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Traditional Music & Dance

Learn about traditional Irish music and dance as practiced and interpreted in
New York State.


FOLK ARTS & CULTURE:   Traditional Music and Dance


Traditional Irish Music in New York State

It’s more than just the jigs, reels, and hornpipes. It also includes marches, slides, polkas, flings, waltzes, barn dances, and airs played on the fiddle, pipes, flute, accordion, tin whistle, concertina, piano, and bodhran. Far from being limited to the Irish, this music has been adapted and played by the country dance community for all people dancing contra and square dances.

Similar to most emigrants, the Irish brought with them their music along with their sports and stories and literature. Two events that had a profound effect on the spread and popularity of Irish music occurred in America. One was the publication in 1903 of the massive collection of tunes by Capt. Francis O’Neill in Chicago. The other was the recording of traditional Irish musicians Herborn and Wheeler in New York City in 1916 by Columbia. Irish immigrant musicians in New York City in the first half of the 1900s such as Coleman, Killoran, Morrison, Conlon, Quinn, the Flanagan Brothers, and the McNulty Family made most of the recordings and were the best anywhere. The popularity of the recordings from both large labels as well as smaller Irish only labels, helped to spread the music here and also back in Ireland.

Events in Ireland in the mid 1960s created a dual path for traditional music. Classical musician and composer Sean O’Riada took the music out of the kitchen and dance hall and put it on the concert stage. His group was the first to play arrangements of dance tunes for listening. After his early death, some of his musicians continued as the Chieftains, a concert group.

The Irish, like others, formed many organizations to preserve and promote their culture and sports. Most of the clubs however, especially the county clubs, were social in nature, organizing dances, dinners, and concerts. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, formed in the 50s in Ireland, came to New York in 1972 and was organized by Bill McEvoy. There are now nine branches of Comhaltas in New York State promoting the music, song, dance and language of Ireland. Five branches are in the Northeast region and four in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Comhaltas has replaced many of the earlier social clubs as the predominant Irish cultural organization. Comhaltas branches have all or some of the following activities: jam sessions; céilís (organized dances with a caller); concerts; classes; annual cultural days; local radio shows; instrument loan programs; and archives. Ted McGraw, Comhaltas North American archivist, has a large personal collection that is open to researchers by appointment. There is no charge. [Summary written by Ted McGraw.]

Brendan Brown
Brian Conway
Dady Bros.
Joanie Madden, of ‘Cherish the Ladies’
Cathy McGrath, of ‘Cuisle Mo Chroi’
Ted McGraw
Ben MacInTuile
Jayne Pomplas, 9-year-old prodigy who has appeared with the Chieftains
John Ryan
Nick Tiberio

These traditional music & dance web pages were developed with support of New York State Music Fund, administered by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. These music pages are still in development. Please enjoy and come back again, as we continue to expand this section.

Wren Day at Carroll's
Wren Day, at Carroll’s, December 26, 2009.
Photo by Cathy McGrath.

Read more about Irish traditional music in NY State here:

“The Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Archive of Traditional Irish Music” byTed McGraw, in Voices 29:3-4, Fall-Winter, 2003. Download PDF of article here.

“Our Own Little Isle: Irish Traditional Music in New York” by Rebecca S. Miller, in New York Folklore 14:3-4, 1988

“Cherish the Ladies” by Mick Moloney, in New York Folklore 25:1-4, 1999

“Una Ban: An Irish Song and Story” by James O’Beirne, in New York Folklore Quarterly 2:4, 1946

“The Scotch-Irish and the British Traditional Ballad in America” by William H. Tallmadge, in New York Folklore Quarterly 24:4, 1968

“Narratives Associated with Irish Fiddle Tunes: Some Contextual Considerations” by Michael Stoner, in New York Folklore 2:1-2, 1976


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