Irish Musical Instruments

Irish Harp: Has long captivated the Celtic People

(Info taken from


The Celtic Connection

  • Although the Irish are often credited with bringing the harp to Europe, it is believed by some scholars that the harp was actually brought to Europe from Egypt by the Phoenicians in pre Christian times as a trade good.
  • The paths of the Phoenicians can be traced by the distribution and acceptance of the harp.
  • Versions of the harp exist from the Mediterranean Basin to Northern Europe to cultures all the way around coastal Africa and up to the Island of Madagascar.
  • The harp may have also arrived in Europe with successive Indo-European migrations from Southwest Asia.


An Instrument of the Court

  • The harp and Celtic harp music has been an important emblem of Irish nationalism since the 10th Century.screenshot_1236
  • King Griffith of Wales employed harpists in his court at the end of the 11th century.
  • By the end of the 12th century, manuscript illustrations show harps with more advanced designs.
  • The Irish were then playing harps with brass, or bronze, strings.
  • Records from the 15th century show that both the terms “harp” and “clarsach” were in use at about the same time and seemed to have been a distinction between gut-strung European-style harps and wire-strung Gaelic clarsachs of Scotland and Ireland.
  • The earliest surviving harps from Scotland and Ireland date to about the 15th century.
  • The Trinity College harp, one of Ireland’s national treasures, is the harp from which the national symbol of Ireland is copied.
  • The characteristic shape of an Irish Harp is familiar from Irish coins and bottles of Guinness Beer.
  • Henry VIII of England had the Irish harp impressed on coins after obtaining control over Ireland.
  • For centuries, the harp was an integral part of Irish life.
  • Traveling harpists in Ireland, were known to be at the focal point of rebellions – so much so that the harp was banned.
  • Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), the blind Irish folk harpist, wrote hundreds of tunes – many of them are still very popular today.


The English Ban the Harp

  • The period starting from the 1600s during English rule in Ireland was difficult for Irish harpers as the harp was suppressed to prevent a resurgence of nationalism.
  • Harps were burnt.
  • Harpers were executed.
  • The Extinction of the Harping Tradition
  • The tragic extinction of the harping tradition at the end of the eighteenth century had a number of causes:
  • The Anglicization of the Irish (and Scottish) cultures;
  • The increased popularity of step-dancing and the fiddle;
  • And the inability of the harp to play the musical accidentals required for classical music, which started coming in to vogue in Dublin and Edinburgh during the then Baroque era.
  • Only in Wales was the Folk harp tradition unbroken.


Saving the Harping Tradition

  • By the late 18th century it was clear that traditional Irish harpers were nearly extinct.Harpers
  • Because harp music had always been handed down orally, very little of it has been preserved.
  • The most important attempt to save the music was made in 1792.
  • In order to encourage and preserve the old harping tradition, a festival was held in Belfast and newspaper advertisements invited Irish harpers to play for cash prizes.
  • Only ten harpers, ranging in age from fifteen to ninety seven, could be found.
  • A nineteen year old church organist named Edward Bunting was hired to notate the music, but with few exceptions only the melodies (not the bass lines) were taken down.
  • Bunting had so much enthusiasm during the festival that he continued to collect traditional tunes throughout his life — publishing 3 collections, in 1797, 1809, and 1840.
  • Bunting also collected much lore and technical information from the harpers.
  • All of the surviving O’Carolan melodies date to these works.
  • Few other melodies survive and this proves to be an historic oversight; now we know little about how the harp was actually played.


Today’s Celtic Harpers

  • Many harpers also have assisted in the recovery of the lost Celtic harping tradition.
  • The resurgence in the late 20th century of the North American traveling Troubadour harpers like Sylvia Woods has rekindled interest in the Celtic harp.
  • The international success of the Chieftains and their harper, Derek Bell, led to a resurgence of folk harping throughout Ireland and the rest of the western world.
  • Traditional Irish folk harp makers are now beginning to flourish after a hiatus where only the orchestral harp was to be found in Ireland.
  • In the last few decades the harp has grown in popularity with the likes of harpers Derek Bell, Anne Heyman, Patrick Ball, Moira O’Hara, Alan Stivell, and Kim Robertson.
  • Many others have made wonderful records of Celtic music.
  • Today the Irish or Celtic folk lever harp is again an important part of Irish and world culture.


Bodhrán:  The Irish Drum

(Info taken fromán)



  • The bodhrán is an Irish frame drum ranging from 25 to 65 cm (10″ to 26″) in diameter, with most drums measuring 35 to 45 cm (14″ to 18″).Brodráin 1
  • The sides of the drum are 9 to 20 cm (3½” to 8″) deep.
  • A goatskin head is tacked to one side (synthetic heads or other animal skins are sometimes used). The other side is open-ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and timbre.
  • One or two crossbars, sometimes removable, may be inside the frame, but this is increasingly rare on modern instruments.
  • Some professional modern bodhráns integrate mechanical tuning systems similar to those used on drums found in drum kits. It is usually with a hex key that the bodhrán skins are tightened or loosened depending on the atmospheric conditions.



  • According to musician Ronan Nolan, former editor of Irish Music magazine, the bodhrán evolved in the mid-20th century from the tambourine, which can be heard on some Irish music Brodráin 2recordings dating back to the 1920s and viewed in a pre-Famine painting.
  • However, in remote parts of the south-west, the “poor man’s tambourine” – made from farm implements and without the cymbals – was in popular use among mummers, or wren boys.
  • A large oil painting on canvas by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) depicts a large Halloween house party in which bodhrán features are clearly shown.
  • It is known that by the early 20th century, home-made frame drums were constructed using willow branches as frames and leather as drumheads, and pennies as jingles.
  • In photographs from the 1940s and videos from the 1950s, jingles remained part of the bodhrán construction like a tambourine, yet were played with a tipper.
  • Seán Ó Riada declared the bodhrán to be the native drum of the Celts, with a musical history that predated Christianity and native to southwest Ireland.
  • The Irish word bodhrán, indicating a drum, is first mentioned in a translated English document in the 17th century.
  • Bodhrán also appears in Jacob Pool’s list of words in county Wexford (collected in the late 18th century), meaning “A drum or tambourine”.
  • A relatively new introduction to Irish music, the bodhrán has largely replaced the role of the tambourine.
  • Early History
  • The bodhrán is one of the most basic of drums and is similar to the frame drums distributed widely across northern Africa from the Middle East, and is related to  instruments used for Arabic music and the musical traditions of the Mediterranean region.
  • A larger form is found in the Iranian Daff (a large persian frame drum), which is played with the fingers in an upright position, without a stick.
  • The traditional skin drums made by some Native Americans are also very close in design to the bodhrán.
  • It has also been suggested that the origin of the instrument may be the skin trays used in Ireland for carrying peat.
  • The earliest bodhrán may have simply been a skin stretched across a wood frame without any means of attachment.
  • The Cornish frame drum crowdy-crawn, which was also used for harvesting grain, was known as early as 1880.



  • There are no known references to this particular name for a drum prior to the 17th century.
  • Although various drums (played with either hands or sticks) have been used in Ireland since ancient times, the bodhrán itself did not gain wide recognition as a legitimate musical instrument until the Irish traditional music resurgence in the 1960s.
  • At that time, it became known through the music of Seán Ó Riada and others.
  • The second wave roots revival of Irish Traditional music in the 1960s and 1970s brought virtuoso bodhrán playing to the forefront, when it was further popularized by bands such as The Chieftains.
  • Growing interest led to internationally available LP recordings, at which time the bodhrán became a globally recognized instrument.
  • In the 1970s, virtuoso players such as The Chieftains’ Peadar Mercier and other performers further developed the playing techniques of the Bodhrán.


International Use

  • Although most common in Ireland, the bodhrán has gained popularity throughout the Celtic music world, especially in Scotland, Cape Breton, North mainland Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
  • In Southern England tambourines were a popular accompaniment to traditional dance music.
  • In the South West of England a similar instrument made from the frame of a garden sieve was once popular and known as a Riddle Drum.
  • In Cornish traditional music the framed drums are called a Crowdy-crawn.
  • The bodhrán has also found application within the Celtic music of Spain, often accompanying the gaita gallega (Spanish bagpipes).
  • Beaters
  • The drum is struck either with the bare hand or with a latheturned piece of wood called a bone, tipper, beater, or cipín.
  • Tippers were originally fashioned from a double-ended knuckle bone, but are now commonly made from ash, holly, or hickory wood.
  • Brush-ended beaters, and a “rim shot” (striking the rim) technique for contrast, were introduced by De Dannan’s Johnny McDonagh.



  • The drum is struck either with the bare hand or with a latheturned piece of wood called a bone, tipper, beater, or cipín.
  • Tippers were originally fashioned from a double-ended knuckle bone, but are now commonly made from ash, holly, or hickory wood.
  • Brush-ended beaters, and a “rim shot” (striking the rim) technique for contrast, were introduced by De Dannan’s Johnny McDonagh.




  • The drum is usually played in a seated position, held vertically on the player’s thigh and supported by his or her upper body and arm (usually on the left side, for a right-handed player).
  • The left hand is placed on the inside of the skin where it is able to control the tension (and therefore the pitch and timbre) by applying varying amounts of pressure with the back of the hand against the crossbar, if present.
  • The drum is struck with the other arm (usually the right) and is played either with the bare hand or with a tipper.
  • There are numerous playing styles, mostly named after the region of Ireland in which they originated.
  • The most common is the Kerry style, which uses a two-headed tipper;
  • The West Limerick style uses only one end of the tipper.


Bagpipes:  Forgotten Instrument of the Emerald Isle

(Info taken from


History of the Pipes in Ireland

  • The earliest recorded date for the pipes is 4000 B.C., where a bagpipe is found in Chaldean sculptures.
  • This evidence shows it is ancient, as old as the harp and nearly as old as the drum.
  • Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Romans all marched to the skirl of the pipes to battle.
  • Today the bagpipe is synonymous with Scotland, but the pipes also has ancient ties to Ireland (far older than in Scotland), where they are the forgotten instrument of the Emerald Isle.
  • A seventh-century account at the palace of Da Derg in County Dublin, lists people who cam to pay homage to King Conaire the Great in 35 B.C.
  • It tells of nine pipers who came from the fairy hills of Bregia (County Meath), described as the best pipe-players in the whole world.
  • They are also listed by name as Bind, Robind, Riarbind, Sihe, Dibe, Deicrind, Umal, Cumal & Ciallglind.Early Piper
  • The bagpipe was even given place in the Brehan Laws of the 400s.
  • Here it is called the cuisle, meaning “the pulse,” being a reference to the blood pulsing through one’s veins.
  • It’s also in reference to the hum that comes from the drones.
  • At the great Feis’ (parliament) held at Tara, the pipers occupied a prominent position.
  • The pipes (called a cuisleannoch) were one of the favored instruments down to the last Feis that was presided over by King Dermot MacFergus in 560 A.D..
  • There after Tara’s Halls were silent.
  • After Christianity was embraced by the Irish, the bagpipe was used in church service to sustain the sacred chant or as a solo instrument.
  • Depicted in one of the panels on the High Cross of Clonmacnoise (dated about 910 a.d.) is a sculpture of a man playing a bagpipe standing on two cats.


Making Its way into Scotland

  • It is clear that the bagpipe existed in Ireland long before Scotland.
  • The bagpipe is believed to have made its way to Scotland with the Dalradians upon their exodus from County Antrim across the Irish Sea at about 470 A.D..
  • This is when Prince Fergus MacErc lead his clan in the invasion of the lands of the Picts at present day Argyle.
  • With the success of the Irish conquest, Alba (Scotland’s earlier name) was changed to Scotia Minor.
  • Eíre (Ireland) was at that time ofter referred to as Scotia Major.
  • Irish and Scottish Pipes
  • The difference in the Scottish and Irish bagpipe is their name and the number of drones.
  • The Scottish refer to their bagpipe as “the Great Highland Bagpipe,” has three drones: one bass and two tenor.
  • The Irish call theirs “the Great Irish Warpipe,” which has two drones: one bass and one tenor. In Gaelic the bagpipe is called “Piob Mor.”


Historical Records of Pipes in Ireland

  • An observation of the Irish pipers was made by the musician Vincenzo Galilei in a published work titled Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music in 1581 in Florence.
  • Galilei wrote, “The bagpipe is much used by the Irish.
  • To its sound this unconquered, fierce, and warlike people, march their armies and encourage one another to feats of valor.
  • With it also, they accompany their dead to the grave, making such a mournful sounds as to invite – nay, almost force – the bystander to weep!”
  • This use of the bagpipe at funerals is mentioned at the funeral of Donncladh, King of Ossory (father of Sadhbh, Queen of Ireland in 975) in an ancient poem where nine keeners sung lamentations with an accompaniment of “cymbals and pipes harmoniously.”
  • There were settlements made by many Irish bands in Wales who introduced the instrument. The Welsh readily accepted the strange instrument.


Loosing Favor with the Upper and Middle Class

  • By the eleventh century the bagpipe slowly lost favor with the upper and middle class in favor of the harp.
  • Yet in two deeds, one dated 1206 and the other in 1256, both near Dublin, mentioned Geoffrey the Piper and William the Piper.
  • Even though the upper class shunned the skirl of the pipes, its music could still be heard among the working class, especially the military who employed its emotional effects upon the battlefield.
  • Unique to the Irish soldiers was that the pipers actually lead their comrades into battle playing the Warpipes, which Flood illustrates well in his use of the account by Standish O’Grady, who wrote about the Battle of the Curlews in County Sligo.
  • This battle was fought on August 15, 1599, in which many English officers fell.Warpipe
  • O’Grady wrote, “Brave men, these pipers. The modern military band retires as its regiment goes into action. But the piper went on before his men, and piped them into the thick of battle. He advanced, sounding his battle-pibroch (song), and stood in the ranks of war while men fell around him…. So here upon the brown bog Red Hugh’s pipers stood out beyond their men sounding wild and high the battle-pibrochs of the North with hearts and hands brave as any in the wild work…. At last the whole of the Queen’s host was reduced to chaos, streaming madly away, and the battle of the Curlew Mountains was fought and lost and won.”
  • Thus the entry shows that the loss of a piper was most tragic, second to that of an important officer.
  • Further Employment of the Irish Pipes
  • After the occupation of the Normans in 1169 of Ireland, the Irish were forced to enlist its men into regiments to assist the English Kings in their wars.
  • To France marched the Irish regiment in 1243 for King Henry III, and into battle they advanced to the sounds of their warpipes.
  • The Irish continued to march to the sounds of their warpipes at Gascony in 1286-1289 under King Edward I, and into Flanders in 1297.
  • In the following year, the Irish army was assigned to the English army at the Battle of Falkirk in Scotland against Sir William Wallace, where on July 22, the Irish marched into battle line to the skirl of the warpipes as their cousins, the Scots, watched in amazement on the other side of the battlefield.
  • It was at Falkirk that the Scotsmen saw the martial effect of the bagpipes upon the Irish soldiers.
  • Thereafter, they began bringing bagpipes into their battles and into the annals of history.
  • The first mention of the Scots using their bagpipes in battle was at their victory at Bannockburn in 1314.
  • Again as at Falkirk, Irish pipers marched 6,000 comrades into the Battle of Crecy in France, which was fought on August 26, 1346.
  • This Irish army contributed heavily to the English victory over the French.


A Silencing Blow to the long Tradition of Irish Warpipe Playing

  • King Richard II delivered a silencing blow to the long tradition of the Irish warpipe playing the folk airs of the Emerald Isle or marching her troops into battle.
  • The King recognized the warpipes ability to rouse Irishmen to acts of “insurrection” and “violence.”
  • England caused for the Statute of Kilkenny to be passed in 1366 making the possession and playing of the warpipes a penal offense, which included having pipers entertain in the home.
  • The English government became paranoid that Irish pipers acted as “…agents or spies on the English whereby great evils often resulted.”
  • The consequence of an infraction of the Kilkenny statute was death.
  • No doubt the English were pleased with the results.
  • The silencing of the warpipe in Ireland would not raise the Gaelic Clans anymore.
  • This edict was again supported by Queen Elizabeth I and again by Cromwell, whose punishment was banishment to Barbados or other West Indies islands.
  • Ironically, the English allowed Irish regiments to retain pipers outside of Ireland.
  • Even in Ireland pipers still played, but by special order, like those given to Donal O’Moghan in 1375 and Richard Bennet in 1469.
  • Both men, having proved their loyalty to the crown, were allowed to play their pipes.
  • Yet at the very time Ireland’s pipers were silenced, the pipes were being listened to by King Richard II, who had four pipers in his train in 1377, showing that the bagpipe was also popular in England.
  • Cromwell’s Deep Hatred for the Irish
  • Cromwell laid waste to Ireland in the mid – 1600s, and during this period various histories note the presence of warpipes as the Irish fought the English foe.
  • This period was the last golden era of the instrument on the Emerald Isle.
  • Piper Cornelius O’Brien was sentenced on January 25, 1656, “to receive twenty lashes on the bare back, on suspicion of inciting to rebellion as a piper.”
  • He was than deported to Barbados.


The Siege of DerryIrish Piper

  • One hundred years after the events described by Stanihusrt, King James fought King William of Orange in the Siege of Derry in 1689 in northern Ireland.
  • Both kings had Irish pipers playing the troops into battle, which truly must have been awesome to see and hear.
  • But the warpipes failed to rouse King James’ troops to victory.
  • King William later banned all Irish minstrels, harpers and pipers.
  • When the government Irish Guards were asked by King William which king they would serve, only seven of the 1200 soldiers chose William.
  • The others followed the exiled King James to France.
  • There, the defeated king accepted the men who had helped to defeat him.


Finding a Home in France

  • Having been banned from Ireland once again, the warpipes found a home in France, where they led the Irish “Wild Geese” into war for the next hundred years.
  • Their greatest moment in France was at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.
  • As was the custom of the Irish soldiers, the pipers led their comrades onto the battlefield.
  • Knowing that the Royal Scots regiments of the 21st, 25th and 42nd (Black Watch) were assembling on the other side, the warpipers struck into the great Jacobite song “The White Cockade.”
  • It must have rankled the kilts of the Scots to no end in hearing played the famous Scottish Jacobite rebel song.
  • At Fontenoy, the French and their “Wild Geese” were victorious.
  • The warpipe continued in future Irish regiments of the British army, with the Royal Irish Rangers being the high-profile Irish regiment today.


Irish Pipers

 Resurgence in Ireland

  • While the warpipe was alive and well upon the battlefields of France, the warpipe had almost disappeared in Ireland.
  • Queen Elizabeth and Cromwell succeeded in abolishing the warpipe.
  • But the ingenious pipers invented another pipe to take it’s place.
  • The union or uilleann pipe required the joining of a bellows under the right arm, which pumped air via a tube to the bagpipe under the left arm, with the bellows replacing the blowpipe.
  • The instrument could only be played sitting down and had a much lighter sound, making it a popular instrument for the parlor.
  • The English placed no ban upon this new pipe, and by 1710 the warpipe was gone and the uilleann pipe was in.
  • Today, the uilleann pipe is the national instrument of Ireland.
  • Except for the battlefield and funeral marches, the warpipe of Ireland was silent.
  • Two hundred years later, around and about Dublin, warpipe bands gathered to play.
  • In appearance they resembled their Scot counterparts, i.e., three drone pipes, a couple of tenor and snare drums, a bass drum, and they wore kilts.
  • The kilts were different.
  • Instead of tartan they wore a solid color.
  • Instead of glengarry and balmoral hats, they wore the Irish cabean (an oversized beret).
  • The warpipe was making a comeback in the form of pipe-band competitions.
  • True to form, the playing of the warpipes stirred the Gaelic blood and soon the streets of Dublin were in turmoil followed by a nation.
  • It really wasn’t the skirl of the pipes that brought about the rebellion, but as King Richard II, Queen Elizabeth and Cromwell well knew, some of the movers and shakers of the Irish Rebellion, were none other than the musicians of the forgotten warpipes of Ireland.