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St. Patrick’s Day: Music

During the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish use music as a way to bring together people. It has always served as an important part of Irish culture. Music traditions of the Irish have survived since the ancient days of the Celts, who lived by an oral tradition. They passed on the tales of their religion, history, and legends by word of mouth in stories and songs that were taught from older generations to the new.

The Significance of Irish Music

When the English conquered the Irish, they were ordered not to speak to one another in their own language. Music became a way to help them remember the significant events of their culture, as well as keep their traditions and heritage alive. The music bonded the Irish together and offered an emotional outlet. Before long, the English decided to outlaw this form of expression as well. When Queen Elizabeth I was in power, she established a declaration that all pipers and artisans would face arrest and hanging on the spot for ignoring the ban on Irish music.

However, the Irish were able to preserve their culture through song and music with traditional instruments that exist to this very day. Traditional Irish bands (such as the Chieftains) have passed on the cultural ways by using the same instruments from centuries ago, including the fiddle, uilleann pipes (resembles a fancy bagpipe), the tin whistle (a kind of flute fashioned out of nickel-silver, brass, or aluminum), and the bodhran (a kind of framedrum from ancient times that traditionally had a place in warfare rather than the celebration of music).

The Harp

For centuries, the harp was an ancient musical instrument used in Ireland and at one time, was quite a symbol for the country. Honored within Irish society, a harpist was seen as an important part of the social structure in Ireland. Often blind, they gained the support of significant figures in society, including kings and chieftains. The harp never obtained the same popularity as the shamrock, but it was a widely used symbol , found on a multitude of identifying Irish cultural objects, such as coins, the presidential flag, state seals, uniforms, and official documents.

One of the most well known of harpists is Turlough O’Carolan, who lived between 1670 and 1738. He is best known for creating a handful of Irish melodies that still inspire other artists and are in use today.

Viewed as one of the last Irish harpist-composers, O’Carolan is the only individual who had an extensive number of songs survive in both words and music , around 220 are still in existence. Before becoming a great harpist, O’Carolan was the son of an iron founder and lost the use of his eyes when smallpox blinded him when he was 18 years old. The wife of his father’s employer befriended the youth and apprenticed him to a harper. She would fund his training for three years before sending him off into the world with money, a guide, and a horse.