Irish traditional instruments

Leprechaun: After hearing some Irish music now it’s time to know all our traditional instruments!


Student: I play the guitar, Leprechaun!


Leprechaun: So now you will learn all the Irish instruments, for sure that most of them are unknown to you at this time…


Student: Let’s go, I love instruments and music!



Leprechaun:  Have a look at this photo!


Student: What’s that?


Leprechaun: What’s that? What’s that?  What do you mean with what’s that? It’s a harp! Didn't you know it?


Student: I’m sorry; I’ve never seen a harp.


Leprechaun: Oh.... well in this case I’m going to explain you a lot of things related to the harps, it’s our national instrument!


Student: Come on then!


Leprechaun: To tell the history of the Irish harp is to tell the history of the Irish people. This ancient folk instrument with its beautiful, delicate sound is played today despite being ignored, derided and proscribed for centuries. Harpers, who in earlier days would have been hanged for their art, now flourish throughout the world, as do the Irish themselves, and their harps music is played all over the world.

People know about their existence in the island since the 8th century and the Celtic legends attribute magical powers. In the Middle Ages the Irish harpers were famous in all Europe and they were part of the musical elite of the court, in the service of the Gaelic aristocracy


Student: History? Oh! I told you that I hate history


Leprechaun: It’s not history, it’s more than that: music and culture! May I continue?


Student: Of course. Please continue


Leprechaun:  How kept on saying The Trinity College Harp and Queen Mary's Harp, a lot decorated, are the oldest surviving Celtic harps and both date from the 15th or 16th centuries and illustrate the similarity between the Irish and Scottish harps. These harps were quite different from the large pedal harps we see in modern symphony orchestras. They were much smaller and the word "harp" has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words which mean "to pluck." In Gaelic they were known first as cruit and later as clarsach or cláirseach. The harp isn't peculiar to Ireland but subsequently became the most emblematic and representative thing of Ireland and it has converted in Ireland nacional symbol, already in the Middle Ages, the harp was converted in the emblem of the heraldic shield of the country. Harpers were highly trained professionals who performed for the nobility and enjoyed political power - so much so that during the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation to hang Irish harpists and destroy their instruments to prevent insurrection.Sadly, while this oldest emblem of Ireland is still with us today most of the ancient airs and melodies it once produced are long gone, but younger harpers are taking up the challenge to reawaken the pride of former days


Leprechaun: Children do you know how the harp is played traditionally?


Student: I know, I know! Harpers play the harp with their fingers.


Leprechaun: I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Traditionally the harpers didn’t use their fingers intead they used their nails, because the ancient harps had metalic ropes.


Leprechaun: You see, harps are so famous in Ireland that you can find them in the Irish euros. Look in your pockets and check if you have any of those coins!


Leprechaun: Are you tired my friends?


Student: No, no. What instrument are you going to explain to us now?


Leprechaun: Well… Now it’s fiddle turn!


Student: What’s a fiddle?


Leprechaun: If you wait a moment you will see! Let’s start… Turn the page and… this is a fiddle!



Leprechaun: Fiddle is the name that the Irish men give to his violin. It is an instrument of rope with four tuned ropes in five places. It is the smallest and higher member dependent on the family of violin. A person who plays the violin is called a violinist or fiddler, and a person who makes or repairs them is called a luthier, or simply a violin maker.


Student: Does the violin come from Ireland?


Leprechaun: No, in fact the violin comes from European or Oriental origins. If we observe a violin as the one now there can be inferred, to simple sight that, the primitive instrument offers to construct easily the primitive instruments that we consider to be the distant preceding of the violin, namely: the Egyptian Nefer, the Indian Ravanastron, the Greek Lira, etc.


Student: History again!


Leprechaun: Now you know what the fiddle is! I will ask you a question. Do you know where the violinists play them?


Student: In an orchestra, doesn't it?


Leprechaun: You are right, but they also appeared in other places like quartets or quintets of rope and have different music.


Student: We are learning lots of things with you, Leprechaun!


Harppie: Thank you my friends, let me now introduce you another two Irish instruments, the flute and the whistle.


Student: Let’s go!


Leprechaun: I’ll start with the flute. The flute has been an integral part of Irish traditional music since roughly the middle of the nineteenth century, when art musicians largely abandoned the wooden simple-system flute (having a conical bore, and fewer keys) for the metal Boehm system flutes of present-day classical music. Let’s see how the Irish flute is! Have a look!



Student: It’s nice, and what about the whistle?


Leprechaun: It’s the Tin Whistle, a cousin of the simple-system flute, is also popular. It was mass-produced in nineteenth century Manchester England, as an inexpensive instrument. Clarke whistles almost identical to the first ones made by that company are still available, although the original version, pitched in C, has mostly been replaced for traditional music by that pitched in D, the "basic key" of trad. The other common design consists of a barrel made of seamless tubing fitted into a plastic or wooden mouthpiece. I’ll show you some whistles!



Leprechaun: Hi students!!  Now I would like to explain you what the Uilleann pipes are. Are you ready?


All the students: What?


Leprechaun: Uilleann pipes, have you ever heard about them?


Student: Never the never!


Leprechaun: The Uilleann pipes are the Irish form of the bagpipes, a family of instruments with representatives throughout Europe as well as parts of Asia and Africa. It emerged in the first half of the 18th century in Ireland and Britain and was developed to its modern form in Ireland over the following 50 to 60 years.


Student: Ah, OK! It’s like a gaita!


Leprechaun: What?


Student: A gaita, our Uilleann pipe!


Leprechaun: Look at this photo, you can see an Uilleann pipe, the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland and he is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. The Uilleann pipes are distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their sweet tone and wide range of notes.

It’s an incredible instrument!


Student: Yes!


Leprechaun: Now I would tell you the different parts of an Irish pipe, in an Uilleann pipe you can find the main following parts:

• Bag      

• Bellows

• Chanter

• Drones

• Regulators


Student: Wow! What a lot of things!


Leprechaun: Do you know that there’s an association of this instrument?  It’s name is Na Píobairí Uilleann. The main object of Na Píobairí Uilleann shall be the promotion generally of Irish music and the music of the uilleann pipes in particular.

By the 1960 few people in Ireland play with pipes, perhaps only five. The aims of the society are to perpetuate the spirit of the music, the playing of the pipes and the production and looking after the instrument itself.


Leprechaun: To finish with the pipes I’ll show you all the parts in a very interesting graphic. Have a look at the following page!


Leprechaun: My dear friends, I know that it is a bit boring but is the thing that we have to do. I hope that all the things that I have explained to you have amused you. Now it’s time to meet the accordion, it’s a very amusing instrument, you will surely enjoy it!


Student: Yes, accordion music is really nice to dance!


Leprechaun: Yes, it’s true. The accordion is a musical instrument, of wind, shaped by a fold, a diapason and two boxes harmonic of wood. In the two extremes of the folds, there are the boxes of wood.


Leprechaun: The right part of the tea accordion in more a diapason with a row of keys that they can be like the piano keys or circles, everything they depend on the model. The part of the tea left buttons of the two types of accordion to touch the basses and the agreements of accompaniment. It’s very popular in many countries for its linking with the folklore.


Leprechaun: Another Irish instrument is the concertina; a lamb instrument from a family of free tongue instruments. The concertina can be constructed in different ways but the most popular is the following one. Let’s see!


Student: What a nice instrument! I like the concertina, it seens a small accordion!


Leprechaun: It is! The accordion fold of the anglo type is usually associated with the Irish music and with the concertina it’s really good to make dance music!


Leprechaun: As you can see we, the Irish, have lots of traditional instruments! Let’s meet now the banjo, from the family of rope.


Student: Banjo?


Leprechaun: Yes, the banjo is a musical instrument of five cords constituted by a hoop or a ring of about 35 cm of diameter, covered by a “patch” of plastic or skin as a guitar cover. The mixture of materials that shape the banjo obtains one of the musical instruments with a more typical and unmistakable sound that they exist.

The banjo is a stringed instrument developed by enslaved Africans in the United States, adapted from several African instruments.


Student: What a strange name!


Leprechaun: Yes, it’s name is a little strange because is thought to be derived from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of 'bandore', though recent research suggests that it may come from a Senegambian term for the bamboo stick used for the instrument's neck. It has, in fact, African origins but have a look at an Irish banjo, do you like it?




Students: Yes! It’s really nice!


Leprechaun: I hope that you enjoy this class about Irish traditional instruments. Now it’s time to meet the guitar.


Student: We already know the guitar, I often play the guitar with some friends!


Leprechaun: Really? Then you must know that the guitar is a musical instrument of six gripped ropes, compound of a sound box in the form of eight with a handle that has a caviller at the end to tense the ropes. If you pay attention you will discover all the secrets of my friend.


Student: Let’s go then! Everybody shut up!


Leprechaun: Normally people play the guitar with the prong, to help to create the melody. In Irish music, the guitar is used like accompaniment of the voices.


Leprechaun: The guitarists only play two or four ropes at the same time to make the agreement. And many times the ropes that are sound, they silenced them with the prong. In the improvisations, they create a new style. The guitarist follows the melody of the main musician control the rhythm and the tempo. Normally, more than two guitarists don't have to play at same time, they have to complement the melody, and they don't have to compete.


Student: I would like to play the guitar in an Irish pub full of people!


Leprechaun: So, what are you waiting for?


Student: I must wait till my trip to Dublin!


Leprechaun: Well, now you know many things about the Irish guitar so we are going to see another instrument that it has already been waiting for us!


Student: Which one?


Leprechaun: The next instrument is… the Irish bouzouki (colloquially, the "zouk") is a derivative of the Greek bouzouki.


Student: Another strange name!


Leprechaun: The bouzouki was introduced into Irish Traditional Music in the late 1960s coming from Greece. Irish bouzouki players tend to use the instrument less for virtuoso melodic work and more for chordal and contrapuntal accompaniment for tunes played on other instruments, such as the flute or fiddle; in response, many or most players changed the octave strings in the two bass courses to unison pairs in order to enhance the bass response of the instrument and to eliminate the problem of poor intonation.


Leprechaun: The Greek bouzouki began to be replaced by a design built specifically for Irish traditional music. Peter Abnett, who was the first instrument maker, made the uniquely "Irish" bouzouki. All of the initial Irish bouzoukis had flat tops, but within a few years some builders began experimenting with carved. The Irish bouzouki is considered to be part of the mandolin family, the other instruments of which include the mandolin. But for others this family of instruments, modelled on and tuned like the violin, viola, tenor violin and violoncello.


Student: You have lots of instruments! It would be hard to pass an exam about all of them!


Leprechaun: You’re right! But there will be no exam! Let’s continue with the mandolin, one of my favourite instruments!


Student: OK! Let’s see!


Leprechaun: The mandolin is a musical instrument of rope. The number and mandolin’s ropes types has been variable according to the time and the place, but nowadays the most known type is the Naples mandolin,  with four doubles ropes and they sound like the violin (sol-re-la-mi). The difference between the violin and the mandolin is that the mandolin ropes are gripped with a plectro the sound box can be concave or plane.


Leprechaun: You can find different types of mandolin. Its predecessor was the “mandola”. This instrument is like a mandolin but a bit large and bigger. During the 17th century were fabricated and important amount of mandolins in Italy; in a museum are conserved patterns of construction of some mandolins, with handwriting by Stradivarius, a famous violin constructor. A lot of composers like Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven or Paganini start to used the mandolin in their compositions. Nowadays the mandolin is much extended in the music all over the world. The “mandocello” or the octave mandolin is similar that the Irish bouzouki, Introduced to Irish music by Johnny Moynihan, in his Sweeney's men days in the late sixties, and now almost a standard in Irish groups.


Leprechaun: Another Irish instrument is the Bodhran and if you rest in silence I will tell you his history.


Student: Bod… what?



Leprechaun: Bodhran is the heartbeat of Irish music. This ancient framedrum is traditionally made with a wooden body and a goat-skin head, and is played with a double-headed stick called a tipper or beater. The bodhran is an old drum but a young musical instrument. Although it has existed in Ireland for centuries, it was introduced into traditional music performance only in the 1960s, and became common only in the 1970s. Some writers believe that the drum originated in Africa and came to Ireland by way of Spain. Other people believe that it originated in Central Asia, and was carried through Europe to Ireland by the Celtic migrations.


Student: A long trip!


Leprechaun: Yes, but what is not in dispute is that the drum languished for centuries outside the realm of musical performance. It was used in warfare and in various local celebrations, mostly as a noisemaker or primitive rhythm instrument. Until modern times, it was used by mummers and wren-boys in various local festivals. It apparently served double-duty as a husk sifter and grain tray.


Student: Dear Leprechaun, it’s really interesting but we are a little bit tired. We are not yet finishing?


Leprechaun: Yes, my friends, it’s time to finish with the traditional instruments but before ending I want for you to present the last one and one of my favourites: the harmonica!


Student: OK, the harmonica and we stop!


Leprechaun: OK. The harmonica is a free reed wind instrument. It has multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end over an airway slot in which they can freely vibrate. The vibrating reeds repeatedly interrupt the airstream to produce sound. The harmonica is most commonly used in blues and American folk music, but is also used in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll, and pop music. Increasingly, the harmonica is finding its place in more electronically generated music, such as dance and hip-hop, as well as funk and acid jazz.

Student: I use to play the harmonica when I was 6 years old!

Leprechaun: And it’s sure that you enjoyed it!


Student: Yes!


Leprechaun: So why don’t you continue playing it!


Student: I don’t know. I have no time!


Leprechaun: There’s always time for music. Music is life!