Sheet music or ear learning?
There's always been some controversy around this question. But since you're on my site, you get my opinion.
There are those people who say that you should never look at sheet music. That somehow by the very act of seeing dots on a page, you are corrupted somehow, and good music will forever be lost to you. This to me sounds superstitious and just a wee bit silly. People make a point that in Ireland many students are required to "learn by ear"...but then upon digging deeper, you'll find that many teachers give "cheat sheets" to students with the notes listed out, writing out whole tunes like this: DED DEG A (the first notes of Blarney Pilgrim). That's sheet music! Anyone who says otherwise is in denial. Whether it's dots or letters, if you write out the entire tune's notes, that's sheet music. Just because one is dots doesn't make it somehow magically cursed.
Like Jazz and many other forms of music, the dots for Celtic music is just a barebones structure, and it often doesn't reflect syncopation, inflection, speed, mood, variation, etc. The sheet music is only there to help jog your memory for the base notes. You should put it away as soon as possible, once you have the notes internalized, and rely on your ear to pick up the musical "language".
Unquestionably, you have to learn to use your ears to pick up Celtic music and do it justice. But honestly, that's true if you want to be good at any genre of music. You will never learn to play music properly playing straight from the page. The sheet music doeasn't tell the whole story by a long shot. For instance, hornpipes are usually expressed as quarter note/quarter note/quarter note/quarter note, but played closer to dotted-quarter/eighth/dotted-quarter/eighth. You will definitely need to develop a discerning ear and steep yourself in the music to really learn to play it well.
You don't have to learn to hear a tune and then play it back fluently. I've been playing since 1995, and I've only been able to do this a couple of times. There are musicians who can do it easily, of course, but it's not a requirement. You just have to learn to listen to the music in a much more discerning way than a non-musician does, so that you can hear the subtle variations, nuances, etc.
So, I say you can use both: Use your ear to learn the musical language and structure of Celtic music, and you can use sheet music as a tool to help you along with the notes.
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