Music is one of Ireland’s greatest exports, and there are many Irish folk bands active around the world. Whether it’s singing, instrumental music, or a combination of both, there’s plenty to draw from in the Irish tradition. Many bands have taken that a step further, weaving the sounds of other musics and traditions into the fabric of Irish folk. Others have stuck with their traditional roots, playing and passing down the music they grew up with.
Whatever your tastes, there’s a great Irish folk band for you! Here are 10 of the greatest of all time, from all over Ireland. Who knows, maybe they’ll inspire you to start something up with a few friends…
Anchored by the gravelly voice of founder Ronnie Drew, the Dubliners became one of the most recognizable Irish folk bands on the planet. Their classic lineup included Drew, Luke Kelly, and Ciarán Bourke trading off singing duty, along with fiddle player John Sheehan and banjo player Barney McKenna. Hits like “Seven Drunken Nights” (which was usually censored down to five nights due to bawdiness) and “The Black Velvet Band” sold thousands of copies across the UK and Ireland. Their concerts presented a fun-loving version of Irish music, full of drinking songs, good humor, and fast-paced tunes. They also sang more serious fare, including rebel songs that proved controversial during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
Uilleann piper Paddy Moloney started recruiting musicians for a new band in 1963. He gathered some of the best instrumental musicians around Dublin to form the Chieftains. At the time, the popular view of Irish music was dominated by ballad groups like the Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners. But by the 1970s, the Chieftains had brought instrumental Irish music to new audiences as one of the most famous Irish folk bands in the world. They’re probably best known for their collaborations with popular bands and musicians like The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Roger Daltrey. After 50+ years, they continue to tour and record.
Folk singer Christy Moore wanted a traditional sound for his second album, so he brought a few friends in to record Prosperous. That group turned into Planxty, which had its first major performance doing an opening set for Donovan. The crowd was so enthusiastic that singer and mandolin player Andy Irvine was worried that they were on the verge of a riot! The group spent a whirlwind first few years touring and recording, but broke up in 1975. The members continued to play and record with each other, and the band has re-formed a few times throughout the years. Planxty’s sound is a mix of songs (with Moore and Irvine trading vocals) and tunes (with uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn often taking the lead). They also weren’t afraid to bring in the sounds of other traditions, with some Eastern European tunes making their way onto their setlists.
When a teenaged Frankie Kennedy met Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, he realized that he needed to learn an instrument to woo the young fiddle player. He became an expert on the Irish flute, and they started playing gigs together. The two would go on to get married and found Altan, playing the music of Ní Mhaonaigh’s native Donegal. The band rose to prominence rapidly, becoming the first traditional Irish band to be signed by a major label in 1994, and gaining an invitation to play at the White House. Unfortunately, Kennedy passed away from cancer that same year. Per his wishes, Ní Mhaonaigh and the rest of the band have continued to play and tour. They have played with Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, and Bonnie Raitt, and become the most famous exponents of Donegal music and song.
Lúnasa has had a few different lineups throughout its lifetime, but the one constant has always been great music. At its heart, it’s driven by a traditional core of fiddle, flute, and uilleann pipes, played by Seán Smyth, Kevin Crawford, and Cillian Vallely, respectively. Guitar and bass round out the bottom, with a bit of a jazz and rock vibe. In fact, Lúnasa has always been willing to experiment with different instruments and sounds, even while sticking to their traditional roots. They have a relentless touring schedule that takes them all over North America and Europe, and released their most recent album, CAS, in 2018.
The Boys of the Lough
The Boys of the Lough is an inter-island collaboration between Irish and Scottish musicians. The original lineup grouped Scottish folksinger Dick Gaughan and Shetland fiddle player Aly Bain with Irishmen Cathal McConnell (flute) and Robin Morton (bodhran). The result is a fun mix of traditions that shows just how much the two areas have in common. Even though the lineup has changed throughout the years, the main sound of the Boys of the Lough has remained similar. They have a fun-loving, hard-driving approach to tunes and songs, with plenty of virtuosic playing to go around.
The Bothy Band
While the Bothy Band’s original run only last a few years, they had a huge impact in that short time. After bouzouki player Dónal Lunny left Planxty, he decided to form another traditional music group. The result was an all-star lineup of some of the top musicians on the Irish music scene. They blended a rock-and-roll sensibility and energy with their steeped-in-tradition playing, and were an immediate hit on the folk music scene. The Bothy Band’s eponymous first album, released in 1975, established their reputation. The following year’s Old Hag You Have Killed Me cemented it. While the members have since moved on, they have collborated with each other in various combinations over the years, and a few reunions have taken place.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem all came from Ireland, but the group first hit it big in the US. Brothers Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy all ended up leaving their home in Co. Tipperary for the bright lights of New York. There, they met up with Tommy Makem, a fellow Irish immigrant from Co. Antrim. Rather than taking the traditional slow approach to ballad singing, they cranked up the tempo on classics like Brennan on the Moor and The Wild Colonial Boy. Their rollicking singing was a hit with the folkies in Greenwich Village, got them a record contract, and landed them on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Flook is known for their remarkably virtuosic compositions and hard-driving brand of traditional music. It’s anchored by two flute and tin whistle players, Sarah Allen and Brian Finnegan. They’re backed by guitarist Ed Boyd and bodhran player John Joe Kelly. While they’re steeped in tradition, they consistently push the envelope with complex tunes and rhythms. After taking a 5 year hiatus starting in 2008, they’re back on the touring circuit, and recently released a new album, Ancora.
The Gloaming is a collaboration between four giants of the modern Irish music scene and a popular American producer/pianist. Fiddle players Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, guitarist Dennis Cahill, and singer Iarla Ó Lionáird bring a traditional bent to the music. Pianist and producer Doveman, who has worked with Sufjan Stevens, Yoko Ono, and St. Vincent, brings a more modern sensibility. The result is a blend traditional Irish music with a mix of classical, jazz, and rock influences. The result sounds both very old and strikingly new.