Best Irish Musicians: Icons From The Emerald Isle
From Rory Gallagher to U2, Thin Lizzy to The Cranberries, the best Irish musicians have made a unique mark on music history.
A small but eminently big-hearted country right on the westernmost edge of Europe, Ireland has a turbulent history and has lived through its fair share of tragedy. Yet, by nature, the Irish are a proud and resilient people, and their passion for life goes hand in hand with their love of timeless songs. It’s no surprise, then, that the best Irish musicians often lead the field where contemporary music is concerned.
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, uDiscover Music lifts a glass and toasts the best Irish musicians known to rock.
Not just one of the best Irish musicians to have walked the planet, Rory Gallagher remains one of the most influential guitarists known to rock. Originally the frontman with pioneering late 60s power trio Taste, Gallagher later launched a sparkling solo career spanning the cusp of the 70s to his death in 1995. The fiery Cork man’s immaculate canon was reissued in 2018, giving us an ideal opportunity to revisit everything from his landmark early albums (Rory Gallagher, Deuce and the storming Irish Tour ’74) through to 1990’s magnificent, bluesy Fresh Evidence.
Led by the legendary Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy rank among hard rock’s all-time greats. The Dublin band grafted relentlessly from the turn of the 70s on, but established their international reputation during a remarkable 18-month burst of creativity across 1976-77, which spawned classic albums Jailbreak, Johnny The Fox, and Bad Reputation. They followed up with two further essentials, Live & Dangerous and 1979’s Black Rose, both of which have all the Lizzy hallmarks: muscle, flash, poetry, and bags of charisma.
Though the world is still trying to process the tragic death of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, most music fans would admit that, with her Limerick-based band The Cranberries, she bequeathed an embarrassment of riches. Containing evergreen hits such as “Linger,” “Zombie,” “Salvation” and “Ode To My Family,” their legend-enshrining titles are their multi-platinum 90s triumvirate Everybody’s Doing It, So Why Don’t We?, No Need To Argue, and To The Faithful Departed.
Van Morrison’s restless muse has led the Belfast bard to assembling a behemoth of a back catalogue that comfortably places him among not only the best Irish musicians, but the best musicians in the world. Beginning in 1967 with the classic US Top 10 hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and hitting an early peak with the following year’s much-lauded Astral Weeks, his solo career has spanned five decades. While many of his most feted albums (Moondance, Tupelo Honey, Veedon Fleece) date back to the early 70s, his two 2017 studio albums, Roll With The Punches and Versatile, have again met with considerable critical acclaim.
Also easily standing among the best musicians in the world, superstar Dublin quartet U2 began as earnest punk wannabes in 1976. Their precocious early titles, such as Boy and War, brought them to the verge of mass success, but 1987’s multi-million-selling The Joshua Tree turned them into household names. Their thirst for reinvention brought another career high courtesy of 1991’s Achtung Baby, and subsequent albums, including the recently-released Songs Of Experience, have ensured that U2 continue to rank among the most successful rock bands of all time.
Originally making her name through feisty, rockabilly-flavored albums such as Love Tattoo, Mayhem, and Tribal (all of which topped the Irish charts), Dublin singer-songwriter Imelda May is one of the best Irish musicians to have emerged in recent years. She pulled off a radical change of direction when she hooked up with Elvis Costello acolyte T-Bone Burnett to create the Americana-flavored Life Love Flesh Blood – and pick up a well-deserved silver disc in the process.
She’s courted controversy, strongly expressed her opinions on everything from organized religion to women’s rights, and even been ordained a priest, yet Sinead O’Connor has also built up one of contemporary Irish music’s most singular catalogues. Originally staking her claim with 1988’s gold-selling The Lion And The Cobra, she went supernova when her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was nominated for four Grammy Awards on the back of her sublime cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Her 2014 album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, again topped the Irish album chart.
This Belfast-born guitar virtuoso spent time working with stellar artists ranging from Thin Lizzy to Colosseum II and Greg Lake, but he also amassed an enviable solo career which included 1978’s Back On The Streets (featuring his signature, Phil Lynott-assisted solo hit “Parisienne Walkways”) and 1990’s Still Got The Blues, which included contributions from George Harrison and Albert King. Moore passed away in 2011, but his praises have been sung by stars as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard’s Viv Campbell, and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.
Stiff Little Fingers
Enduring Belfast outfit Stiff Little Fingers released one of punk’s touchstone albums courtesy of 1979’s aptly-titled Inflammable Material. Released by fast-rising indie Rough Trade, it became the first independently released album to chart inside the UK Top 20 and it led to a deal with Chrysalis, the results of which were 1980’s excellent Nobody’s Heroes and ’81’s underrated Go For It. SLF split temporarily during the mid-80s, but their second spell has resulted in several of their best albums, including 2014’s No Going Back.
The Saw Doctors
Hailing from Tuam, County Galway, The Saw Doctors formed in 1987 and initially built their following by gigging hard and playing support to acts such as The Waterboys and The Hothouse Flowers. Their 1991 debut, If This Is Rock And Roll, I Want My Old Job Back, topped the Irish charts for nine consecutive weeks and included two evergreen hits, “N17” and “I Useta Lover Her” – the latter still holding the record as Ireland’s all-time biggest-selling single. Officially taking their place among the best Irish musicians when they were presented the Lifetime Achievement Award at Ireland’s Meteor Music Awards in 2008, The Saw Doctors remain one of the country’s most popular live acts.
Tir na nÓg
Much-underrated Carlow/Dublin folk-rock duo Tir na nÓg consist of Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell. Formed around the turn of the 1970s, they recorded three immaculate albums for Chrysalis, their self-titled debut (1971), Tear And A Smile (1972), and 1973’s Strong In The Sun. Arguably their best, the latter title was produced by Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher and included “Free Ride,” the duo’s inimitable cover of “Ride” from Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Tir na nÓg are still a popular live draw and released a fine reunion album, The Dark Dance, in 2015.
Looking for more? Discover the best Irish songs of all time.
March 17, 2018 at 12:11 pm
Paul McCartney and John Lennon are both Irish, and should be at the top of any list such as this.
March 17, 2018 at 10:42 pm
Um, Liverpool is not in Ireland, and that’s where both of them grew up.
March 22, 2021 at 9:45 am
Phil Lynott was English!
March 17, 2018 at 1:14 pm
Therapy? Bigger and better than SLF
March 17, 2018 at 1:30 pm
This list needs to include The Frames, amazing musicians, amazing catalog of songs, dynamic front man in. Glen Hanslic.
March 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm
March 17, 2018 at 3:55 pm
No Ruby Murray? She had success that Michael Jackson and Madonna combined couldn’t touch.Therapy, Ash, James Galway…..this list is what happens when someone with no clue Google’s Irish musicians and cherry picks the same old handful. Eric Bell was better than Moore, unfortunately not as hungry for the fame so he’s forgotten.
March 18, 2018 at 1:52 am
March 18, 2018 at 2:15 am
James Vincent McMorrow should be #1-5 on this list
March 18, 2018 at 2:50 am
Wow, noone in this house knows Joe Cocker?! Well let me tell you there was a music fair in 1969, maybe you’ve heard of it? It was a Joe Cocker cncert that a bunch of great bands games to jam. It was called Woodstock. Nuff said amigos.
March 23, 2018 at 6:19 pm
Joe Cocker was born in Sheffield England. The article is the greatest Irish musicians.
March 23, 2018 at 6:22 pm
Joe Cocker was born in Sheffield England. He was English . The article is the greatest Irish musicians.
March 18, 2018 at 4:38 am
I’m sure they are all good on those list and others who are not on it. It seems to be about Rock/Pop so I wouldn’t expect a hammer dulcimer and Irish harp band.Unless they could somehow plug in.Rory gets overlooked in America because he was so low key and not on the business ride that tears people up. Sad ending for a great player.
March 18, 2018 at 10:26 am
How about The Undertones?
March 18, 2018 at 5:53 pm
March 18, 2018 at 5:53 pm
Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room – U2? Best Musicians? Really? And no room for The Chieftains?
March 18, 2018 at 8:16 pm
So no Undertones?
Who made this up?….
Many of the artists mentioned are British….
March 18, 2018 at 8:45 pm
No mention of Jim Armstrong who played originally with Van Morrison.
One of the greatest guitarists to come out of Ireland.
He now lives in LA and has his own band
March 18, 2018 at 10:11 pm
Hey guys all greats in there own right but where are
The three McManus brothers were I a class of there own
March 19, 2018 at 8:31 pm
March 20, 2018 at 4:21 am
How about the Corrs?
March 17, 2019 at 12:46 pm
Not a great list w/o them!
March 20, 2019 at 3:36 pm
I still play their classic albums from the 70’s.Saw them in Toronto a few times. Great memories.
October 12, 2018 at 2:06 am
Really, no Waterboys?
July 19, 2020 at 11:20 pm
The Radiators from Space
In Tua Nua
Undertones…really “teenage kicks”…John Peel said he had tears the first time he heard it…(urban legend?)
Fit Kilkenny and the Remoulds (just kidding)…a member lived on my street growing up
The Hothouse Flowers
The blades (great horn section)
Irish heritage (parentage) Elvis Costello, John Lennon, Paul McCartney,
March 22, 2021 at 9:49 am
Bernie Torme? Gillan wouldn’t have been as big, Ozzy said he wouldn’t have carried on if it wasn’t for him and he died on St Patrick’s day can ya be more Irish?!