Try These for a Pan-Celtic St. Patrick's Day


A lot people ignore Celtic music until St. Patrick’s Day rolls around. That’s a shame because it is way more creative than anything you’ll hear on Top 40 radio and has been for decades. It’s my favorite genre of music.

St. Patrick’s Day is part of the problem in that many people only think of Irish music when the word Celtic is uttered and associate it with stereotypical drinking songs and canned diddly diddly instrumentation that’s high on cheap theatrics but is seldom played outside of tourist hotels. It bears mention that almost no one in Ireland can stomach the idea of green beer, paper shamrocks, and plastic leprechauns. So let's use St. Patrick's Day to Celtic all Celtic music.

The term “Celtic music”—and pronounce Celtic with a hard K unless you mean a Boston basketball team—is a misnomer. Ditto any sort of national music such as Irish or Scottish music. The late Tommy Makem of the Clancy Brothers hailed from County Armagh in Northern Ireland and once told me he never heard the phrase “Irish” music as a lad; the tunes and songs he heard in his village of Keady were completely different from those played twenty miles away.

Celtic actually refers to many peoples, only some of whom lived anywhere near Ireland. In tribal Europe, pretty much anyone who wasn’t Germanic or Slavic was a Celt. Many Celts also found their way to Asia and Asia Minor. Today, though, we use Celtic to reference areas with a sizable concentration of Celtic bloodlines and cultural saturation: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia in Spain, Asturias in Portugal, the Isle of Man, and Canada’s Cape Breton Island. Each has great music, but I will share ideas from the places in bold.


There really isn't any such thing as a "Celtic" instrument per se, aside from three that are actually very universal and were probably the world's oldest instruments: bagpipes, flutes, and stringed zithers, including the harp. There are many varieties of bagpipes—the subject of a future post. Celtic bands generally have a preference for fiddles and accordions—they set great dance tempos—but you name it and they use it: cittern, bouzouki, piano, cello, hand drums, acoustic and electric guitars, tin whistles—even brass and woodwinds.


If you’re tempted to cite The Chieftains, Clancy Brothers, or Irish Rovers as the forerunners of modern Celtic music, dont; it was Ireland’s Bothy Band, the first to appreciate that there’s no such thing as “traditional music.” It is the nature of folk music to change and no well-traveled tune or song should ever be called the original version" unless accompanied by the phrase “earliest known.”

The Bothies turned Celtic music upside down in the early 1970s by bringing modern influences into older tunes and songs, including using amplification so that harps and fiddles could hold their own with louder instruments. They practically invented the “Big Set” featuring textured melodies, stitched tunes, and big swells. They still hold up simply because few have ever done it better.

Lunasa is the more recent band I think comes closest to The Bothy Band’s instrumental vibe, with more groove: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs

Altan is surely the most beloved of current bands and the best exemplar of Donegal music, whose tunes often feature two fiddles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs 
A review of Altan's new record The Widening Gyre is forthcoming on this site.

I tend to prefer Scottish bands, and my favorite of all time was Ossian,* which has a delicate side seldom matched and wove sounds and tunes together like fine tailor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4jzFowWZIA

For pure bring-the-noise excitement, try The Tannahill Weavers, a band that preserves tradition and isn’t just a rock band whose members have accents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FANYQIFdtE

Silly Wizard* had it all: the whimsical duels of the brothers Cunningham, the dulcet vocals of Andy M. Stewart, solid fiddling, and terrific stage presence. It was always a tossup which was more fun: the musicianship or the jokes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIdz87JsTgY

Kornog was responsible for bringing Breton music into the limelight and if you’ve never heard Breton dance music, you’re in for a treat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j1kHJnJZ9A

Breton music also features instruments you don’t hear a lot, like the strident bombarde and the hurdy-gurdy. Ad Vielle Que Pourra is half Breton, half Quebecois, and 100% exciting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYw8xL7ICrw

The Rankin Family is the standard to which all other Canadian Celtic bands aspire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBD_faUIThQ

For a Spanish Celtic flair, try Milladoro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ5NtUSQX4E

A preview of bagpipe variety: Susana Seivane from Galicia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioTUmP9qYVI

If you want to hear an amazing international Celtic offering, Skydance is The Bothy Band gone global: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rePzNVFf_Ac


This instrument has come to define modern Celtic music. There are scores of great fiddlers, but in my mind four stick out.

Scotland’s Alaisair Fraser is one of the best violinists in the world—of any genre. He can paralyze you with a single note. That's him with Skyedance above. Try this one as well. It explains my love for Scotland and Alaisdair's music : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2d-4dy-lCY

Ireland’s Martin Hayes is in that same league. Check out his focus. His is boiling frog music that starts slow, simmers, and comes to a rolling boil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5hg3iuoJoM

Chicagoan Liz Carroll is unmatched as an Irish-American performer who puts her unique stamp on each piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITdV3rRL8oQ

I imagine that Cape Breton’s chief import is fiddle strings. Normally it would be hard to pick just one Cape Breton fiddler—except everyone pretty much agrees Natalie MacMaster is the queen bee. You try fiddling and step dancing at the same time; I’ll swing by and sign your cast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59VGEME-iAE


If you like great voices, Celtic music provides in spades. Here are some to try:

Ireland has given us amazing voices, including:

Mary Black used to head De Dannan and went onto to global fame as an interpreter of Irish song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P17wWpr2usk

Dolores Keane, also once led De Dannan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc3KRw6nN20 

Mairéad Ní Mhonaigh who fronts Altan. For the Irish-impaired an approximate pronunciation is Mar' ray' ed'  Nuh-wee'-nee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1734yzunow

Maura O'Connell who went on to prove there's no genre she can't slay. 

My favorite Scottish singers include:

Andy Stewart of Silly Wizard and his sweet tenor voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=appBtXoxfb8

Dougie MacLean who has written some truly amazing songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP8A9rtg0iI

Karen Matheson of Capercaillie might well be my favorite singer since Sandy Denny died. Notice how Scots Gaelic differs from Irish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZe9N1vNGh0

Karine Polwart If not Karen, Karine is my favorite! 


**Both Ossian and Silly Wizard and Ossian have been cursed by bad luck. Both George Martin and gentle soul Tony Cuffe of Ossian have died, as have Andy Stewart and Johnny Cunningham of Silly Wizard. I knew all four and miss them terribly. Johnny C was maybe the funniest human being I've ever known. 

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