As part of our Celtic Britain special, our editor Sally Coffey gives us the low down on how Celtic music can be enjoyed across the British Isles today
Celtic music is an integral part of the culture of the Celtic nations – from mournful airs and ballads that seem to call to displaced people, to rousing jigs, reels, and strathspeys, that bring people together in lively dances.
We don’t know much about the music that the ancient Celts played. It’s possible they brought the bagpipes to these shores as they travelled through Europe from the Middle East, and other instruments such as the carynx show us that music was a part of the culture of these early people, but what that music sounded like has been lost to the mists of time.
Today the term ‘Celtic music’ is generally attributed to a type of folk music that has been passed down through generations in the Celtic nations, most often orally, and which possibly stems from a much later time of mass emigration (forced and otherwise) due to food shortages, and land clearances.
Here are some of the best ways you can enjoy Celtic music on your next visit…
Attend a pub session.
For a real local feel, you can’t beat a good old pub session, where musicians rock up, sit in a corner of the room and play, while the pub busies itself around them. If you play an instrument and bring it with you, then often you will be welcomed into the inner sanctum to play. If you sing and know a folk song or two, you can also request to sing, either accompanied, or unaccompanied (sean-nós) for added poignancy.
In cities like Belfast, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, you can find traditional sessions year-round (try the Saturday afternoon session in Belfast’s John Hewitt Bar, or Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh pretty much any night of the week).
In more rural locations, sessions tend to run in the busier summer months. At the Gaelic-speaking township of Eilean Iarmain, the hotel’s small and cosy wood-panelled pub, Am Pràban, has regular traditional music sessions throughout the year, but it’s worth checking the schedule before you arrive.
Traditionally, a cèilidh/céilí is a Scottish or Irish gathering where there is often music, storytelling, and dancing. Practically speaking, most cèilidhs that are open to members of the public are slightly more formal occasions than the ones you find in people’s homes.
At the Ponderosa, for instance, a pub located on the Glenshane Pass, roughly halfway between Belfast and Derry, the evening begins as a sit-down affair as guests eat supper while the entertainment begins, but by the end of the evening you will no doubt have had a go at a jig or a reel.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, there are lots of regular cèilidhs, from ones in village halls to local arts centres and pub function rooms. In Glasgow, Sloans is the most well-known regular night, but you can also join in at venues in Edinburgh and in other locations such as Oban. Find more here.
A festival, which brings together lots of different musicians and a variety of styles that fall under the Celtic music umbrella is a great introduction to the genre. Each January, Celtic Connections lifts the winter gloom in the city of Glasgow with 300 events held across around 25 venues over 18 days.
The Royal National Mòd, run by An Comunn Gàidhealach, held in a different Scottish location each year, is a Gaelic festival that features music, song and Highland dancing, alongside other cultural Gaelic events. In October 2023 it will take place in the town of Paisley.
A Fleadh is an Irish festival that features lots of music and dancing, and the Ulster Fleadh held each July (this year in Dromore, County Tyrone), is the largest of its kind in Northern Ireland. In 2013, the Fleadh Cheoil (the all-Ireland Fleadh) was held in Derry – the first time it had ever been held in Northern Ireland – and Belfast is keen to host at some point, so they may well win the bid one of these years.
In Wales, an Eisteddfodau is a festival that includes competitions across the fields of singing, dancing, and poetry, and the biggest of its kind is the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which this year will take place from 5-13 August in Boduan, Gwynedd. The 2024 event is due to take place in Rhondda Cynon Taf in southeast Wales.
This is an extract, read the full feature in our June/July 2023 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy here.