Women in Irish Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Women have been playing a vital role in the Irish music scene for centuries. In this blog, we explore the contributions of women to the folk music genre in Ireland.

Irish Folk Music History

Traditional Irish music has been passed down through the generations since the 16th century. It is a genre of music that is deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. The music is typically played on traditional instruments such as the fiddle, tin whistle, and uilleann pipes. Women have always played a significant role in the folk music scene. In this article, we will explore the history of Irish folk music and the women who have shaped it.

Origins of Irish Folk Music

The origins of Irish folk music are centuries old, but the genre began to gain international popularity in the mid-20th century. Irish folk music is a distinct style that draws on traditional Irish, Scottish, and English music. It is characterized by its use of traditional instruments like the fiddle, tin whistle, and accordion.

Irish folk music has been influenced by many different cultures over the years, including American country and bluegrass music. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Irish folk music, which has been partly driven by the success of artists like The Pogues and The Dubliners.

Women have played a significant role in the development of Irish folk music. Many of the most famous and influential folk musicians are women, including Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, and Imelda May. These women have helped to bring Irish folk music to a new generation of listeners and contribute to its continued popularity.

The Irish Folk Music Revival

The Irish Folk Music Revival (also called the Celtic Revival) was a movement that began in the late 19th century as part of a wider British and European Musical Revival. It’s purpose was mainly to collect, preserve and perform traditional Irish music. The Irish Folk Music Revival was also political in nature, as it sought to promote Celtic national identity. The Revival saw a huge increase in the popularity of Irish folk music, both in Ireland and abroad. Many of the most famous traditional Irish musicians today got their start during this period.

One of the most important aspects of the Revival was the role played by women musicians. Although women had always been involved in traditional Irish music, they were largely overshadowed by their male counterparts during the 19th century. This began to change during the Revival, when many women musicians began to achieve prominence and recognition. Some of the most famous names in Irish folk music today are women who got their start during this period, including Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, Cara Dillon and Sharon Shannon.

The Revival also saw a revival of interest in traditional songs and tunes that had been forgotten or suppressed during the previous century. Many of these songs were about political issues such as landlordism, nationalism and emigration. They often had strong feminist themes as well. The most famous of these Songs is “She Moved Through the Fair” by Padraic Colum, which was collected by Margaret Barry and became one of the most popular songs of the Revival era.

Notable Women in Irish Folk Music

Irish Folk music has been around for centuries, and it has been ever-evolving. While the music itself has undergone many changes, one thing has remained the same: the role of women in Irish Folk music. Throughout the years, women have played a significant part in the Irish Folk music scene, both as musicians and as composers. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most notable women in Irish Folk music.

The Clancy Sisters

Among the many notable women in Irish folk music, the Clancy Sisters were a hugely influential group in the 1950s and 1960s. The Clancy Sisters were born and raised in County Clare, Ireland, and their parents were both accomplished musicians. The sisters began performing together as a trio in the late 1940s, and they quickly gained popularity for their beautiful harmonies and traditional Irish repertoire.

The Clancy Sisters achieved international acclaim in the 1950s when they began touring the United States with folk singer Woody Guthrie. They also appeared on several popular television shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. In 1963, the Clancy Sisters released their best-selling album Folk Songs of Ireland, which featured traditional Irish ballads such as “Danny Boy” and “The rose of Tralee.”

The Clancy Sisters influenced a generation of folk musicians with their exquisite harmonies and commitment to traditional Irish music. Today, their recordings remain an important part of Ireland’s musical heritage.

Mary O’Hara

Dubbed the “first lady of Irish folk music”, Mary O’Hara is a singer and harpist who has been performing since the 1950s. She is best known for her album “Fluters and Voyces”, which was released in 1957.

Born in County Galway, Ireland, O’Hara began playing the Celtic harp at a young age. She went on to study music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where she earned her diploma in 1945. After graduation, she began touring Europe and North America with various orchestras and ensembles.

In 1957, O’Hara released her debut album, “Fluters and Voyces”. The album featured traditional Irish songs arranged for voice and flute. It was met with critical acclaim and helped to put Irish folk music on the map.

O’Hara continued to tour and release albums throughout her career. Her most recent album, “An Irish Collection”, was released in 2009.

Today, O’Hara is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Irish folk music. She has inspired countless musicians and helped to popularize the genre around the world.

Dolores Keane

Dolores Keane (born 16 September 1949) is an Irish folk singer and musician. She was born in Caherlistrane, County Galway and brought up in Claddaghduff on the Cleggan peninsula in Connemara.

Keane began her professional career in 1968, when she joined De Danann. During her time with the group, she recorded four albums and toured extensively in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. She left De Dannan in 1979 to pursue a solo career.

To date, Keane has released thirteen solo albums and has collaborated with many other artists, including Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Ry Cooder. Her work has been nominated for several Grammy Awards and she has won two Meteor Music Awards.

Keane is regarded as one of the most successful female singers in Irish folk music. In 2017, The Irish Times included Keane in their list of “40 Women who shaped Ireland” lauding her as “one of our finest ever interpreters of songs”.

Contemporary Irish Folk Music

Irish folk music has come a long way in the past few years, with more and more women taking to the stage and making a name for themselves. These women are not only talented musicians, but they are also strong, independent women who are proud of their culture and heritage. Here are just a few of the many talented Irish women folk musicians making a name for themselves today.

The Chieftains

The Chieftains are a highly influential and well-known Irish folk music group, formed in Dublin in 1963. Led by founder and uilleann piper Paddy Moloney, the group has featured many of Ireland’s foremost traditional musicians over the years. The Chieftains have been hugely successful both in Ireland and internationally, winning six Grammy Awards and selling over 25 million records worldwide.

Women have always played an important role in Irish folk music, and this is reflected in the membership of the Chieftains. Fiddler Maureen Hallahan was an original member of the group, and she remained with them until her retirement in 2002. Fiddler Liz Carroll joined the Chieftains in 1975 and is still an active member of the group today. Other women who have played with the Chieftains over the years include accordionist Máire Ní Chaonaigh, fiddler Sheila Stewart, keyboard player Deirdre Shannon, singer Dolores Keane, and percussionist Rose Flanagan.


Planxty is an Irish folk music group founded in the 1970s by four young musicians, Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine, and Liam O’Flynn. The band quickly gained popularity at home and abroad with their innovative blend of traditional Irish music and contemporary folk rock.

While all four members were accomplished musicians in their own right, it was Christy Moore’s songwriting and powerful vocals that set the band apart. His songs gave voice to the struggles of the Irish people, touching on topics such as emigration, political repression, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The band’s unique sound and Moore’s songwriting helped them to achieve commercial success in Ireland and Britain, and they frequently toured Europe and North America. They also inspired a new generation of Irish musicians, including such acts as The Pogues and The Chieftains.

Planxty disbanded in 1983 but reunited briefly in 2003 for a series of sold-out concerts. They have since been cited as one of the most influential Irish bands of all time.

The Dubliners

The Dubliners are one of the best-known Irish folk bands. They were founded in 1962 and have been performing together for over 50 years. The band has had many different lineup changes over the years, but the most famous members are Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna, and Gerry O’Connor. The Dubliners are known for their lively performances and their traditional Irish songs.

The Dubliners have released over 30 albums, and they continue to tour internationally. They are one of the most popular and influential Irish bands of all time.

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