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Irish Fiddle Music (in a nutshell)

In America, St. Patrick’s Day is all about going to the local sports bar and drinking green beer while watching basketball on the big screen TVs. In schools, children are encouraged to wear green clothing to avoid being pinched. Everybody is Irish for a day.

Most people don’t realize that the real Saint Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was a British aristocrat, captured by Irish pagans sometime in the 400s A.D., and forced to work as a slave herding sheep in the cold mountains of Ireland. He managed to escape and took a ship back to Britain. He later decided that it was his calling to return to Ireland and introduce Christianity to the Irish people. His mission, symbolically, drove the snakes out of Ireland. This is also where the shamrock comes into play, as he was said to use the three leaves to represent the Holy Trinity. Thus the association with green is born.

The British influence on Irish culture and tradition goes way back. It is an influence that endures today, reflected and illustrated in Irish music. This is why a lot of Irish music sounds so rebellious. Have you ever heard Bono (singer of the band U2) say, “This song is not a rebel song!”? You may have heard Metallica’s version of Whiskey in the Jar in the 1990s. You may also know that Metallica was covering a Thin Lizzy recording from the 1970s, but did you know that the song goes back even farther than that? It has been recorded by folk bands in the 1950s and 1960s, but it goes back even further than that! It is actually a traditional Irish folk tune that is thought to have been sung as far back as the 1600s! You may also have noticed that mountains, faeries, boats, drinking, war, and suffering are recurring themes in Irish music. Other popular examples of songs that incorporate these themes are; Come Out Ye Black and Tans, Fields of Athenry, Finnegan's Wake, and Back Home in Derry. What does this all have to do with the fiddle? You may be asking yourself this question as you read this article.

The short answer is...everything! The fiddle plays a key role in traditional Irish music, as does the harp. The harp is a symbol of Gaelic aristocracy and sophistication. It can be seen on coins and coat of arms. The fiddle has come to symbolize the common man because of its versatility, portability, and durability. It is easy to carry, takes a licking, and can be easily played at dance functions. Working class Irish folk were fond of dancing and partying. This is were Irish folk music originated. These were the songs that common folk sang, danced to, and drank to.

Irish immigrants brought these songs and fiddle tunes with them to America. We can thank people like Francis O'Neill who was born in Ireland, but settled in Chicago and became a police officer. He recruited many Irish musicians to become officers of the law. He also took it upon himself to collect and to write down many of the tunes they played, preserving the music of the Irish people (

You may have been to an Irish pub and saw group of people drinking Guinness and playing Irish tunes. This is called session music. For this we can thank another thoughtful Irishman by the name of Dave Mallinson. Most of the tunes you hear in pubs can be found in his books, 100 Essential Irish Session Tunes, and 100 Evergreen Irish Session Tunes ( One other key Irish song collector is Robin Williamson. His book, English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes ( is often referred to as "the book" among American musicians who play traditional Irish music.

Irish music is alive and thriving, and not just on St. Patrick's Day. Acts such as The Dubliners, Riverdance, and Celtic Woman have been very successful simply by performing renditions of traditional Irish music and dance. It should also be mentioned (if it is not already apparent) that modern genres such as Country-Western and bluegrass have roots in traditional Irish music. The fiddle is prominent, essential, and integral, not only in Irish, but in most traditional musical genres around the world.

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