Today's post is written by Lauren Smith, Wolf Trap’s Spring Copywriting Intern
St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner. Having a fascination with all things Irish—James Joyce, rainbows, and Colcannon potatoes for starters—my celebration begins early with a stack of Irish music CDs for my morning commute. In honor of the upcoming holiday, I bring you a brief history of Irish music.
The musical history of Celtic tribes who inhabited the Emerald Isle before modern civilization has unfortunately been lost amidst the area’s frequent political upheaval. The musicality of the Gaelic language, however, ensured music’s permanence within Irish society. The tunes women hummed during chores, the drinking songs that wafted from pubs late at night, and the rebel anthems that scored historic periods of the country’s unrest pass from generation to generation as oral tradition. Rebel songs constitute both musical culture and historic documentation. One traditional refrain “The Dying Rebel,” characteristic of many rebel hymns, tells of a soldier killed during 1916’s infamous Easter Rising (an attempt to rid Ireland of British rule). The song also appears in Martin McDonagh’s modern play The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
But how did Irish music find its way into American culture? Nearly two centuries after the first wave of Irish immigration, the traditional ceili band—usually composed of accordion, banjo, fiddle, tin whistle, and flute—cropped up in east coast pubs and dance halls during the Great Depression. It wasn’t until several decades later, however, that Celtic-inspired music gained mainstream recognition. The rise of folk music—which shares aesthetic and cultural elements with Irish bands—helped create a receptive national audience.
A wealth of Celtic performers have graced The Barns stage this winter, including rockers Carbon Leaf and Celtic genre pillars Cherish the Ladies. But if you missed them, have no fear: the luck o’ the Irish is on your side. You still have several opportunities to see Celtic performers at Wolf Trap!
ALTAN (March 6th at 8 pm) made history in 1996, becoming the first Irish band signed to a major US label. The group’s lead singer and fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh grew up in Donegal, learning music from her father and neighbors. The group advocates the preservation of traditional Donegal fiddle music, and when you hear them, you’ll become an advocate, too: it’s impossible to resist being captivated by Mhaonaigh’s hauntingly beautiful voice and the adept bowing and clear flute melodies the band floats effortlessly through the air. To purchase tickets for Altan, click here.
CELTIC CROSSROADS (March 20th and 21st at 8 pm) hails from Ireland’s Galway City. Founded in 2005, this relatively new force in Celtic music masterfully blends traditional fiddle, flute, and step dancing with gypsy melodies, jazz, and bluegrass. Irish favorites like “Galway Girl,” rousing traditional jigs, and tender ballads (as well as the occasional American icon like “Cotton-Eyed Joe”) pave the way to the modern Celtic music pot of gold. To purchase tickets for Celtic Crossroads, click here.
Other upcoming Irish shows of interest:
Karl Scully on March 8 at 8pm
A wonderful young tenor who has appeared extensively across Europe and the U.S., performing in world-renowned venues both as a solo act and as part of the widely celebrated Irish Tenors.
The Irish Rovers on March 14 at 8pm
This show is sold-out, but it's worth getting familiar with this band of native Irish musicians who are known for their high-energy, infectious live performances.