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The Irish Ceilidh or Ceili

Are you thinking of booking or hiring the Coulan Sona Irish Ceilli Band for your wedding reception or birthday party? If so, a Brilliant Idea!!! (even though I do say so myself!) Irish ceilidhs are incredibly popular. Irish folk music is fantastic music to be sure, and it's kind of music that wants to make you dance on and on, but when it is probably true that two thirds of the English population have never been to Ireland, be it Northern or southern Ireland, why is it so popular? People are wanting Irish ceilidhs for their weddings, birthdays, family get-togethers and anniversaries. When somebody hires an Irish ceilidh band from us, always check with their is any Irish descent in the family, all whether they will be Irish guests, as if there are quite often a few of the guests would put on a display dance. But more often than not, there is no Irish connection, is just that they love Irish ceilidh music and the idea and image of the sociality of the Irish ceilidh. The show put on by Riverdance certainly had an influence but is possibly the fact that the huge emigration from Ireland, in part to England, in part to Scotland, where West Coast ceilidh music is heavily influenced by Irish music, but in large part the United States of America, has caused this phenomenon.

Irish immigrants to the United States asserted their identity in the music they brought with them. The traditional dance music of rural Ireland thrived in big cities such as New York and Chicago, reaching its height of popularity in the 1920's. Together with flute & penny whistle players, bagpipers, and an occasional bodhran (Irish drum) player, Irish-American musicians fiddled at weddings, dances, and bars.

Many people think of Irish music as being the sort of thing they hear when Riverdance are performing, but that is a very particular, and to some extent modernised style of traditional Irish music. The music covers Irish Airs, Marches, Dance Tunes and much more. Some of the traditional fiddle tunes of southern Ireland are very square and stilted, and would be unrecognisable to many people and Irish, compared with the flowing never-ending melodies and accidentals of the better-known music.

 

There are probably something like about 3,100 old Irish airs now in print, and that about another 1,000 remain unpublished in the written form. There are probably many manuscript collections in the hands of private individuals throughout the country, (there have been many dedicated collected traditional music over the years), while there exists a large number of old airs which have never been committed to manuscript. In the South of Ireland alone there are many districts which have never been tapped by the collectors of traditional tunes, and in which a rich store awaits (if they can get their before the music, lodged in the biological memory of individual folk musicians, doesn't evaporate with their death before it can be digitised recordings were written down manuscript form). It is probable that about five thousand old airs are at present in existence—a wonderful monument to the musical genius of our ancestors.

 

This large collection points to a long period of great musical activity in the history of the Irish people. The airs now in existence, numerous though they are, must be but a fraction of those produced by our people in the past. When we consider the history of our country for many centuries—centuries during which musical cultivation was to a large extent impossible,—when we consider in addition that the airs which have come down to us, were committed to manuscript only in comparatively recent times, we are forced to the conclusion that the greater part of our musical inheritance has never reached us. A very sad fact, to some extent rectified by magnificent collection of YouTube, though it tends to be performances of modern day bands and there are relatively few performances that have been recorded for posterity of those elderly people or the one who knows some of the rare tunes.) The fact that so much has come to us intact, is a striking testimony to the musical tendencies of our race. Only an intensely musical people, whose music and speech patterns flow in much the same form, could without the aid of written music have preserved for so many centuries the large collection of airs we now possess, a collection that is far more extensive than that of most other European countries.

 

It is possible to trace many of our old airs back to their authors, or to the period when they probably originated. But the history of the greater number of our old airs is lost to us for ever. Many of them bear evidences of a great antiquity. It is interesting to notice that poems are to be found in our early literature identical in metre with some existing Irish songs, (hence my reference to the metre of the language and the flow of the music. This is so marked that I only learnt to bow and freeze Irish music properly when I visited various parts of Ireland and played with Irish musicians amidst the flow of talk that it blended with. The Irish can certainly talk, perhaps in the most fluid use of English on the planet, and their music is just another extension of the language. To anyone who is aware of the close connection existing between air and metre in our Irish songs, this fact establishes at least a presumption that such airs, or some form of them, date back to the period of the olden poems.

Much of the character of old Irish melodies is derived from the scales on which they are written. There are five basic scales at least. They are formed by taking each of the notes do, re, mi, soh, and la as tonics or fundamentals, and building on them a scale without the use of accidentals. Thus, we have a tone, and not, as in modern music, a semi-tone at the top of four of these scales—the scales of re, mi, soh, and la. Errors in notation have frequently been made by collectors who didn't realise this of this fact. Indeed, several other pieces music that I regularly play with my own Irish ceilidh band were notated wrongly in the manuscript form in which I learnt them, a mistake I think of the publishers rather than of the collectors or performers of the music, as in those cases where's recording of the original performance, it is played in the correct modal form and not as in the written book. They have written the airs as if they were constructed on the modern major or minor scales, not understanding that Irish melodies have a scale system all their own. Another fact to be noted is that we have three minor scales in old Irish music—the scale of re, the scale of mi, and the scale of la. It must not be supposed that the airs constructed on those scales have always that plaintive character which we now-a-days associate with the minor scale. Many of our liveliest dance tunes are written in the minor modes.

 

In a large number of our old airs the notes fa and ft do not occur, or occur only as passing notes. Probably some of our oldest melodies are to be found in this class. The scales on which these melodies are constructed contain only five notes and the octave. They are known as the Gapped Scales. Whether the omission of the semi-tone be due to the limitations of some early musical instruments, or to a different in fashion to the ears of our ancestors, (think how odd Chinese and Indian music sounds to most of us. This isn't any defect in the music or genetic bias in ourselves, because the oddity can be altered by sufficient listening. I remember in my schooldays when I first heard Indian classical music, it sounded completely unmusical. But having listened to a lot of it, either this classical form or in its Indo Jazz fusion form, it sounds to me now almost as normal as listening to an Irish folk tune.)  It is not improbable that these gapped melodies had their origin in musical instruments on which the semitone could not be rendered, and that there existed side by side with them melodies which showed all the intervals, and which were as easily song by the human voice has any other interval. The human voice is infinitely flexible, and it's only a matter of mental expectation what can be done. This is particularly noticeable in some Eastern European music, where the scale is nominally the same as the Western scale, but with certain very distinct fractional tone differences.

 

The regular structure of our melodies is important. Short as many of our melodies are, they are structurally perfect, (rather like a television advert is a perfect and short version of a Hollywood blockbuster) exhibiting that symmetry and regularity which we look for in all classical music. 

 

A peculiarly cultic characteristic is the triple repetition of the tonic at the end of a melody. This occurs so frequently that it cannot fail to be noticed. It has been said that the Irish scales differ from modern scales not only in the distribution of the tones and semitones, but also in the very important matter of intonation; i.e. that the intervals between the notes in the Irish scales and in the modern scales are not identical, so that for example the Irish scale of do doesn't coincide with the natural scale of do, nor with the tempered scale as we have it on the piano. It is undoubtedly a fact that the intonation of the traditional Irish singer and the traditional Irish fiddler differs from the intonation of the modern singer and the modern violinist. I'm not talking here about the very popular Irish songs like whiskey in the jar et cetera, those are a mere subset of Irish folk songs. We used to have a lovely Irish girl in our Irish ceilidh band and played Irish flute, bodhran & sang Irish ballads, but there always in the Gaelic Language, and beautiful melodies quite unlike the songs made so popular by the Dubliners and other similar bands.

 

It is a fact also that the old melodies lose much of their effect when performed with any but the traditional intonation. This may have been influenced by the fact that in past times, the harp was the most characteristic instrument of old Irish music. It was used not only as an independent instrument, but as an accompaniment to the voice. And don't think of these ancient harpists as country bumpkins. Probably the most famous, Turlough O'Carolan, 1672 to 1738 played for the courts of royalty around Europe, and famously heard a performance of Vivaldi's four seasons, then later that day performed it in its entirety on harp. He was blind to.

 

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