Ireland is fortunate to have an exceptionally strong oral music tradition that stretches back to a time well before records began, and which has resiliently survived the worst that historical and contemporary life has thrown at it. Steeped in Gaelic history, language and cultural heritage, Irish singers and songwriters are also fortunate in that they have access to a reliable and steadfast well of creativity, one that they can draw on or tap into as the need arises.
Because the cultural groundwork of Irish music is so well developed, it provides those emersed in it with a framework for further exploration or innovation with new styles and influences (something that’s been particularly visible in Irish music over the last few decades).
Although the songs presented here are in Irish, most of them aren’t in the sean-nós or other styles used by our ancestors (although some are heavily indebted) and they reflect (very roughly) the changing style from the early 20th century up to the present day.
Most of the songs in this list have also been chosen with respect to their accessibility by a non-Irish audience. Listeners without knowledge of the Gaelic language may struggle with the story but not with the fundamental emotions and feelings behind them.
It’s probably also worth noting here that although some people often describe Irish music as ‘spiritual’, that’s actually a misnomer. ‘Spiritual’ tends to be a term that pops up when a person is confronted by another culture and experiences something they like and get an emotive jolt from, – but which they don’t completely understand. To fill that void, the sensation is often summarised as ‘spiritual’.
If you take a step back however, you’ll realise that English-speaking people rarely describe English music as ‘spiritual’. In the same way, because it’s such an everyday part of our lives, few Irish people will ever describe Irish music as ‘spiritual’ and it’s sometimes hard not to roll your eyes when others try to impose such ethereal interpretations on something that’s so fundamentally practical.
While making this list, I was probably even more conscious of the singers and songwriters I was leaving out than the ones I’d chosen to include. That’s the problem with trying to list anything related to Irish music. There are simply too many songs, too many tunes, too many variations and too many writers/performers to give them all the credit they deserve. To make matter worse, because lists like this are based completely on personal perspective, you can also be sure that anyone else creating a similar list would end up with a completely different set of songs and performers.
Finally, I’ll also note here that I’ve provided ‘You Tube’ links to all of the listed songs. This, obviously, isn’t the optimal way to be introduced to new music but it will give you a taster and if you find something you like, you can always drop deeper.
An Poc ar Buile
This tune has been covered so many times and by so many people now, there’s really no definitive version. Despite this, my favourite remains the version performed by the Chieftains (& Friends) in a concert down in Dingle back in 1999. If you listen to the You Tube clip, you’ll hear how all four singers use to own particular singing style that makes the piece they’re singing, completely their own.
The title ‘An Puc ar Buile’ means ‘The Furious Goat’ and it tells the story of a workman who gets caught up in an encounter with a mad goat and somehow ends up riding him through the town of Dingle. Although originally based on a poem by Dónal Ó Mulláin (it was adapted into its current form by Seán Ó Sé in the sixties), it’s a hilarious song and a lot of fun to sing with other people. It’s no surprise to hear this one rolled out any time there’s a sing-song going on with Irish speakers.
Link: An Poc ar Buile
Mal Bhán Ní Chuilleanáin
Mal Bhán Ní Chuilleanáin’, by Lá Lugh, is a variation of the traditional Irish love song ‘Mollaí na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin’ (Curly-haired Molly Ní Chuilleanáin) but unlike most earlier, traditional versions, Lá Lugh slow the tune down dramatically (after an energetic intro) to give it a far more poignant and haunting feel
The group Lá Lugh (literally, ‘Day of Lugh’ [Lámhfhada – a mythological figure]) was established by singer/ songwriter, Eithne Ní Uallacháin and talented fiddler Gerry O’Conner (her husband) in the early 1990s. Throughout the 90s, they garnered an increasing reputation for stylistic innovation but sadly, the very talented Eithne died in 1999, just after completing their next album (‘Bilingua’). This may be one of the reasons, this version of the traditional song isn’t as well-known as it should be.
Link: Mal Bhán Ní Chuilleanáin
It would be grossly unfair not to include at least one track from Clannad given their influence on the Irish music scene over the last forty years. Discovered at an early stage in their career (in the 1970s) when they created the haunting music for the BBC production ‘Harry’s Game’, their subsequent (and very clever) merging of traditional Irish music elements with contemporary pop heralded the introduction of what became known as ‘the Celtic Music’ scene and made them one of Ireland’s first supergroups.
Dúlamán is the titular song from one of their earlier albums and concerns a poor man’s attempts to convince a wealthy man to allow him marry his daughter. If you’re familiar with the source material, you’ll see how cleverly the traditional version’s adapted and remixed. The use of pumping chorus vocals means this is a song much changed and re-covered over the years but Altan’s version remains by far my favourite.
Dónal Agus Mórag
It’s difficult to choose which song to include from the Altan’s various albums as they’re all so good. I’ve chosen Dónal Agus Mórag (from the album ‘Harvest Storm’) primarily as the joyful rhythm and chorus make it far more accessible to a non-Irish speaking audience. The song details the preparation for the wedding between the titular couple.
Altan are a group from Donegal and they’ve been playing the Irish trad circuit for thirty years or more. The group was originally set up by lead singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and her husband, flute player Frankie Kennedy (now, sadly deceased). One of the most beautiful slow reels I’ve ever come across (Sunset) was written and performed by this couple.
Link: Dónal Agus Mórag
Dá Bhfaigheann Mo Rogha de Thriúr Acu
This song from the album Dual features one of my favourite singers (Muireann nic Amhlaoibh) with fellow Danú member Éamonn Doorley and Scottish musicians Julie Fowlis and Ross Martin. The title means ‘If I had my choice of the three of them’ in English – an apt title given the flow into ‘Dhannsamaid Le Ailean’ and ‘Cairistíon’ Nigh’n Eoghainn’.
The word ‘Dual’ means both ‘native’ or ‘natural’ but it can also mean to ‘twist’ or ‘braid’ so it’s actually a very clever title given the merging of styles from Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland.
Again, upbeat and cheerful, this is one you could listen to over and over again.
Link: Dá Bhfaigheann Mo Rogha de Thriúr Acu
Éist do Bhéal
I first heard this song in a 1999 album called Éist [songs in their native language] – a very decent collection of songs ‘as Gaeilge’. There are at least two other versions that I know of but Cork singer Sinéad Lohan’s is beautifully polished and probably the best.
Éist do Bhéal literally means “Listen to your mouth” in English – a way of saying ‘listen to the crap you’re spouting’ (i.e. ‘Shut up’). Various internet comment boards are full of people arguing over the meaning but it’s pretty simple. Despite her popularity and career success, Sinéad Lohan retired from the music scene quite early – a real loss for the rest of us.
Link: Éist do Bhéal
Ceol Na Gaoithe
Ceol Na Gaoithe is a song by Inis Oírr sean nós singer Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola and it appeared in her first album ‘An Raicín Álainn’ (from 2002). Sadly, this song is one that’s not particularly well known and it’s been undeservedly overlooked. Possibly this was because it was one of Ní Chonaola’s own compositions and didn’t align so well with the other songs on the album which are far more traditional.
The title means ‘Song of the Gale’. Ní Chonaola followed this album up with ‘Flame of Wine’ in 2005. Beautiful, emotive singing.
Link: Ceol Na Gaoithe
Leath ina dhiaidh a hocht
This song from Irish band Kila (written by Ronán O’Snódaigh) first turned up on O’Snódaigh’s album Tonnta Ró, then in Kila’s 2007 album Gambler’s Ballet (O’Snódaigh and his brothers are members of Kila).
The title means “half past eight” and tells the story of someone waking up in the detritus of a party from the night-before, trying to make sense of it and the events that transpired.
The Irish lyrics are great but what makes the Kila version of the song superior (in my view) is the ingenious melding of the tune with a famous classical piece (the name of which currently eludes me).
This one’s a lot of fun.
Link: Leath ina dhiaidh a hocht
Plait agus Domhnail
Plait agus Domhnail (Clontarf), from singer/songwriter/performer Lorcán MacMathúna is an epic song that describes the build-up and ferocious violence that occurs during the Battle of Clontarf between Scottish champion and Plait the son of the King of Norway. The song (from MacMathúna’s album ‘An Bhuatais & The Meaning of Life) draws directly on sean-nós (and almost bardic) tradition to create a composition that perfectly fits the stirring madness and blood intensity of battle. MacMathúna’s powerful performance, supported by some exceptional musicians, means it’s hard to listen to this rendition and not be moved.
Strangely enough, I first came across MacMathúna’s work in a great little video game called
‘Scéal’ where MacMathúna’s performance gave the game a level of cultural authenticity it couldn’t possibly have achieved on its own. He also pretty much blasted it out of the park in terms of ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere development’ that made that game so effective.
Is Ainm Dom
Is Ainm Dom (from ‘The Dawn of Motion’ album) is the wild card in this list of ten songs but it also feels aptly placed given how perfectly it showcases the ongoing influences on Irish music and its inexorable evolution over time.
‘Moxie’ are an instrumental trad group that came together in 2011, mostly focussed on compositions that involved innovative stylistic takes on the usual Irish music tradition. Ever fresh and interesting, their most recent recruit – Tunisian vocalist Julia Spanu – has taken them off in very different direction, however.
Merging Spanu’s Tunisian/French roots with Moxie’s more traditional Irish sound (while also using both Arabic and Gaelic lyrics) produces something that’s genuinely unique and as this is a recent release, I’m perfectly intrigued to see where it goes.
This unusual mix of North African and Gaelic music will probably upset some people (but probably not Irish musicians).
Link: Is Ainm Dom