There are few countries in the world in which you can land, take a few steps off your aeroplane, and be almost entirely certain that music will greet you headfirst — but Ireland is one of them. The Emerald Isle has always had a song in its heart and while the folk traditions of their Celtic ancestry can still be heard today, the real joy is knowing that the musical landscape of Ireland is continuing to evolve. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t revel in a few classics too.
To encapsulate the bubbling crucible of the Irish music scene, and in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we’ve picked out ten of our favourite acts from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as a reminder of the searing talent that resides in the country. Expect to see some familiar faces and perhaps be introduced to a few too.
Long gone are the days were Irish music was predetermined as a man playing his folksy tunes to a pub half full of people barely listening, all the while wearing a jumper that looks so thick that the sheep wants it back. Now, the music scene both in Dublin, Belfast and outside of the cities, is chugging away to a new set of creators. A group that refuses to be confined to tradition.
The new crop of Irish talent is certainly exciting, but while the refusal to be harnessed is an intriguing proposition. The island is also rich with esteemed classical talent too. So for every innovator and new content creator, there is a classic rock poet ready to spill their guts. It makes for one of the most balanced music scenes in the world.
Below, we’re picking out ten of our favourite Irish bands and artists of all time.
10 best Irish bands of all time:
If your only connection with The Pogues is their Christmas hit ‘Fairytale of New York’, then you have a lot of catching up to do. Led by one of his generation’s most sincere rock poets, Shane MacGowan, the band is famed for seamlessly blending traditional Irish instruments and themes with a folk-rock sound.
A prolific songwriter, MacGowan found his feet during the incendiary moments of the punk scene in London. Knowing he was destined to be a frontman, he soon took his Irish roots to the spotlight and began singing standards and classics backed by The Pogues.
The band can be seen as one of the most easily recognisable ‘Irish’ bands on our list, and that’s down to their ability to purvey poetic themes and poignant context through a traditional rock-adjacent sound.
Formed in Limerick in 1989, Niall Quinn was the man with the mic when the group got together. However, The Cranberries wouldn’t really kick on until the late, great Dolores O’Riordan took over the vocal duties. And boy, did she take over.
O’Riordan was one of the most gifted singers of her generation. The band’s post-punk influences are belied by O’Riordan’s searing vocal performances, which provided an angelic and ethereal tone to their often gritty and gripping songs.
Naturally, the first places to look to confirm their greatness are the seminal songs ‘Zombie’ and ‘Linger’, which, when heard in 2021, still have the potential to render the listener mute and utterly captivated.
When a band sells over 170 million records worldwide, you have to pay them the respect they deserve. Though U2, fronted by Bono and backed by The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, may often get stick for their rock-pop sound, the truth is they were and still are one of the most widely and consistently adored bands of all time.
Formed in 1976, the group’s seminal album Joshua Tree from 1987 set the group on a path to the top, and they have never really looked back since. Buoyed by Bono’s impressive vocals and robustly supported by The Edge’s licks, the band have cultivated a fervent and loyal fan base.
Love them or loathe them, you can’t deny the huge reach of U2.
Phil Lynott was the first black Irishman to reach the pinnacle of significant musical success, even if it was for a brief time. He started his dream team, Thin Lizzy, in late 1969 with his childhood friend and the band’s official drummer Brian Downey.
The rest of the members were shuffled continuously throughout the course of their journey. A bassist, lead vocalist and songwriter, Lynott was the guiding light of the band who succeeded in producing sell-out classics such as ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, ‘Jailbreak’, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ and so on.
Lynott has since become an icon of Irish music, he and Thin Lizzy deserve their place on this list and in history.
Ireland is beginning to be recognised as the continual creative crucible it most certainly is. While we could fill this list with countless classic artists, it seems fitting that we also pay attention to the new breed. In honesty, there is no band more exciting in rock ‘n’ roll than Fontaines D.C.
The band took the top spot of Far Out’s Top 50 albums of 2020 with their enigmatic A Hero’s Death, and their continued output is always visceral and voracious listening. The kind of music that makes your heart beat, your soul skip and your mind crackle. With a Grammy nomination in the bag, the post-punk outfit look set to dominate for years to come.
There’s no doubt that the quintet will not be a flash in the pan; the group will be dominating lists just like this for years.
The Murder Capital
One band that have seemingly grabbed the idea of touring and taken it to a new riotous level is The Murder Capital. A post-punk group that isn’t afraid to crank it up a notch, the band are rightly being touted as one f the best live acts around — even if that is a distant memory right now.
It’s easy to draw comparisons to Joy Division thanks, in no small part, to frontman James McGovern’s moody intensity. But, in fact, the group are far more original and look set to, alongside Fontaines D.C., turn Dublin into one of the most potent rock cities in the world.
Catch a live show as soon as you can and realise just how powerful The Murder Capital really are.
Another reminder of the searing rock talent that seems to permeate the island, Girl Band are another act that is simply bristling with talent. Not concerned with topping the charts or even being that well-liked, the group instead make music for the purest of reasons — to please themselves and expel their expressions.
The band’s previous two albums, Holding Hands and The Talkies, showcase a band that is determined to create its own path in music. There are obviously post-punk undertones to be heard in their work, but, in truth, they sound far more crafted and cultivated than that.
There’s a sense that both folk concepts and honest emotional expressions underwrite everything the band does.
Van Morrison may have become an unwelcomed Uncle at the rock party of late. The singer and songwriter declared himself an anti-vaxxer over recent months and has only worked to isolate himself from a new generation of potential fans. It’s a shame considering how timeless the singer’s work is.
The Northern Irish performer has rightly found acclaim for his smoother than smooth vocal performances and searing off-stage wit either with Them or out on his own. It was enough, alongside songs like ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Gloria’, to confirm him as one of the island’s greatest talents.
While we’re not sure if Van is still the Man, it’s hard to discredit his incredible back catalogue.
One of the most interesting talent in the current Irish music scene, Rewjjie Snow has gathered up fans quicker than many could count. After his 2019 debut Dear Annie found critical acclaim, Snow’s prog-pop hip-hop sound has seen him be regarded as the future of Irish music.
Working alongside acts like the late, great MF DOOM, Snow’s credentials are only growing with every passing release. As we wait for the latest LP we can all be safe in the knowledge that it will be unlike anything we’ve ever heard before.
Simply put, dismiss and forget Rejjie Snow and you’ll be turning your back on the future.
There is no archetypal Irish group quite like The Dubliners. The folk band made their name as one of the most well-loved artists of the 20th century. Though going under the radar of most rock fans, the group actually enjoyed a huge spell of attention during their heyday.
As well as appearing on Top of the Pops and also helping out fellow list entrants The Pogues on a few occasions, the group also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and are widely credited with the popularisation of Irish folk music.
For that reason alone, they deserve a spot on our list.