Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Traditional Irish Musical Instruments

Traditional Irish Musical Instruments
By Adrian McGrath

Celtic Irish Harp 
(All instrument photos for this article are by A. McGrath)

There are many instruments used today in Traditional Irish Music. Many have evolved over centuries; some are ancient, while some are much more modern. Ancient ones include some percussion items like the bones -- used for keeping time, they were originally, literally made from the bones of dead animals. More modern instruments include the piano and guitar. Some instruments are uniquely Irish, while others appear in other lands and in other musical settings. What determines whether an instrument is “traditional” or not is a subject for debate. But below are a few which certainly appear in most Irish or Celtic bands, whether in Ireland, the United States, or elsewhere. Whether a person is part of a band or is just a self-appointed “Irish musician” playing tunes for fun, learning any of the five instruments below is a great way to enjoy Traditional Irish Music. The five instruments we will explore are the bodhran, tin whistle, Irish wooden flute (or concert flute), concertina, and the Celtic harp. More information on Traditional Irish Music can be found online at the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, Ireland at Additionally, an organization which supports Traditional Irish Music worldwide is Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, at (Association of Musicians of Ireland).
If you live in the United States, another way to learn more about Irish music is to contact a local Irish cultural society. If you do not have an Irish cultural society near you, why not just start one yourself with a few friends?


The top side of the bodhran and beater

The bodhran -- pronounced BOW rahn -- is a one-sided, hand-held drum made usually of goat skin and beech or ash wood. The goat skin is stretched and nailed over the wooden drum, and the instrument is played with a single wood stick called a “beater.” By moving the wrist rapidly in a down and up motion, the drum can be played producing beats and even drum rolls for various types of Irish tunes such as jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches, polkas, waltzes, slip jigs, and slides. Tunes that are very slow are difficult to play as are very fast tunes like some polkas. But the bodhran is perfect for most Irish tunes like jigs and reels, and even marches and waltzes.
The bottom side of the bodhran and beater

Modern bodhrans can be made from non-traditional materials; and some are even tune-able -- adjustable to different pitches or keys. But the traditional goat skin and wood drum is usually the best.

In Ireland the bodhran was used specifically on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas) for the “Wren Hunt.” This was a type of festival where roving musicians wearing funny costumes went around town playing musical instruments (often tin whistle, flute, and bodhran) or singing. Mummers, roving musicians, also use the bodhran which is seen on special holidays.

Tin Whistle

Tin Whistles
This instrument also has ancient origins and probably evolved by punching holes, to play notes, in the hollow bones of animals and attaching some form of “flipple” to produce sound when blown into.  In the Irish Gaelic language it is called “Feadog.” It is also called a Penny Whistle, no doubt because it was originally an inexpensive instrument. Modern day tin whistles can be made of a metal shaft with a plastic mouthpiece or even other materials like plastic or even wood. Some older types are rolled, conical shaped sheet metal with a wood block for a mouthpiece. Unlike a flute, it is not transverse, but played straight down. Tin whistles are set in a specific key such as Key of G, Key of C, etc. Most traditional Irish tunes are played in Key of D (or sometimes G), so a “D Whistle” is usually the best one to start with and have at all times. Key of D can also play many G tunes.

Irish Wooden Flute

Irish Wooden Flute
This flute is much different from the modern metal “silver” flute. The wood gives the instrument a softer, more earthy sound. Also, the instrument is set in a specific key, much like the tin whistle. Most, if not all, Irish Wood Flutes are in the Key of D. They are usually long, but break down into about three parts for easy storage and transport. They are played transverse or sideways, and it requires much more skill to develop the mouth muscles (an embouchure) than to play the tin whistle. But the fingering of notes is the same, in most cases, as the tin whistle. So, these two instruments are related in that sense. It is often that an Irish flute player will also be able to play the tin whistle, and probably started on the tin whistle first. Wood flutes usually cost much more than tin whistles, however -- the latter being fairly low cost. Most Irish wood flutes are made from Blackwood, but some are made from other woods or materials.
Irish Wood flute, disassembled

The Irish Wooden Flute (or Wooden Concert Flute) of today is known as the “Simple System” or the “Bach System.” It is different from the modern “Boehm System” metal flute (also called a “Silver Flute”) we often see in orchestras or marching bands.

Concertina, 30 button Anglo German
This instrument, usually made of wood and metal or today even plastic, was originally created in England and also Germany in the 1830’s. It is much like having a harmonica attached to a bellows -- although obviously more complicated. The bellows takes in and blows out air which passes through metal free reeds (like in a harmonica) and produces sounds, and thus music. The buttons when pressed enable certain reeds to be played.

There are mainly two types of concertinas -- which are similar but significantly different from accordions. The Anglo-German (also called Anglo) produces a different note on a push or pull of the bellows. The English type, however, produces the same note on push or pull. Concertinas are much more portable than most accordions, and we often associate them with seafaring and the days of sailing ships when they were popular.

The Celtic Harp
Celtic Irish Harp

This is an instrument of very ancient origins. The Harp is also the very symbol of Ireland itself, even more so than the Shamrock. Irish coins have an image of a harp on them, as an example of the harp's importance.

The famous American Army unit called The Irish Brigade from the American Civil War had a design of an Irish harp on its flag. And there are other cases where the harp was a clear symbol of the Irish, again much like the shamrock. Even the official seal of the President of Ireland has the image of an Irish Celtic harp on it. In many ways it is like the American Eagle in the USA, the symbol of America.

Flag of US Army's Irish Brigade,
69th New York, 1861
(Wikimedia Commons)

So, this beautiful instrument is very important in Irish culture because of its antiquity and its symbolism. It also sounds great and makes lovely -- heavenly -- music.  Much like a related ancient instrument called a lyre, the harp was originally very basic in design. Today the harp has developed into a complicated, concert instrument. But the Celtic harp is a simpler, smaller design made usually of wood, some metal parts, and strings of various materials.
Seal of the President of Ireland with Celtic harp 
(Wikimedia Commons)

With these five instruments anyone interested in Traditional Irish Music would have an excellent start. It is not necessary to learn all five, however. Just pick the one you like, and begin a great musical journey. Since it is the least expensive, and easiest to transport, and fairly easy to learn -- at least in the early stages -- the tin whistle would be the best place to begin in most cases.

Sources and Further Reading: Secrets of the Bodhran and How to Play It, by Sean D. Halpenny and Malachy Kearns, published by Roundstone Musical Instruments, Galway, Ireland;  A Handbook of the Concertina by Fred Quann, 1980; Timber: The Flute Tutor by Fintan Vallely, 1987; Irish Wooden Flutes Ltd. pamphlet by Tom Ganley of Castlerea, Roscommon, Ireland; The Anglo Concertina Demysrified by Bertram Levy, Front Hall Enterprises, 1985; Feadog: Original Irish Whistle, product catalogue pamphlet (contains information about the instrument and its origins), Dublin, Ireland; website for Irish Traditional Music Archive, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann website at; Image of the seal of the President of Ireland is from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain at; All photos on this article are by Adrian McGrath unless otherwise stated. The image of the green flag for the Irish Brigade of the US Army is from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain, found at

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