This article was published in Treoir, the magazine of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an organisation of Irish traditional musicians, and is reproduced here by permission of Sean Quinn and Treoir.

Traditional Music and the Internet

by Sean O Cuinn, Bun an Dala CCE. Co. Antrim

This is probably one of the more unusual pieces to appear in Treoir for a while, but I can't resist the opportunity to share with fellow musicians and enthusiasts how a new development in communications - computers 'talking' to each other - is helping to promote Irish Traditional Music around the world. I'm well aware that many people involved in our music are resistant to certain kinds of innovation that they perceive may threaten the tradition or change the music for the worse. The playing of traditional tunes on electronic instruments, for example, may be a long way off in gaining acceptance-if ever-and yet there was a time when the introduction of banjo, accordion or piano was probably viewed with suspicion.

Notwithstanding the natural conservative ethos within traditional music circles, we have not shied away in the past from using the latest media when it came to preserving and promoting our culture. From the early cylinder and disc records through all kinds of tapes and CDs to radio, television and publishing, any suitable vehicle has been used to carry the music and information about the music. Anyone who has come to use computers in their work knows how effective they can be in storing and sorting information, as well as presenting it in attractive ways. The Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, for example uses computers to store actual tunes which can easily be retrieved for those wishing to check details of melody or titles.

Musicians Wired Up!

I recently discovered how a number of traditional music enthusiasts, scattered in various countries are harnessing the power of computers and computer networks to store and transmit information about our music: discuss musical topics; arrange sessions, concerts, conferences, holidays; find the best musical pubs etc. For some folks the next best thing to actually playing or listening to music is talking about it ! All you need to tap into this flow of general craic is a computer, some simple software which can be got free, a small box called a modem, a telephone line and a service provider i.e. a company whom you dial to connect to the Internet - the international network of computers where all this craic is to be found.

The main areas on the Internet of interest to traditional musicians are The Ceolas Music Archive at Stanford University, the Rec.Music.Celtic Newsgroup and the Irtrad-L mailing list, which is managed from UCC but based on a computer at UCD, Ireland. There is also The Digital Tradition, a developing archive of songs which includes sound samples of the melodies.

The Ceolas Archive

Ceolas (Ceol + Eolas, an dtuigeann tu?) is managed by Gerard Manning with the help of Marie O'Farrell, using a host computer at Stanford, California. He describes it as "the home of Celtic music on the Internet - the largest collection of information on celtic music available on-line". The archive is accessed through a particular system known as the World-Wide Web, which. as well as providing attractively laid-out text with integrated colour pictures, enables sound samples of tunes to be transferred to your own computer for playing back at your convenience using its built-in speaker. The Web also has the facility to provide easy links to other computer sites, where you simply click your 'mouse' on a highlighted word or phrase, and you are taken instantly to that information even though it may be stored on a different computer in a different country!

Gerard grew up in Cork, but moved to the US in 1989. He found it initially hard to get in touch with much of the Irish/celtic world there. He decided to use his computer to find out more about traditional Irish music and also try to do something constructive for Ireland - he got the idea of the Ceolas Archive as a database for spreading the word about traditional music on a much wider basis. He started it in 1993 and it now has over 12,000 'readers' each month - more than many of the major music magazines! He feels that it is "helping to bring people from all over the world into a community (both electronic and real) that appreciates and enjoys traditional music."

The archive includes Patrick Murphy's list of Thistle and Shamrock radio stations and other celtic radio shows; a guide to traditional and folk music magazines including links to those which are available to read on-line, like Living Tradition (and maybe Treoir in the future?); lists of other Internet celtic music resources; guide to mail-order record companies; George Keith's session lists; diary of concerts and festivals; profiles of musicians and bands; instrument guides for whistle, fiddle, pipes etc.; sound samples of tunes including a copy of Richard Robinson's Tunebook ; on-line copies of the informative pamphlets published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive, and a collection of images of celtic art.

The Irtrad-L Mailing List

'Hammy' Hamilton is a flute-player and instrument-maker, originally from Belfast but now living in West Cork. He got involved in teaching about traditional music at UCC where he was introduced to computers and Paul McGettrick. Together they got the idea of a discussion group about traditional music on the Internet and IRTRAD-L was born. It provides a lively meeting point for traditional music enthusiasts who send electronic-mail messages to the Mailing List computer at UCD which then automatically forwards them to all the other subscribers - currently there are over 400, which makes it one of the biggest groups on the Internet! Topics develop which are called 'threads' and people chip in their "2 cents worth" on any 'thread' that interests them. In recent weeks (Spring '95) I noticed threads on sean-nos singing, button-box tunings, types of tin-whistles, recommended reference books on Irish music, the work of O'Carolan, what constitutes a 'good' session, alternative guitar tunings for Irish music and whether Dowd's Favourite should be played in G minor or A minor!

Many of the list members (Irtradders) are based in the US, which Hammy thinks reflects their (more relaxed?) attitude to technology, but there are participants from all over the world. I was curious to find out more about some of the people who engaged in these lively discussions, so I asked a few of them via e-mail to tell me about themselves and their interest in Irish music.

Like Ted McGraw who learned to love Irish traditional music in the 1950s from listening to the Irish local radio program in Rochester NY, and visiting the AOH club where accordionist Frank Murphy and banjo-player Neville O'Connor entertained. He learned accordion from Frank and started playing at house parties for new emigrants. "....the music, the dancing, the singing...wonderful people and wonderful times". Ted married a girl from Kerry and now plays concertina as well as accordion. He founded a Blackthorn Ceili Band (snap! - see Treoir 1990 No2 p.30), was chairman of the local Tommy Finucane Comhaltas branch in Rochester for 7 years and now has his own Irish radio show - the 'Irish House Party' on WGMC-FM. He is also a member of the local board of the Irish American Cultural Institute and since meeting on Irtrad-L, we correspond electronically about traditional accordion styles and recording techniques.

Vincent Nicotina is also a Comhaltas chairman, of the Sean O Riada branch in Albany NY. Vincent plays flute, and likes to listen to Scottish and Quebequois music as well as Irish, but there is most scope for playing the Irish where he lives. As a College teacher, he got involved in training people how to use the Internet for educational purposes, and he would like to help to set up a CCE presence on the Net in the form of pages of information on the World Wide Web and a Comhaltas mailing list on the style of IRTRAD-L. He needs people to send him documents on disk with histories, branch lists and addresses etc. and he doesn't see any contradiction between old music and new technology - he reckons that modern communications technology can help to make the Irish Music fraternity a "more vibrant community".

Dave Gabol calls himself a Pakki-Paddy, as his mother was from Tipperary (Borrisokane) and father from Pakistan. His mother's family had some great singers and he learned to love Ireland and its music. He graduated from bodhran to the whistle and is now learning the fiddle and loves playing in sessions around Buckinghamshire, England. He uses computers in his work and finds the Net a great way to discuss the music with people around the world. "Tune swapping is possible through the use of graphics or "abc" notation and I've helped to organise 'remote practising' for people who plan to meet in Ireland to play tunes while on holiday," says Dave. He orders his traditional music CDs over the Net from Claddagh in Dublin, and benefits from 'reviews' or comments from other Irtradders as to the best albums.

Information about sessions world-wide is regularly passed around. and if an individual is visiting a strange area there is always someone who can point them towards the nearest good session. Dave says, "It's amazing how close-knit a group can form without the members ever meeting each other!" (This phenomenon has come to be called a 'virtual community').

Some people in the States seem to move job and home a lot more than we do in Ireland, and of course the distances are much greater. It is common to see messages on the Net from musicians looking for the location of their local Irish music session in a new city. Rick Gagne is an 'Irtradder' who has moved around quite a bit. He grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and fell in love with Irish & Scottish music at Dartmouth College where he learned to play tin whistle, tenor banjo, and bouzouki. He founded the group Dun Creagan with Tom McKean, Kelley Bishop, and Carrick Eggleston. They still tour in Europe as well as America, on an occasional basis. They have a new CD out entitled Dun Creagan: the 80s LIVE.

While living in Philadelphia for a few years, Rick played with Sarah and Noel McQuaid in Carnloch. Now he is living in Bloomington and studying for a PhD in folklore at the University of Indiana, where he played for a while with Grey Larsen, Erin Shrader, Kelley Bishop and Jeremy Goode as Reel to Reel. With all of this, his first love is playing Irish music at sessions. He also likes the challenge of blending traditional music with technology as e.g. in the use of sound systems or in recording. When he got his student's e-mail account, he soon found Irtrad-L on the Net and he enjoys the flow of queries and ideas. "It is a great way to exchange information about Irish music, to get questions answered and to find out what is going on!"

When Rick went to the American Folklore Society annual meeting Milwaukee in October 1994, he was able to use Irtrad-L to contact other musicians and find sessions every night of the conference - "The Net can be a support system for people who like Irish music but are geographically separated from it; it diminishes barriers." Rick supports Gerard Manning's aim to put lots more sound samples on the archive so that people can hear music and shop around for albums on the Internet.

Bladey pic Conrad Bladey is a name that I found popping up frequently in the e-mail and news postings regarding Celtic music on the Net. He is from Baltimore, Maryland but first encountered Irish music and musicians while studying in Germany, and then later in Durham, England under the influence of Donegal lass Maire Walsh (now Barnfield). She encouraged him in pub-crawling and learning the tin whistle. Back in Maryland he finished his degree in the late 70s and became a Chieftains groupie, before settling down and getting a job teaching Irish Culture at night school - one of the requirements being that at least one session of each course had to be conducted in an Irish pub! For Conrad this was not an obstacle.

He learned to use the Internet as a means of gathering lots of (free) information to support his teaching. He is interested in storytelling and has set up Web pages for this and for his proposed world-wide Famine Commemoration Event scheduled for Sept. 9. One of Conrad's more notorious exploits was a spate of contributions to a thread on Irtrad-L about 'super whistles'. These are craftsman-built instruments that are louder and mellower than ordinary whistles, and require a different technique in playing. One maker of such instruments is Michael Copeland of Pennsylvania, whom Conrad 'met' through information received on the Net. The discussion on ordinary whistles v 'super' whistles generated considerable heat for a while as well as some humour, but all is relatively quiet now.

Christopher Brennan of Rochester NY developed his enthusiasm for Irish music at an early age due to his family playing Clancy Brothers records which led him to explore the music, the folklore, the culture, the history of Ireland, more deeply. He is now a singer and storyteller. His work as a Librarian at Colgate Rochester College, NY, led him to use the Internet as an information resource and he discovered Irtrad-L which feeds his passion for Irish music.

Dan Beimborn is of German descent and works as a computer specialist at Narada records, a 'new age' label which features some 'celtic' albums. He plays a variety of instruments including mandolin, banjo, harmonica, cittern and guitar with groups like Generations and the Ghillies. While living for a while in England he used e-mail to keep in touch with his family. Back in Milwaukee now he helps with the Irish Fest and has put them on the Net too. His over-riding goal is to put a multi-media tune book on the Net with notation plus sound samples - more than would be in any printed collection (1,002?). He has started the project by placing sound-clips of his own playing on the World Wide Web. With the help of a number of collaborators it should become a huge archive.

Alan Ng came to Irish fiddling after some years of classical playing. He had met some Irish students during Summer camp in Germany and followed this with a 'brilliant' week in Ireland. When he moved from California to Madison, Wisconsin, he encountered a lively Irish music scene and learned to play by ear. He also learned that "the enjoyment of the music was inseparable from having friends to play it with."

His new wife shares his passion for Irish culture and is learning the flute and ceili dancing. Alan now plays at sessions and ceilithe and co-teaches a course on Irish music for adults. He has benefited greatly from courses he has taken from fiddlers James Kelly and Brendan Mulvihill, and Chicago bodhran player Kevin Rice. He finds Irtrad-L a rich resource for his teaching as the course spans all instruments and the postings on the list cover a wide range - "no single person can have all the answers....I can refer my students to people on the Net who know much more about certain areas......a source of detailed and relevant information that is available much longer than any course lasts."

Seamus Kelleher is from Lawrence, Massachusetts, but his mother came from Geevagh in Sligo and his father's side is from West Cork/Kerry. He first met Irish music at the weekly sessions in Lawrence AOH club and started playing the bones, moving on to bodhran and whistle. In 1989 he joined the Hannafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas in Boston. He now plays in Boston sessions and holidays in Ireland each year for more music and is taking up the flute. He joined Irtrad-L at its inception in 1992... "Since then I have met Irtradders in Dublin and Galway and Irtradders visiting Boston from England, Canada, Alaska, California and Florida have joined me for sessions in Boston."

Gershen pic Paulette Gershen proclaims that she hasn't an ounce of Irish blood, but she is completely in love with Irish music. She grew up surrounded by folk music from various traditions, so as well as studying classical piano, she took to the tin whistle and guitar. She came to Ireland for a summer holiday in the 70s and stayed for several years, which cemented her attachment to traditional music. She joined the Sean Treacy branch of CCE, took whistle lessons from Mary Bergin and Micheal O hAlmhain and played in many local sessions. Even after moving back to California in 1979, she returned to Ireland for several months each year, working as a freelance editor. She also played whistle around Los Angeles and was involved with A Train to Sligo and the first Cherish the Ladies group.

For the last ten years she has been teaching tin whistle and working in recording, theatre and film music. Paulette is currently finishing her Master's thesis on 'The Tin Whistle in Irish Music' at UCLA. She finds the Internet a great source of reference material for her work and has been a member of Irtrad-L since the's another way of keeping in touch with her traditional music friends in Ireland.

For these and hundreds like them, this Internet mailing list, conceived and managed in Ireland, provides daily contact for traditional music enthusiasts around the world.


There are over 10,000 Newsgroups on the Internet. Those entitled "Rec." deal with recreational interests and hobbies. Rec. Music.Celtic is broader in scope than Irtrad-L in that it includes the music of other Celtic countries as well as taking in what we might call 'folk' music. Being a Newsgroup, it works in a different way to the Mailing List, but there are similarities e.g. there are 'threads' but in a newsgroup all the 'postings' to a particular thread are linked together for easy reading. You can also scan the whole Newsgroup and read all the postings at any time, although it changes as out-of date items are automatically deleted . The person responsible for Rec. Music.Celtic is Paul J Murphy, who is presently based in England.

The Digital Tradition

This is an archive of over 5,000 traditional songs compiled by Denis Cook, Susan Friedman and Dick Greenhaus in the USA. They are adding about 300 songs each month. It can be obtained on disc to put on your own computer or you can access it on-line. You can search for any song using a keyword in the title, or even in the lyrics, and with many of the entries there is a sound sample which your computer can play to give you an idea of the tune. The notation of over half the songs can also be printed out on your printer. For the originators, this is the best way to disseminate folk songs in the modern age - and it is free !

These are very strange things to be reading about in Treoir to be sure, but the people who participate in these exchanges of information over the telephone lines, who 'hack' away at their computer keyboards into the wee small hours for the benefit of others - these are also members of the world-wide community of Irish Traditional Music lovers. Many of them are active in weekly sessions, lots are members of Comhaltas, some are recognised recording and concert performers and others are committed teachers of traditional instruments. I felt it was important that you know they are there and what they are doing. It represents a development of the tradition.

It would be great if Comhaltas could officially get on to the Net and tell the world about our activities. I took the step of sending the dates from the Dialann page in Treoir to Irtrad-L, which brought cries of delight from those trying to plan musical holidays to Ireland, wanting to catch a Fleadh. It was instantly forwarded by one of them to the Ceolas Archive also. Treoir could easily be made available on-line like other magazines already are, and there is a lot of other useful information that CCE could very economically disseminate world-wide to the benefit of the organisation, the music and Ireland. Vince Nicotina has a vision, and I hope we will all help him to achieve it.

Once I learned a tune at my Daddy's knee; as I grew up I learned other tunes from local musicians and we talked about the music; then I heardsome new tunes and songs on the radio; later someone sent me a tape with more tunes, and I also started buying records and CDs. Then one day I received a new tune from a computer in California and I was able to listen to it on my computer and learn to play it too. Afterwards , via computer, I exchanged some opinions about all these matters with Irish traditional musicians in other countries. It's 1995. It's only progress.

Thanks to all the above-named people whom I've never met, who helped me to write this - the Irtradders. If any readers wish to explore the Internet for Irish music and can't get local help, please contact me via Treoir and I will try to advise them.

*Back to the Ceolas home page. -----
Gerard Manning