Word association time.
Emerald Isles, enchanting culture, craggy cliffs, and bucolic pastureland.
Raucous trad music, an expansive literary tradition, and amicable, untamed hedonists.
Whatever it is you conjure up, one thing’s beyond doubt: few countries provoke as many associations as Ireland.
For such a small country, it has a formidable cultural, historical, and social impact, and Ireland’s most celebrated artists and musicians have a tangible currency the world over.
Examining the best singers in the Irish pantheon is no easy feat – it’s downright Sisyphean.
Whether performing solo, collaborating with instrumentalists who are masters in their own right, or oscillating between the two, the best Irish singers are unflinchingly raw, earnest, and sardonic.
With their generosity, verve for life, and humor in the face of tragedy, they serve to elevate and expand our own spirits.
1. Van Morrison
Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison remains something of a poetic, introspective folk-rock prophet for bohemian apologists and classic rock purists alike.
His early-sixties turn with swinging, Americana-infused Them served as the testing ground for his quietly self-assured, erudite brand of folksy rock.
His 1968 solo debut Astral Weeks is revelatory, packed with a rich tradition of literary craftsmanship, lucid compositions, and a palette of luminous melodies.
Van Morrison’s tunes are more akin to tales, expansive and nourishing journeys that transcend the mundane and suggest the magical.
2. Rory Gallagher
From the first notes of the swaggering, sensual, electric “Bad Penny” or the Delta-inflected “A Million Miles Away,” or the spirited, raucous “Philby,” we know we are in devious, unadulterated good (bad?) hands.
Emancipated from all constraints, Gallagher marries unvarnished, blues-tinged vocals that can ascend and descend in turn with his self-possessed guitar.
Indeed, Gallagher was the best-known Irish name in hard rock during the seventies and he embodied the effortless flair, gregarious showmanship, and unruly charm of the genre.
His health problems plagued him and reduced his output into the eighties, but his canon, packed with zinging rips and cluttered guitars, is ripe and ready for a revisit and a re-emergence.
While Bono has become, in some circles, a trope for the bleeding-heart millionaire class, his unerring, visceral talent as a singer has never been called into question.
Bono dominated the rock of the eighties and nineties with grown-up, intensely thoughtful compositions that challenge, confront, and reimagine the political-creative divide.
Recondite and painfully lush, U2’s songs touch on themes of loss, desire, and conflict with a stirring pathos and transcendental hopefulness.
“One,” “Bad,” “With or Without You,” and “New Year’s Day” are sumptuous, piercing points of entry to Bono’s tightly composed, restrained power.
4. Sinéad O’Connor
No stranger to controversy and the unorthodox, Sinéad was branded a pariah in the early nineties for speaking out against the abuses of the Catholic Church.
Ultimately, Sinéad has been treated to a well-deserved re-evaluation as of late, and her unconventional, eclectic, anticlerical individuality has served as an emblem of truth in the face of power.
The haunting vocals and mesmerizing profundity of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the jaunty, sly lyrical witticisms of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” showcase her intriguing topical range.
Her vocals are wonder-tinged and possess a disarming verite, a kind of unblinking authenticity that can’t be bottled and sold.
5. Dolores O’Riordan
Prior to her untimely death, Dolores was the Queen mother of Irish music and her turn with The Cranberries has made them one of Ireland’s most famous exports, and one the most well-loved rock quartets of the nineties.
O’Riordan’s experimental sincerity and pensive, spellbinding earnestness contributed to the complexity and wilfulness that animates songs like “Zombie,” “Linger,” and “Dreams.”
She also released two solo albums, proof positive of her commitment to the craft.
The emotive, uncluttered beauty and dynamism of her voice lent The Cranberries’ songs an uncommonly affecting, touching cadence and inspired many a late-night sob-sesh.
6. Shane McGowan
Celebrated as the gravelly-voiced lead of preeminent Irish rock band The Pogues, McGowan’s arresting, disarming vocals lent a soaring, wrenching vigor to the band’s darkly romantic, elusive fare.
“Dirty Old Town” and “Tuesday Morning” are like emotive gut punches, and will have you waxing nostalgic for your own misspent youth and sepia-tinged memories.
McGowan’s surly nonconformity and streetwise cheek served him well during his rollicking solo career as well, and his own battles with addiction lent a cogent, compassionate dimension to his sly musings.
7. Christy Moore
The self-effacing, sardonic, working-class hero Christy Moore is fiercely protective of his unpretentious brand as a champion and voice of the common people.
He brought a courageous, unvarnished realism to his lyrics, which broached uncomfortable topics like labor rights, wealth inequality, and the daily injustices of twentieth-century British-Irish power struggles.
With his patent charm and vigor, he also touched on the joyful side of life, extolling the small marvels of the workaday world and rhapsodizing on the glee to be found in community, culture, and the local pub.
You won’t be around an Irish crew for long without hearing the timeless bars of his anthemic “Ordinary Man.”
8. Phil Lynott
Phil Lynott was the charismatic, audacious firebrand founder of hard rock heavyweights Thin Lizzy, a band that shook up the North American and British-dominated seventies establishment.
Thin Lizzy wrote some of our most beloved, raunchy classic rock gems like “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak” and the radical modern update of the classic Irish ditty “Whiskey in the Jar.”
His captivating lyrics are full of charming exploits, working-class lore, and Celtic mythology, and his signature pick-heavy bass style inspired a legion of onlookers to eschew the guitar.
Lynott always retained a degree of mystery and despite his mainstream popularity and cheeky stagemanship, his true persona and personal demons were often shrouded beneath the fame and glitter.
9. Bob Geldof
Bob Geldof was a singular figure in the eighties rock canon for his socially conscious, activist philosophy and his turn with The Boomtown Rats allowed him to carve out a safe space for the misunderstood and the culturally homeless.
Their painfully relatable 1979 chart-topper “I Don’t Like Mondays” introduced a broader public to Geldof’s generous, luminous vocals.
He could be a sly provocateur and a countercultural renegade, and he starred in the legendary cult Pink Floyd film, The Wall.
No stranger to controversy, his punk-rock, ruffian roots have stood the test of time and made him a polarizing figure in his native country.
10. Luke Kelly
The laureate of the Irish folk movement, The Dubliners under Kelly’s leadership created a raft of quintessential, charming, rousing pub songs that will have any patriot’s blood running hot.
If you’ve spent any amount of time at an Irish bar you’ll know their anthemic, contagious sing-along classics like “The Wild Rover” and “Rocky Road to Dublin.”
In keeping with his man of the people brand he was a staunch advocate of labor activism and working-class rights and he spoke to his constituents in unfussy, unfeigned musical language.
11. Dermot Kennedy
The most internationally acclaimed Irish singer performing today, the mainstream has been infatuated with him since he broke through with his focused, tightly constructed debut.
His soft rock sound makes for eminently palatable, redemptive listening and his confessional lyrics are candid, sincere, and weaved with a satisfying dose of pathos.
Preternaturally talented, his own trajectory is the material of legends and he began his career busking on the streets of Dublin.
He brings an erudite maturity and organic folksiness to intricately-crafted songs, like “Power Over Me” and “Giants.”
12. Gary Moore
Northern Irish Gary Moore may not be a household name, but he charted some diverse terrain during his storied career – dabbling in blues, heavy metal, hard rock, and jazz fusion.
He frequently collaborated with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame, with whom he established the blues rock act Skid Row (not to be confused with the hair metal band of the same name.)
His charismatic, deeply satisfying 1990 album Still Got the Blues, became his magnum opus, and solidified his reputation as Ireland’s most accomplished, pioneering bluesman.
If you want to see an unfettered, reflexive master at work, get your hands on his live recordings.
The ethereal forest nymph to end them all, Enya was fairycore before it became a Gen Z subculture and her compellingly earthy, bewitchingly pagan fare struck a chord none of us knew we needed, well, struck.
Curiously enough, Enya is the highest-selling artist in Irish history, and true to the brand, lives in a mystical castle by herself.
Her nature-worship themes and trance-like compositions have infiltrated our collective consciousness, from health food stores to cozy fair trade cafes to yoga studios to late-night study hours.
Enya is, ultimately, inimitable and few have even bothered to try to reach her lofty Celtic New Wave heights.
14. Siobhan Fahey
Fahey, of Bananarama and Shakespears Sister fame, was a power player of the eighties girl band wave, but her own vivacious, energetic talents were often eclipsed by the big soloists like Madonnas or Joan Jetts.
She got her musical education in the burgeoning British punk scene of the seventies, but her light contralto vocal range was always better suited to the infectious, dynamic pop and adult easy listening to she dedicated her career.
Give “Cruel Summer,” “Venus,” and “Stay” a listen for her infectious vocals and vampy complexity.
15. Gilbert O’Sullivan
The tunes of Waterford native Gil O’Sullivan still create quite a stir and is not the kind of music you take sitting down.
His melodies are maddeningly catchy and his orchestral flourishes and complex instrumentals provide a satisfying bedrock for his soft rock compositions.
If you like your beats with a side of that famous Irish cheek and wit, then O’Sullivan will give you your Oscar Wilde fix with his intelligent, sly wordsmithing.
“Alone Again (Naturally) and “Clair” are uplifting, optimistic beauties that tickle the senses, conjure up fragments and recollections, and allow the spirit to transcend its boundaries.
16. Imelda May
In addition to collaborating with names like Jeff Beck and Bono and being compared to an Irish Billie Holiday, eclectic, boho-rocker Imelda May has managed to sustain a critical buzz since she emerged in the early noughties.
She is the reigning prophet of the rockabilly revival and has singlehandedly reenergized a genre once neglected by all but the most intrepid indie kids.
She has six invigorating, convivial albums to her name, of which we would recommend the ambitious, visionary Love Tattoo first.
17. Danny O’Donoghue
Radio-friendly pop group The Script are no one trick ponies, and they blend their heartening, candid themes with inspired instrumentals and symphonic flourishes.
Danny O’Donoghue’s soulful, impactful vocals have an ethereal, musing quality and capture a certain proclivity towards topics both tender and complicated.
With international radio gems like “Breakeven,” “Hall of Fame” and “For the First Time” The Script became the poster children (and likeable darlings) of modern Irish soft rock and garnered them a spot on easy listening and pep talk playlists the world over.
18. Niall Horan
Don’t roll your eyes at the mention of them, but Horan got his fortuitous start with the dizzyingly profitable, mystifyingly popular One Direction, and for that he is often overlooked and misrepresented.
But his solo work should lay all the detractors to rest for it serves as the venue for his formidable, effectively harnessed vocal range and mature, humble approach to pop-rock.
His 2017 album Flicker and 2020’s Heartbreak Weather showcase his rarefied, well-honed vocal chops and his minimalist, humble silhouette.
19. James Vincent McMorrow
McMorrow is like the United Nations of genres, bringing together contrasting sounds and genres and reimagining them anew.
He renders folk electric, and rock soulful, and he muddies tidy labeling, preferring to challenge his listeners with the daring and well-considered.
McMorrow has endeared himself to musicians in diverse fields thirsty for a collab with a refreshing, unsullied talent.
His 2010 debut Early In The Morning is plush, buoyant fare for a well-appointed dinner or a two-hour bath.
Hozier, of “Take Me to Church” fame, did not succumb to the sophomore slump, and his output since his staggering debut has been consistently charged with a raw, uncompromising profundity.
His second album Wasteland, Baby! allowed him to hone and perfect his pop-soul sound and ascend to the soaring heights that he nailed so formidably with his breakout anthem.
He has remained in the shadows, fostering an indie appeal and cultivating an image as an intellectual, academic voice speaking out against organized religion and the status quo.
21. Mary Black
An Irish folk legend who inspires the kind of blind fan worship that a Dolly or a Shania might evoke on our side of the pond, Mary Black harnessed the rich heritage of the Irish and Celtic traditions and reworked the myths for modern ears.
Her serene, unblemished vocals pair with a moving feast of acoustic instruments, in addition to the fiddle, and the flute, creating a sense of spontaneous whimsy.
Black has been active since the mid-seventies and is one of the pioneers of the Irish folk Rennaisance.
Start with 1993’s The Holy Ground, an album that cinched her reputation as the best Irish female singer.
22. Andrea Corr
The charismatic, luminous lead of wildly famous Irish family band The Corrs, Andrea and Co. made waves with relatable, generous lyrics and congenial vocals.
The Corrs’ arrangements were ambitious, orchestral, and Celtic-infused and they infused pop with a heart, mind, and soul.
Further into their career, in the early noughties, they incorporated synthesizers and the emergent electronic sounds of the decade into a new fresh, dance-pop sound.
Her polished, mature solo album, 2007’s Ten Feet High is a veritable classic of modern Irish pop.
23. Maria Doyle Kennedy
Gaining traction as the lead of the folksy rock band, The Black Velvet Band, but she has never limited herself to one venue and is best known as an impressively prolific film and TV actress.
We wonder how many hours she has in a day, for she has also released nine solo albums during her career in addition to two live albums and two with her band.
Her vocal style and aesthetic ethos could be described as alternative folk, and she had been a proud champion of the creative industries, and women in music throughout her life in the public eye.
24. Ronnie Drew
Lauded as one of the godfathers of the Irish folk revival, Drew was one of the founders of the legendary trad band The Dubliners, along with fellow listmaker Luke Kelly.
He had a propulsive stage presence, an open-hearted, strident philosophy, and an inbred charm that many have tried to imitate.
He embodied the past, present, and future of Irish culture and he reinvigorated and breathed bold new life into the deep wellspring of mythology, history, and heritage of resistance.
25. Una Healey
Healy represented Ireland in the 2006 Eurovision song contest and has been a public figure and television presenter since The Saturdays disbanded in 2014.
Her 2017 solo debut The Waiting Game saw her moving toward a country-inflected, soft-listening sound and showcased her voice in a more natural setting.
Greatest & Most Famous Irish Singers – Final Thoughts
Ready to expand your cultural credentials?
Is the Emerald Isle beckoning you forth with whimsical, heartfelt ditties and candid, cheeky lyrics?
Word on the street is if you book your flight on a Tuesday, you get the lowest fares.
Why not give it a try? Dublin is calling, baby.
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