Celtic: Songs for the Ages

A couple of days ago, I introduced a piece of traditional Celtic music (“The Ash Grove) as the first of a series. In this post, I want to say a bit more about this genre of music and why I find it appealing. I end by sharing an energetic traditional dance tune – “Glory Reel” – performed by the famed Irish group, Altan and the soulful “Song for Ireland” sung by Mary Black. I hope you enjoy them.

The Charm of Celtic Music
As mentioned in my previous post, the traditional music of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Brittany sing in Celtic languages, namely Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton respectively. The roots of Celtic music, songs and dances go back to the 12th century. They may not seem that ancient to our modern ears, especially when we think all Celtic music sounds like the music of Enya. They most assuredly do not. Authentic Celtics music has no pop aspirations. It is the music of of everyday life, warts and all. This music has always been about bringing people together, bonding as a community, having a good time around family and friends, reaffirming traditions, celebrating heroism, preserving personal stories of love, homesickness, toil and tragedies. That is why, when you listen to a piece of Celtic music, you fee a palpable sense of emotional connection to time and place, and a love of the land. Whether it’s a spritely dance melody or a flute lament, whether it is heard in a church, pub or concert hall, or experienced on the dance floor, whether it is folksy, mystical, even hymnal, the music always seems to provide an emotional outlet. It can grip you with a haunting sense of melancholy or just as easily, lift you in a burst of joy. This is the essence of Celtic music and the reason for its enduring popularity.

Listen : Glory Reel (Instrumental) performed by Altan from their 1993 album, Island Angel.

A “reel” is a traditional dance tune in 4/4 time. Reels originated in Scotland and proved to be popular in set and step dancing. This 1993 recording below is by Altan, a group which has dominated the traditional Irish music scene since they were formed in 1987. The group is considered by many, including the Irish Voice, to be “quite simply the best Irish traditional band active on either side of the Atlantic.”

Listen: Song for Ireland (Phil Colchough), sung by Mary Black, from her 1988 album, Collected.

The wish for peace throughout Ireland has become one of the most frequent themes in contemporary Irish songs. English songwriter and folk-singer Phil Colchough (b. 1940) expressed this theme in his soulful “Song for Ireland” which is now a modern classic. The first verse opens with these majestic lines:

Walking all the day, near tall towers
where falcons build their nests
Silver winged they fly,
they know the call of freedom in their breasts
Saw Black Head against the sky
with twisted rocks that run down to the sea
Living on your western shore,
saw summer sunsets, asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
and sang a song for Ireland.

The last verse is tinged with sadness and regret:

Dreaming in the night I saw a land
Where no man had to fight
Waking in your dawn
I saw you crying in the morning light.

The conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height in the early 1980s when the song was written. The “you” in the last line refers to Ireland. For a fleeting moment, the country is personified and crying for what is happening to the people of Ireland.

The celebrated Irish singer, Mary Black took the song to an international audience when she recorded it with the Irish folk music group, De Dannan in the early 1980s. The song has also been recorded by other major artistes around the world.

Leave a Reply