The flute is one of the most iconic and popular instruments in traditional Irish music, with many great players. According to Francis O’Neill, who wrote about Irish music at the turn of the 20th century,
No musical instrument was in such common use among the Irish peasantry as the flute.
O’Neill’s The Flute and Its Patrons is one of the first compilations of great Irish flute players. Unfortunately, none of them were ever recorded, so we don’t know what they sounded like.
Luckily, though, there are plenty more wonderful Irish flute players who have been recorded. Many of them are still alive today, playing and teaching. This isn’t an exhaustive or definitive list by any stretch, but these 10 flute players show the wide variety of playing styles you can find in Irish music. Maybe they’ll inspire you to pick up a flute yourself and give it a toot!
If they do, be sure to check out our guide on where to find Irish flutes for sale.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Matt Molloy is the most well-known and influential Irish flute player in the world today. Hailing from Co. Roscommon, a hotbed of great flute players, Molloy moved to Dublin during the Irish folk revival of the 1960s. He’s a longtime member of the world-famous Chieftains, a founding member of the Bothy Band, and a renowned player in his own right.
Molloy is known for his highly technical playing that features a lot of ornaments. It’s been compared to the playing of uilleann pipers, with an emphasis on articulation through the fingers.
You can read a wonderful interview with Matt Molloly over on the Irish Flute Guide.
To many, Seamus Tansey is the king of Sligo-style flute playing. He’ll often jump octaves when playing, and never plays a phrase the same way twice. His fiery variations and ornamentation are backed by a great pulse in his breath, which drives the rhythm.
He also has song strong opinions on Irish music, and has stayed steadfastly traditional in his approach to the flute. This means that he hasn’t shown up in many band recordings. Instead, he’s stuck to solo and the occasional duo or trio playing, in keeping with a more “pure drop” sound.
John McKenna was born in Co. Leitrim in 1880, then emigrated to New York in the early 1900s. He made some of the first commercially available recordings of Irish flute playing, and has been a huge influence on flute players ever since.
Those old records certainly don’t sound like the pitch-perfect studio recordings of today. Like a lot of early Irish records, the accompaniment is particularly bad, done by someone who doesn’t seem to know any of the tunes. But McKenna’s flute playing is amazing, and well worth listening to.
Unlike a lot of modern flute players, McKenna often plays short, clipped phrases. He uses his breath very rhythmically.
While she was born in Birmingham, England, Catherine McEvoy is a prime example of the Roscommon style of flute playing. Through her family, McEvoy was steeped from an early age in traditional Irish music. She’s now a popular performer and teacher at Irish music festivals, most notably the Willie Clancy Summer School in Co. Clare and the Catskills Irish Arts Week in New York.
Her flute playing is energetic, with plenty of variations, octave jumps, and ornaments. She makes great use of contrast, playing a phrase one way then making it sound entirely different the next time through.
The Irish Flute Guide has a great interview with McEvoy in which she talks about her playing and influences.
Another great flute player from Birmingham, Kevin Crawford moved to Co. Clare to steep himself in Irish music. He’s a member of the popular touring group Lúnasa, and has released a couple of solo albums as well.
Crawford’s playing is virtuosic and full of ornaments. While he has a wonderful “flow” to his playing, he can also slip in some unexpected breaths to chop up phrases.
Conal Ó Gráda
While Co. Cork isn’t a traditional hotbed of flute playing like Roscommon or Leitrim, Corkonian Conal Ó Gráda is one of the best Irish flute players out there today. His playing is a great example of how describing regional styles can be tricky business. He’s known for a highly rhythmic style with a pulsing breath and a hard-edged tone. He’s also excellent at the polkas and slides popular in Cork and Kerry.
Peter Horan was one of the giants of the Sligo music scene. He learned a lot of his music from listening to great fiddle players like the great Michael Coleman. His playing developed into a unique style mostly influenced by the fiddle, with a unique repertoire. This video shows him playing with one of his longtime duet partners, Fred Finn.
Mike McGoldrick is yet another Englishman renowned for his Irish flute playing. He’s a founding member of the groups Flook and Lúnasa, although he has since left both to pursue other projects. While he’s well-versed in traditional flute playing, McGoldrick is also willing to mix it up with other genres. The result is a style that blends the old and the new, with plenty of modern touches. He’s also a great composer of tunes, including the popular slip jig Farewell to Whalley Range, which you can hear in the video above.
One of the great flute players in the East Galway tradition, Paddy Carty was unique in many ways. Unlike most Irish flute players, Paddy Carty played a Radcliff-style flute. This is a completely keyed flute with covered holes much like the silver flutes that classical players use. This made it easier for Carty to play in keys that can be daunting on the simple system “Irish” flute. His repertoire featured many tunes in G minor, D minor, and Bb major popular among fiddle players in East Galway.
Carty was the personification of “flow” in Irish flute playing. His phrases really do flow along, and are rhythmic without being choppy or spiky. He used ornamentation sparingly, but effectively. Listening to his playing, especially after the pulsing puffs and crackling ornamentation of many of the others on this list, is like a breath of fresh air.
Packie Duignan was one of the many great Irish flute players from Co. Leitrim. He shared some characteristics with John McKenna, including his rhythmic use of breath. He’s often brought up as a “puffy” player, using his breath more than his fingers to accent a phrase. Rather than the wild playing common in Sligo and Roscommon, Duignan was steady, with sparing ornamentation and simple but effective variations.