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Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern, Part III

Celtic Music, Part III, the Bodhrán and the Amazing Tin Whistle

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at Celtic music with Part III—the bodhrán and the amazing tin whistle.


Tin Whistle Player, Northern Ireland, by Luna Stellaris

The Tin Whistle

The tin whistle. The penny whistle. The Irish flute. The fife. All are names for the cheapest Irish traditional instrument. You can buy a tin whistle for $10-$15. But it takes a lot of skill to play it well. Made of tin, brass, or hardwood, these simple flutes have six holes and are usually tuned in the key of D, the “basic key” of traditional music.

The Bodhrán

The bodhrán is an Irish drum from 10 to 26 inches in diameter (25 to 65 cm). The sides can be 3.5 to 8 inches deep (9 to 20 cm). Goatskin is stretched over one side of the frame. The other side is open. A hand placed against the back-side can change timbre and pitch.

The earliest bodhrán may have been merely a skin stretched over a wooden frame, used for carrying peat, separating chaff, or for serving food. Similar drums, beaten with a stick, have been used in Ireland since ancient times.

The bodhrán and the tin whistle go well together.

A man plays the bodhran whilst another man plays the penny whistle in a pub, Ireland, 1974. (Photo by Jill Freedman/Getty Images)

Traditionally Irish: A bodhran and a tin whistle player in a 1974 pub. (Photo by Jill Freedman/Getty Images)

Hear the Bodhrán and Tin Whistle Together

But we can only talk about these instruments so long until you actually have to hear them. The tin whistle can have a truly haunting sound.

  • In this short video we hear Anna Robinson and a bodhrán playing some traditional Irish tunes, with increasingly greater background accompaniment.

Click here to access the first video.

  • This next video features a jig with whistle and a

Click here to access the second video.

  • In our third link, hear the Dubliners in concert play a reel with accompaniment:

Click here to access the final video.

Okay, this was a shorter post, but with videos, probably longer. But do you see how the tin whistle’s sound can range from haunting and lonely to lively and active? ‘Tis truly a versatile instrument. I hope this quick tour has given you a flavor for Celtic music.

Next week we’ll begin looking at the Celtic monks, and how their desire to cloister themselves from the rest of society ended up saving western civilization itself.

Sources: Wikipedia, youtube

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern, Part II

Celtic Music, Part II: The Poet and the Celtic Harp

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher continues looking at Celtic music with Part II—the harp and the importance it played in ancient, Celtic Ireland. (Click here for Part I.)


Celtic Harpist

Celtic Harpers and Celtic Poets Had High Status

Harpists were the most respected musicians of the ancient Celtic world. A harpist, accompanied by a poet, held a place of honor in Celtic society, ranking so high they were considered equal with aristocracy. A chief poet had equal status with a bishop and the ruler of a tuath, or clan. Skill with the harp and poetry automatically classified both as freemen.

Best Seats at the Banquet

Celtic harpers and poets ranked so high in Celtic society that the twelfth century Book of Leinster records an imaginary seating chart of the great banquet hall of Tara as it might have appeared of old. It describes a seating protocol, with closer proximity to the king and larger portions of meat depending on the guest’s status.  From The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin:

“The door faces east, and beside it are the king’s bodyguard of four mercenary soldiers:
‘The personal surely for the king’s base vassals west of these . . . Envoys are placed to the west of him; guest-companies after them; then poets; then harpers.’”

So poets and harpists had seats at the table opposite the king. Note that pipers, horn players, and jugglers were seated at the corner by the door, beside the mercenaries. And their skills did not even earn them status as freemen.

Harp Factoids

  • Two kinds of harps were in use. A smaller harp was easily carried and was called a cruit. A larger harp, called the clairseach, could have 30 strings.
  • Metal strings made for a clearer, louder sound, but also required a strong shoulder and neck. It’s unclear when metal strings replaced animal gut strings.
  • The harp was so pervasive as a Celtic musical instrument that it’s featured on the Guinness Brewery label and is a chief symbol of Ireland.
  • Irish harp music all but died out in the 19th century, but revived in the 20th.

Let’s Hear It

Turlough O’Carolan was a blind 18th century harpist, sometimes thought of as the unofficial national composer of Ireland. Follow this link to hear Mark Harmer playing “Carolan’s Dream”. After listening to this, you can see why a Celtic harp, well-played, accompanied by a poet, could be a powerfully enchanting instrument:

To access the first video in a different way, click here.

Here’s another one that starts out with two harpists. Just let it play while you read the next section …

To access the second video in a different way, click here.

What Was the Experience Like?

In his novel, Taliesin, Stephen Lawhead presents a scene in which Charis is drawn to hear the young man, Taliesin, as he plays the harp. Neither can return to their homelands. In the end, both are drawn to each other. I present the scene here as a view into what it might have been like in the ancient world to be in the presence of a master harpist:

“Although many of the words were unfamiliar, Charis gathered that he sang about a beautiful valley and all the trees and flowers and animals there. It was a simple melody, strongly evocative, and she was drawn by it. She crossed the threshold into the hall, half-hidden by one of the columns.

“The young man stood erect, tall and lean, his head up, eyes closed, the harp nestled against his shoulder, his hands moving deftly over the harpstrings, summoning each silver note from the heart of the harp. His mouth formed the words, but the music came from beyond him; he was merely a conduit through which it might pass into the world of men, pouring up and up like a fountain from the hidden depths of his soul to spread in glimmering rings around him. Charis listened, hardly daring to breathe lest she disturb the singular beauty of the moment.

“It was a sad song, a heartbreaking song, wild and proud, a song about a lost valley, a lost land, about all the losses a human heart might hold dear and remember. As the song spun out, Charis gave herself wholly to its spell, letting the ache of her own wash over her in a sweet, dark flood. As the last, trembling notes of the song faded away, she saw glistening drops on the young man’s cheeks.

“We are alike, you and I, she thought, homeless wayfarers in a world that is not our own.”

We’ll continue our look into Celtic music next time, with Part III, and a look at the Irish tin whistle, an amazingly versatile instrument, accompanied, of course, by the bodhrán, the Irish hand-held drum.

Sources for this post were The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin; St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman; Taliesin, by Stephen Lawhead, and Wikipedia.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.


Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern, Part I

Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern, Part I

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher begins a quick look (and listen) at Celtic music, both ancient and modern.


Celtic Instruments, Ancient and Modern

Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern

What can we say about Celtic music? I love it! True it is that what we hear today is not the same as what they played in the early Middle Ages. Modern musicians have borrowed, reshaped, and made the ancient music their own. The instruments today present a wider range of sounds and  options. But I think we can still get a flavor for what they must have listened to in ancient times.

Kyteler’s Inn—My Introduction to Traditional Irish Music

My first exposure to really good Irish music was on our first night in Ireland in June 2014. My wife and I just had flown into Dublin, rented a car, and navigated the narrow roads and left-hand-side-of-the-road driving. My white-knuckled wife wondered the whole way if this were her last day on earth. But lo, we did arrive safely at our B&B in Kilkenny. After a short nap and supper, we found Kyteler’s Inn, one of the oldest inns in Ireland. There we landed a seat, grabbed a Guinness, and sat down to hear the traditional Irish music of the Raglan Rogues. It’s just two guys playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, Irish flute, and sometimes the tin whistle Their stringed instruments were unknown to the ancient Celts. Nevertheless they are keeping alive the spirit, rhythm, and sound of Celtic musical culture.

Captivated by an Irish Folk Sound

I listened and was dumbfounded. Perhaps embedded somewhere in my DNA was an affinity for this Irish folk sound. Perhaps it was too little sleep after a long flight. But the music took me away. I bought both their albums and have been listening to them ever since—perhaps more than any others I own. (Outside of Bob Dylan, thank you.) If you’re in Kilkenny on Monday through Thursday nights, you absolutely must stop by Kyteler’s Inn and hear these two guys. It was the first surprise of our Irish trip—how traditional Irish music is being kept alive in the pubs.

Now I cannot give you a flavor of what we heard without providing some links where you can actually hear the music. I hope you’re reading this where you can go there and listen. After expending so many words, your ears just have to be exposed to the captivating sounds of Irish folk music that stays with you long after the notes fade away.

Here’s the first link: The Raglan Rogues, playing “Galway Girl”, with guitar and mandolin:


To access the first video in a different way, click here.

In the next link, they’re playing “Whiskey in the Jar” with guitar and banjo. The music starts at about 1:30 into the video.


To access the second video in a different way, click here.

They’ve only produced two albums that I know of: “Lord of the Dance” and “Whiskey in the Jar”. And sorry, I’ve been unable to find the links where you can buy them. If I learn where you can, I’ll update this post later.

I admit this isn’t ancient music. We should perhaps call it Irish folk music, with definite Celtic roots. Next time we’ll try to dampen our enthusiasm for the modern version and focus on an instrument that definitely was a part of ancient Celtic musical tradition: the harp. And again, I promise to bring you links where you can actually hear the haunting sounds we’re talking about. (Click here for Part II.)

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.