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17 Fascinating Facts About Irish Music

The Celtic harp has deep roots in Irish music.

The Celtic harp has roots in Irish tradition stretching back to the 10th century.

In preparation for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, here are 17 fun facts about Irish music:

1. The Irish value their music so much that an Irish harp is pictured on their euro coins.

2. In Irish stepdance, dancers keep their upper bodies stiff while doing intricate footwork.

3. Stepdancers wear two kinds of shoes: hard shoes for the tapping sound; or soft shoes, which are similar to ballet slippers.

4. A céilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is a traditional Irish or Scottish social gathering, generally involving Gaelic music and dancing.

5. John McCormack was a world famous Irish tenor, performing both operatic repertoire and popular songs. Popular during the first part of the twentieth century, he was one of the first artists to have his music widely distributed on phonograph records.

6. Riverdance, featuring Irish music and dance, was first performed during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. It was so popular that an entire show was built around that act.

7. The top five biggest selling Irish acts of all time are U2, Enya, Van Morrison, The Cranberries, and Westlife.

8. The uilleann pipes are the characteristic bagpipe of Ireland. They are played by pumping a small set of bellows to inflate the bag, then putting pressure on the bag to release air through the reeds. This is very different from the Scottish bagpipes, in which the bag is inflated by the player blowing into a pipe. In fact, some uilleann pipes players can talk or sing while playing.

9. Concertinas and accordions became an important part of Irish folk music in the early 20th century.

10. The bodhrán is the traditional Irish frame drum, which has had a resurgence in popularity since the 1960s.

11. The four-string tenor banjo is now fully accepted in Irish folk music, but this instrument actually originated with African slaves in the United States and was brought back to Ireland by returning emigrants.

12. Informal gatherings at pubs are where most of the Irish folk music action happens today. People gather to learn tunes from each other, usually by ear.

13. The tin whistle was an inexpensive instrument produced by the Clarke company in Manchester, England. Irish schoolchildren learn the basics of playing this simple instrument like American schoolchildren learn the soprano recorder.

14. The Irish harp was played as long ago as the 10th century.

15. The famous song “Danny Boy” is based on the very old Irish melody “Londonderry Air,” but the lyrics were written by an Englishman in 1913.

16. Lilting is a form of traditional Gaelic singing in which rhythm and tone dominate and the words are nonsensical. In this way, it resembles scat music.

17. “The Unicorn” is a song written by the poet Shel Silverstein and made very popular by the Canadian band The Irish Rovers in 1968. American poet, Canadian band, Irish singers – isn’t the world a fascinating place?

Now that you know these fun facts, how can you integrate them into your St. Patrick’s Day activities? Here are some ideas:

  • Show pictures of the Irish instruments mentioned (or the real version if you have it!)
  • Do seated movement to music with Irish music, focusing on fancy footwork.
  • Sing “Danny Boy” together, then watch this video on YouTube.
  • Try lilting – improvise vocally using nonsense syllables.
  • Play Irish Music Bingo (available to members in the Resource section.)

What are your ideas? Please share!

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