Irish Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Irish Music in Canada

The Irish component in the population of Canada is the fourth largest (after English, French, and Scottish) and one of the oldest. Irish fishermen settled in Newfoundland in the early 17th century. By the mid-18th century that island had some 5000 Roman Catholic Irish inhabitants - about one-third of its population. There were Irish among those who founded Halifax in 1749. The United Empire Loyalists who moved to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after 1776 included many of Irish descent. The famine in Ireland during the early 19th century sent thousands of Irish farmers to Upper Canada (Ontario). By 1871 the Irish were the second largest ethnic group in Canada (after the French); in 1950 there were 1,500,000 Irish, catholic and protestant. In the 1986 census there were 699,685 Canadians of single Irish descent and a further 2,922,605 with some Irish ancestry.

Music of Irish composers has not been performed widely in Canada save for the songs of Dowland, the choral music and songs of C.V. Stanford and Charles Wood, a few of the piano pieces of John Field, and occasional performances of the light operas (notably The Bohemian Girl) of Michael Balfe. Huguette Tourangeau has recorded some arias of Balfe, Lois Marshall some of Thomas Moore's Irish melodies. The main musical contribution of the Irish to Canada, however, has been to folk music, and predominantly as an influence on Anglo-Canadian songs, though its effect on the repertoire of French-Canada's violoneux will be discussed also.

Folk Music

The Irish influence is notable especially in Newfoundland, where the Irish pronunciation is obvious in such songs as 'I'se the B'y That Builds the Boat'. As Elisabeth Greenleaf noted: 'Folk-song in Newfoundland owes a great debt to the people of Irish descent. They have a genius for music and learn not only the Irish songs but any other lovely airs they hear and they render them most sweetly. I am inclined to credit the Irish with a large share in keeping the Newfoundland folk music so melodious' (Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland, Cambridge 1933). The influence is almost equally important in Ontario, where the areas around Peterborough and the Ottawa Valley, settled by Irish, have provided the province's richest sources of folksong. In New Brunswick, James Reginald Wilson noted, 'Most of the Miramichi tunes are in the Irish folk tradition though many of our singers are of Scottish and English descent' (Songs of Miramichi, Fredericton 1968).

The Irish influence shows itself in the large percentage of Irish ballads and songs in the repertoire of Canadian traditional singers, and in the fact that the words of most native Anglo-Canadian folksongs are set to Irish tunes and follow Irish verse patterns. Moreover, persons of Irish descent are persistent in the preservation and circulation of their traditional songs.

Remarkable numbers of Irish ballads turn up in all Anglo-Canadian collections, proclaiming their origin with titles such as 'Patrick Sheehan,' 'The Croppy Boy,' 'The True Paddy's Song,' 'Old Erin Far Away,' 'Erin's Lovely Home,' 'Erin's Green Shore,' 'Groyle Machree,' 'Pat O'Brien,' 'The Lovely Banks of the Boyne,' 'Erin's Flowery Vale,' and 'The Bonny Young Irish Boy'. Quite a few describe the adventures of young men named Riley ('Riley's Farewell,' 'William Riley's Courtship,' 'Riley's Trial,' 'John Riley,' and 'Young Riley'); others reflect the Irish sympathy for Napoleon ('The Plains of Waterloo,' 'The Bonnie Bunch of Roses,' 'The Green Linnet,' and 'Napoleon's Farewell to Paris'); still others tell humorous tales first aired in Irish music halls ('Finnegan's Wake,' 'Doran's Ass,' 'Courting in the Kitchen,' and 'The Irish Wake').

Among the native Canadian ballads, nearly all of those about sea voyages and shipwrecks, life in the lumbercamps, and tragic accidents in the woods or on the rivers are cast in the typical Irish 'come-all-ye' pattern. This stereotyped form, simple to compose and easy to remember, was well established in Irish song by the end of the 18th century and soon spread through the English-speaking world. It consists of four-line stanzas with seven stresses to each line - sometimes referred to as double stanzas in that they are twice the length of the common ballad stanza used in the older Child ballads (see Ballads). The tunes are usually in 6/8 time and the structure is usually ABBA. As the name suggests, the texts normally begin with some such invocation as 'Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,' or 'Come all you jolly shanty boys wherever you may be'. The rhyme pattern usually is AABB but can vary, especially when it makes use of the characteristic Irish internal rhyme:

Oh it's by the hush me boys, I'm sure that's to hold your noise

And listen to poor Paddy's narration.

I was by hunger pressed and by poverty distressed

So I took a thought I'd leave the Irish nation.

It also was common for traditional singers in Canada to speak the last word or phrase of a song - a pattern borrowed from Ireland. The practice is so characteristic of lumbercamp singers (eg, in Ontario) that some folklorists have assumed it originated with them, but actually it turns up wherever Irish traditions predominate. Elisabeth Greenleaf (ibid) noted, 'It was a perfectly familiar convention to a Newfoundland audience'.

Canadian instrumental folk music is in debt to Ireland, especially for that most important of genres, oldtime fiddling (see Fiddling). Many traditional fiddle tunes popular in Canada are of Irish origin. The Ottawa Valley fiddling style, with its Irish roots, has had a wide influence through the playing of Graham Townsend and others. Irish tunes and styles are popular also in Quebec; Jean Carignan took as one of his models the great Irish fiddler Michael Coleman, and has been recognized as the world's leading exponent of Coleman's unique 'Sligo' style. The Irish-born fiddlers Manus and Seamus McGuire of Hamilton, Ont, also play in the Sligo style.

Irish folksongs and dances form a part (directly or indirectly) of the repertoire of the pop groups la Bottine souriante, Garolou, and Le Rêve du diable (all of Quebec), Spirit of the West (of British Columbia), and Figgy Duff (of Newfoundland), and of many singers. Carol Brothers, in the 1960s a star on the CBC St John's TV show 'All Around the Circle,' and Charlie Chamberlain of Don Messer's Islanders made LPs of Irish songs, and Harry Hibbs, John White, and other Newfoundland singers have popularized Irish traditional material.


Much Irish music is played in Canada on St Patrick's Day (17 March), and in 1866 and 1867 the Irish community of Montreal built a St Patrick's Hall on Victoria Square. It was the site of many musical occasions, Irish and other, including an appearance in 1872 by Rosa d'Erina, the 'Queen of Irish song'. The hall was destroyed by fire in 1872.

The Irish Choral Society of Toronto, an adult choir of 55-70 voices, was formed in 1960 by Father Peter Fleming (its director until 1970). It performed at Expo 67 and toured Ireland in 1968. In 1970 some members broke away to form the Irish Gaelic Singers conducted by Richard Scanlon. Comhaltas ceoltoiri Eireann, a society established in Ireland to preserve traditional music, has branches in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The Ottawa group holds a monthly gathering, known as celidhe, for informal music making. 'Celidhe' also was the name of a CBC TV variety show (summers 1974 and 1975; winter 1975-6) devoted to Irish music.


Though there do not appear to have been great numbers of Irish-born or Irish-descended professional musicians in Canada, it is difficult to trace such persons because of the name changes resulting from intermarriage, or because of the similarity between Irish and Anglo-Saxon surnames. Oscar O'Brien and Paul-Émile McCaughan, for instance, were French-Canadian, while Claude Champagne was of Irish descent on his mother's side. (Healey Willan, who claimed an Irish 'streak,' had no Irish ancestry discernible in his family tree.)

Among those musicians identifiable as Irish are Richard Bulkeley (who arrived in 1749); Arthur Corry, who established a musical academy in 1822 in Saint John, NB; John McCaul (1839); a number of Irish nuns from upper-class families in Dublin and Cork, who went in the 1840s to teach in Newfoundland and included music in their classes; Alexander O'Donovan (1843), a one-time teacher at Carlow College, Ireland, who settled in Carbonear, Nfld, where he organized a band of some 40 players and was said to have composed sonatas; Thomas Persse (1862); the brothers C.A. and G.B. Sippi (1865 and 1870 respectively), who, though of Italian descent and Indigenous birth, were raised in Ireland; Arthur A. Clappé (1877); Doreen Hall (1921); Eileen Law and Jim Magill (1930s); Sydney Bryans, conductor 1960-6 of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir; Norman Nelson (1965) and members of such pop groups as Barde, Barley Bree, the Carlton Showband, the Irish Rovers, Larry McKee and the Shandonairs, and Ryan's Fancy. The last-named group, formed ca 1970 by Denis Ryan, Dermot O'Reilly, and Fergus O'Bryne in Toronto, but based in the Maritimes, had made LPs for Audat, Harmony, and RCA by 1978 and starred on CBC (St John's) and CHCH (Hamilton, Ont) TV series. The 1980 film Ryan's Fancy: Home, Boys, Home is about the group's concert tour of Ireland.

Two 19th-century Canadian music publishers - John Lovell and William Briggs - were born in Ireland. The libretto of Willan's opera Deirdre, written by Irish-born John Coulter, was based on an Irish saga; and Eugene Benson, born in Belfast, wrote the librettos for Heloise and Abelard, Everyman, and Psycho Red, all by Charles Wilson.

Among Canadian-born musicians of Irish descent are the folksinger Tom Brandon; the singer-songwriter Jim Corcoran; the contralto Maureen Forrester; the organist Joseph Fowler; the harpist and singer Loreena McKennitt; the pop singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle, James Keelaghan, and Mary Margaret O'Hara; members of the pop groups the Crash Test Dummies, Figgy Duff, and Spirit of the West; the songwriter Geoffrey O'Hara; the choirmaster Mgr Ronan; and the conductor Jerry Shea. David Willson, founder of the Children of Peace, was of Irish descent. Jimmie Shields and George Murray made their names as 'Irish' tenors. The 1983 film The Leahys: Music Most of All is about an Irish-Canadian farm family from Lakefield, Ont, who are country musicians.

Canadian musicians who have performed in Ireland include Emma Albani (who often appeared in Dublin); various singers (among them Mary Lou Fallis, Rosemarie Landry, and Joseph Rouleau) who have sung at the Wexford Festival; Jean Carignan, who has played at fiddling festivals; the folksinger Edith Butler, who in 1970 undertook a promotional tour in Ireland for the Canadian Government Travel Bureau; Pat LaBarbera, who toured Ireland in 1989 with the Irish quartet Four in One; and Oliver Jones, who appeared in Ireland in 1989 and 1990. The TS performed in Dublin 30 Aug 1986. Clarence Lucas composed and conducted an 'Irish musical,' Peggy Machree, in 1904. The song 'Sing Irishman Sing,' by the Newfoundland singer Roy Payne, has been popular with the drinking Irish. Alfred Fisher's work Elegiac Variations (1976, for cello and orchestra) was commissioned by Radio Telefis Eireann.

Among Irish musicians who have performed in Canada are John McCormack, the leading Irish tenor of his day, who made many appearances in North America; the Irish Guards Band, under C. H. Hassell, which gave three concerts at the Montreal Arena in 1905; the singers Catherine Hayes and Mary O'Hara; the composer-conductor Brian Boydell, who led the CBC Symphony Orchestra in an Irish program 23 May 1955; the flutist James Galway, both on his own and in 1978 and 1983 with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra; the tenor Frank Patterson; the pop and folk groups Horselips, the Chieftains, the Pogues, the Waterboys, and U2; the folksingers Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy; the rock singer-guitarist Rory Gallagher; and rock singers Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor. Many traditional performers from Ireland have appeared at folk festivals across Canada. The Irish musicologist Frank Harrison created the music program at Queen's University, and the Irish musicologist Harry White, who studied at the University of Toronto, has used EMC as a model for a proposed encyclopedia of Irish music.

See also Fiddling; Folk music, Anglo-Canadian; Festivals.

Further Reading