The Irish pub and music culture

Thinking of Ireland many of you will think of Irish folk music and of evenings in the pub. Ireland is a small country but its music scene belongs to the most famous and important ones in whole Europe. And apart from its music the Green Island is also famous for its pubs especially the Temple Bar in Dublin which you can see on the picture above. In this blog I will take a closer look at the Irish pub and music culture. By the way try to pay attention as many pubs don’t sell any beer after midnight. If the barkeeper shouts last order you will only have half an hour time to drink it out. And if the Irish watch a curling match which is the national kind of sport in Ireland you can imagine what’s going on in the pub then.

The Irish pub

When I first came to Ireland I visited the Dingle Peninsula in the south-west of the country. Some Irish told me that an Irish village can’t be attractive if it doesn’t have at least three pubs. And by the way they don’t need to be modern and clean. If the furniture is a little bit damaged it’s a good sign. That means that the guests feel very comfortable in this pub. And you will remember from my previous article that an Irish pub is the best place to have Irish stew or some seafood with a pint of Guinness for dinner. But there’s much more than this. My advise I can give you when coming to Ireland watch out which pub offers a music programme and has a band performing. I can guarantee you that there are some pubs which offer music programmes. Furthermore it’s nothing rare that somebody starts to sing an Irish folk song and all the others join and start singing too. When I went to Temple Bar in Dublin there was a band performing some popular Irish songs which became international hits as Irish folk versions. Among others they played hits of U2 and the Cranberries whose leadsinger Dolores O’Riordan passed away recently.

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Irish folk music

But let’s go back to the origins and take a closer look how Irish folk music began. When talking about Irish music we automatically tend to talk about Celtic music. Ethnomusicologists say that actually there are no direct evidences of how the original Celtic music sounded. However if you take a closer look at the music culture of regions like the Bretagne in France, Scotland, Wales or the north of Portugal and Spain where the Celts left their cultural traces you will immediately notice some clear similarities between all them. The bagpipes for instance you will associate with Scotland for sure you can also get to hear in the music culture of the Spanish region of Asturias or Tras-os-Montes in the north of Portugal. As I already mentioned in my previous article Irish or Celtic music traditions also have been brought to the USA after many Irish people left their country during the Grand Fame in the 18th century. There they started influencing the rock and country music and creating some completely new styles. The traditional Irish music used three music instruments I want to introduce you. The first one is a small drum and is called bodhrán in Irish. Another instrument which you will find even in the souvenir shops everywhere in Dublin is a small pipe made of metal called tin whistle or feadóg stáin in Irish. By the way I also bought one for myself. Of course a typical Irish folk music band always playes the violin when performing in the pub. But I want you to pay attention to a third music instrument and that’s the harp or cláirseach in Irish. Actually you don’t need to be a ethnomusicologist or an expert of Celtic cultural studies to identify this very music instrument as Irish as you will find it as logo of many Irish brands like the cheap airline Ryanair or the Guinness beer which I have to mention here once again. You will also find the harp on the Irish Euro coins. But however you have to know the story behind it as the harp has been much more than only a conventional music instrument for the Irish people. Before Ireland has been occupied by Great Britain the harp or cláirseach was the Irish national symbol and has been played by the Irish musicians in the princes courts. However the English kings saw them as a danger of Irish nationalism and tried to oppress them. In 1603 Queen Elizabeth I ordered to sentence all harp players to death and to burn their instruments. The probably most famous and oldest harp which still has been preserved is the Brian Boru’s harp. And you can even go and see it on your own. This object you can watch in the Long Room of the Trinity College in Dublin.

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Irish pop and rock today

If you think of Irish pop music and especially of Dublin there’s one band you already might have heard about and that’s the Dubliners. The Dubliners indeed made the attempt to combine traditional Irish folk music with pop and became very popular all over the world indeed. What few people know is that one singer who has been part of the Dubliners before later also became part of U2. Before becoming the most popular Irish rock band U2 was a band of young students before. They became more popular in the 1980s through hits like I still haven’t found what I’ve been looking for or With or without you. But the 1990s marked Irelands most popular decade in musical and cultural as well as in political and economical view. After Mary Robinson became the president of the Republic of Ireland the economy started to grow and Ireland also had huge success in pop music. Just think of Sinéad O’Connor with her famous world hit Nothing compares 2U back in 1990. She later produced an album with traditional Celtic folk songs sung in Irish. Yes, Irish or Gaeilge how it’s called by Irish speakers is still a present language in Ireland’s everyday life indeed. But I will tell you more about the Irish language and the Celtic languages in one of my next articles. Of course I already mentioned the Cranberries who also came from the Green Island and gave us unforgettable hits like Zombie or Dream. And they all had their performances at Temple Bar in Dublin before where they started to get their first experience. And of course don’t forget Boyzone and Ronan Keating who started his solo career as a singer afterwards. The 1990s also marked the time when Ireland won the Eurovision Song Contest alsmost every year. In 1992, 1993 and 1994 they won it three years in a row and had to host it afterwards spending a lot of money on it. For Ireland the Eurovision Song Contest became a bless and a curse at the same time. They simply were fed up with wining and hosting it. In the pub one Irishman told me that they had really bad and boring TV programmes for Christmas Eve in the 1990s as the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ squandered almost all its money on organizing the Eurovision Song Contest. This also became material for jokes and parodies in the popular sitcom Father Ted  which is an Irish pendant to Two and a half man in the USA. Winning for the third time in a row was a real shock for them back in 1994. But that year also marked one music groups time of birth you will also associate with Ireland and Irish music for sure. I’m talking about River Dance. It’s one of the first associations people get in combination with Ireland but only few of them know or remember that Riverdance were the interval act which performed during the voting at the Eurovision Song Contest 1994. And it became more applause and commercial success than any of the competing songs that year. The show was held in the 3Arena at Dublin Harbour which was named Point Theatre than. And of course I went there just to visit it.

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Looks like an average and unimportant hall like any other in the world. Would you suppose that River Dance as one of the most successfull dance and music bands in the world started their big career right here. And during their spectaculous shows they also use the instruments I’ve introduced like the bodhrán, the tin whistle and the violin in combination with their characteristic step dance. On the other side I do know that many Irish people are fed up with being associated longer with River Dance and Irish dance and folk music.

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