Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2006
Music in Ireland in the modern period reflected the changing socioeconomic strata of the society in which it was produced and consumed. Professional performances by popular European composers were put on in theatres for well-off audiences. A burgeoning print culture produced broadsides and pamphlets of songs and ballads disseminating radical republican ideas, coexisting with an older, Irish-language tradition, where anonymous love songs, drinking songs, laments and other songs by literate poets abounded. Professional traditional musicians, harpers, fiddlers and pipers plied their trades and tailored their repertoires to suit their patrons, so that, depending on opportunity, their playing could range across the available gamut of contemporary musical genres. This chapter shows how an outline of the changing political climate is crucial for an understanding of the emergence of a canon of 'Irish music' as a distinct category. Developments in the formation of that canon, marking changing material realities and cultural tastes will also be discussed, and some account will be given of the enduring controversies that are integral to the ways in which 'Irish music' has been imagined.
Our modern understanding of Irish music begins in Scotland. From the mid-eighteenth century, James Macpherson’s ‘epics’, loosely based on Gaelic heroic poetry, centring upon the legendary hero Ossian (or Oisín), enjoyed huge success, part of a growing and fashionable interest in the culture of the marginalised ‘Celtic’ periphery. These poems were popular in a climate marked by the effective defeat of the Jacobite forces at Culloden in 1746, and rode a wave of romanticism for a cause which had recently been a source of real danger to the peace and stability of the existing polity of the islands.