Irish Musical Instruments

Harp Coat of Arms Ireland
Irish Accordion
Gibson Mandolin F- 4,_S.S._Stewart_Tenor_Banjo_(1922),_Museum_of_Making_Music.jpg
Anglo - Concertina
Irish Bouzouki


This instrument is purported to have come from Egypt to Ireland during the early Pre – Christian era.  There are several wall paintings depicting harp – like instruments.  The word comes from the Anglo – Saxon, Old German plus Old Norse words whose root means to ‘pluck.’ [i]   The Irish harp of 800 A D was widely in use throughout Medieval Western Europe: called a Frame harp, it included a straight forepillar. [ii]  There is a 12th century engraving on a wall of Ardmore Cathedral in Co. Waterford. [iii]

The first harp to feature a hollowed soundbox that amplified the instruments dated from the 14th century.  It included a curved forepillar, strong neck plus thirty to thirty – six brass rings. [iv]  Earlier harps from the 15th century were played by blind harpers in Ireland of which the most famous was Turlough O ‘Carolan.  O ‘Carolan’s harp is actually displayed at Clonalis House in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, the ancestral home of the O ‘Connors, descendants of the last High Kings of Ireland. [v]  O ‘Carolan’s Harp is described as having a curved neck piece bound on the front with an iron plate, one corner is riveted through the fore – pillar plus two horizontal plates on either side riveted on pillar with one binding it to the key piece.  It has thirty – five strings of wire, the pins of which are attached to brass.  This site portrays an image of O ‘Carolan in 1844 by J. C. Timbrell. [vi]  Queen Elizabeth 1 issued a Proclamation to hang Irish Harpists plus destroy all instruments to prevent insurrection within Ireland, this was followed by Oliver Cromwell during the 1650’s who ordered all harps or organs to be burnt: in Dublin alone over five hundred were destroyed.  It would be many years prior to harps returning as favoured instruments. [vii]  During the mid – 1700’s the blind Tyrone harper Arthur O ‘Neill was invited to restring the Brian Buru Harp plus play it at a Limerick Parade.  A description is provided in ‘Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper.’ O ‘Sullivan Donal 1958, Ossian Publications, London. [viii]  This harp was donated to Trinity College Dublin by Right Hon. Sir William Conyngham during 1782 linking it with a Provence to King Brian Buru. [ix]   History owes a debt of gratitude to church organist Edward Bunting as he was the first archivist of Irish Folk tunes following the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792: he toured Ireland until 1807 where he collected thus saved priceless material.  He publishes three volumes ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland’ during 1796, 1809, 1840.  [x]

A double – action pedal was patented during 1810 in which seven pedals could be depressed twice into the first notch, the upper disc turned partially with a firmly held string, with bottom disc turned partially that shaped a semitone.  To sharpen another semitone, it was necessary to depress the pedal again into a lower notch with the bottom disc turned further to grip the string more tightly. [xi]  Thomas Moore Poet / Songwriter was presented with an original ‘Royal Portable Harp’ invented by John Egan during 1821.  The harp combined the mechanisms of pedal harp, the dital buttons traditionally found on Portable harps with the curvaceous shape of an ancient Irish Harp of Clāirseach.  Portable harps festooned with elaborate hand – painted shamrocks were immensely popular in all society drawing rooms during 19th century Dublin.  [xii]  The traditional Irish harp’s distinguishing features are its use of wire (usually brass) strings with its resonating chamber carved from a single log; traditionally willow.  The highly tensioned strings are played with fingernails thus they produce a very clear sound.  Many modern Irish harps use gut or synthetic string plus the construction of the chamber may be slightly different.  Rather than been hollowed out from one piece of wood, the soundbox is more likely to have been fabricated from sawn pieces of wood glued together which produces a very different sound altogether. [xiii]

Moore’s harp is located at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street in Dublin.  It has been painted green with golden shamrocks. [xiv]  The harp is exclusively an emblem of the Irish state at home or abroad.  It is used by Government Departmental offices on seals or documents.  It also appears on coins, stamps.  It is the seal the Irish President, with the flag as a gold Harp with silver strings on blue (azure).  [xv]

Uilleann Pipes

During the 5th Century Brehon Laws the fore runner of the Irish Uilleann Pipes was a mouth blown instrument.  The history of piping extended over a period of sixteen centuries.  There is a reference in ancient Irish Annals to the Cuisleanach or pipe blower.  It is believed that from the 1600’s the instrument became popular while the musette – type bellows – blown pipes were increasingly played among all upper or lower classes during the 17th century.  Egan’s of Dublin introduced refinements during the latter part of the 18th century with the addition of keyed chanter, or regulators.  Uilleann pipes are recognised worldwide for their sweetness plus mellowness of tone. [xvi]  Made from leather or wood the Uilleann Pipes consist of five parts; bag, bellows, chanter, drone, plus regulators.  The melody is played on the chanter while the connected sprung keys of the three regulators are played to produce chords.  The drones provide continuous single – note accompaniment to the chanter. [xvii]

There are three parts to a full set of Uilleann Pipes;

(1) Bellows, bag & chanter that is called a starter or practice set.  The chanter has two full octave range.  The piper plays a standard 2 – octave diatonic scale in keys of D or G.  (2) Pipes have three drones: tenor, baritone & bass each with a single reed.  (3) The three regulators have a double reed with tenor, baritone & bass set.  A full set of regulators have 13 keyed notes which are played by leaning wrist on them.  The piper is required to pump the bellows with his elbow while he plays the chanter with both hands as he also leans his hands on the keys of the regulator! [xviii]

During an archaeological excavation in Graystones, Co. Wicklow an early Bronze Age burnt mount (2120 – 2083) was discovered.  Produced were six wooden pipes fashioned of yew wood.  Known as The Wicklow Pipes they range in size from 57 – 29 cm long.  They had been hollowed out with the resultant diameters approximately 2 cm across.  The ends had steep tapers that suggested they were originally contained within a composite wood instrument. [xix]  Uilleann pipes were recognized by UNESCO on December 7th, 2017 as an important unique cultural heritage symbol. [xx]  There is an interview with Piper Liam O Flynn at this site. [xxi]


Ireland’s Bodhrān is unique to this Country.  It was reportedly used in earlier times as a war drum prior to the many battles.  It is often adorned with Celtic symbols.  The word Bodhran derives from the Gaelic word Bodhar. The earliest written reference to the instrument according to Meehan 1872: was during the 15th & 16th century in the ‘Rosa Anglica’ (catalogued as TCDMS1435) by John of Geddesden or Johannas de Gaddesden (1208? – 1361).  Nicholas O ‘hIceada is believed to have translated it from a copy produced during 1400.  A large oil painting (1130 x 1621 mm) by Daniel Maclise at a Halloween party in Ireland depicts a player with instrument. [xxii]  The traditional bodhrān is a drum produced from green wood. It is bent into a circular shape; pinned with cross bars inside to prevent it from warping.  This shell is covered with tan goatskin or sheepskin on one side.  The instrument may be played by one hand or a small double headed beater or tipper while the other hand presses the inside of the skin to muffle the tone or alter the pitch. [xxiii]  This site details the instructions for playing the instrument.[xxiv]

Tin Whistle

The whistle or in Irish ‘Feadóg’ developed from an ancient woodwind instruments of clay or bone from ancient China over 5,000 years ago.  It became known in Europe by the 11th century.  There were evidences displayed of feadógs on Irish High Crosses.  In the 12th century Dublin bird – bone instruments were in use.  During the 17th century the term ‘Flagolet’ was used to describe a Fipple Flute with four finger holes on the front plus two thumb holes on the back.  A feadóg contains six holes in a range of 2 octaves plus have various keys ie; C, D, E flat, F & G.  [xxv]


The term ‘Fiddle’ was originally a term from the 12th century: it consisted of flat boards for the top, back also sides.  According to ‘The Companion to Irish Music’ Valley Fintan 1999, Cork University Press, page 123; several editions are available including an eBook.  The earliest reference to a fiddle in Ireland was during the 7th century in ‘The Fair of Carmanby’ as ‘Pipes, Fiddle, Chainmen, Bone-men also Tube players’ by O ‘Curry.  [xxvi]

During 1185 the Norman Girald Combrensis visited Ireland, then reported that ‘They (the Irish) seem to be incomparably more skilled in (musical Instruments) than any other people that I have seen.  The movement is…. rather quick & lively, while at the same time the melody is sweet & pleasant. it is remarkable how in spite of the great speed of the fingers, the musical proportion is maintained.’  In 1674 Richard Head wrote about Ireland ‘In every field a fiddle, and the lasses footing till they all of a foam.’  The first Irish fiddles were manufactured by John Neal along with his brother William in Dublin during 1720’s.  An instrument was excavated during the 18th century in Dublin that was dated from the 11th century, it was made of dogwood with an animal carved on its tip, it was believed to have been the oldest bow in the world.  A process of continual development, particularly to the area of string plus bow technologies provided the earliest fiddles to be updated.  This enabled the finger board to possess a longer length that facilitated a move into higher positions thus provided a greater range plus the neck was made narrower.  The chinrest was introduced during 1820 followed later by a shoulder rest.  By the 1900’s the wooden fiddle was established but in Co. Donegal tin instruments were produced by the Doherty, Mc Connell also the Irwin families.  There is still in existence a brass fiddle that is an icon of that county.[xxvii]  The Irish fiddle has a distinct, fast upbeat pace, a very bold or uplifting sound.  There are regional variations ie; Donegal fiddlers have a fast-aggressive pace with an emphasis on short powerful bow strokes with frequent bow triplets.  The Sligo style is light, bouncy rich in ornaments combined with the bowed triplets of D also they feature rolls as found in southern counties.   In Clare the method is characterized by slow tempo, subtlety ornaments plus use of long fluid bow stresses covering many notes of a tune.  While in Galway one finds many tunes in E or B.  Again, the Cork or Kerry tradition is a simple rhythmic polka style. [xxviii]


There are varying accounts of the initial accordions manufacture history: some report it was manufactured by Christian Frederich Ludwig Buschmann in Berlin during 1822 while Timofey Vorontosoy in 1820 also Ivan Sizoy followed with their designs during 1830.  Also credited is M. Bouton or Busson in France during the mid – 19th century for the piano accordion  [xxix]

The raw materials of an accordion include wood, metal & plastic.  The larger part of a frame, pallets, reed block are from poplar wood, the bellows of strong manila cardboard pleated or folded.  There are leather gussets on each corner while metal protects the outer edges plus strengthens & protects the bellows.  Metal is also used for the rods: the regulator slides that control the reed blocks.  The treble grill has a fretted metal cover.  The reeds are made of highly watch – spring steel riveted to an aluminium alloy steel plate. [xxx]   Early accordions had keys like a piano but was held by musicians.  Sound is created when the keys or buttons are pushed while the accordionist expands or compresses the bellows. [xxxi]  The single – action accordion’s paired reeds sound adjacent notes of a diatonic (7 -scale), ten buttons suffice for a range of two octaves.  On a double – action instrument the two reeds of each pair are tuned to the same note, thus it makes each treble or bass note available from the same key or button with both direction of bellows movement.  [xxxii]  A timeline of accordion history is available on this site. [xxxiii]


This instrument evolved from the string Lute, an instrument that dated back to 15,000 – 8,000 BC as evidenced in cave paintings.  These early instruments were single strings instruments that produced single melody lines.  To shorten the scale length other strings were added with a different tension, which led to diads or chords.  There were lute – like instruments in 2, 000 B C Mesopotamia prior to the arrival in Spain during 700 B C curtesy of the Moors.  During the 1500’s / 1600’s in Naples, Italy the instrument was popular.  It had a wood body plus had a variety of parts that included: finger boards, turners, posts, headstocks, nuts, frets, bridge, tailpiece, the neck, sound holes, bindings also strings.  The first written evidence regarding the instruments popularity in Europe was notably by Signor Leone also G. B, Gervasio between 1750 to 1810. [xxxiv]

The American Orville Gibson built a mandolin during 1894.  This was refurbished during 1922 when Gibson along with Llyod Allary Loar adjusted the Gibson – 4 instruments.  Their new version had an adjustable truss – rod in the neck, an adjustable two – piece ebony bridge with a new tapered head contour like ‘snake – head’.  Loan’s finest achievement was his Master Model Style – 5 Series.  Mandolinists played Bluegrass, Country, Rock plus the vibrant organic Irish music on their instruments. [xxxv]  The instruments modern form plus proportions was produced by maker Pasquale Vinallia of Naples.  It has four pairs of steel springs tuned by a machine head to Violin pitch (g, d’, a’, e’): the pegs are at the back of the pegbox.  The pear-shaped body is deeply vaulted, the fingerboard with seventeen frets is slightly raised, the strings are hitched to the instruments end.  At its widest part, where bridge is set, the belly is set, it angles downward to increase the pressure of the strings bridge to produce a brilliant tone with great carrying power,  Quick movement of the plectrum across each unison pair of strings ensures a characteristic tremolo.  A shell plate around the sound hole protects the instrument from the plectrum. [xxxvi]


The Africans introduced their instrument to the world when they were transported as slaves to the Americas.  The made them from gourds, logs or animal skins, strung together with gut or hemp.  They had three or four string models, later a fifth was added.  There are three types of Irish banjos: Irish Tenor, Five – Strings also the Plectrum.[xxxvii]

Frets were added during 1878 by Henry Dobson of New York State.  A late 19th century sketch in Captain Francis O’Neill’s ‘Irish Minstrels & Musicians’ of Piper Dick Stephenson with Banjoist John Dunne shows the fifth string and peg on Dunne’s banjo.  The early Irish banjos were plucked or strummed by the fingers.  By the turn of the century the plectrum plus the idea of tuning was introduced with a shorter neck tuned in fifths. [xxxviii]  Steel strings were introduced that provided a louder clearer sound.  During 1915 a tenor banjo was invented with seventeen or nineteen frets.  By the 1960’s Celtic Revival the tuning of G D A E was introduced. [xxxix]  This site provides interesting information of Irish musicians.  [xl]


The older version of this instrument was called the Tambora: found in Ancient Greece since circa the 4th century BC.  These had a long neck, small round sound box which was a single string instrument, the musicians played the tune on the 1st string of higher pitch.  There were documented in various paintings or mosaics.  Evidence also remains from official letters, memos plus reports from scholars or personalities during the 10th. 12th, 16th. 18th and 20th centuries.  There are two versions of the Greek bouzouki namely the Trichondo and the Tetrachordo.  The former was introduced during the early 20th century with six strings in three pairs, each pair was based on thick wound string with a thin string tuned to an octave apart with frets fixed.  The Tetrachordo has eight strings in four pairs.  It is generally tuned to C3C4, F3F4, A3A3, D4D4; the two high – pitched courses are tuned to the same note while the two lower – pitched courses are tuned an octave apart.  [xli]

During 1969 Donal Lunny received a Greek Bouzouki from Andy Irvine.  Lunny was left – handed; he reversed the string order, replaced each string to a second-high pitched string that produced a unison sound for the power pitched courses.  It has a fifth – base tuning.  Besides the string changes the body was widened, the sides straightened.  Additional adjustable frets were added; it developed from six to eight strings plus the bridge glued with a portable sound bowl. [xlii]  Numerous other updates were made to Lunny’s instrument the following year when he commissioned a bouzouki at the workshop of Luthier Peter Abrett to the specification of a classic Greek instrument but with unison strings also a critically flat back.  Numerous versions followed ie; fully & curved sound boards, Canted soundboards, floating bridge plus fixed pinned bridge.  Multiple scale lengths, from five hundred – fifty mm up to six hundred – sixty mm were included.  [xliii]  This Irish instrument is considered a member of the Mandarin family.  It is constructed like a flat – backed mandolin.  It consists of three ranges; Soprano, Piccolo plus Alto.  The Irish Bouzouki is tuned one octave lower than a mandolin. (G. D. A. E.)  For accompaniment: the top string is turned down (G. D. A. D.) this allows for a more advanced better sounded note.  The D. A. D. sounds good when resounded in open playing either individually or in pairs or even all together.  This creates a pedal – note effect with more interesting moves in bass string on beautiful chords with suspended notes.  Videos and information by Declan Plummer are visible on this site. [xliv]


The concertina is a close cousin of the accordion belonging to the reed – free category of Celtic instruments.  It has bellows with buttons on one end.  When depressed the buttons / bellows move in the same direction.  It was developed in Germany and England; it was referred to as a ‘squeeze – box.’  A few years following the English invention of the instrument by Sir Charles Wheatstone during 1829 the instrument came to Ireland.  The German version was regarded as a working – class instrument while the English was the preferred upper-class instrument.  During the 1930’s two versions were available which evolved into the Anglo form.  [xlv]

Joseph Scales, a former employee of the Wheatstone firm in London opened a shop in Dublin where he manufactured also sold concertinas during 1859.  Concerts were performed that featured the Anglo in Wexford 1835 plus this site mentions one in Belfast also Londonderry.  There were variety concerts in Dublin that featured the playing of the Anglo instrument during 1872 while The Abercorn Ladies College, Dublin offered to women tutoring in the instrument among their courses.  Not many reports apart from County Clare offer details of the music played countrywide: the famous Clare women Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty learned to play the concertina during the 1890’s. [xlvi]  A Concertina Festival was held during 1877 as an advertisement in the Freeman’s Journal reports.  County Mayo concertina playing plus dance at a Bonfire during 1905 is described on this site. [xlvii]

According to Dan Worrell the concertina was favoured by ladies ‘Almost every house…had a Concertina, usually kept in the chimney corner nook.’  Also ‘music for house dances were typically provided by a solo concertina player from Dusk to Dawn.’  William Mc Nally from Mullingar in Co. Westmeath, an Anglo player of the 1920’s was the first Irishman to make commercial recordings. [xlviii]

The concertina is a Hexagonal button operated free – reed, bellows blown instrument.  It is played with the fingers of both hands.  It has one reed per note, it is single action – each button has a different note to press or draw, (two notes per button.)  Thirty of them are arranged in three rows of five on each side. All the melody notes are divided between the hands.  The sound of the concertina is thinner but less rich than the accordion. [xlix]


A Manesse manuscript of 1340 shows a flautist playing to the right while in another miniature issue an image shows the instrument played to the left.  During the 16th century the instrument held a two – fold purpose: as a Military prop plus in Chamber music.  Medieval & Renaissance instruments were cylindrical tubes with possibly just one octave.  At the beginning of the Baroque period, circa 1670, Jacques Holleterre introduced a conical taper to the bore of the flute that produced the use of a second octave in tune with the first.  Theobald Böhm designed a cylindrical bore of metal with a conical head joint.  There is an excellent historical account at this site.  Fragments of fipple – flutes plus whistles dated to the 11th century have been excavated in Dublin, Cork, Waterford.  Sycamore fipple flutes were recorded as made from bourtry (elder) or faurawn (hogweed) by children in Co. Antrim.  Within Ireland wooden flutes were more widely used as there was no need in traditional music for chromatic notes, they were a mixture of Baroque with 19th century classical instruments.  During 1913 Francis O ‘Neill said that ‘No one but a born musician, or one who has had no other outlet for his musical instinct, was likely to play the flute, the lame – blind driven to the practice of music as a profession, invariably chose the union pipes as the most available instrument to touch the sensibilities of the people.’  The playing style include the absence of tonguing with a strong attack in the lower register.  Also, the typical tredornments such as long or short rolls, double – cut rolls, crans as the absence of breath vibrates in the classical 20th century style with the use of Flallement or finger vibrato, playing is always legato that males little use of volume change except as a rhythmic device.  Irish flute playing aims for a full rich mellow sound.  [l]

The flute as a pivotal instrument in Irish music has variants in several counties; The East Galway style is known by a flowing relaxed tempo. Fermanagh is between both musical & geographic terms of no-nonsense North-East Ulster flautists with the more elaborate & ornamental approach of Sligo or Leitrim.  Leitrim has a very rhythmic movement that involves a good deal of tonguing with glottal stops while Sligo flautists play quick tempos of ornamental flowing tunes.  [li]

This site has images of ancient bone – flutes. [lii]


[i]  The Irish Harp – Leaving Cert Music ( [accessed 16th June 2019]

[ii]  History of the Harp ( [accessed 16 June 2019]

[iii]  The Irish Harp – Leaving Cert Music ( [accessed 16th June 2019]

[iv]  History of the Harp ( [accessed 16 June 2019]

[v]  Visit Roscommon > Historic Houses> Clonalis House ( [accessed 16 June 2019]

[vi]  Collections & Research – National Museum of Ireland ( [assessed 16th  June 2019]

[vii]  The Irish Harp – Leaving Cert Music ( [accessed 16th  June 2019]

[viii]  The life, times & music of an Irish harper ( [accessed 16th June 2019]

[ix]  The Brian Buru Harp – History Ireland ( [accessed 16th June 2019]

[x]  A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland ( [assessed 16th  June2019]

[xi]  History of the Harp ( [accessed 16th  June 2019]

[xii]  The Harps of John Egan ( [accessed 16th  June 2019]

[xiii]  The Irish Harp ( [accessed 16th  June 2019]

[xiv]  Thomas Moore’s Harp (  [accessed 16th June 2019]

[xv]  The Irish Harp (  [accessed 16th  June 2019]

[xvi]  (The Uilleann Pipes – a short history – Tara Music ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xvii]  Traditional Instruments – The Art of Irish Music ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xviii]  Information on Uilleann Pipes – Harp & Dragon ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xix] Five Ancient Musical Instruments from Ireland Irish Archaeology ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xx]  UNESCO Recognition for Uilleann Piping – Na Piobairi Uilleann  ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xxi]  Tools of the Trade – Tara Music ( [accessed 18th  June 2019]

[xxii] Comhaltas; its origin, meaning & history ( [accessed 20th  June 2019]

[xxiii] Traditional Instruments – the Art of Irish Music ( [accessed 20th  June 2019]

[xxiv] Bodhran Tutor: The Instrument & Playing ( [accessed 20th  June 2019]

[xxv] The History & Origins of Traditional Music ( [accessed 20th  June 2019]

[xxvi]  Fiddle History: The Music of the Fiddle ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxvii] Irish Fiddle – fiddling around ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxviii] Irish Fiddle – fiddling around ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxix] Accordion Musical Instrument ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxx]  Accordion Encyclopaedia (  [accessed 21st June 2019]

[xxxi]  Accordion schools ( [assessed 21st June 2019]

[xxxii]  Accordion Musical Instrument ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxxiii]  Accordion History ( [accessed 21st  June 2019]

[xxxiv]  Mandolin History ( [accessed 24th  June 2019]

[xxxv]  A Brief History of the Mandolin (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xxxvi]  Mandolin Musical Instrument ( [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xxxvii]  The Irish Banjo ( [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xxxviii]  Banjo in Traditional Music ( [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xxxix]   Irish Banjo History (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xl] Irish Minstrels & Musicians ( [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xli] Discover the history of the Irish Bouzouki (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlii]  Discover the history of the Irish Bouzouki (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xliii]  Irish Bouzouki History (

[accessed 24th June 2019]

[xliv] Discover the History of the Irish Bouzouki (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlv] Irish Traditional Music ( [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlvi] History of the Concertina (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlvii] History of the Concertina in Ireland  (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlviii] Dan Worrell; Notes on Beginning of Concertina Playing  in Ireland  (                 [accessed 24th June 2019]

[xlix] Traditional Instruments (  [accessed 24th June 2019]

[l]  What is an Irish Flute ( [assessed 26th June 2019]

[li] Irish Flute History Archives ( [assessed 26th June 2019]

[lii]  Examples of  Prehistoric Bone – Flutes ( [assessed 26th June 2019]

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