The Great Irish Songbook

Music is a marvellously subtle, diverse and powerful global language – and the good news is that it is one at which Ireland excels.

That statement is not lightly made. Right across the world, Ireland is renowned as a country where music enjoys a special place, at the very heart of the cultural life of the nation. The exceptional creative work of Irish musicians is widely acclaimed. And rightly so.

One of the best ways of grasping the remarkable depth of this artistic phenomenon is to spend a bit of quality time, exploring the unique treasures of the Great Irish Songbook .

And so it is our pleasure to welcome you to this specially curated online exhibition, which we hope will itself offer a memorable expression of Ireland's ambitious theme at Expo 2020 Dubai: 'Island of Inspiration’.

In the Great Irish Songbook, we set out to explore the stories behind circa 60 unique and wonderfully compelling songs that are – in all sorts of different ways – products of Ireland’s increasingly diverse musical genius.

Each one of these creative works demonstrates, in its own language, style and idiom, the distinctive, rich and compelling culture of song that is to be found, both in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora – now numbering 70million people, spread across the world.

As visitors to this exhibition will see, the selected songs have all been played, sung and heard far and wide. Many of them have been No.1 hits. They have been listened to and loved by millions. They have achieved creative and cultural as well as commercial success – in the process becoming part of the great canon of contemporary international songwriting.

They are an expression of who – and what – we are. And of what we, as a country, and as a people, aspire to achieving together.

So join us, in this 'Island of Inspiration'.

In Ireland: land of song...

Niall Stokes, Editor and Hot Press Curator

Niall Stokes, Editor and Hot Press Curator

Unveiling the Great Irish Songbook

Expo 2020. A major global showcase. A blank canvas. A serious challenge, made all the more complicated by the global pandemic. It was against this backdrop that the idea for an exhibition based around the Great Irish Songbook started to take shape. 

For the Irish team, the first step in preparing for Expo was to decide what could be be said and how. But this much was clear at the outset: to make it stand out, the Irish presence would have to be unique, powerful and persuasive.

In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll

From traditional folk ballads until the early years of the Eurovision song contest, these are songs that have echoed through the years, with indelible melodies and words that still speak to many aspects of the Irish character

Years of the Pioneers

1960s and 1970s

As rock ‘n’ roll birthed an explosion of the youth culture in the UK and the USA, so too did Irish musicians plug guitars into amplifiers and take their songs to the world

All The World's Our Stage

The 1980s

The diverse palette of the 1980s saw Irish musicians enchant the world with music that ranged from the mysterious beauty of Enya and Clannad to the wild release of The Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and the barroom poetry of the Pogues

They Came From All Corners

The 1990s

From the teenage lust of Ash’s ‘Oh Yeah’ to the manic energy of Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’, the 1990s saw a revival of guitar bands, led of course by the peerless U2

Into A New Millennium

From 2000

A new millennium saw a new generation of Irish voices achieve success on the international stage with songs like ‘Take Me To Church’, ‘You Raise Me Up’ and ‘Falling Slowly’ reaching every corner of the globe

It’s The Irish In Me 

Music from the Irish diaspora

With an estimated 70 million people around the world descended from Irish heritage, it’s no surprise that the musical contribution of the Irish diaspora has played such an important role in world culture

From an original idea, 'Ireland: Land of Song', created by
Niall Stokes

Written, curated and edited by
Niall Stokes

Editorial contributions from
Kate Brayden, Pat Carty, Stuart Clark, Jackie Hayden, Peter McNally, Paul Nolan, Lucy O'Toole and Aoife Stuart Madge

Additional research by
Lina Ruecker, Miguel Ruiz and Duan Stokes

Produced in association with Gary Sheehan, for the National Concert Hall