Music in Ireland during the Penal Times

By James Reddiough   Posted November 25, 2017   

Would you believe that under the penal laws in Ireland (1669 - 1920) it was illegal to have musical instruments of any kind? Where else did the playing of the spoons, bones and the gentle art of lilting come from? Where did the tradition of the rambling house and the house dance or ceili come from but from the days when people were forced by law to gather in their own houses in remote areas for fun and diversion?

As one source tells many of the laws introduced by the British crown were aimed at crushing Irish culture and in the case of the Penal Laws it was forbidden to participate in any traditional or cultural activities. Many would believe that such laws were to some extent successful in suppressing and hampering the growth of music in Ireland during the period of their enforcement.

Irish Music Goes Into Hiding

Rambling House by Joe Harrington
This era was the origin of sturdy trusty bodhran and all of these were improvised instruments that did much to entertain and enlighten the different generations in what were extremely difficult times. During the Penal days the people danced in front of the hearth. People would go to a safe house or to a remote crossroads to hold their traditions this was how they kept the music and dance alive.

Each one roomed cabin was an entertainment venue with a seanchai passing on the lore and traditions of the people; a lilter who sounded out the music and the rhythm for the dancers on the kitchen floor. Then you the percussionists who beat the spoons and the bodhrans and, indeed the playing of the bones to add to the lilting for the enjoyment of the gathering.

This was the genesis of the rambling houses and the tradition that would carry on into the 1950’s a practice extending over 200 years when people made their own entertainment and by all accounts until 1935 when they were forbidden by their own church.