Article MT323

The Echoes of Erin Database

Irish traditional Dance Music recorded on 78-rpm records

by Barry Taylor


The invention of the cylinder phonograph is widely recognised to have opened up a new era in cultural research.  However, it was the commercial development of disc players ('gramophones') and subsequent 78-rpm recordings that really facilitated the study of traditional Irish music recorded in the first half of the twentieth century.

Following extensive commercial recording of Irish-born or -descended musicians in the USA from around 1915, British record companies began to re-issue these recordings in Britain and Ireland during the 1920s.  Although sales figures are presently undocumented, the volume of sales was sufficient to persuade British recording companies to engage in extensive recording programmes of Irish-based musicians, in both Dublin and London.  Research carried out during the project established that over one thousand individual items or 'sides' of Irish dance music were recorded in the United Kingdom and Ireland between the mid-1920s and late 1950s.  These recordings represent a unique treasury of traditional material and provide an unparalleled insight into the output of musicians who were largely unaffected by the electronic media.  Unlike US recordings, the material includes musicians from most Irish counties and is often unaccompanied.  The recordings demonstrate examples of ensemble playing and include the first recordings of céilí bands.

The history of commercial sound recording is long and complex, as are the comings and goings of the companies that made up the industry.  Takeovers, mergers and extinctions have been commonplace, particularly in the USA.  However, the UK industry was not immune to such events, as the relationship between Parlophone, Columbia and The Gramophone Company (best known by its HMV label) illustrates.

Parlophone had been absorbed by Columbia in 1927, who, in turn, merged with The Gramophone Co in March 1931 to form the EMI Group.  Their respective budget labels were merged as Regal Zonophone in 1933.  EMI launched EMI Records (Ireland) Ltd in July 1936 and the database shows that the first recordings of Irish traditional music were made in their Dublin studios on April 24 1937.  According to the database, traditional dance music recordings were made on that historic day in 1937 by Leo Rowsome and Terry Lane, which were released on HMV.  On the same day, presumably in the same studio, recordings were made by Stella Seaver on accordion and piper Phillip Martin, which were subsequently released on Regal Zonophone.  It would be interesting to know the criteria that EMI Ireland used to decide whether recordings should be issued on its full-price HMV label or its Regal Zonophone budget label.  Sadly, this is one of the many puzzles in the history of the recording of Irish music that we will never know.

Although discographies are available for Irish material recorded in the USA, and are an invaluable research tool, there has previously been no similar published information available for the recordings made in Ireland and Britain.  In addition, there is no known published information available on the distribution and sales of either British/Irish or US recorded materials in either Britain or Ireland, and this precludes any accurate assessment on the extent of their influence.  With a few rare exceptions, performances by Irish traditional dance musicians recorded by commercial companies have rarely occurred in printed collections of traditional music.

It is generally thought that the availability of commercial recordings of Irish traditional dance musicians from the 1920s and 1930s played a major role in shaping styles and repertoire in Ireland from this time forward.  This is a topic that I will be exploring in more detail in a forthcoming article.

Echoes of Erin Database - This Edition

The major research on this database was carried out a number of years ago and would not have been possible without the assistance of a number of people.  Once the project started, I became more the compiler and editor, as contributions flooded in!  The right-hand column acknowledges the source of the information on specific items and, where possible, I have tried to indicate all contributors.  However, the same information has sometimes been received from more than one contributor and, in these cases, I have generally shown the first contributor as the main source of information.  Although I have not sought to interrogate the informants as to their sources, I know that, in some cases, information has been acquired from other discographies rather than direct from manufacturer's records, etc.  The multiple sources are useful in their own right, as they provide a valuable crosscheck (see database for contributors).

I should particularly like to acknowledge the contribution of Keith Chandler.  Not only was he a major contributor to the original work but has undertaken a recent major revision to bring the information up to date.

You are welcome to copy or download this database, although it remains copyright and should not be published either in full or in part without the prior permission of the author (Barry Taylor).

Your comments, additions, deletions and disagreements are welcome and should be sent to: Barry Taylor -

Note: This database is published in Microsoft Excel.  It can be accessed here.

Article MT323

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