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Beyond 'Danny Boy:' Irish Composers for a St. Paddy's Day Playlist

A ruined castle covered in ivy sitting on top of a green hill, with a sky of mixed blue and clouds
Tyler Alderson
Ballycarbery Castle in County Kerry

Put down your green beer (blech!) and take off the leprechaun hat. Truth is, they’re about as Irish as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (written by three Americans) and “Danny Boy” (lyrics by an Englishman).  In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, why not listen to some Irish music written by actual Irish composers? 

The Irish have been known for music since at least the 1100s, when writer Gerald of Wales noted, “they are incomparably more skillful [at making music] than any nation I have ever seen.” Here are a few composers to get acquainted with before heading out for Paddy’s Day.  

(And yes, before you ask, it is “PaDDy’s Day” not “PaTTy’s Day.” Dear old St Patrick is known in the Irish language as Pádraig, like the golfer Pádraig Harrington. This is shortened to “Paddy,” a pretty popular nickname in Ireland. “Patty” is a nickname for Patricia, or something you put on a bun with cheese, bacon, and ketchup, maybe some fried onions, too. Now I'm hungry...)

Turlough Ó Carolan (1670-1738)

In Gaelic Ireland, the harp was central to courtly music. Bards and harpers would write songs celebrating their patrons, commemorating important events, and regaling listeners with stories of legendary historical figures. The wire-strung Irish harp, known as the cláirseach, became a symbol of the country, and is still found on the back of Irish coins.

Blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen, Turlough O’Carolan became the most celebrated harper in Ireland, spending nearly 50 years travelling from patron to patron and composing songs for all occasions. While his music is very much in the Irish tradition, he was also influenced by popular composers from the continent, including Vivaldi and Geminiani, giving his music a decidedly Baroque feel. Over 200 of his compositions survive today, many of which are among the most popular pieces in Irish music. The revival in recent years of the cláirseach has spurred even greater interest in his life and music.

According to tradition, when O’Carolan knew he did not have much time left he composed one final piece, entitled “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music.” It’s haunting but sweet, a fitting finale to the career of Ireland’s national composer.

John Field (1782-1837)

John Field may not be a household name now, but he had many well-known admirers in his day. Chopin was a fan; so was Liszt, who said of Field,

“No one since then has been able to reproduce the charms of his speech, caressful as a moist and tender gaze; soothing as the slow, measured rocking of a boat, or the swinging of a hammock, amid whose smoothly placid oscillations we seem to hear the dying murmur of melting caresses.”

John Field was born in Dublin, and studied music there and in London with Muzio Clementi. But he settled for most of his life in Russia, a somewhat odd place for an Irishman to find himself at the beginning of the 19th century. Field’s most celebrated compositions are his nocturnes, which set the standard that Chopin and others would follow.

Elizabeth Joy Roe put out a great album of Field’s nocturnes; it was actually our CD of the Week not too long ago! Her sensitive playing brings out the beauty in Field’s writing, bringing this composer out of the shadows of his fans.

Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971)

When you think of Irish music, chances are you’re thinking “fiddles” rather than “violins.” Ireland has a rich folk music tradition that has birthed popular groups like the Chieftains and the Dubliners, one that you can still hear in pubs and dance halls across the country and around the world. Seán Ó Riada took those sounds to another venue, the concert hall, with his group Ceoltóirí Chualann. In addition to his arrangements of folk songs and tunes, Ó Riada wrote many original works inspired by the music of his home country.

He championed the work of O’Carolan, reviving interest in the Irish harping tradition which had all but died out. In fact, Ó Riada originally wanted to use a cláirseach in his ensemble, but couldn’t find a working instrument, so he settled on the harpsichord (in his opinion, the closest sound to a cláirseach available).

Ó Riada was also a tireless advocate for the Irish language and drew upon old songs and poems for inspiration. The lyrics of “Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland),” sung here by the great traditional singer Seán Ó Sé, compare Ireland to a beautiful woman and come from an 18th century poem.

Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970)

Donnacha Dennehy’s musical journey took him to the US, France, and the Netherlands, but the music of his home country continues to be a defining feature in his compositions. He started playing music early in life, writing his own sonatas for recorder and tin whistle when he was just 9 years old. He founded Crash Ensemble in 1997, hoping to provide an outlet for new music in Ireland, and recently joined the music faculty of Princeton University.

His music often combines the very traditional with the very modern, exploring textures and harmonics and making frequent use of electronics and sound effects. “Grá agus Bás (Love and Death),” the title track of a 2011 album of his music performed by Crash Ensemble, combines a traditional sean-nós (“old style”) voice with a contemporary ensemble augmented by technology.

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No list of Irish composers would be complete without mentioning the thousands of tunes circulating around without composers (or sometimes even names). The Irish love to dance, and for centuries the fiddle, flute, and bagpipes were the soundtrack to many a party. Today, Irish musicians gather in pubs around the world to play the reels, jigs, polkas, slides, and hornpipes that have been passed down through generations and carry on the tradition.

Matt Molloy is the undisputed master of the Irish flute, breathing wonderful life into these old tunes. This one is a showpiece of his remarkable skill, a reel called “The Bucks of Oranmore.” And yes, that is James Galway, the “Man with the Golden Flute,” looking on in awe and tapping his feet as Molloy’s fingers fly.

Tyler Alderson was formerly Operations Manager for CRB.