Traditional Irish classical guitar?

Darren Loughran is a guitarist and is studying for an MA in Musicology and Performance in Maynooth University.  He has researched and presented this guest blog as part of his coursework.

Tablature
Tablature notation for guitar

It has probably been nearly 25 years since I learnt my first tune, on my first instrument. Tin whistles were handed out in my primary school to the pupils who aspired to progress to other instruments and join the school band later in the year. I must have spent hours working on the Kerry polka that day, aided by my father who was a fine concertina and bodhrán player. Some of my fondest memories of childhood were with that band and playing music with my father, or should I say, trying to keep up with him.

Back in the present, I am a classical guitarist. Most of my repertoire consists of music by composers from all over the globe, including works by modern Irish composers. Most of the music I play is not often representative of its geography or cultural traditions, but instead representative of the era the music was written. At most, it celebrates a culture by borrowing elements from its musical tradition and lore. However, in recent years, traditional Irish music has been making its way into the repertoires of classical musicians, including guitarists.

On the 30th of June 2018, I attended a masterclass by the great Scottish classical guitarist and Grammy award winner, David Russell. Following the masterclass, Russell gave a concert in Christchurch in Dublin, which was probably one of the finest performances I have ever seen by a guitarist. What made this experience even more memorable were the last two pieces he played that evening. He finished the programme with transcriptions of two traditional Irish pieces, Spatter the Dew and The Bucks of Oranmore. One might think that to include them in a programme along with pieces by Agustin Barrios and J.S. Bach would be somewhat out of context, but it was magic. 


Darren Loughran

The classical guitar is probably not the instrument one imagines when it comes to traditional Irish music, but in recent years it is becoming quite common to see arrangements being made for the instrument. This is not surprising, the classical guitar has gone through periods of decline in popularity, particularly during the turn of the 20th century, forcing guitarists to turn to transcribing works, originally written for other instruments, to the guitar in order to revitalise the repertoire. For example, the Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Tarrega (1852–1909) arranged many pieces for the guitar which had originally been composed for the piano. The pieces Tarrega transcribed are now staples of the guitar repertoire and played a massive role in the regrowth of interest in guitar music, perpetuated in the first half of the 20th century by performers such as Andres Segovia and Julian Bream.

When asked by ITMA, as to the project I proposed to put forward as part of my placement with them during spring of this year, I could not resist the opportunity to explore the archive in search of music which could be arranged for solo guitar. Initially, I felt spoiled for choice, as there is an abundance of instruments within the traditional Irish sphere which, without difficulty, could lend their voice to the guitar. Having gone through the material made available to me, I decided on two original tunes by one of my favourite Irish musicians, the late virtuoso piper, Liam O’Flynn. 

Liam O’Flynn, Ceoltóir na Bliana 2007 / TG4 photographer
Liam O’Flynn, Ceoltóir na Bliana 2007 / TG4 photographer
Liam O’Flynn, Ceoltóir na Bliana 2007 / TG4 photographer

Liam O’Flynn, Ceoltóir na Bliana 2007 / TG4 photographer

© TG4

I have always been a great admirer of Liam’s music. There are not many musicians in the world who can paint a picture as vividly as Liam can with his pipes. The musicianship and sophistication he brought to the music he played and performed is considerable. His recordings of “Dark Slender Boy” and “The Fox Chase”, are, in my opinion, two of the finest examples of uillean piping. 

When Liam O'Flynn plays the uilleann pipes he creates a forcefield which surrounds his listeners and seems to envelop them in something almost mesmeric.
From an interview with John Kelly in the Irish Times, Saturday, 6 June 1998

The pieces I chose to arrange for the guitar for this project are The return of the pedalboard and The piper’s stone.


The return of the pedalboard was the first of Liam’s pieces I arranged for the guitar as part of this project. This piece Liam wrote in celebration of the return of Arty McGlynn’s guitar pedals, following their disappearance after a trip abroad. 

This tune concerns a cantankerous and unpredictable piece of electronic equipment which belongs to that great musician and friend Arty McGlynn. On more than one occasion on stage it has caused its owner great distress and the rest of us great amusement. So, when it went missing after a trip abroad all seemed safe and well. But unbelievably, it re-appeared soon after - delivered safely home by a returning musician. A new tune seemed the only response!
Liam O'Flynn

When moving music from one instrument to another, compromises are often made regarding the key of the music. Thankfully, I did not have to transpose either of the tunes to an alternative key, both pieces sat quite well on the guitar as they were. ITMA had provided me with Liam’s handwritten manuscript of the piece on which Liam had written the suggested harmony to accompany the principal melody, which I think worked quite well for the guitar.

My only creative input compositionally, was the shaping of the accompanying harmony in order to make it slightly more sympathetic to the guitar. Initially, I did this without instrument in hand, focusing more on Liam’s recording and using his manuscript as a roadmap and then bringing it to the guitar only for the process of adding the fingerings. I very much enjoyed the process of arranging this jig.

For the purpose of making these transcriptions more available to guitarists who may wish to play them, I have also prepared versions which include tablature for those who prefer it to standard notation. 

Return of the pedalboard [comp. Liam O'Flynn], jig / Darren Loughran, guitar

Interactive score, staff notation
Staff notation (PDF)
Interactive score, guitar tablature
Guitar tablature (PDF)


The pipers stone, was the second of the two I arranged. This is a lovely jig and beautifully written. This piece sits very well on the guitar. Again, the manuscript made available to me included the accompanying harmony and along with a capo placed on the 2nd fret of the guitar in order to maintain its original key, made the process of transcribing this jig relatively uncomplicated. 


The piper's stone [comp. Liam O'Flynn], jig / Darren Loughran, guitar

Interactive score, staff notation
Staff notation (PDF)
Interactive score, guitar tablature
Guitar tablature (PDF)


Liam O’Flynn was undoubtedly one of Ireland's foremost exponents of traditional music and culture. A musician who truly tapped into the tradition, remembered it for us and contributed new memories for future generations. Our music is one of the few ways in which we can put aside the persistence of time itself, sit down with the past and draw from it a true sense of who we are as a culture and as individuals. 

Liam O’Flynn, uilleann pipes, 1977 / Joe Dowdall
Liam O’Flynn, uilleann pipes, 1977 / Joe Dowdall
Liam O’Flynn, uilleann pipes, 1977 / Joe Dowdall

Liam O’Flynn, uilleann pipes, 1977 / Joe Dowdall

© Irish Traditional Music Archive by donation from Joe Dowdall

All rational development of music depends on due attention to the character of the music and the nature of the instruments being used; the former teaches us what is advisable and the latter what’s possible! We should be guided by “the rational development of music. The exercise of good taste, common sense respect for the tradition. Also, an understanding and respect for the emotional spirit of the music.
Liam O'Flynn

I would like to thank ITMA for allowing me the opportunity to work with them on this project. As well as being a rewarding process for me creatively, it has also broadened my knowledge of Irish music and Liam’s work. The experience has allowed me to connect with my own past and develop further as a musician. 

Darren Loughran, April 2021


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This blog was created in association the Department of Music at Maynooth University.  Students undertook a five week placement as part of their course and gained experience in research and web publishing.