Despite being a relatively sall island nation, Ireland has given the world many beautiful things: lush green hills, St. Patrick’s Day, Jameson whiskey, and the haunting melody and lyrics of “Danny Boy.”
In addition, Ireland has provided the world with some of the world’s best singers. From folk balladeers and controversial songstresses to probably the most famous rock band of the last 40 years, Ireland is well represented on the concert stage and home stereos alike.
Here is our list of the most famous Irish singers of all time.
U2’s expressive rock-n-roll songs highlight Bono’s high baritone and ethereal quality. Born Paul David Hewson in Dublin, Bono is the stage name he adopted from the Latin for “good voice.”
The band’s breakout album War, in 1983, included “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and other songs that introduced the sociopolitical themes that made the band world-famous.
Four years later, Bono used his rock voice – at times a whisper and others a scream – to record the band’s two most famous songs on their record The Joshua Tree. “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” both shot to the top of the U.S. singles charts and are still played on classic rock stations some 35 years later.
Van Morrison (1945-)
A veritable one-man band, Van Morrison hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was born just after the end of World War II, and adeptly plays harmonica, saxophone, keyboard, and ukulele. He is well-known for his expressive singing voice. The Rolling Stones famously covered his single “Brown Eyed Girl.”
In the 1970s, Morrison became more entrepreneurial in his singing and music. He combined Celtic melodies, jazz, and freeform feelings into his songs.
The mixture has been dubbed “Celtic Soul” and can be most easily heard on his breakthrough album Astral Weeks. He is a member of both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Sinead O’Connor (1966-)
Maybe most known in America for tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, Sinead O’Connor is one of Ireland’s most successful singer-songwriters.
She started appearing on Dublin stages at age 15 and signed a recording contract at 19. Within two years, her debut album The Lion and the Cobra landed a Grammy nomination.
Soon, O’Connor was known as much for her haunting voice as for her shaved head, androgynous wardrobe, and politics. She has had several incarnations in the past three decades, but her voice is still a combination of strength and beauty.
Enya is the first name and stage name of Enya Patricia Brennan, the most successful solo artist in Irish music history. Her fusion of new age and Celtic music has consistently delivered soulful and ethereal sounds since the early 1990s.
Her most famous song “Only Time” was used as an anthem cry after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Enya’s albums have sold more than 26.5 million copies in the U.S. and 75 million around the world. Plus, she has provided music for movie soundtracks, the most famous being The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Dolores O’Riordan (1971-2018)
Best known as the lead singer of The Cranberries, Dolores O’Riordan grew up in County Limerick, where she started singing in church choirs. Her unique vocals helped launch The Cranberries to worldwide fame in the alternative and indie rock categories.
Between 1993 and 2001, her voice was heard on the band’s five studio albums. O’Riordan then released two solo projects before reuniting with The Cranberries for two more albums and world tours. She passed away at age 46 due to accidental drowning.
Christy Moore (1945-)
Folk singer extraordinaire Christy Moore helped start two of Ireland’s most successful groups: Plantyx and Moving Hearts. Born in Newbridge, County Kildare, Moore got his musical start during a long bank strike in 1966.
The hiatus allowed him to travel to England and meet up with friends and musical influences.
Like many Irish artists, Moore’s songs have tended to be socio-political. He has recorded songs against nuclear war, for Palestinian freedom, and in support of the Irish Republican Army.
The RTE (Northern Ireland’s national radio network) named Moore the country’s greatest living musician.
Phil Lynott (1949-1986)
The most hardened hard rocker on our list, Phil Lynott was the lead singer and lyricist for Thin Lizzy, a Dublin-based act that had mild success in the late-1960s and mid-1970s.
Lynott was known for drawing on his young working-class life as well as Celtic culture for the band’s songs. These include “The Boys are Back in Town” and “Waiting for an Alibi,” where his high baritone captured the essence.
Unfortunately, Lynott did not escape the excesses of hard rock celebrity. He developed a nasty heroin addiction and passed away in 1986, at the age of 36.
Bob Geldof (1951-)
Known as much for his philanthropy as his singing, Bob Geldof is an international star who has raised millions of pounds for worldwide famine relief efforts.
Geldof rose to fame as the lead singer of the Dublin-based Boomtown Rats. He then gained more acclaim for portraying “Pink” in the 1982 movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Geldof used his fame to encourage British and Irish artists to produce a charity recording of “Do They Know it’s Christmas” in 1983, where all proceeds went to famine relief. He then organized the greatest rock concert of all time, Live Aid, in 1985, as another fundraising event.
Queen Elizabeth II granted Geldof an honorary knighthood for his charitable activities.
Rory Gallagher (1948-1995)
Not many singers in our list have had their likeness placed on an Irish stamp, but Rory Gallagher has. Born in Ballyshannon and raised in Cork, Gallagher is most well known for his bluesy rock vocals and strong guitar licks.
He fronted the band Taste in the late 1960s, which opened for Cream and Blind Faith. He then ventured into a strong solo career.
Gallagher released 10 albums throughout the 1970s that have sold more than 30 million copies. They included a self-titled album in 1971, two live albums, and Photo-Finish in 1978.
A statue of Gallagher playing his Stratocaster has been lining Cork streets for years now. He passed away at 47 after complications from a liver transplant.
Give credit to the most classically trained of the singers on our list. Hozier (Andrew John Hozier-Byrne) studied music at the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin before embarking on a solo career.
While at Trinity, Hozier sang in the college choir and toured with them to the Netherlands and Norway. He then played and sang at Ireland’s largest music festival, Oxegen, in both 2009 and 2010.
Three years later, Hozier hit it big with the single “Take Me to Church” which became an international rock anthem featuring his powerful baritone voice.
In 2014, Hozier’s debut studio album, From Eden, established him as one of Ireland’s biggest stars. His 2018 song, “Nina Cried Power”, cemented that status.
Niall Horan (1993-)
He rose to fame as a member of Britain’s boy band One Direction. Then Niall Horan stepped out on his own as a solo performer. Young Irish lasses haven’t been the same since.
Because of its folksy lilt, Horan’s soft tenor voice works on ballads, swing, and other soft pop and rock tunes.
Originally from Mullingar, Westmeath, Ireland, Horan auditioned for The X Factor in 2010. When his solo efforts were about to leave him behind, a judge suggested he sing with four other young men (including Harry Styles) who also did not qualify.
They quickly learned harmonies, wowed Britain, and finished in third place.
Both of Horan’s solo albums, Flicker and Heartbreak Weather, have sold millions of copies around the world.
Maria Doyle Kennedy (1964-)
Maria Doyle Kennedy is as comfortable in front of the camera as she is behind a microphone. In addition to recording and releasing 10 studio albums, she has appeared in more than a dozen films and several television shows, including Downton Abbey.
Born in the Clontarf section of Dublin, Kennedy began performing music with the Hothouse Flowers while in college. Soon thereafter she joined The Black Velvet Band, met her husband, and went solo.
Her vocal quality formed from years of extensive use in the public houses and stages around the Emerald Isle.
Luke Kelly (1940-1984)
Another founding member of The Dubliners, Luke Kelly played banjo and sang vocals for the famous Irish folk band for more than 20 years before his untimely passing at age 43.
In his early 20s, Kelly began street performing with his banjo and covers of folk music classics. He helped Ronnie Drew organize The Dubliners, and even suggested the name based on the James Joyce novel.
After a two-year hiatus, when he released a self-titled solo album, Kelly rejoined The Dubliners and helped write some personal songs, including “Scorn Not His Simplicity” about his son’s Down Syndrome.
He died after two surgeries to repair a brain tumor, and he remains one of Ireland’s most beloved singers.
No list of great Irish singers would be complete without mentioning Ronnie Drew. He was the original creative force behind The Dubliners, one of Ireland’s most famous folk bands.
Drew was known for his gravelly voice and socio-political songs.
Over the years, Ronnie Drew’s vocals could be heard covering of numerous Irish ballads. The Dubliners continued to perform for about four years after Drew’s death, but his influence was always felt strongly.
No Irish wake is complete without “Seven Drunken Nights” or “The Irish Rover,” his two most famous songs.
Most Popular Irish Singers, Final Thoughts
For the better part of the last 50 years, Ireland has produced some of the world’s best folk and pop singers. They helped bring about a revival of story-telling songs, some of which have a decidedly socio-political messages.
But they also helped spur on an art form that combines soulful and simplistic singing with deep conviction and tonal quality. You can hear it in any of the singers on this list.
Along with its lush green hills and self-deprecating humor, Ireland offers the music world a humanitarian and authentic sound to cherish.