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 also old Norse words whose root means to ‘pluck.’ [i]

The Irish harp of 800 A D was widely in use throughout Medieval Western Europe: Known as a frame harp it included a straight forepillar. [ii]

A twelfth century engraving is located on a wall in Ardmore Cathedral in Co. Waterford. [iii]

The first harp to feature a hollowed soundbox that amplified the instruments dated from the fourteenth century.  It included a curved forepillar, strong neck also thirty to thirty – six brass rings. [iv]

Early harps from the fifteenth century were played by blind harpers within 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 with two horizontal plates on either side riveted on pillar with one binding it to the key piece.  Produced with thirty-five strings of wire, the pins of which are attached to brass.  This site features an image of O ‘Carolan from 1844 by J. C. Timbrell. [vi]

Queen Elizabeth 1 issued a proclamation to hang Irish harpists then destroy all instruments to prevent insurrection within Ireland.  During the 1650’s  Oliver Cromwell ordered all harps or organs to be burnt: in Dublin alone over five hundred were destroyed.  Several years occurred 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 then play it at a Limerick parade.  A description is provided in O ‘Sullivan Donal ‘s   Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper 1958 (Ossian Publications, London) [viii]

An harp was donated to Trinity College Dublin by Right Hon. Sir William Conyngham during 1782 that linked 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.  He toured Ireland until 1807 from the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 event where he collected thus saved priceless material.  He published 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.  That 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 nineteenth 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. Several modern Irish harps use gut or synthetic string also 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 Irish President’s seal.  The Irish flag features a gold harp with silver strings on blue (azure[xv]

Uilleann Pipes

During the fifth century of 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 amongst all upper or lower classes during the seventeenth century.  Egan’s of Dublin introduced refinements during the latter part of the eighteenth century with the addition of keyed chanter, or regulators.  Uilleann pipes are recognized worldwide for their sweetness & mellowness of tone. [xvi]

Produced from leather or wood the uilleann pipes consist of five parts; bag, bellows, chanter, drone also regulators.  The melody is played on the chanter while the connected sprung keys of the three regulators are played to produce chords.  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 are called a starter or practice set.  The chanter has two full octave range.  The piper plays a standard two-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 thirteen keyed notes which are played by one leaning one’s 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 regulators keys! [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 centimetres in length.  They had been hollowed out with the resultant diameters approximately two centimetres in width. 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]

An interview with piper Liam O Flynn maybe viewed 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 in 1872 was during the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries in the ‘Rosa Anglica’  (catalogued as TCDMS1435) by John of Geddesden or Johannas de Gaddesden (1208?-1361)  Nicholas O ‘hIceada was 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 an 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.  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 instructions for playing the instrument.[xxiv]

Tin Whistle

The whistle or in Irish ‘feadóg ’ developed from an ancient woodwind instrument of clay or bone from ancient China over five thousand years ago.  It became known in Europe by the eleventh century.  Feadógs were evident on Irish high crosses.  In the twelfth century Dublin bird – bone instruments were in use.  During the seventieth  century the term ‘Flagolet ’ was used to describe a fipple flute with four finger Holes on the front also two thumb holes on the back.  Feadóg contains six holes in a range of two octaves with various keys i.e. ; c, d, e, flat, & g[xxv]


The term ‘fiddle ’ was originally a term from the twelfth century: it consisted of flat boards for the top, back also sides.  According to Valley Fintan 1999  in The Companion to Irish Music (Cork University Press page 123)  Several editions are available including an eBook.  The earliest reference to a fiddle within Ireland was during the seventh 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.’   During 1674 Richard Head referenced that 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 eighteenth century in Dublin dated from the eleventh century.   It was produced of dogwood with an animal carved on its tip also it was believed to have been the oldest bow in the world.  A process of continual development, particularly to the area of string & 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 & provided a greater range & the neck was made narrower.  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 i.e. 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 with use of long fluid bow stresses that cover several 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 people report it was manufactured by Christian Frederich Ludwig Buschmann in Berlin during 1822.  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-nineteenth 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 manufactured from poplar wood, the bellows of strong manila cardboard pleated or folded.  Leather gussets appear on each corner while metal protects the outer & edges.  It strengthens & protects the bellows.  Metal is also used for the rods also 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 aluminum alloy steel late. [xxx]

Early accordions had keys like a piano but was held by musicians.  Sound was 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 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 additional strings were added with a different tension, thus led to diads or chords.  Lute-like instruments existed in 2,000 B C Mesopotamia prior to the arrival of the instrument in Spain during 700 B C curtesy of the Moors.  During the 1500’s / 1600’s in Naples, Italy the instrument proved popular.  It had a wood body with 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 1750-1810. [xxxiv]

The American Orville Gibson constructed a mandolin during 1894.  That 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’s-5 Series.’   Mandolinists played bluegrass, country, rock also vibrant organic Irish music on their instruments. [xxxv]

The instruments modern form & 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. Fast 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.  They produced them from gourds, logs or animal skins, strung together with gut or hemp.  They included three or four string models, later a fifth was added.  Three types of Irish banjos exist: Irish tenor, five-strings also the plectrum. [xxxvii]

Frets were added during 1878 by Henry Dobson of New York State.  A late nineteenth century sketch in Captain Francis O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels & Musicians of piper Dick Stephenson with banjoist John Dunne displayed the fifth string with peg on Dunne’s banjo.  The early Irish banjos were plucked or strummed by the fingers.  By the turn of the century the plectrum with 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 on Irish musicians.  [xl]


The older version of this instrument called the ‘Tambora‘ was found in ancient Greece since circa the fourth century BC.  Those had a long neck, small round sound box which was a single string instrument.  Musicians played the tune on the first string of higher itch. Various paintings or mosaics documented the Instruments.  Evidence also remains from official letters, memos also scholars reports or personalities during the tenth, twelfth,  sixteenth, eighteenth also twentieth centuries. Two versions of the Greek bouzouki were known as the ‘Trichondo ‘ & the ‘Tetrachordo. ‘   The former was introduced during the early twentieth 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 latter has eight strings in four pairs. Generally tuned to c3ca, c3c4, f3f4, dada; 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.  Donal 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 with sides straightened.  Additional adjustable frets were added; it developed from six to eight strings with the bridge glued with a portable sound bowl. [xlii]

Numerous updates were made to Donal Lunny’s instrument the following year when he commissioned a bouzouki at Luthier Peter Abrett’s workshop to the specification of a classic Greek instrument but with unison strings also a critically flat back.  Several versions followed i. e. fully & curved sound boards, canted soundboards, floating  & ridge also a 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 also 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 with information by Declan Plummer may be viewed on this site. [xliv]


The concertina is a close cousin of the accordion.  It belongs 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 & England; it was referred to as a ‘squeeze-box.’  Several years later the English invention of that instrument by Sir Charles Wheatstone during 1829 the instrument arrived in Ireland.  The German version was regarded as a working-class instrument whilst the English was the preferred upper-class one.  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 also one in Belfast & Londonderry.  Variety concerts in Dublin featured the playing of the instrument during 1872.  The Abercorn Ladies College, Dublin offered tutoring to women in the instrument among their courses.  Not many reports apart from Co. 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  report.  County Mayo concertina playing with a 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 depicted a flautist playing to the right while in another miniature an image shows the instrument played to the left.  During the sixteenth century the instrument held a two-fold purpose: as a military prop also 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.  An excellent historical account features at this site.  Fragments of fipple-flutes & whistles that dated to the eleventh century have been excavated in counties 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. During the nineteenth century a mixture of Baroque classical Instruments were available.  Francis O ‘Neill in 1913  stated 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.  The typical  ‘redornments ‘ has long or short rolls, double-cut rolls & crans as the absence of breath vibrates in the classical twentieth 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;  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.  Co. 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 features images of ancient bone-flutes. [lii]


[i]  The Irish Harp-Leaving Cert Music ( [Accessed 16th June 2019]

[ii]  History of the Harp ( [Accessed 16th June 2019]

[iii]  The Irish Harp-Leaving Cert Music ( [Accessed 16th June 2019]

[iv]  History of the Harp ( [Accessed 16th June 2019]

[v]  Visit Roscommon > Historic Houses> Clonalis House ( [Accessed 16th 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] Ibid

[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] Ibid

[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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