I grew up in a house that loves traditional music, and was surrounded with it from day one. A great privilege. I think there’s something in every Irish person that will connect with traditional music, regardless of how familiar or unfamiliar they are with it. It is something that seems like a physical connection, so deep you might have never known it was there. To me, there are few things more uplifting than sitting and listening to a set of tunes. When it’s good, it can make your heart swell.
While traditional music has of course morphed and changed and developed over time, the way in which it’s passed on has remained largely the same. I like how the consistency in this, from each generation to the next. In a session there could be a ten year old on a whistle, playing next to a seventy five year old on the fiddle. The great respect the musicians have for the tunes and the teachers remains unchanged. Traditional Irish music is living and breathing, and yet remains a constant in a world where the norms of learning and communication are changing at an incredible rate. The exchange between musicians is still so pure, and that’s what I love about it – it is it’s own language.
My best friend Jack and I have spent countless hours passing music over and back to each other. A question and a link to James Blake’s cover of A Case of You was the first instant message sent between us on Facebook. Throughout the months that followed, this is how we cemented our friendship. One of life’s great pleasures is that give and take. Recently, after a pleasant hour whiled away sending songs over and back via email (I’ve since ‘emigrated’ to Hackney, although I accept the term reluctantly), Jack asked me to write an ‘essaylist’, of Trad music specifically. So here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite Irish traditional songs and tunes of all time.
Meitheal -Seamus Begley & Steve Cooney
I’m starting this out with a nod to my home – West Kerry. The slides and polkas you hear in West Kerry seem to live in a world of their own. It’s the rhythm that really stands out for me on this record. There’s a deceptiveness in the simplicity of these tunes, unselfish in that they originally existed only for dancers. Steady and wild in equal measure.
Humours of Galway – De Dannan
This tune is a fantastic example of the ‘lift-off’ that can happen in traditional music, and also of the way the musicians silently communicate with each other. I love the nuances of a session, and how a tiny nod, or a glance can mean there’s a change coming. In this case, a glance from Frankie Gavin pushes the tune into another gear, seamlessly. Perfection. You can imagine if De Danann played this to a live audience that the roof would lift off the place.
The Sráid Eoin Shuffle – Aoife Granville
This wonderful album is very close to my heart, particularly this set of tunes, ‘The Sráid Eoin Shuffle’. Growing up just outside of Dingle town, the Wren or ‘An Dreolín’ has been a yearly tradition. The Strawboys, the fifes, the mayhem. The Wren is celebrated on the 26th of September every year – Stephen’s Day. The Wrens of the Dingle Peninsula feature fierce competition between the different bands (Goat Street, John Street and the Green and Gold, to name but a few).
Aoife Granville grew up on John Street – Sráid Eoin – and has been in the Sráid Eoin Wren her whole life. This set of tunes (played on the fife – the Wren bands are fife and drum bands) is a set that you’ll always hear from the Sráid Eoin band, every Stephen’s Day. While the Wren tradition faced extinction in most of rural Ireland in the 20’s and 30s as emigration took it’s toll, the Dingle Wren remains stronger than ever, with people like Aoife to thank for keeping it alive.
Joe Cooley’s Morning Dew / The New Mown Meadows – Caitlín & Ciarán
You’d be hard pressed to find a record and a duo who are more uplifting to listen to than Cíarán Ó Maonaigh and Caitlín Nic Gabhann. Exceptional musicians in their own right, combined they are doubly impressive. These two young musicians are steeped in a tradition they’ve been surrounded by their whole lives, and they breathe life into it with every note they play. Other standout tracks: Marbhna na Luimnigh + O’Sullivans March
Annachie Gordon – Mary Black
I love Mary Black’s recording of this ballad – it’s so simple and pure. Her voice is crystal clear.
O’Donoghues – Andy Irvine
Andy Irvine is a national treasure. We are so lucky to have him. A wonderful songwriter, storyteller and an incredible musician. I love this song for the same reason I loved Jamie XX’s record: great songwriters have a wonderful ability to bottle up nostalgia and communicate it to the masses. I find this song so uplifting and also, slightly sad, because I missed it. What a time to be alive, when Andy Irvine was playing tunes with Ronnie Drew in O’Donoghues.
Joe Bane’s / Gypsy Princess – Jack Talty & Cormac Begley
I spent my second year of college listening to this album every morning as I walked in to Trinity. I love all the tune choices on this record, and the combination of Clare and Kerry coming together here in the form of Cormac Begley and Jack Talty. The two strike a wonderful balance between adhering to a traditional framework and remaining fiercely creative. Also I love concertinas so much that I just became completely attached to this record for the tone of the instruments alone.
Paddy Fahy’s/The Green Fields of Antrim/The Star of Munster – Eileen Ivers
The way Eileen plays these tunes, it’s as if they’re made of elastic and she’s just twisting, turning and re-shaping them, while keeping beautiful form. An absolute masterclass in technical skill and stunning rhythm. Fiddle nerds, assemble.
Raggle Taggle Gypsy – Planxty
Hearing this song is one of my earliest musical memories. Myself and my two sisters used to dance around our office downstairs, asking for this to be played on repeat. As I got older, I delved further into Planxty’s back catalogue, and then, rather conveniently, they reunited for a concert in Vicar Street in 2004, releasing a concert album afterwards. A true supergroup, they revolutionised Irish folk music in the early 70s. I think as a child, I was drawn to the stories that wove their way through songs like the Raggle Taggle Gypsy. I’ve chosen the live recording from Vicar Street that goes into Tabhair Dom Do Lámh (Give me Your Hand), another favourite. This performance also finely demonstrates how exceptional each musician is on their instrument. Listen to Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny playing those contrapuntal melodies, and weep.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney