Irish flutes are a puzzle in themselves. There are those who will argue that there is no such instrument and others who talk of the flute being introduced to Ireland only in the early part of the 19th. Century and yet more who will say that the instrument was around in medieval times. Certainly any introduction of the seriously made instrument, as opposed to the home made Elder (or bourtry as it is known in Ireland) instruments, would have come from continental Europe and the Irish were as likely as any to have taken the old pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, Rome or Jerusalem and being a canny race would have been sure to have brought back anything which would enrich their musical tradition. The players who were the backbone of the rich tradition of Irish music came not, as in other countries, from the nobility or those supported by the nobility but from relatively poor farming backgrounds it is therefore also suggested that the flute only came to Irish music when cheaper mass produced instruments became available in the first half of the 19th. Century, one effect of which would also have been the appearance of instruments on the second hand market as opposed to them being coveted and kept by the upper classes. The most compelling argument for the introduction of what we know today as the Irish flute is the fact that Theodore Boehm introduced his revolutionary new system which was quickly taken up with the result that older simple system flutes were more and more readily available from junk and pawn shops.
Wherever it came from and at what period it arrived there is no mistaking the Irish flute today. It is usually an instrument based on one of the 19th.century makers such as Rudall Rose sometimes with and sometimes without the keys. Many of those early flutes can be found with the keys removed and the holes blocked up and alongside them we can find examples of modern production with the keys and holes omitted, this gives a better chance for the maker to produce a bore which develops the rich, full tone required by the exponent of Irish music. I have a lot of family members in Ireland and remember well from childhood visits, the magic of the impromptu sessions, which could be found in so many pubs it was hardly necessary to ask directions but just to fall in the pub door and wait for it to happen round you. I had no idea then that I would be making a contribution to that culture and its spread around the globe.
One of the most often asked questions when I am exhibiting in France for example is "Avez vous les flutes Irlandaises?" A true testament to the increasing and spreading popularity of the Irish style of playing the flute. I find today an increasing demand from players who want to upgrade to a flute with keys, which is a bit of a turn around but all such things seem to go in cycles. Irish flute players use a variety of techniques including the use of grace notes to replace tonguing, rolls and crans and sliding from one note to the one above by drawing the finger off the hole. All of these techniques generate discussion about the desirability of having keys on an instrument for the increased repertoire, despite the extra effort to learn to ornament around the keys.
Flute-type instruments have the simplest construction and produce the purest and simplest tone.