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Irish flute


Irish flute

Irish flute
Matt Molloy playing flute in Westport in March 2000.
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 421.121.12
(open side-blown flute with fingerholes)
Playing range
(B3) C4–C7 (F7)
(B3) C4–C7 (F7)
Related instruments

The term Irish Flute ([1]). The vast majority of traditional Irish flute players use a wooden, simple-system flute.[2]

Although it was, and is, played in every county in Ireland, the flute has a very strong heartland in the mid-western counties of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon, with South Fermanagh, East Galway, Clare and West Limerick also having a reputation.[3]


  • Physical characteristics 1
  • Historical developments 2
  • Modern variations and flute makers 3
  • Playing technique 4
  • Regional styles and players 5
    • Sligo style 5.1
    • Leitrim and Northern style 5.2
    • Fermanagh style 5.3
    • East Galway style 5.4
    • Clare style 5.5
  • Other notable players of the Irish flute 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Physical characteristics

A (keyless) wooden flute

The Irish flute is a simple system, transverse flute which plays a diatonic (Major) scale as the tone holes are successively uncovered. Most flutes from the Classical era, and some of modern manufacture include metal keys and additional tone holes to achieve partial or complete chromatic tonality. Due to its wooden construction, characteristic embouchure and direct (keyless) fingering, the simple system flute has a distinctly different timbre from the Western concert flute. Most Irish flute players tend to strive for a dark and reedy tone in comparison to classical flautists. Though most commonly pitched in the key of D, simple system flutes are available pitched in other keys, and are often heard in Irish music pitched in E flat, B flat and C. Although referred to as a D flute, this is a non-transposing instrument, so if you finger C, a concert-pitch C is sounded. The name D-flute comes from the fact that the simplest 6-hole wooden flute has D as its lowest note and plays the scale of D without any cross-fingering. The E-flat, B flat and C versions are transposing instruments.

The flute has six main finger-holes. For a D flute (the most common variety), with X symbolizing a covered finger-hole and O symbolizing an uncovered finger-hole, all holes covered, (three fingers per hand) can be represented as XXX-XXX = D . As the scale progresses, XXX-XXO = E, XXX-XOO = F#, XXX-OOO = G, XXO-OOO = A, XOO-OOO = B, OOO-OOO = C#, with XXX-XXX or OXX-XXX being the higher octave D for the full D major scale.

Wooden flutes have a cylindrical bore in the head and a conical bore in the body. This bore is largest at the head end, tapering down to a smaller bore at the foot. This has the effect of shortening the flute for a given pitch.

There is some confusion with modern players in that a modern Boehm keyed system flute is typically pitched in C. This is due to the added keys that allow one to reach low C, yet when one covers just the six main finger-holes (with thumb key covered) on a modern metal Boehm system flute, (XXX-XXX) the note achieved is D. For many technical reasons, a simple system D wooden flute more closely mirrors a concert C modern Boehm system flute in the pitches achieved in its fingering positions as opposed to a simple system flute pitched in C. Theobald Boehm completely redesigned the flute to more easily access the chromatic scale. The Boehm flute has a cylindrical bore (with a parabolic bore in the head) and uses keys to enable the tone holes to be in the ideal place and to be of the ideal size.

Historical developments

Despite the implication of this commonly used name, the Irish flute is not an instrument indigenous to Ireland.[4] The simple system, conical-bore flute is what people played before the advent of the modern, Boehm system, Western concert flute in the mid-19th century. Simple-system flutes are usually made of wood (cocus, grenadilla (African blackwood), rosewood, ebony, etc. There were several manufacturers of this type of flute, among whom was English inventor and flautist Charles Nicholson Jr, who developed a radically improved version of the transverse wooden flute.[5]

Charles Nicholson with flute, 1834 portrait

From the latter part of the 19th century, there were two main styles of large-holed flutes made by two London-based companies: Rudall & Rose and later Boosey & Co., which produced the Pratten flute devised by Robert Sidney Pratten, a prominent flautist of the 1840s and 1850s. George Rudall was an amateur player of some importance who studied for a time under the junior Nicholson before teaching on his own. He was introduced to John Mitchell Rose in c.1820 and their long association began. The Pratten has wider bore dimensions and provides a bigger sound. The Rudall & Rose flutes had a reputation for having a darker, pure tone and slightly thinner than the Pratten style flute, but the firm made flutes of many styles, primarily in cocus wood and boxwood. Many of these original flutes had a foot joint that allowed the playing of both C# and C with the use of keys, typically pewter plugs that fit into silver plates. Some modern makers forgo the addition of these keys, but maintain the longer footjoint with two holes where the keys would be, as it is thought to better emulate the pitching and tone of the 19th century originals.[6]

Simple system flutes were not made with traditional folk musicians in mind, but were adapted by amateur flautists as the simple wooden flutes were discarded by concert musicians.[7][8] Belfast-born flute-maker Samuel Colin Hamilton is of the opinion that military flute and fife bands, which were widespread in Ireland in the 19th century, played a role in familiarising Irish society with the flute as an instrument that could be used in dance music.[9] Also, an upturn in the economic conditions in Ireland from the middle of the 19th century meant that more people were able to acquire instruments.

Modern variations and flute makers

Today, transverse "simple system Irish" flutes are being made for the playing of a variety of traditional musical styles. In the Irish tradition, the material used is most commonly wood, but also Delrin, PVC, and even bamboo is used - though wood is still by far the most popular material. These modern Irish flutes can vary in the number of added metal keys, or have no keys at all. Most are tuned using modern methods and are typically better in tune with modern instruments. All have the basic six hole diatonic design as in a tinwhistle.

Today's makers emulate the designs of old, focusing often on a specific model or serial number, and maintaining tuning to today's modern pitch standard of A=440 at equal temperament. The flutes of Rudall & Rose and Pratten were made in the meantone temperament, though some were created in equal temperament.

Some of the best known modern "Irish" wooden flute makers include:

  • Eamonn Cotter - based in County Clare.[10]
  • Martin Doyle - based in Bray, County Wicklow.[11]
  • Michael Grinter - Australia.[12]
  • Hammy Hamilton - based in Northern Ireland.[13]
  • Marcus Hernon (also a flute-player) - based in Connemara, County Galway.
  • Glenn Watson - based in County Galway.
  • Sam Murray - based in Northern Ireland.
  • Terry McGee - based in Australia.[14]
  • M and E Flutes (Michael Cronnolly)
  • Patrick Olwell - based in Virginia, USA.

Well-known makers in other materials include Doug Tipple (PVC), Des Seery (Delrin) and William (Billy) Miller (bamboo).

Playing technique

The modern playing technique within the Irish Traditional Music has much in common with tin whistle technique. This involves using a number of ornaments to embellish the music, including cuts, strikes and rolls.[4] Common ornaments and articulations include:

Cut and strike (or tap)
Cut and strike "Cut" is rapidly lifting and putting down a finger; "Strike" is rapidly hitting and lifting an open hole with a finger.
A roll is a note with first a cut and then a strike. Alternatively, a roll can be considered as a group of notes of identical pitch and duration with different articulations.[4]
Cranns (or crans) are ornaments borrowed from the Uilleann piping tradition. They are similar to rolls except that only cuts are used, not taps or strikes.

Regional styles and players

The flute is associated with several regions and distinct styles of playing in Ireland.[15]

Sligo style

The Sligo style, also referred to as Sligo/Roscommon style, is in general quite fast, flowing and ornamented. A good exponent of the Sligo style is Matt Molloy. Other players include Eddie Cahill (born 1929 in Ballyglass, Tobercurry), Kevin Henry, Peter Horan, Paddy Hunt, Mick Loftus, June McCormack (won the Senior All-Ireland flute title in 1998), Josie McDermott, McDonagh brothers of Ballinafad, Sonny McDonagh, James Murray (South Sligo), Colm O'Donnell (from Kilmactigue), Seamus O'Donnell, Michael J Ryan, Roger Sherlock, Séamus Tansey.[16][17][18]

Roscommon players: John P. Carty (from Knockroe, Ballinameen), Bernard Flaherty (from Boyle, author of Trip to Sligo, a book about the region's music), John Wynne (from Kilteevan, brought up in Roscommon town), Catherine McEvoy (her solo CD is Flute Music in the Sligo/Roscommon Style), Frank Jordan (of Buckhill, Fairymount, played with the Birmingham Ceili Band the Woodlands Ceili Band), Tommy Guihan (won the Senior All-Ireland flute title in 1978), Patsy McNamara (from the village of Croghan in North Roscommon), John Kelly (of Roscommon town), John Carlos (from Castleplunkett, played with the Killina Ceili Band), Pat Finn (from Fairymount, played with the Liverpool Ceili Band before returning to Ireland), Brian Duke (from Strokestown, recorded two albums and also toured with the bands Cian and Electric Ceili), Patsy Hanly (all-Ireland winner on flute in 1972).[19]

Leitrim and Northern style

Though beside the Sligo area, and overshadowed to some extent by the rich musical tradition of its neighbour, Leitrim preserved a separate identity and tradition based largely on the flute. The Leitrim style is highly rhythmic, less ornamented, and with much use of glottal stops and even tonguing, as in the music of John McKenna. McKenna, from Tarmon, midway between Drumkeeran and Drumshanbo, is regarded as one of the most influential flute players in the history of Irish music.[20] Local flute players from whom McKenna is known to have learned music were Hughie Byrne and Jamesy McManus. Other Drumkeeran players at the time were John Frank Doherty and Francie Rourke.[21]

Contemporary players associated with this style are: Desy Adams (with Na Dórsa), Harry Bradley, Michael Clarkson, Packie Duignan, Gary Hastings, Deidre Havlin (with Déanta), Conal Ó Gráda, and Desi Wilkinson.[22]

Fermanagh style

This style "seems to perch geographically and musically between the plainer and more uniform approach of North-East Ulster and the more florid ornamentation characteristic of counties Sligo and Leitrim."[23] It is exemplified by the playing of the late Eddie Duffy, who was influenced by William Carroll, and Laurence Nugent, from Lack, County Fermanagh. Cathal McConnell, flutist with Boys of the Lough, took the region's music to a world-wide audience.[24]

James McMahon (1893-1977) was a Fermanagh-born flutist and composer who settled in Belfast. He played an ivory flute[25] and among his compositions was a jig called "The Ivory Flute", still played today. He played with fellow Fermanagh musicians Fergus McTaggart (fiddle), Sean McAloon (pipes) and Tommy Maguire (accordion, father of flutist Peter Maguire). Recordings of his playing have been collected by flutist Sharon Creasey; a collection of his Fermanagh tunes was made by Liam Donnelly, from which several were selected for inclusion in Ceol Rince na hÉireann Vol. 4.[26]

East Galway style

The East Galway style is more relaxed in tempo, and quite flowing. Paddy Carty played in this style, others include Mike Rafferty (from Ballinakill, County Galway, winner of the 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Award), Jim Conroy, Jack Coen, the Moloney family (Seán Moloney, his father Eddie, his son Stephen) also from Ballinakill, County Galway and Tom Morrison (1889-1958) from Dunmore, County Galway.[27][28]

Clare style

There are several stylistic subdivisions in County Clare. Micho Queally (great-grandfather of Michael Hynes) from Kilfenora was a well-known flute player in the 19th century. Notable flautists from the county include the Russell brothers, Kevin Crawford, Jim Ward and Paddy McMahon (long-time members of the Kilfenora Céilí Band), Peadar O'Loughlin, Paddy O'Donoghue, Eamonn Cotter, PJ Crotty, Michael, Séamus and P J Hynes (West Clare style) and Garry Shannon. Flutists with the Tulla Céilí Band included J.J. Conway (from Kilfenora), Seamus Cooley, Jim Donoghue, Paddy Donoghue, Michael Falsey, Jenifer Lenihan, Peter O'Loughlin, Jack Murphy, Michael Preston, J.C. Talty and Martin Talty.[29][30]

Other notable players of the Irish flute

Michael McGoldrick in Lorient in 2013.

Some other players of Irish traditional music on the flute include the following:


  • Breathnach, Breandán: Folk Music and Dances of Ireland (1971) ISBN 1-900428-65-2
  • Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (1998). A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music. Dublin: O'Brien Press. 
  • The Flute and its Patrons, Chapter XXVII of Francis O'Neill's Irish Minstrels and Musicians.
  • Taylor, Barry (2013). Music in a Breeze of Wing; Traditional Dance Music in West-Clare 1870-1970. Danganella: Barry Taylor.  


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Choosing a flute
  3. ^ Vallely (ed.), Fintan (1999). The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. New York: New York University Press. p. 137.  
  4. ^ a b c The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle by Grey Larsen
  5. ^ Boehm, Nicholson and the English flute style
  6. ^ Rockstro, The Complete History of The Flute
  7. ^ My complete story of the flute: the instrument, the performer, the music p120 Rudall & Rose/p141 Pratten by Leonardo De Lorenzo
  8. ^ Bigio, Robert (2010). Rudall, Rose, Carte & Co. (The Art of the Flute in Britain). London: Tony Bingham.  
  9. ^ Samuel Colin Hamilton: The Simple-System Flute in Irish Traditional Music. Pan - the Flute Magazine (September 2007).
  10. ^ "Eamonn Cotter Flutes". Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  11. ^ "Martin Doyle Flutes". Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  12. ^ "M. Grinter". Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  13. ^ "Hamilton Flutes". Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  14. ^ "Terry McGee, flute maker". Retrieved 19 July 2014. 
  15. ^ "The Irish Wooden Flute". TradSchool. 26 November 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2014. 
  16. ^  
  17. ^ The McDonagh Brothers of Ballinafad and Friends
  18. ^ The Mountain Road. Coleman Irish Music Centre. 2007. 
  19. ^ The Flute Players of Roscommon, Volume 1, 2004 Arts Council and Roscommon County Council
  20. ^ "Album release of all John McKenna’s music and background". Leitrim Music (Leitrim). Leitrim Observer. 13 April 2013. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  21. ^ Bradshaw, Harry; Small, Jackie (1987). "John McKenna: Leitrim's Master of the Concert Flute". Musical Traditions No 7. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  22. ^ Keegan, Niall (2010). "The Parameters of Style in Irish Traditional Music". Traditional styles and flute music. Inbhear - Journal of Irish Music and Dance. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  23. ^ Cooper, David (2010). The Musical Traditions of Northern Ireland and its Diaspora. Ashgate. p. 92.  
  24. ^ Maguire, Cyril (2003). Hidden Fermanagh: Traditional Music and Song from County Fermanagh. Fermanagh Traditional Music Society. 
  25. ^ Valleley, Fintan (2011). "Binghams of County Down". Companion to Irish Traditional Music.  
  26. ^ Small (ed.), Jackie. Ceol Rince na hÉireann 4. 
  27. ^ "Seán Moloney and family". Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  28. ^ "Mike Rafferty on Irish Flute". Comhaltas. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  29. ^ "Music and Kilfenora". Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  30. ^ Keane, Chris (1998). The Tulla Ceili Band 1946 - 1997 : A History and Tribute. Shannon: McNamara Printers. pp. 194-195

External links

  • Old Flutes web-site
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