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Music and the Irish Imagination

Thierry Dubost
Alexandra Slaby

Defining and redefining Irish music

Riverdance and Irish Traditional Music

Adrian Scahill


This essay examines the complex and ambiguous relationship between Riverdance and Irish traditional music. It explores whether the show can be considered as a global representation of a local music, and if a form of musical exoticism is at work here. It further considers how the music of the show reflects the modernisations and hybridisations that occur in contemporary traditional music.

Cet article analyse la relation complexe et ambiguë qu’entretient Riverdance avec la musique traditionnelle irlandaise. Nous nous poserons la question de savoir si ce spectacle peut être considéré comme représentation globale d’une musique locale, et si nous sommes face à une forme d’exotisme musical. Nous nous interrogerons aussi sur la manière dont la musique du spectacle reflète les processus de modernisation et d’hybridation qui sont à l’œuvre dans la musique traditionnelle contemporaine.

Editor's note

An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared in New Hibernia Review, vol. 13, nº 2, 2009, a journal of Irish studies published by the University of St Thomas.

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The reading of Riverdance as a mirror of and a metaphor for Ireland’s metamorphosis into the Celtic Tiger has become an enduring (if not clichéd) trope within Irish cultural studies. The parallels between it and the economic boom of this period are remarkable – both the term “Celtic Tiger” and the show date from 1994; both peaked around 2000-2001, when Riverdance was resident in the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway; and both have been in decline since then – the current show has been significantly scaled down, both in terms of the numbers and the prominence of the performers. Coinciding at a time when Ireland was frequently ranked as the world’s most globalised economy, Riverdance and other forms of Celtic Tiger culture have been critiqued as articulations of this globalisation – inextricable from the marketing and commodification of “brand Ireland”, understandable not as simply Irish or local, but approachable only from a global context.2 In these readings, the show is expressive of a ...


Adrian Scahill is a Lecturer in music at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, specialising in Irish traditional music, ethnomusicology, traditional music performance, and music in Ireland. A performer on button accordion and piano, he has appeared at workshops and festivals both in Ireland and abroad. His doctoral research, undertaken at University College Dublin, studied accompaniment in instrumental Irish traditional music. He is the consultant editor for Irish traditional music for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Music in Ireland. His recent research has included Irish traditional music and the 17th century, the representation of Irish music on film, and popular music in Ireland.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 2013

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