The Irish have a rather proud and distinctive heritage, mostly centered around distilled spirits, monopolizing the self-aggrandizing benefit concert racket, and starring in every cop movie set in the eastern seaboard. So much so that they’ve earned their own holiday in the United States, much like the Italians have for Columbus Day and the communists have Labor Day. Facets of this culture have waged a perennial battle of becoming mainstream versus maintaining its unique appeal, kind of like high school lacrosse or those kids that wear black, play bass, and cut themselves.
Irish folk music is a rather unique facet of this emerald culture. Irish folk music evolved from its lowly beginnings in the rural beer hall, where Irish shepherds and potato farmers would gather nightly and drink beer and compose songs, most of which were involuntarily participatory in nature. And the lyrics are a form of democracy in action, as no one would know the words at any given time and so the swaying stanzas would kind of flow to the lowest common denominator.
Not that it would matter, since early Irish songs were performed in their native language. This language is Gaelic, a fictional form of speech where random letters are pulled from the alphabet, indiscriminately assigned an order, and are then pronounced in a manner unrelated to the type or order of the letters involved. Because of this, the lyrics of many of these traditional Irish songs are a mixture of forgotten slurs, hums, and vague, off-key segways from chorus to verse.
The subjects of these songs were usually variations on a theme, and this is where the old world charm kicks in. While it’s usually about some lad with wayward devotions and the occasional song about the evil bottled spirits themselves, the theme could also frequently be downright quaint. There are entire songs about the benefits accrued from engaging in the act of carting a sack of barley to the market on a particularly Irish day, for instance, or perhaps the trials and tribulations of a lonely sheep that did not follow the ordinary path to its field.
There are many classics that even uncultured folks are at least familiar with. And one can only imagine centuries ago what these composers thought they were writing and the what kind of impact they would have today. What would one say about today’s performers singing the grammatically questionable Green Grow the Rushes Oh or even The Lakes of Pontchartrain, a song about Creole love in Louisiana that the Irish somehow decided fit naturally into their taste and culture? Many of these songs that are sung as traditionally Irish songs are, in fact, adapted from other cultures and pounded square-peg-wise into a collection of oddly constructed instruments sung by young redheads in constantly flowing white gowns with one name that resembles something from the Kia line of automobiles.
The instruments used for this folk music are varied and disturbing. There’s a nice collection of standard instruments that you would find in any modern band, but are reliably Irish-sounding so long as they are either wooden, carved, enhanced with a stretched sheep bladder, or blessed by the Pope (or, if one is lucky enough, all of the above). And then there are some, such as the delightfully Gaelicly-spelled Uillean pipes, the result of a sinful copulation between a bagpipe and a defunct blast furnace. And there is the musically mysterious bouzouki, a Japanese-sounding Greek instrument that the Irish have literally developed to an art form, continually adapting the tuning of the strings and style of pitch until the number of people who can actually play it number in the low teens.
Irish folk music didn’t die across the ocean. When the mass of immigrants came over to America for its easy social opportunities, increased chances of being more employable than a black (though still less than a German), and access to basic cable, they brought along with it the traditional folk tune. Soon, pubs in which you would have had previously heard O Alte Burschenherrlichkeit now heard Sweet Rosie O’Grady, and taverns stopped serving sauerbraten and started taking out insurance claims for physical property damage.
Sometimes, when listening to the strains of the barroom fiddle or the soothing chords of the hand accordion, it’s hard to imagine that the piece being played is the cumulative effort of generation after generation of singers, writers, dancers, and the occasional copyright lawyer. And yet one has to wonder what had to happen to create that deviant strain of musical evolution that eventually concluded with the outcome of Bono.
Obviously, the Irish folk tune isn’t about the beer or the license to act silly after a hard day’s work. Those are mere perks; the folk song is greater than that. The subject matter is unifying, and vague platitudes about family, peace, or the betterment of society are all wonderfully appropriate things. But the overriding theme of Irish folk music is about one, undeniably important thing: hatred of the English.