companion website

The Music

As described in the book, Ireland has a distinctive, rich and varied musical tradition. This includes a wide range of songs in the irish language as well as in English, some derived from traditional Irish melodies, some adapted from other traditions. In O'Neill's youth he would have heard political ballads, minstrel show tunes, brass bands playing marches and hymns, and topical political songs. But O'Neill is best known for his 1907 collection Dance Music Of Ireland, a compilation of just over 1000 instrumental dance tunes, often referred to as the "bible" of Irish folk music.

These tunes also have varied sources and typically have no known author. They have multiple names, and are played in different ways in different places. Musicians in a given community would often just play a tune they all knew and not bother giving the tune a name. Musicians would aso improvise on the tunes melody, adding "ornaments" or changing phrases. One of O'Neill's tasks was sorting out what was a distinct tune and what was just a variation on an existing tune. In the process he imposed a degree of standardization on this musical practice.

There were and are three main kinds of Irish dance tunes: Jigs, Reels, and Hornpipes. Then and now people would play other forms: waltzes, or polkas, for example. But jigs and reels were the two most common forms. (this is probably wrong: I thnk the "standardization" of these two forms is probably more a modern phenomenon)

Jigs. In Ireland the US, and across Europe, "jig dancing" originally meant any kind of dancing that featured rhythmic rapping with the feet. Jigs in Irish music came to refer to tunes in 3/4 time. You can tell it's a jig if you can say say "em-pha-sis, em-pha-sis em-pha-sis" and have it fit the melody. Or if you are hungry for Irish breakfast, you can say "rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages."

Reels tend to be fast and are in 4/4 time. The phrase "doubledecker doubledecker doubledecker"  describe the rhythmic feel of a reel

Irish dance music should have a sense of "lift" or set your feet to tapping: O'Neill frequently used the term "swing" to describe a well played tune. Most commonly, these tune forms will have a "A" section, played twice, and a "B" section, played twice. A good player will add variation while keeping the basic melody intact.

These tunes typically have no standard names--the same tune may be know under half a dozen or more different titles. O'Neill sometimes made up names on the spot. In letters to friends, and in his books, he often gave the source of tunes he collected, sometimes books, more often other people, sometimes tunes overheard in the street.

O'Neill presented a specific version of irish music that omitted a great deal and

There are two known recordings of O'Neill himself playing a tin whistle, with his collaborator Edward Cronin on the fiddle and Cronin's friend Tom Kiley on the mandolin. The audio quality is very poor--these were surely made from badly deteriorated wax cylinders--but you can hear O'Neill himself introduce the tunes and the players. Transfer from the original cylinder recordings in collections of Na Piobaire Uilleann, Dublin: thanks to NPI for sharing these rare recordings

A commonly played hornpipe, "The Boys of Bluehill"

O'Neill wrote that he learned "the Boys of Bluehill" from a 16 year old orphan boy, George West, who O'Neill took under his wing for a time. The tune, "which West heard from a strolling fiddler named O'Brien, was entirely new to our Chicago musicians."

A reel, "The Fermoy Lasses"


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