This article is about the history of Irish tin whistle with a few amusing digressions. Hopefully this bit of history information will be useful, especially to those who are interested in instruments.
The Irish tin whistle is essentially a simple system woodwind instrument that uses a fipple to produce sound. Without the jargon, that means you blow into it like a recorder and not like a flute to make sound, and there are only open holes along the body, instead of the fancy system of buttons and levers you find on more classical instruments. This has the practical effect of being very straightforward to play; the fewer fingers you have covering holes, the higher the note, you always lift your fingers off from the bottom to the top, and you blow harder to play higher. That's about it. (Thankfully. I tried picking up my old concert flute a few months ago, and felt like my grandparents must feel in front of a computer. “What does this button do?” “It's making a bad noise, what's wrong with it?”)
These types of instruments have been in use longer than recorded history. Just about every civilization made some version of them. They've found versions made by Neanderthals. Really, if the Irish cultural aspect of the tin whistle doesn't appeal to you, but some other culture does, you can probably still start playing a whistle for that reason anyway. Odds are they have an equivalent, and the Irish tin whistle will be cheaper than that equivalent if anyone's selling one.
At any rate, the modern form of whistle we have today emerged from those roots in Manchester, England, when a man named Robert Clarke began mass-producing his version of the whistle in the 1840s. This was essentially the model that the other modern styles of the whistle descended from, and where the whistle picked up two of its main names: the tin whistle, because they were usually made out of brass or tin, and the penny whistle, because they were so cheap to make that during the 19th century, you could buy one for the price of a British penny.
In the 1900s, plastics were developed and largely replaced the metal fipples that had been used in the past (though of course you can still find plenty of whistles with metal fipples these days). In the intervening period, the whistle became widespread in use and welcomed into folk music, especially European and specifically Celtic folk music, where it found a place about as common as the harmonica in American music. Today, many musical groups still feature the Irish tin whistle, from traditional bands, to ballad groups like the Dubliners, and even bands that play more modern types of music with a Celtic twist, like Flogging Molly or the Dropkick Murphys.
My son James has entertained us for a number of years playing and mastering different instruments. He has Mastered the Irish Tin Whistle and learned to play many traditional Irish music songs along the way. Pick up a few tips and tricks at this blog. The Irish Tin Whistle Today.