The album was recorded on dates from September to December 1987 and in January 1988. The Chieftains and Van Morrison had met years before at the Edinburgh rock festival. They joined up in Belfast during Morrison's No Guru tour and afterwards, Morrison and Paddy Moloney discussed recording an album together during a walk. They each had a list of songs and reached a consensus to cover two of Morrison's previously released tracks (the title track was one) and the rest from traditional Irish songs.
I think at that time Van was searching for his Irish roots. It was this man of blues, of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and more importantly soul, coming home to his Irishness with The Chieftains and the music we’d been playing for so many years. Musically we were going to meet each other half way.
Irish Heartbeat received positive reviews from most critics, one of whom called it "some of the most haunting, rousing, downright friendly music of the year".Rolling Stone magazine's David Browne said it has "splendor and intense beauty", while John Wilde from Melody Maker hailed it as "a bloody considerable marvel", having "awakened [Morrison's] roisterous spirit". In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau was more critical and believed that Morrison, suffering a creative block, is "misguided" in his attempt to reconnect with his traditional Irish music roots.