The Irish have long been thought of as an intensely musical people and there is a good deal of evidence from the past to support the idea.
Superbly made and well-preserved bronze instruments have been recovered from Ireland's bogs, perhaps deliberately thrown in as a worthy tribute to a local spirit or god. There have been both Celtic and pre-Celtic finds, evidently representing a long prehistoric tradition.
By Celtic times the harp was already the queen of instruments, and master-harpers were privileged beings whom chiefs delighted to honour. There was little change after the Anglo-Norman invasion; although the authorities were clearly inclined to eliminate this symbol of Gaelic culture, the new lords went their own way, and proved eager to take over a native tradition that entailed hearing themselves praised, each in his own court, in grand imposing terms. The high skill of 12th-century musicians was confirmed by the chronicler Gerald of Wales, in most other respects a harsh critic of the Irish. Music was the one sphere in which they were really diligent, he conceded, and in that art they were superior to all other peoples. Unlike the British, they favoured quick and lively airs, which were performed harmoniously in concert on several instruments, and with a deceptive ease that made the result a perfect example of 'the art that conceals art'.
The Irish harp was a small, portable instrument with a distinctive shape (notably the 'pillar' at the front, curved instead of upright as on a modern harp); it was played with fingermails which had been grown especially long for the purpose. A few examples have survived, including the Harp of Brian Boru (actually come centuries later) in Trinity College, Dublin. Other early instruments included one with strings called the tympanum, and the pipes, similar to the better-known bagpipes of Scotland.
Tudor administrators and colonists were less friendly than their predecessors to Irish traditions, but the old ways persisted. As late as 1610 the writer-soldier Barnaby Rich declared that 'the Irish have harpers, and these are so reverenced among them that in the time of rebellion they will forbear to hurt either their persons or their goods....and every great man in the country hath his rhymer and his harper'. But the drastic 17th century events which ruined the Catholic landowning class also doomed the poets and harpers supported by their bounty. The harpers became itinerants, sometimes even reduced to living by manual labour. Since no one thought of writing them down until it was too late, most of their traditional melodies were lost, although 'the last of the bards', the blind Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), became famous during his lifetime, and his own compositions, curiously blending traditional and fashionable Italian elements, have survived.
Although they had come down in the world, the harpers represented an aloof, aristocratic tradition. The common people had their own music, performed on the pipes and increasingly, from the 17th century, on the violin, almost universally known (then and now) as the fiddle; flutes and whistles, and later the concertina, also became part of popular music making. The fiddle's ability to range from plaintiveness to rhythmic frenzy made it the most suitable instrument for most gatherings, especially where there were jigs, reels and other dances to be performed.
By the 18th century there could be no doubt about it. Dancing was one of the most popular Irish pastimes, cheerful but also cheap, and enthusiastically practiced on Sundays and at weddings, wakes and fairs, in taverns and out in the fields. The 18th century was the heyday of the dancing master, touring from village to village and living on the sixpences he collected in return for teaching the inhabitants all the latest steps.
During the same period, the upper class patronized the cosmopolitan musical culture, and to some effect: it was in Dublin, on 13 April 1742, that Handel's Messiah received its first performance. But in Ireland, as in other parts of Europe, the Romantic movement began to stir an interest in the past, expressed in occasions such as the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, and in historical novels, nostalgic poetry and folklore research. The Irish folklorists were only partly successful in recording fading traditions.
The Irish contribution to 'serious' music has been a significant one; the most distinguished figures include the composer John McCormack and, more recently, the flautist James Galway. Traditional Irish forms have caught the world's imagination through the performances of the Chieftains and the musical Riverdance. But the most surprising musical development has been the number of Irish artists using modern forms and making an internation impact - to name only a few, the blues performer Van Morrison, Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats, the group U2 and the singer Sinead O'Connor.