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This Is The Fascinating Story of Irish Classical Music...And It Goes Way Beyond “Danny Boy”

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Double rainbow landscape in Ireland's Dingle Peninsula

It’s long been said that the Irish punch above their weight. And this goes for much beyond their propensity to produce fine boxers. For an island with such a modest footprint (think of the state of Indiana—about 33,000 square miles), Ireland outperforms many places of larger size both in cultural output and global influence.

No doubt it’s true of the written word—it has 4 Nobel Laureates in Literature in comparison to the U.S. count of 13 (in spite of the U.S. having 50 times more people)—but also true of a wide range of other things like the sciences, humanitarian aid and, yes, of course, music.

For a lot of Irish-loving folks here Stateside, Irish music might amount to lots of fiddles and step-dancing, a stirring rendition of "Danny Boy," and perhaps a few dashes of its heavy-hitters—artists like U2, Van Morrison, The Chieftains or James Galway. And while these all have important, rightful places in the tradition of music-making from that part of the world, the scope of Irish music is far richer and more varied than those alone might suggest.

Classical music was alive and well in 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century Ireland, as it is today. Socio-political realities meant that the majority of the island’s earliest and most accomplished composers came from the Anglo-Irish Protestant community, mostly in or near Dublin, and they embarked upon studies and careers at least in part, if not in full, in places outside Ireland, like Britain, Germany and Russia, where opportunities were more plentiful.

This includes names such as John Field, Michael William Balfe, Charles Villiers Stanford and Herbert Hamilton Harty. They wrote music using the prevailing musical vocabulary of their time (if not that of a little before their time). You might even mistake some of their music for Chopin, Weber, or Schumann.

During the 20th century, the winds of political change and the Church’s loosening grip transformed the social, economic, and cultural fabric of the island, both North and South. This led to greater representation of women composers, those from the Catholic community, those from right across the island (not simply Dubllin and Belfast) and even emigrant composers who made Ireland their adopted home.

Composers intersecting with theater, electronica, jazz, trad (Irish folk music), and other genres and disciplines also came on the scene. Among this broad, fascinating group are Seán Ó Riada, Ina Boyle, Aloys Fleischmann, Joan Trimble, Kevin Volans, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Jane O’Leary, Bill Whelan, Deirdre Gribbin, and Roger Doyle.

All of this burgeoning activity in the last 100 years has been complemented and supported by a proliferation of top-notch ensembles and solo artists from all corners of Ireland. The island boasts four major professional orchestras—the Dublin-based RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and RTÉ Concert Orchestra managed by the national broadcaster, the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Limerick and the Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra. Smaller ensembles, such as the Irish Baroque Orchestra and Camerata Kilkenny, enrich the scene with period performance, while the Chamber Choir of Ireland continually impresses under the direction of Paul Hillier, who has led the ensemble to great esteem in contemporary choral singing.

New music in Ireland has thrived in the hands of the Crash Ensemble, who call Alarm Will Sound and Bang on a Can their peers. And while one might think of tenors as Ireland’s most treasured artists on record, it has done a remarkable job cultivating pianists, too.

John O’Conor and Mí?eál O’Rourke led the way in the late 20th century and have been followed by Barry Douglas, Finghin Collins and Michael McHale who carry forward this stellar keyboard tradition in the 21st.

To mark St. Patrick’s Day, WRTI celebrates with many of these outstanding artists, ensembles and composers hitting our airwaves throughout the day. There will be plenty of jigs to liven your step and airs to sing along to.

There will also be moments of discovery as you might encounter something new alongside the familiar. We’ll not only have the music from Riverdance by Bill Whelan, now famous the world over, but also his evocative (and equally danceable) double violin concerto, Inishlacken, named for an island off the Galway coast.


Even more names to discover on the day include those of the Irish diaspora—namely, French composer Augusta Holmes and Illinois-born Swan Hennessy, both late 19th century composers whose families hailed from Cork.



More about Irish music:

Contemporary Music Centre Ireland


Sing Ireland

Arts Council of Ireland - Music

Journal of Music Ireland

Different Voices by Benjamin Dwyer

Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives by Martin Dowling