Ireland is internationally known for its folk music, which has remained a vibrant tradition throughout the 20th century, when many traditional forms world-wide lost popularity to pop music. In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music imported from the United Kingdom and United States, Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects. It has also been modernised, however, and fused with rock and roll, punk rock and other genres. Some of these fusion artists have attained much mainstream success, at home and abroad, including Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, The Pogues, The Chieftains, The Cranberries and the Afro-Celt Sound System.
Irish traditional music is meant for dancing at celebrations for weddings, saint's days or other observances. Songs are almost always divided into two eight-bar strains, which are each played twice to make a 32-bar whole. This makes for an eminently danceable music, and Irish dance has been widely exported abroad. Set dancing is the most popular of the Irish traditional dances, having been revived in the early 1980s and popularised after Riverdance's surprise success in 1994. Riverdance was a group starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler that formed to perform during an interval in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest and soon became popular throughout the world. Other traditional dances include reels and jigs, as well as imported polkas and mazurkas.
Pub sessions are now the home for much of Irish traditional music, which takes place at informal gatherings in urban pubs. The first of these modern pub sessions took place in 1947 in London's Camden Town at a bar called The Devonshire Arms; the practice was only later introduced to Ireland. By the 1960s pubs like O'Donoghues in Dublin were holding their own pub sessions, and the Fleadh Ceoil music festival was sparking increased popular interest in traditional music.
Traditional Irish instruments include:
Flutes and whistles -- Flutes have long been an integral part of Irish traditional music, and its cousin the tin whistle or low whistle are also popular. Modern flautists include Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Michael McGoldrick, Desi Wilson and Emer Mayock, while whistlers include Paddy Moloney, Sean Ryan, Mary Bergin and Packie Byrne.
Accordion and concertina -- The accordion plays a major part in modern music. Popular players include Sharon Shannon and Dave Hennessy. Concertina players include Niall Vallely and Noel Hill.
Bouzouki -- A recent import from Greece, the bouzouki was introduced in the late 1960s by Johnny Moynihan and then popularised by Donal Lunny and Alec Finn.
Fiddle -- One of the most important instruments in the traditional repertoire, the fiddle is played differently in widely-varying regional styles. Modern performers include Martin Hayes, Paul Shaughnessy, Matt Cranitch and Frankie Gavin. Sligo fiddlers like Michael Coleman did much to popularise Irish music in the States in the 1920's.
Uilleann pipes -- A king of bagpipes, uilleann pipes are complex and said to take years to learn to play. Its modern form had arrived by the 1890s, and was played by gentlemen pipers like Seamus Ennis in refined and ornate pieces, as well as showy, ornamented forms played by travelling pipers. Liam O'Flynn is probably the most popular of modern traditional performers. Others include Paddy Keenan, John McSherry and Mick O'Brien.
Bodhrán -- A frame drum, the bodhrán is relatively modern addition to traditional dance music. It was introduced in the 1960s by Sean Ó Riada, and quickly became popular. Great players include Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh and Colm Murphy.
Harp -- Played as long ago as the 8th century, the harp is a symbol of Ireland and its players are widely-respected. Many modern songs were written by Turlough Ó Carolan, a blind 18th century harpist. Modern traditional players include Laoise Kelly and Máire Ní Chathasaigh.
The uillean pipes play a prominent part in a form of instrumental music called Fonn Mall, descendants of ancient songs, as well as in the unaccompanied vocal music called sean nós. Tony McMahon, Davy Spillane and Altan play these traditional airs, while Seán Ó Riada's The Chieftains are largely responsible for the revitalisation of folk music in the 1960s. Traditional music, especially sean nós, played a major part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinead O'Connor using traditional elements in popular songs. The Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan, helped fuse Irish folk with punk rock to some success beginning in the 1980s, while the Afro-Celt Sound System achieved considerable fame adding West African influences in the 1990s.