Donegal Traditional Music

Our Errigal Hostel is located in the centre of the Donegal Gaeltacht which where you will find some of the best traditional folk musicians in Europe. This is the home of Clannad, Altan and Enya. Most of the pubs in the area host traditional Irish music sessions. There are music schools throughout the year which attract musicians from all over the globe, such as the Frankie Kennedy Winter School and the Ceolnacoille where you can learn how to play your own instrument.

Traditional Irish music is the type of music that turns strangers into friends and it has rhythms that gets the feet tapping. Donegal music is even more unique because of its remote location and its influences. While European folk traditions are suffering as a result of mass produced pop music, Donegal artists such as Enya have spread their musical identity across the globe in films such as Lord of the Rings.

Bodhran, Dekoration im Irish Pub "The Old Dunliner" Hamburg, 17. Apr. 2008

Like a lot of cultural things in Ireland, this is down to history. The earliest annals of Ireland listed musicians alongside poets and kings, so they were obviously deemed important. When the Irish saints travelled across Europe, they also brought their music with them and this tradition of carrying their instruments with them continued into modern times during the waves of emigration.  So popular were they that Queen Elizabeth 1 had Irish harpers and Sean Nós singers in her court. This specialised folk singing was a huge influence on the likes of Van Morrisson and Sinead O’ Connor.

Traditional Irish music is mostly drinking songs, ballads and laments along with dance music. These include reels, hornpipes and jigs. Instruments include the fiddle the flute and the Uileann pipe. Unlike the Scottish bagpipes, uileann pipes are filled with air by a bellows under the elbow. It is said that the Uileann pipes were inspired by warpipes and they take seven years learning, seven years practising and seven years playing. The bodhran was first mentioned in 17th century. This circular drum was probably first used for folk rituals like the wren boys but it gradually found its way to the session where it is most used today.

In the 20th century, button accordion and concertinas were added to the bag of tricks. The banjo followed soon after. Strangely, the banjo is an African instrument which was brought to America by African slaves. Irish musicians had no problem taking these rhythms on board.  In the 1960s in Ireland, folk music underwent a revival with bands like The Clancys who inspired the later fusion of artists like Clannad and Altan. More exotic arrivals were brought into the scene with the mandolin and the bouzoki.

Donegal musicians have very close links with Scotland through the fishing industry and the waves of immigration between the two countries in the 19th century. It developed its own unique style of music. When Comhaltas (the national body for Irish traditional music) set out to promote and standardise music in Ireland, Donegal resisted. The Donegal style of Sean Nós singing uses simple melodies and a nasal style. This gives it a stark and lilting sound and enthusiasts say that the words stand out more. Donegal musicians created the Highland, that Irish version of the Scottish strathspey. There are also mazurkas which are a Polish folk dance that arrived here in the 1840s and took root.

The tin whistle, flute, concertina and accordion were very rare in Donegal until modern times. The fiddle was the king of the instruments. The Donegal fiddle has a quicker pace with more aggressive bowing. Fiddlers often play the melodies against each other in different octaves.  Some say that they try to imitate the bagpipes and there is definitely more of a “lilt” to it. Donegal fiddlers often consider the national repertoire not as exciting as their own techniques which are certainly more diverse and complicated. Luckily, they love to showcase those abilities in Donegal sessions.

Next time you are at one of our hostels in Donegal, make sure you enquire at reception about the nearest music session.










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