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Best Irish Musicians: 10 Shining Talents From The Emerald Isle
Geraint Lewis
List & Guides

Best Irish Musicians: 10 Shining Talents From The Emerald Isle

Famous for making music enriched with soul and passion, the best Irish musicians are revered the world over.

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Anyone who’s ever visited Ireland understands that music is deeply rooted in the country’s culture – whether that music is performed on the largest concert stage, down at the local bar or even just at family singalongs that break out just for the craic. There’s no doubting Irish people have an inherent passion for timeless songs, so it makes perfect sense that the best Irish musicians have enhanced the Emerald Isle’s rich heritage with music that touches the hearts of people the world over.

Best Irish Musicians: 10 Shining Talents From The Emerald Isle

10: The Corrs

Hailing from Dundalk, in County Louth, The Corrs consist of four multi-instrumental siblings (Andrea, Sharon, Caroline and Jim) and, since their formation in 1990, they’ve seamlessly fused traditional Irish music with rock and pop, resulting in global sales of over 40 million albums. Going platinum nine times over in the UK alone, their second album, Talk On Corners, became the UK’s best-selling title of 1998, while The Corrs are one of only a handful of acts to have held the top two positions simultaneously in the UK album charts, when, in 1997, Talk On Corners hit No.1 and their debut album, Forgiven, Not Forgotten, occupied the No. 2 slot. The group took a lengthy hiatus to raise families in 2005, but returned in style with two albums, White Light (2015) and Jupiter Calling (2017), which have cemented their reputation among Ireland’s brightest talents.

Must hear: Dreams

9: The Undertones

Though they formed at the height of The Troubles, in the mid-70s, Derry quintet The Undertones focused on writing classic pop songs far more concerned with affairs of the heart than the current affairs of the day. The band’s rapid rise to prominence was brokered by their first hit, Teenage Kicks, which influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel declared his favourite ever song, leading to the band signing with Sire Records after label boss Seymour Stein was equally smitten. However, The Undertones had plenty more of a similar calibre in reserve and they went on to release both singles (Jimmy Jimmy, Wednesday Week, Julie Ocean) and albums (their self-titled debut, Hypnotised, The Positive Touch) that were right up there with the finest punk-pop releases of the late 70s and early 80s.

Must hear: Teenage Kicks

8: Thin Lizzy

Fronted by the highly charismatic Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy rank highly in any self-respecting run down of both the best Irish musicians and of rock’s greatest outfits, full stop. A going concern from the turn of the 70s, the fiery Dublin-based band dented the mainstream with their inimitable reworking of the Irish folk standard Whiskey In The Jar, in 1973, but they made a more sustained breakthrough with 1976’s Jailbreak album, which led to a slew of legend-enshrining records such as Johnny The Fox, Bad Reputation, Black Rose and the seminal double-album, Live And Dangerous, during the late 70s.

Though Thin Lizzy were broadly a pioneering hard rock act, Lynott’s poetic lyrics and his band’s ability to incorporate everything from funk and blues to Celtic balladry into their sonic arsenal set them apart from their contemporaries. Lynott died tragically young, aged just 36, in January 1986, but he’s been posthumously commemorated with tributes ranging from a bronze statue in Dublin’s Grafton Street to silver commemorative coins issued to mark his 70th birthday, and he remains one of Ireland’s most universally loved performers.

Must hear: The Boys Are Back In Town

7: Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran was, of course, born in Yorkshire (Halifax, to be precise) and he spent the majority of his formative years in Yorkshire and Suffolk. However, the multi-million-selling singer-songwriter’s paternal grandparents were both from the Emerald Isle, which ensures his eligibility for inclusion among Ireland’s finest musicians.

Sheeran has never attempted to downplay his Irish roots. He openly declared, “My Irish heritage is something of which I’ve always been proud,” prior to a high-profile show for the London Irish Centre Charity in 2018, and his sold-out Irish tour from the same year – during which Sheeran performed three rapturously-received shows in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and then repeated same feat at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh – has already become the stuff of legend.

Must hear
: Shape Of You

6: Enya

Donegal native Enya Patricia Brennan initially found fame as part of the internationally successful Celtic folk act Clannad, before branching out as a solo artist in 1982. Her early projects included soundtrack work for The Frog Prince and the BBC documentary series The Celts, the latter of which was also released as her self-titled debut album in 1987. She established herself on the international stage with 1988’s Watermark (featuring her signature smash hit, Orinoco Flow), and followed that up with subsequent multi-million-selling albums, including Shepherd Moons, The Memory Of Trees and 2000’s A Day Without Rain. Having sold 75 million albums to date, Enya ranks as Ireland’s biggest-selling solo artist, and the country’s second-best-selling musical artist of all time, after U2.

Must hear: Orinoco Flow

5: U2

Along with Guinness, U2 are one of Ireland’s biggest exports, but they’ve more than earned their privileged status. Starting out as earnest punk wannabes in 1976, Bono and company initially built their reputation with idealistic, critically-acclaimed albums such as Boy, War and The Unforgettable Fire, before they went supernova with 1987’s multi-million-selling The Joshua Tree. To their eternal credit, they’ve remained at rock’s top table ever since, reinventing themselves with forward-thinking albums such as Achtung Baby and No Line On The Horizon, and continually displaying the world-beating qualities which show exactly why they’re a mandatory inclusion in any list of the best Irish musicians.

Must hear: With Or Without You

4: Christy Moore

Ireland’s folk tradition is especially rich, and has produced innumerable internationally renowned acts, including The Chieftains, Luke Kelly and The Dubliners. However, when it comes to bringing the country’s folk traditions up to date and introducing the music to a far broader audience, no one has done more for the cause than Ireland’s premier singer-songwriter, Christy Moore. The Kildare-born performer’s recording career began with 1969’s Paddy On The Road album, and his remarkable body of work includes influential records with Irish folk acts Planxty and Moving Hearts, as well as critically acclaimed titles such as Ride On, Smoke & Strong Whiskey and Graffiti Tongue. Famous for his intense live performances, Moore was voted Ireland’s Greatest Living Musician at RTÉ’s People Of The Year Awards in 2007, thought his reputation as one of the country’s greatest musicians had been set in stone long before that.

Must hear: Ride On

3: The Pogues

The Pogues are technically Anglo-Irish because only their estimable frontman, Shane MacGowan, has deep-rooted family ties with Ireland. Though born in Kent, he spent much of his early childhood in County Tipperary, where his family made their home. However, the group regularly toured in Ireland and built up a huge following there during their heyday, and their unique fusion of rebellious, punk-infused Celtic folk significantly raised Irish culture’s profile on the world stage. You could also argue The Pogues deserve their place here simply for their ubiquitous Christmas classic, Fairytale Of New York, featuring Kirsty MacColl, but all their albums from Red Roses For Me to Hell’s Ditch are required listening, and even their underrated, post-MacGowan titles, Waiting For Herb and Pogue Mahone are well worth investigating.

Must hear: If I Should Fall From Grace With God

2: Rory Gallagher

A self-taught guitar virtuoso and a consummate live performer, Rory Gallagher was arguably Ireland’s first true rock superstar. Initially rising to prominence with his power trio, Taste, during the late 60s, he went on to fashion a remarkable solo career, with barely a dip in quality detectable on any of the albums he released, from his sparkling 1971 solo debut through to his 1990 swansong, Fresh Evidence.

Synonymous with authenticity and renowned for his undying love of the blues, this trailblazing Cork man has been enthusiastically cited as an influence by legendary guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Johnny Marr, Brian May and Slash. Tragically, Gallagher died aged just 47, in 1995, but regular posthumous releases, annual tribute concerts, streets named in his honour at home and abroad, and Fender marketing a tribute model of his famously battered, paint-stripped Stratocaster have all ensured his reputation continues to grow.

Must hear: A Million Miles Away

1: Van Morrison

Remarkably, Van Morrison is now in the sixth decade of his storied career, yet he shows little sign of slowing down. Initially making his name with tough R&B outfit Them, the Belfast bard kicked off his solo career in 1967 with the classic US Top 10 hit Brown-Eyed Girl, and hit an early peak with the illustrious Astral Weeks albums, which remains a critic’s choice to this day. Seminal 70s titles, including Moondance, Tupelo Honey, Hard Nose The Highway and Into The Music, established his credentials as a singular purveyor of Celtic soul, but estimable recent releases such as Roll With The Punches and 2019’s Three Chords And The Truth have served to earn Van Morrison his place at the top of out list of the best Irish musicians.

Must hear: Into The Mystic

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