave with its melodic teeth; the melting icicles and pendent branches of “The Snowy Path,” a song penned by guitarist Mark Kelly; and “Rosses Highlands,” featuring the swan-white notes of talented flutist Frankie Kennedy.
[Listen to “Drowsy Maggie/Rakish Paddy/Harvest Storm”]
Sharon Shannon – Sharon Shannon (1993)
As children, Sharon Shannon and her siblings were encouraged to pick up instruments and perform at the Friday night céilidhs (gatherings for music and dancing) held in a village near her home in Corrofin, Co. Clare. Hammering through renditions of “Siege of Ennis” and “Haymaker’s Jig,” five, six hours a night—that’s how this world-renowned Irish artist developed into the vivacious live performer she is today.
Though her debut is rooted in Irish folk gloryings, Shannon introduced fans of the genre to a variety of world sounds: the wrangling Portuguese dance number “Coridinio”; the rustic Quebecois reel “The Woodchoppers & Le Reel des Voyagers”; the capering French waltz during the first half of “Retour des Hirondelles & Tune for a Found Harmonium”; and the Cajun cadences of “Anto’s Cajun Cousins,” complete with pop leanings (a rhythm section of drums and bass). There’s also standard Irish fare like the infectious “Glentown” and the bitten-by-ticks fidgeting of “Queen of the West.”
The album (which went on to become the most successful Irish traditional music album ever released) is dominated by Shannon’s button accordion, which became popular with Irish musicians around the end of the 19th century. With her particular instrument in the much punchier C#/D key combination, Shannon delivers catchy tune after tune: from “Blackbird,” with a melody as shiny as a biscuit tin, to the glen-tranquil “Marbhna Luimni.” “You just play until the tunes stop chasing you,” Shannon once said; tunes from every corner of the globe are hounding Shannon and she’s using them to breathe new life into Irish folk.
[Listen to “Anto’s Cajun Cousins”]
Patrick Street – All In Good Time (1997)
Like the mythical Fianna—a band of famous Irish warriors, each with their own brag sheet of strength and supremacy—the supergroup Patrick Street conquered audiences throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though, it should be noted, “supergroup” was a moniker band members like Kevin Burke abhorred. Joining Burke (formerly of the Bothy Band) in Patrick Street’s lineup at one time or another were numerous heavyweights from the Irish folk scene: Arty McGlynn (Planxty), Jackie Daly (De Danann), Andy Irvine (Sweeney’s Men, Planxty), and Bill Whelan, who achieved international acclaim in the 1990s as the composer of Riverdance.
All in Good Time is Patrick Street’s crowning achievement, the group putting the Fianna’s motto into practice: Truth in our hearts, strength in our hands, consistency in our tongues. A penchant for complex arrangements and a disdain for a creation with all its edges keenly polished (not easy with musicians so seasoned) made Patrick Street torchbearers for Irish folk during some particularly barren years. The band’s approach is evident here: from Burke’s fickle fiddle on “The Mouth of the Tobique / Billy Wilson” to Daly’s button accordion on “Lynch’s Barn Dances,” sounding as clunky as a crop of acorns, to McGlynn’s spider-spun guitar lines on the saucy “The Girls Along the Road.”
[Listen to “The Girls Along the Road”]
Solas - Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers (1997)
Séamus Egan rose to mainstream prominence in the mid-to late-90s thanks to crafting the soundtrack for Edward Burns' The Brothers McMullen and co-writing the smash hit “I Will Remember You” with Sarah McLachlan. However, folk enthusiasts were familiar with Egan long before that, on account of his All-Ireland championships from 1979 (banjo and mandolin), his solo efforts, and for founding the act Solas.
Egan’s fingerprints all over this ’97 release: clambering banjo in “The Big Reel of Ballynacally / The High Hill / Flash Away the Pressing Gang,” mandolin-whisked textures of “The Maid on the Shore,” and hypnotizing flirtations with the flute in the opening to “Aililiú Na Gamhna.”
The latter track is a prime example of how strong Egan’s ear is when it comes to selecting compositions for Solas to tackle. Many of the tracks on Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers feature melodies so glorious they make the room spin: the poke and plunk of button accordion / concertina player John Williams on “The Kilnamona Barndance / Give the Girl Her Fourpence / My Maryanne” and Winifred Horan’s festival-blithe fiddle work on “Paddy Taylors / McFadden’s Handsome Daughter / The Narrowback / Frank’s Reel / Esther’s Reel.”
[Listen to “The Primrose Lass / Molly From Longford / The Four Kisses”]
Lúnasa – Otherworld (1999)
Lúnasa take their name from Lughnasadh, an August feast once held in medieval Ireland. According to Irish myth, Lugh dedicated the festival to his foster-mother, Tailtiu, the last queen of the Fir Bolg. On her deathbed, Tailtiu asked that each year games be held in her honor. Do this, she said, and Ireland would never be without song. Fitting, because Lúnasa is doing its best to make certain Ireland’s music traditions continue well into the 21st century.
The group has drawn its share of scorn from those apostles of tradition, as their approach is the musical equivalent of splashing black currant juice in a pint of Guinness; the band plays with an unconventional upright acoustic bass and often double-tracks during recording sessions. The latter is a technique frequently employed by other Irish folk artists (like the Bothy Band, which double-tracked Matt Molloy’s pipes on “The Maids of Mitchelstown” in 1977), but none have done so and achieved the same results as Lúnasa. In the reel set “The Butlers of Glen Avenue / Sliabh Russell / Cathal McConnell’s,” Kevin Crawford (flute and whistle) and Mike McGoldrick’s (uilleann pipes and whistle) “dual” playing crafts a sound that threatens to capsize the stars.
Less heralded, yet equally captivating, are the album’s more downbeat numbers, songs where Lúnasa prove Irish folk artists don’t have to overindulge to properly convey emotion: “The Miller of Drohan” and “Stolen Apples,” both bull thick with the rhythm playing of bassist Trevor Hutchinson and guitarist Donogh Hennessy.
[Listen to “The Butlers of Glen Avenue / Sliabh Russell / Cathal McConnell's”]
Danú – Think Before You Think (2000)
Think Before You Think was Danú’s Hill-of-Tara coronation, the Co. Waterford septet’s crowning as the top act in Irish folk today. The album spans the breadth of emotion, conflating naked sorrow with back-room revelry, and the dark, rosy light of romance with terminal longing.
“Are You Ready Yet? / The Tailor’s Thimble / Donoghue’s Reel / I’m Ready Now!” is a big holy show of instrumentation, a tone-setter that finds all seven members showcasing their talents. The bodhrán gallop and accordion tomfoolery of “The Cameron Highlander / The Blackthorn Stick” will set even the most stone-footed culchie to hopping about. Even bouncy non-Irish folk like “The Outlandish Knight,” found in Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776) and Francis James Child’s famous collection of ballads, and the Southern Appalachia folk song “Fair and Tender Ladies” (thanks to Tom Doorley’s beautiful flute work) are injected with a unique ardor and boldness.
A pair of cottage sing-songs by vocalist Ciarán Ó Gealbháin emerge as the highlights: “Eochaill” and “An Paistin Fionn.” The latter tune’s background is one of the true tragedies of Irish folk history: it’s a “song of the people” (as opposed to a “song of the bards,” which were thoroughly documented), likely based on a true story; however, that story is now lost to history thanks to the great gaps that once existed in Ireland’s chronicling of tales and ballads.
[Listen to “The Cameron Highlander / The Blackthorn Stick”]