Irish Traditional Music

What is Traditional Music?
The more common name for traditional music is folk music. Today the word "folk" covers almost any type of music which usually has a simple guitar accompaniment and is sung by folkgroups. Very often the songs they sing are very new, even composed by that group or singer. These are not folksongs or traditional music. Folk music is music which belongs to a particular group of people or community. It is music which has been learnt orally, one person listening to another singing and learning the song, not from a book, but by listening many times until he knows the song. He will then sing it himself and his son or daughter or neighbours will learn it from him. In this way the music is passed on from one generation (father) to another (son or daughter) and the music is PRESERVED. But as the music is passed on it becomes changed. People sing or play a piece differently or even incorrectly and these mistakes and changes are learnt and sung by the person who is trying to learn from them. When the pupil knows the piece he may also change it slightly. In this way folk music, and especially folk songs, are always changing and developing.
Obviously someone wrote or made up in his his mind the music or song originally but it has become so changed and the witer's name forgotten that we say the song is anonymous, that is, we do not know who wrote it. Every country has its folk music which shows the people of that country expressing how they feel in songs and dance. The people who made Irish Traditional music and folk-song were the men and women of Irish-speaking Ireland. The music and songs describe their feelings about local happeninfs; love, war, work, sorrow, while the dance music tells us of the light-hearted fun and enjoyment they had in the evenings after their day's work was done.
The Age of the Music.

Ireland has, for many centuries, been a land well known for it's music. As early as the 12th century a Welshman called Giraldus wrote about the beautiful harping he heard when he visited Ireland. Old celtic crosses show harpers and pipers playing their instruments as early as the 10th and 11th centuries. The oldest folk tune we know is one written down in the 16th century. (We can only say a tune is as old as the date when it was first written down but it may be much older.) This is a tune called "Callino" - "I am a girl from beside the River Suir" which was published in a book called "William Ballet's Lute Book" in 1584. We can see this notebook in the library of Trinity College in Dublin.
Collecting Folk Music.
Music can be remembered and learnt by two methods. A player can listen many, many times to a piece of music and gradually learn it 'by ear', or else he can read it from printed music. Irish musicians have to use both methods. The method of reading from printed music teaches them only the correct notes but a beginner must also listen to really good players to learn the correct style of playing the music. The printed music is very important because it means that the airs and tunes written down will be kept forever. Sometimes players stop playing certain tunes and eventually they forget them altogether. If they were not written down then the music would not pass on ro other players but would be lost. Thousands of airs have been lost in this way.
Ever since about 1700 there have been men (whom we call 'Collectors') going all over Ireland and listening to people playing and singing. They wrote down on music paper the notes and words of any songs they did not know and later had them printed and sold as books of Irish Airs. In this way nearly 11,000 tunes, songs, etc, have been collected.
One of the earliest and most important collectors was Edward Bunting who was a church organist in Belfast. He lived from 1773-1843. A great festival of harpers was held in the Assembly Rooms of the Belfast Exchange on the 11th - 13th July, 1792, when twelve harpers came to compete for money prizes.

Bunting went round each of the harpers and wrote down as many of the tunes they could play. Most of the harpers were over 70 years of age and six of them were blind. Bunting collected over three hundred airs which he published throughout his lifetime although only sixty-six came from the Belfast Festival. If this Belfast Festival had not been held the airs would not have been written down by Bunting, nor would his descriptions of the old harpers and how they played the harp. The airs and style of playing would have been irretrievably lost.
Belfast Newsletter 26th April 1792

National Music of Ireland
A respectable body of the inhabitants of Belfast having published a plan for reviving the ancient music of this country, and the project having met with such support and approbation as must insure successes to the undertaking. PERFORMERS ON THE IRISH HARP are requested to assemble in this town on the tenth day of July next, when a considerable sum will be distributed in Premiums, in proportion to their respective merits. It being the intention of the Committee that every Performer shall receive some Premium, it is hoped that no Harper will decline attending on account of his having been unsuccessful on any former occasion.

Belfast 26th April 1792 - Robert Bradshaw, Secretary and Treasurer.
Here is a report of the festival which appeared in the 'Northern Star, No.57.' in 1792
"Although these partial representatives of the Ancient BARDS and Minstrels of Ireland, to the number of ten, did not afford a very high treat to the lovers of modern Music, yet we may venture to affirm that they gave entertainment to the musical critic, who delights in tracing the combination and progress of sounds from the first simple touches of melody up to the full tide of refined harmony. It appears that the principla reason for assembling them here originated in a work to rescue from total oblivion such NATIVE AIRS as were supposed to be in their possession alone, and which might prove an acquisition to the musical world, and an ornament to the Irish Nation. But in this they have not succeeded to any great degree, for they played very few tunes, but what were generally known, though not all committed to print, which is a kind of proof that the ancient Music of this country is not suited to the genius and disposition of its present inhabitants; or, that the incursions of neighbouring barbarous nations interrupted its progress and improvement, and finally terminated the usual practice of it, with its utility, when the nation became subject to a foreign empire."