Irish Music: An Introduction

Irish ballads and poetry can tell so much as you read them – just as all ballads can do. They are not just songs, words to music, you find the emotions, history and culture of a people in ballads, surname and placename spelling variations – sometimes very important to those who seek a place and can’t find the spelling they have anywhere.

The experts speak of how our ballads should be divided up into those that represent the old music – ballads with words in Irish – original, traditional – usually played to instruments for which it is difficult to re-arrange the music to modern instruments. They speak of the type of ballad that the Young Irelander’s wrote as being beyond the ordinary people, they speak of ballads written by others as also being ‘above’ the ordinary people and that some of these written by gentry fail to truly understand the way of the people.

Besides the various categories listed or indexed below, and based on what is said by the experts – Irish ballads can be further broken down – but this is not done so on this web site. There are the traditional ballads – perhaps only bardic in origin, but usually written in Irish, words that defy translation in some ways. Irish is a language that defies literal translation – I am neither an expert in the Irish language, or in Irish ballads – but I do know that the meanings I read into some ballads written in Irish is not the same as that given by the people who translate the Irish. This, perhaps, is because they are trying to come up with a translation that fits in with the music.

So, we have the very old and traditional ballads, we have ballads that may have originated in this group, but have been adapted down through the ages and may be county specific or may have been changed differently in each county. Then, we have the ballads that were written since those times, some written in Irish, some written in English – some in Ireland and some outside Ireland.

Many of the English (language) ballads have been written overseas – by Irish who left Ireland and who longed for Ireland and hoped to return some day. We also have ballads written by those who had never been to Ireland, whose ancestors came ‘from Ireland’, and yet, for whom the ways of the land, their understanding of Ireland, this longing for Ireland were all something that had ben handed down to them. One generation, two generations – how many generations – who knows.

It is possible to identify some of the ballads reproduced on these pages as being written by those who were no longer living in Ireland. It is possible to identify some of the traditional ballads that are sung in Ireland, but it is not possible to identify those ballads written by people who had never been to Ireland.

That is not to say that these are not Irish ballads – but they are a different form of Irish ballad. Ones that are not recorded by those who collect traditional tunes in Ireland, perhaps never to be recorded as ‘traditional’ Irish in Irish archives. There is much work going on in Ireland to save and record our traditional ballads/songs as sung by the Sean Nós singer, as played by the traditional musician. Is there any similar work being carried out any where else in the world to record the music of tradtional Irish musicians – those who do not live in Ireland, who have not been born in Ireland, who claim Irish descent and who play music handed down to them from their ancestors, or their community?

The ballads are grouped on these pages, attempts have been made to link in any ballad that mentions a place in Ireland to that county, to link those that speak of love on one page, and then those that speak of love of country on another. Yet, how does one really break down those two, so many ballads speak of both. The same for emigration – emigration, whether to leave, or just leaving, left, love of country left behind, here again, these fit into two groupings – emigration and love.

An attempt has been made to link in surnames and the places, to link places and counties – keeping all spellings as found in any ballad – retaining variations.