20 of the Most Famous Irish Singers of All Time
In Ireland, if you throw a stone in any direction you’re likely to hit a singer or other musician. Ireland is full of amazing singers across a variety of genres so it’s practically impossible to list the best ones, but at least I can name some of the most famous ones!
Bono, the bandleader of U2, is arguably the most famous Irish singer of all time. However, he’s not alone: Enya, Sinéad O’Connor, and Van Morrison are also Irish-born and became global music icons.
When some people think of Irish music, they often think of Celtic music, Irish folk acts, and the Irish bagpipe. But Ireland has also given us some of the best singers of the last few decades. On this list, you can find 20 of the most popular singers to ever come out of Ireland.
Standard disclaimer so people aren’t giving out: this is not a definitive list and it’s not ranked in order of popularity. Though no doubt, some people will still be giving out about one particular person being on this list (i.e. the 8th singer on the list).
- 1. Bono
- 2. Enya
- 3. Hozier
- 4. Sinéad O’Connor
- 5. Van Morrison
- 6. Dolores O’Riordan
- 7. Gilbert O’Sullivan
- 8. Niall Horan
- 9. Danny O’Donoghue
- 10. Dermot Kennedy
- 11. Bob Geldof
- 12. Phil Lynott
- 13. Rory Gallagher
- 14. Christy Moore
- 15. Imelda May
- 16. Maria Doyle Kennedy
- 17. Shane MacGowan
- 18. Luke Kelly
- 19. Ronnie Drew
- 20. Mary Black
U2 are often cited as one of best bands of all time (or at least one of the most famous!), and they wouldn’t have half the charm if it wasn’t for their charismatic leader. More than just a musician, the U2 lead singer Paul David Hewson, best known as Bono, is a busy activist and philanthropist with more than 20 Grammy Awards to his name.
In addition to being one of the most impressive examples of longevity in rock music, U2 pioneered the Big Music sound, which combined post-punk influences with an anthem-inspired, stadium-ready vibe. Their 80s records are often listed among the best in history, particularly if you consider the seminal records “War” and “The Joshua Tree.”
Bono is one of those bigger-than-life characters whose influence cannot be described just in musical terms. Granted an honorary knighthood in 2007, he supported and lobbied in favor of many humanitarian causes and managed a private equity firm worth a reported $1.9 billion. He’s easily one of the most famous Irish people who have ever lived.
However, Irish people tend to have pretty mixed opinions about Bono for a variety of reasons, which is generally the subject of much confusion to anyone not from Ireland (read more about that here). In fact, I sometimes find myself defending and criticizing Bono in the same sentence.
Traditional Celtic music still has a place in modern society, but is it all because of Enya? This Gweedore, County Donegal native singlehandedly reinvented the sound of Celtic music by combining it with influences as disparate as new age, pop, and classical music.
As a result, Enya became one of the best-selling Irish musicians of all time and landed four Grammy Awards. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for the song “May It Be,” included in the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
An extremely talented mezzo-soprano singer who relies heavily on big classical arrangements and electric keyboards, Enya is known for making music that sounds simultaneously relaxing and grandiose. Pretty much like the sounds of the Irish Gaelic tradition, Enya’s music is the perfect soundtrack to nature and one of Ireland’s most priceless cultural treasures.
Remember 2013? One of the year’s highlights was the release of “Take Me to Church,” the song that turned the Irish singer Hozier into a worldwide sensation. Hozier’s success was unexpected, yes, but unavoidable. Ever since “Take Me to Church” started hitting the radio, many powerful, reverb-heavy ballads followed, stating Hozier’s influence on the pop scene.
The unparalleled popularity of “Take Me to Church” was hard to follow, but Hozier has always proved that he’s not a one-hit-wonder. While his follow-up songs didn’t top the charts, his studio albums “Hozier” and “Wasteland, Baby!” helped to establish him as one of the ultimate singer-songwriters of the Pop Soul genre.
Casual listeners may have forgotten about Hozier already, but true music fans were smart enough to stay around and witness his development as an artist. Today, there’s no doubt Hozier is among Ireland’s top singers but the best part is that he still has a lot to give.
4. Sinéad O’Connor
The year was 1987. It was then that a young artist from Ireland started making waves with a now-classic debut album titled “The Lion and the Cobra.” She was bold and bald, fearless and blue-eyed. Combining fragile, all-telling lyrics with an inventive art-pop attitude, Sinéad O’Connor was ready to rule the world.
O’Connor’s debut album remains her best, much due to the combination of alt-rock, gothic music, and Celtic folk influences in one single package. Her greatest hit, though, was the follow-up “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” which included the hit song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which was actually written by the late Prince. It remains one of the best tunes to come out of the early 90s.
Sinead O’Connor is another Irish singer with very strong political and social views, and she was never afraid to voice them. She became an extremely polarizing figure when she ripped up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992.
Still active today, O’Connor has focused on raising awareness of women’s rights and anti-war ideals. She changed her name to Shuhada’ Sadaqat in 2018.
5. Van Morrison
Sir Van Morrison is a Northern Ireland singer, his all-encompassing musical influence is such that it would be a shame to keep him out of the list. Releasing records since 1967, this Belfast native is one of the world’s ultimate representatives of the Blue-Eyed Soul music genre.
Morrison was first made famous for his work with the band Them, which pioneered the R&B-inspired British rock and roll of the mid-60s. His best works, however, were the influential solo albums that he released between the late 60s and the early 80s. The warm “Astral Weeks,” the romantic “Moondance,” and the spiritual “Common One” are three of his very best.
His songs are sometimes dubbed Celtic soul, but Morrison’s music belongs to no place and is acclaimed all over the world. While he plays the character of the entertainer to perfection, Morrison is best known for exploring deeply transcendental topics.
6. Dolores O’Riordan
Dolores O’Riordan released two solo studio albums, but she spent the vast majority of her career working as the lead singer of the Irish rock band The Cranberries. More than just a rock band from Ireland, The Cranberries were unmistakably Irish: after all, they became famous for combining traditional singing techniques such as keening and yodeling with an in-your-face alt-rock attitude.
Led by O’Riordan’s Limerick accent, The Cranberries were the Irish answer to Nirvana in the alt-rock boom of the early 90s and topped the charts with singles as beloved as “Zombie,” “Dreams,” and “Salvation.” Sadly, O’Riordan ended up passing away from in 2018 and she was greatly mourned across Ireland.
O’Riordan’s death was the end of The Cranberries, but her final vocal recordings were still included in the posthumous album “In the End,” released in 2019.
7. Gilbert O’Sullivan
The Waterford native Gilbert O’Sullivan started releasing records in the late 60s and hasn’t stopped since. In his latest studio album “Driven,” O’Sullivan still boasts the typical soft-rock style of music that helped to turn him into one of the most beloved singer-songwriters to come out of the Emerald Isle.
O’Sullivan’s music is perfect for a sunny day and embodies the most optimistic aspects of his two main musical influences: Bob Dylan and The Beatles. He’s also known for his percussive style of piano playing and observational lyrics, clearly inspired by Paul McCartney.
A professional who always puts his music first, O’Sullivan once admitted that he refused to date at the peak of his career because he was afraid such would hurt his songwriting. I believe this thoroughly sums up O’Sullivan’s dedication to his art.
8. Niall Horan
It would be easy for a music snob to dismiss One Direction. In all honestly, I’m definitely one of those music snobs. I didn’t even want to add Niall Horan to this list but for some reason I kept typing...
That said, he is one of the most famous Irish singers. One Direction were one of the best-selling boy bands of all time, they were also a commercially-oriented music group that was formed on a reality TV show.
And yet, the past members of One Direction are all doing okay, including Ireland’s own Niall Horan. The pride of Mullingar-Westmeath, Horan surprised the world when he released his solo debut album “Flicker” in 2017, and proved to be in even better form with the 2020 follow-up “Heartbreak Weather.” While his music isn’t about reinventing the wheel, his songs are finely-crafted, radio-ready, and mature pop-rock compositions.
Whether you like Horan or not, the fact is that this young man from Ireland is making a name for himself even after leaving One Direction.
9. Danny O’Donoghue
It’s funny that Danny O’Donoghue is best known for being the lead singer of The Script. After all, his life kind of reads like one. The son of an Irish musician, he didn’t want to work in the music industry as a child but ended up joining a boy band called Mytown in the mid-90s.
After finding relative success with Mytown, O’Donoghue followed his dream of becoming famous by moving to Los Angeles and working with the likes of Britney Spears and Boyz II Men. He took what he learned in L.A. back to Dublin in the early 2000s and formed the band The Script – ultimately, the golden ticket to fame and fortune he was looking for.
With hits as beloved as “Hall of Fame”, “Superheroes,” and “Breakeven,” The Script quickly established themselves as one of the most popular rock acts in Ireland. Now known internationally, they helped to put Irish rock on the map once more and even landed O’Donoughue a place on the TV show The Voice UK.
10. Dermot Kennedy
In the age of social media and autotune, it’s refreshing to find a musician as naturally gifted as Dermot Kennedy. This Rathcoole native worked on his craft by singing and playing guitar on the street, and that still shows in his live performances. He’s raw and authentic, but he’s also a mature songwriter.
Even though Kennedy has only released two studio albums, his folk songs sound like they were written by a musician who’s been doing the job for ages. Pretty much like Kennedy’s singing and guitar-playing, his songwriting seems to come effortlessly.
Kennedy once described his music as an effort of combining folk and hip-hop, and that sums up why his tunes sound so familiar and yet so refreshing at the same time. He’s without a doubt one of the most promising up-and-coming talents to come out of Ireland in recent years.
11. Bob Geldof
As the lead singer of the classic Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof deserves to be named among the 20 best Irish singers of all time. Apart from helping the Boomtown Rats to come up with songs as classic as “I Don’t Like Mondays” and “Rat Trap,” Geldof is also a one-of-a-kind character, known for his work as a political activist and actor.
He starred in the iconic 1982 movie “Pink Floyd – The Wall” and was granted an honorary knighthood for his humanitarian work in Africa. An ever-young charmer and provocateur, Geldof released five studio albums since the mid-80s, the latter of which was suggestively titled “How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell.”
Bob Geldof gets similar mixed opinions from Irish people as Bono does, which again, tends to be pretty confusing for those not from Ireland!
12. Phil Lynott
The late Phil Lynott was born in West Bromwich, England, but chose Dublin, his mother’s hometown, as his working foothold. It was there that he founded Thin Lizzy, one of the most influential Irish heavy-rock bands of all time.
A groovy bassist and smart songwriter, Lynott was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Motown Records and fused fuzz-heavy psychedelic rock and soul to create a unique sound. Most of Thin Lizzy’s albums are considered to be masterpieces, but the seminal 1976 “Jailbreak” is often listed as one of the best Hard Rock albums ever released.
Sadly, Thin Lizzy disbanded towards the end of the 70s and Lynott was a bit lost without his bandmates. He released a few solo records and started new projects (including the group Grand Slam) but eventually succumbed to severe substance addiction. He passed away in 1986 at the tragically young age of 36.
13. Rory Gallagher
Listed among the 60 best guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, Rory Gallagher was arguably the best rock guitarist to ever come out of the Emerald Isle. The pride of Cork, Ireland, Gallagher sold a whopping 30 million records before passing away in 1995.
Often compared to other guitar greats such as Eric Clapton and Brian May, Gallagher’s brand of Blues Rock allowed him to become both critically and commercially successful. While some of his songs featured vocals, his music was essentially instrumental.
Today, Gallagher is such an iconic figure in Ireland that you can find a real-size bronze statue of the man in Ballyshannon, County Donegal playing an epic solo, of course, on his signature Stratocaster. He’s also featured on official Irish stamps.
14. Christy Moore
The story of how Christy Moore became one of the most beloved Irish singers of all time is worthy of… well, a Christy Moore song! A former bank employee, Moore visited England during a twelve-week worker’s strike and ended up getting familiar with the local folk scene. After meeting many fellow musicians who loved traditional Irish music as much as he did, Moore never went back to working at the bank.
With the friends he made in England, Moore started building a notable music career, both as a solo artist and as a member of groups such as Planxty and Moving Hearts. A purist, he always rooted his compositions in traditional Irish folk of Celtic music inspiration. What sets him apart, though, is his uncanny ability to tell stories.
After releasing new music tirelessly for almost three decades, Moore reduced his workload at the end of the 90s. Even though he sings humorously about it in songs such as “Delirium Tremens,” his declining health condition was in many ways the result of his years-long alcohol addiction. Nonetheless, he’s still active today and released the album “Flying Into Mystery” in 2021.
15. Imelda May
When someone sees the words ‘rockabilly’ and ‘Ireland’ in the same sentence, only one name comes to mind: Imelda May. Born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of The Liberties, in Dublin, May amassed fame and fortune by giving new life to the rockabilly genre.
One could think that limiting her output to rockabilly is one of May’s weaknesses. That’s hardly true. Even though this bonafide Irish rocker has always been loyal to her role as a revivalist, she’s given a new, modern spin to the rockabilly genre with the help of her energetic and big-sounding live band.
Apart from making 50s rock cool again, May also sets herself apart due to her charismatic stage presence and impossible-to-resist charm. One of Ireland’s ultimate rock queens!
16. Maria Doyle Kennedy
How talented is Maria Doyle Kennedy? Well, she’s one of the most influential singers in Ireland, and music isn’t even her number-one occupation! Perhaps best known for her work as an actress, this Clontarf, Dublin native has released 10 solo albums since the early 2000s and worked as the lead singer of the folk-rock act The Black Velvet Band.
Even though The Black Velvet Band is what moved her to work in show business, Kennedy has since been busier appearing in movies and TV shows as popular as “The Commitments,” “Downton Abbey,” “Outlander,” and “Dexter.”
In music, Maria is at her best when accompanied by her husband and former The Black Velvet Band bandmate, Kieran Kennedy. Married since 1988, they have welcomed four children into the world.
17. Shane MacGowan
Out of all the genres of pop-rock music inspired by Celtic folk, Celtic punk is arguably the most fun. The finest representatives of the style are the legendary The Pogues, led by the equally-iconic Shane MacGowan. Rebellious and unapologetic, he’s probably the most famous Irish punk singer who has ever lived, even though he was born in Pembury, a village in Kent, England.
While MacGowan’s solo material is worth mentioning (and includes collaborations with greats such as Nick Cave and Sinéad O’Connor), the vast majority of his career was spent with The Pogues. Their 80s records are highly acclaimed, and 1985’s “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” is listed as the number-one Celtic rock record of all time on websites such as RateYourMusic.
An undisputed Irish rock legend, MacGowan was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the 9th President of Ireland, His Excellency Michael D. Higgins, in 2018.
18. Luke Kelly
No music act speaks more highly of Irish nostalgia than The Dubliners. After moving from Ireland to England in the 60s and falling in love with the local folk revival scene, Luke Kelly decided it was time to get back to Dublin to bring the good news to the Irish people.
Alongside other iconic Irish musicians, Kelly founded The Dubliners, who are still one of the most influential bands to ever come out of the Emerald Isle. Contrary to popular opinion, the group was named after a James Joyce book, not the city where it was created.
With his ginger hair and beard, bard-like voice, and politically-fueled lyrics, Kelly was as unmistakably Irish as it gets and so was his music. He passed away in 1984 after years of battling alcohol addiction. Two posthumous solo albums were released under his name: “Luke’s Legacy” and “The Performer.”
19. Ronnie Drew
One of the ultimate gentlemen of Irish music, Ronnie Drew was a founding member of the legendary The Dubliners and sang traditional Irish folk music like few ever did. He passed away in 2008, at the age of 73, leaving behind many beloved Dubliners’ records and solo/collaborative albums.
It takes being Irish to fully comprehend how close to one’s hearts Drew’s songs and performances can be. However, the full range of his influence is better comprehended by non-Irish listeners in the tribute song “The Ballad of Ronnie Drew,” featuring pretty much every meaningful Irish artist there is, from Bono and Sinéad O’Connor to Bob Geldof and Christy Moore.
20. Mary Black
Without taking away anything from Enya’s talent, it’s a pity that Mary Black never quite achieved the same international fame that her fellow countrywoman did. Just like Enya, Black reinvented traditional Celtic music, providing it with a refreshing pop spin that’s highly influenced by classical and other forms of folk music.
If Enya combined Celtic music and New Age, Black did the same with Celtic music and Adult Contemporary. The result is an equally peaceful, inspirational, and spiritual sound that earned her the admiration of pretty much everyone in her native country but deserved to get to more listeners.
While some of her records got a lot of airplay in the United States, namely, 1989’s “No Frontiers”, Black has for the most part been one of Irish music’s best-kept secrets. A secret that’s worth unlocking!
Ireland is a country filled with notable musical talents and one of the most fertile styles of traditional folk music in Europe, and it would be a crime to dismiss it. No music collection will ever be complete without the best artists coming from the beautiful Emerald Isle.
Bono Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Daniel Hazard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Van Morrison Featured Image (Top-Right) by: ArtSiegel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hozier Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Kayla Johnson from Seattle, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sinéad O’Connor Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Pymouss, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons