People play Irish traditional music on all kinds of flutes: bamboo, polymer, modern metal ‘Boehm System’ concert flutes, even bicycle pumps with holes drilled in the side! But the flute most identified with Irish traditional music is the wooden, six-holed instrument sometimes called the ‘Irish’ flute. It’s usually made of blackwood or grenadilla, the same tropical wood used to make clarinets, but in recent years the tree has been on the verge of becoming endangered, and new woods are being adopted.
These wooden flutes are the descendants of the common flutes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with some improvements and tweaking by modern makers to allow them to hold their own in sessions or solos. These flutes were known as “simple system,” because they had the same six toneholes as whistles, with keys added randomly over time to allow accidentals to be played. They survived in two traditions, Irish dance music and Cuban charanga.
Other than their material, they differ from the familiar modern flutes because of their conical or tapered bore or shape, which helps focus the sound. Back in George Washington’s time, the ideal sound of these flutes was somewhere between an oboe and a clarinet, and no one made flutes that epitomized this better than the British firm of Rudall & Rose. Today, most modern flutemakers base their designs on those of this long-gone firm.
No one knows exactly when or how flutes were incorporated into traditional playing. The first recordings of Irish flute were made of Leitrim player John McKenna in the U.S. in the 1920s. McKenna’s home area of Leitrim, along with neighboring parts of Counties Roscommon and Sligo, was one region where flutes were common in house dances. East Galway, where modern players Mike Rafferty and Jack Coen emigrated from, was another. These two areas developed distinct styles, but today players may incorporate all kinds of influences. Some like Matt Molloy, the acknowledged master among modern Irish flute players, imitate piping techniques.
The wooden Irish flute lacks the volume of modern metal flutes, but blends in with most other instruments and emerges in slowed down versions of dance music, in slow airs, and in fast rhythmic tunes as well. Although traditional music can also be played on the metal flute, as great players like Joannie Madden and Noel Rice demonstrate, the unkeyed holes of the wooden flute make it easy to keep the fingers flying along with the lively dance music of the tradition.Some flutes have keys for common accidentals, but the instrument can often do just as well keyless.
Among the best-known and most respected of the many wooden flutemakers of today are Patrick Olwell of Virginia, Michael Grinter of Australia, and Sam Murray and Hammy Hamilton of Ireland.