Irish Beat: Music of the Emerald Isle

Erin Dugan, Research Unplugged Intern
March 23, 2010
woman in maroon shirt motions to the side

Lisa Jenkins

Spirited Celtic sounds filled the auditorium of the Penn State Downtown Theatre on St. Patrick's Day as musicologist Lisa Jenkins and members of Callanish, a local Celtic band, jump-started the spring season of Research Unplugged with a celebration of Celtic music and its origins.

Jenkins opened by pointing out that all Irish music is characterized by the Gaelic saying "Craic Agus Ceol" which means "music and conversation". This is music that originated in people's homes and informal social gatherings rather than concert halls, she noted.

Irish music is meant for dancing, Jenkins added. "When I'm teaching my class, I always make my students get up and dance!"

Jenkins highlighted the fact that Irish music and instruments went through a period of repression in Ireland when Britain felt threatened by it. However, "it gave the Irish a chance to spread their music elsewhere, outside of Ireland," she suggested. Beginning in the 1850s, Irish immigrants introduced their music to the United States, and it has been preserved here ever since. "We kept a lot of it here when it was lost over there," Jenkins said.

Three of the five members of Callanish, Patty Lambert (flutes, whistles, concertina), Gretchen Lee (fiddle), and Carol Lindsay (percussion), played to a toe-tapping audience who were eager to experience different styles of Celtic music. Lindsay pointed out that many of the percussion instruments came from what the Irish people had around them, such as bones and spoons. Added Jenkins, some of the earliest instruments, such as the bodhran—the native frame drum of the Celts—started as a "common household item", for example, as a winnower for wheat or a tray to serve food.

To the delight of the audience, the Callanish musicians demonstrated and described the three different styles of Irish music: the reel, the jig and the hornpipe. Jenkins explained that northern counties of Ireland had more of a staccato style, whereas southern counties played more smoothly with a more free-flowing beat.

The influence of Irish music is seen and heard all over the world, noted Jenkins, stating that she has even heard it played by Japanese musicians. She gives credit to Irish musical ambassadors, particularly the influential group, The Chieftains, for spreading Irish music around the globe during the 1980s and '90s.

Concluding the talk, Jenkins mentioned the heated debates surrounding the definition of authentic Irish music. For instance, the lyrics to the beloved favorite song "Danny Boy" were in fact composed by an English lawyer named Frederic Edward Weatherly. People use all kinds of different guidelines when deciding whether an Irish song is genuine or not, Jenkins noted. "Some people declare that if it is not written down, or if it is passed down by word-of-mouth, then it is a traditional piece of Irish music."

Join us next Wednesday, March 24th for a conversation titled "Fair Game or Foul Play? Media Coverage of Women in Sports," hosted by Marie Hardin, Sports Journalism.

For more about Lisa Jenkins, read on...

Last Updated March 23, 2010