For some, Irish music is synonymous with the Irish Tenors and Riverdance; for others, it means the soul music of Van Morrison and the hard-rocking anthems of Thin Lizzy. No matter your preferred genre or artist, the folkier side of Irish song has most likely influenced your listening habits as a forerunner of American bluegrass, country, blues and, to some extent, rock 'n' roll.
In its purest form, Irish folk music uses instruments that have been part of Irish culture for at least a century. These instruments include the bodhrán (a type of Irish frame drum), the fiddle (otherwise known as a violin), tin and wooden whistles (sometimes replaced by more modern flutes), uilleann pipes (a fancy type of bagpipes) and the Celtic harp. However, many Irish folk groups also feature instruments that Irish musicians adopted in the 1900s, such as the guitar, banjo, accordion, harmonica and bouzouki (a plucked string instrument similar to a mandolin).
Though many people started collecting Irish folk music and instruments in the 1800s, it was a fairly unpopular genre in the United States until two records by the Clancy Brothers -- The Rising of the Moon (Irish Songs of Rebellion) and Come Fill Your Glass With Us (Irish Songs of Drinking and Blackguarding) -- became hits in 1959. During the 1960s and 1970s, Dublin's The Chieftains helped establish Irish traditional music as a major contender on the world music scene, while Ireland-based groups like Clannad, Runrig and Thin Lizzy began using elements of Irish folk in rock songs during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, stateside bands like the Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly and House of Pain fused Irish folk with other genres, especially punk and hip-hop.
Traditional Irish tunes are meant for dancing -- at feasts, weddings and celebrations of the saints. Dance-oriented Irish folk music like reels, jigs and hornpipes have quick, complicated melodies and countermelodies that necessitate instruments such as the fiddle and Irish flute, accompanied by simple, understated harmonies.
Reels, jigs and hornpipes are also staples of the Irish and Scottish stepdancing traditions, which have gained an extremely active cult following in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago thanks to large Irish American populations and professional dance troupes such as the Madison's Trinity Academy of Irish Dance and Milwaukee's Cashel Dennehy School of Irish Dance. In April, Trinity student Daniel Fain, 12, will compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships, in Philadelphia.
Another branch of Irish traditional music focuses on vocal showmanship, much like what the Irish Tenors are famous for. This type of Irish folk often features one vocalist who sings unaccompanied, with a high voice and many trills and other flourishes. To American listeners it can sound as much South Asian or Middle Eastern as British or Celtic.
Irish rockers The Kissers are no more, but the Madison music scene boasts much dance- and drink-friendly Irish folk, from the Currach's weekly performance at Brocach, to Amy Curl's Celtic four-piece Navan, to the modern-traditional hybrids of Rising Gael. In addition, Wisconsin's Shamrock Club and the UW's Celtic Music Organization bring world-renowned Celtic musicians, like the Tannahill Weavers and Altan, as well as up-and-coming Irish folk musicians from nearly every corner of the globe. Meanwhile, Irish dance events are held around town on a regular basis, and a Scottish country dance meetup happens each Sunday at the university.