Irish instrument of the week

Meez playing whistle at Flannery's pub in AthloneThis week’s Irish instrument is the whistle.

Called the “Irish whistle,” “tin whistle,” “penny whistle,” or, as gaeilge, feadog, these whistles are present at most Irish traditional sessions, tripping lightly through melodies or crying through a haunting air.

These whistles are no longer made from tin, which contains a dangerous lead element. They are most commonly plastic. Occasionally they can be wooden or aluminium, but often will still have a plastic mouthpiece.

The whistles come in varying sizes for different keys. Accomplished whistle players will bring at least a few along with them to a session – enough to cover the most common keys.

Irish tin whistlesPossibly because they’re cheap and portable, whistles are quite common and many Irish people will have learned to play one at least rudimentarily as a child in school.

Personally, I had always discounted the Irish whistle as a superfluous instrument prior to visiting Ireland. I have since heard some incredible, mournful bits of music played on them that could bring you to tears. I have also seen what a lively effect they can have in a roaring session. Small, but pleasantly powerful in tone the Irish whistle is a lovely addition to a session.

Here’s a sample of the whistle tune The Lonesome Boatman from a half-drunken evening in Flannery’s. That would be Meez on the whistle there playing an arrangement she and I came up with, hopefully she won’t kill me for posting this one.