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Traditional Music in Irish Culture

February 6th, 2019 |


Telling Stories and Uniting People

Irish music tells the story of the land and its people. Throughout history, during times of celebration and rebellion, music sent a powerful message and brought people together. Today Irish folk music is a living tradition, found in pubs throughout Ireland and the world, and at numerous traditional music sessions and festivals.

Ireland has long had a rich oral tradition of storytelling and song. In the middle ages, noble families employed harpists and storytellers who traveled with them and held a high social status. As the social order changed and their rich patrons no longer employed them, many harpists became traveling musicians. An early example of taking the show on the road!

Bringing Irish Folk Music Across the Pond

In the early to mid 20th century, traditional music was usually played in the home and at community gatherings called ceilidhs. In 1951, the Comhaltas Coeltoiri Eireann (CCE) was founded to promote Irish traditional music. CCE established the Fleadh Ceoil Festival, which brings thousands of aspiring musicians to Ireland for competition every year.

In the 1960’s, the resurgence of interest in traditional music in Ireland coincided with the rise of folk musicians in the United States. In 1961, the Clancy Brothers appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, four young men in Aran sweaters, making Irish music history and bringing Irish folk music across the Atlantic.

The Symbol of a Nation

The harp is one of the oldest and best-known instruments in Ireland. It is so ingrained in Irish culture that it is the national emblem of Ireland. It appears on the flags of the Irish Navy and the President of Ireland, as well as the Irish Euro coins.

If the harp is the national symbol of Ireland, then surely Guinness must be the national drink of Ireland. And what is the company logo? The harp! There is a subtle difference, however; the harp on the Guinness logo faces to the right.

A Living Tradition

One of the most authentic experiences you can have in Ireland is a traditional music seisun (session) in a pub. Found everywhere from rural pubs in the countryside to well-known pubs in Temple Bar, a “trad session” is a great opportunity to witness the living tradition of Irish music.

A traditional Irish music festival, or trad fest, takes the session to the next level. While a session is an informal gathering of musicians, a trad fest is an organized, often multi-day event. A trad fest celebrates Irish music and culture, incorporating various acts and often dancing. One of the best known trad fests in Ireland is the Dublin Trad Fest, which takes place in Temple Bar in January.

Bethlehem’s St. Patrick’s Trad Fest

Donegal Square is having a proper three day trad fest that encompasses the entire St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Failte Fest 2019 takes place March 15-17 in the Charles A. Brown Ice House in Bethlehem. Four shows featuring talented musicians who have played to great crowds at Musikfest and Celtic Classic. Well-loved acts such as Timlin and Kane, Seamus Kennedy, and Rogue Diplomats, plus the traditional fiddle and harp of Alison Gillespie and Joanna Mell. This year, we are proud to also present Robert Watt, who is a word-champion piper. And no Irish celebration would be complete without our local favorites, the always talented and energetic O’Grady-Quinlan Irish Dancers! For full Failte Fest details and to order tickets, go to