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Discordant Notes

Fintan Vallely

The Making of Irish Traditional Music, by Helen O’Shea, Cork University Press, 224 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1859184363

The subject matter of this book is the stuff of the coming of age of Irish traditional music. With a book written by an Australian musician who is familiar with the Irish music diaspora and is also an academic ethnomusicologist, one expects, and gets, difficult questions. The subject is traditional music in modern Ireland, pre-slump of course, but valuably documenting social issues in the field which are the consequence of boom times, these closely related to concepts in cultural theory.

The title is somewhat misleading, for it appears to herald a comprehensive perspective, which the work delivers only in part and in a way which is not as expected. The cover – a Paul Henry landscape with thatched cottages – was presumably chosen to represent the idealised, imagined romantic Ireland, to draw the reader in at that level of expectation – but once in to be ambushed with quite an alternative view. Yet this image does finally emerge as the book’s ethos, for the author’s personal bleak conclusion is well represented by its damp, static, empty state.

Yes, there is no comfort herein for armchair dabblers – this material is long-haul. But it is a challenge to complacency, and has much that is valuable to serious students of Irish music, observing – properly so – the subject in the same searing crucible of analysis that has been productive for the comprehension of popular musics since the 1980s. The book’s material is compactly presented in six chapters over 149 pages of text, with an additional 83 pages of supporting information and indexing. The conciseness one might be led to expect from the overall format does not materialise however, for the writer’s method is simply a different way in to the subject. That itself, in the age of a welter of factual knowledge being available on the web, may be no bad thing, but can make the going tough.

There have been several attempts at estimating just what is going on in a traditional music “session”, and there are many articles on the overall picture of “revival” and popularity. Laughing young musicians regularly splash out from tourist-promotion literature, and scowling older men glower grimly from images which mark serious intent. In 2004 Stan Scott and Dora Hast produced Music in Ireland, a fine analysis of the music and performers, and of the session scene in a Clare bar, really the first of its kind, again done by two non-Irish. This provided a really valuable beginning-of–millennium snapshot. But how many musicians have heard of it, let alone read it? In The Making of Irish Traditional Music Helen O’Shea, as a hybrid “outsider”, tackles this difficult subject again in print, this time expansively. In the midst of the over-riding positiveness of the total scene, at a local level she picks out cronyism, sexism, xenophobia and plain bad manners. The contents present a working view of the scene – of music history related to nationalism, of “foreign-ness” in Irish music, nostalgia and identity in revival, a view of the “tradition”, regional styles, music tourism and authenticity, sexism and elitism. This is far from the cosy Paul Henry cover, and with such a line-up this is not an easy book for any musician or music aficionado to take. Its being unevenly written also renders it somewhat burdensome to follow in phases, but ultimately it manages a difficult task and one which might have been impossible for an Irish person living at home to deal with.


Helen O’Shea’s goal is “to understand the processes involved in constructing … national music identity, to investigate the changing dynamics of Irish music and implications for Ireland in the coming times”. In this she focuses on “authenticity”, which for her “has operated as a kind of warning signal along the path of my research …” Her recurrent nemesis is “the myth of racial and cultural purity that continues to nourish Irish nationalism”. Interesting here, in the present throes of economic collapse and job uncertainty, is the location of her analysis of the rise and rise of traditional music as a component element of “the homogenizing requirements of the modern nation-state”, in the latter’s economics-related “ethnic and cultural diversity”. This introduction sets up her textual ambitions formidably, especially concluding as it does by challenging part of the Ó Riada legacy: “Ó Riada’s metaphor of the river of Irish cultural tradition into which ‘foreign bodies’ are absorbed suggests the possibility that foreign musicians might also be assimilated into the mainstream of traditional music performance in Ireland to the point where their difference has been dissolved. In fact, that prospect is entirely incompatible with Ó Riada’s understanding of Irish traditional music as unique and expressive of a purely Gaelic culture. The paradox of a national tradition that absorbs outside influences without being changed by them is the conundrum at the heart of this book.”


James Cameron’s description of a music session on the Titanic is chosen to illustrate the “gendering” of music forms – the “slow, pensive and lushly orchestrated” of the upper classes as feminine, the “fast, vigorous” of the Irish working class as male. The metaphor is revisited throughout the book, concerning outside (English) views of the Irish and their music, but most literally in the sub-context of the gender dynamics of session playing. O’Shea’s ensuing presentation of a condensed social history of the successive waves of thinking which contributed to the concept of traditional music is a welcome compilation, set as it is in a tableau of European philosophical thinking. It is weakened by the implication that it was just the Protestant Anglo-Irish who established the Irish past – for weren’t they drawing on extant knowledge, this either orally transmitted or already committed to manuscripts? Not to mention the music of the natives, which was a constantly vigorous reminder, as can be seen in the 1780 quotation from Arthur Young: “Dancing is very general among the poor people, almost universal in every cabin.”. But in music there was hardly consensus anyway, for collector Edward Bunting disputed Thomas Moore’s saccharin interpretations, and Eugene O’Curry dismissed Bunting as a forger, and his much-lauded informants at the 1792 Belfast Harp Convention as a bunch of derelict drunks.

A word here perhaps concerning the writer’s ponderings on “cultural nationalism”. While perfectly understandable, as a linguistic construct this concept is so often applied to imply disdain or criticism. Indeed its use by a writer often flags a critical opinion or belief. One wearies of the after-the-event dismissal of influential or visionary cultural thinkers among the Anglo-Irish and upper-class Irish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wasn’t the idealism of those eras the vehicle for the delivery of the (however imperfect) Irish state of the bulk of the 1900s? The devaluing implication of the term “cultural nationalism” reads as a canny rejigging of a good old-fashioned lash out at the uppity Paddy. In this context, for the writer to place the elements of Bunting’s work in quotations (as in “preserve”, “collected”, “Irish”) implies a scoff, relishing (as of course we now know) the fact that there was much out there that he ignored (but then he couldn’t get everything anyway), or that what he did collect is unrepresentative. O’Shea here mind you is mild, compared to O’Curry on the Belfast harpers. The use of the “cultural nationalism” tag eventually yields a confusing hair-splitting: ” … political nationalists redefined the notion of an Irish identity … “. What other kind of nationalist is there?


The wide-ranging and challenging discourse of this prelude moves on to draw attention to the impact of émigré musicians based in the United States, and the artistically important fact of perceived dance musicians “playing for listening rather than for dancing”. But why bother singling out the Catholic church for having “discouraged dancing and music for centuries”? Didn’t all religions do so? And in Ireland the Catholic church eventually did the opposite, by monopolising dance opportunities throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. In this context, the Bourdieu-inspired deduction that “Musical practices such as playing Irish dance music in rural social settings were part of such [sic] ‘inappropriate learning’, and this perhaps explains why the majority of people educated in Ireland between the 1940s and the 1970s know little about Irish traditional music or dancing the sets” is both verified and challenged by the Irish experience. For despite the fact that Irish national radio from 1926 on favoured indigenous music over emerging popular forms, and later promoted more classical, it was the irrepressible vitality of the popular which sounded the death knell for dancing which was performed to traditional music.


But here the (nationally speaking) outside observer’s detachment serves her well in picking out some of the contradiction in the handed-on and often unworked-out lore of music revival defensiveness. Quoting Seamus Tansey of Sligo: “In our boredom we experimented with the backing of the local country and western band … and long before the Chieftains and the Bothy Band and Planxty were credited with adding backing … we did it, in a small schoolhouse in Gurteen, Co. Sligo”, she sets this against the flute-player’s view of untainted purity presented in his paper at the 1996 Crosbhealach an Cheoil conference in Dublin in which, of discrete music traditions, he says: “They are quite different and meant to be different … You can’t mix them … or else you have a mongrel representing nothing … if you dilute, impose, cross-pollinate or orchestrate foreign cultures with that which is native … you will kill or else you will smother …”

The contradiction draws attention to the nature of the means-to-an-end aggrandisement of traditional music in the years after 1951. Tansey is recycling the seminal style of Captain Francis O’Neill, which has vivid expression in the collector’s several works of commentary and analysis on Irish music during the early 1900s. O’Neill, with Tansey, is the literary become oral. It can be argued that traditional music’s then endangered artistic substance and unrepresented constituency merited such “end justifies the means” dramatic licence in musings and policy, for it did have to challenge a formidable opposition of church and economic elite. Certainly among the eventual hundred-and-more thousand fulfilled players today it would be pointless to criticise it, representing as it does in artistic terms the equivalent of guerrilla warfare, which resulted in radical, and valuable, change. It is through such concepts and through O’Neill that O’Shea finds the “canonisation” of Irish dance music, for he contributed significantly to the vocabulary and energy of successful revival.


Style is a major issue in traditional music – its nature, its voices, its regions and how it is done. Several commentators have dealt with it convincingly and articulately, most comprehensively Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin in Crosbhelach an Cheoil (1996) and in his contribution to the Tom Munnelly festschrift, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran – Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly (2007). Tomás Ó Canainn took a different direction in his 1978 Traditional Music in Ireland, and Breandán Breathnach gave an overview in his 1971 Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. These ideas are supplemented by broader concepts in the published proceedings of the 1997 Blas conference which places significance on the regional. Helen O’Shea observes style first as a component in her nation-state paradigm, noting the established discrete regions of Donegal, Sligo, Clare and Sliabh Luachra, each defined by fiddle style. This she relates to instrumental specificity and to the personality or idiolect of individual players, notably “names”.

Her quoted mentor is Lawrence McCullough’s detailed 1977 article in Ethnomusicology, for whom style is “ultimately a matter of individual choice: a flexible and cumulative process, influenced by other musicians, by fashion, the media, competitions and recordings, and thus in a continual process of change”. She notes how individual players are concerned about “style” if not obsessed by it, in relation to authenticity, summarising it as first, embracing “the continual and inevitable process of change”, and second, privileging “that which remains constant”. This latter view, which is related to organic transmission of style between generations, she sees reflected in the face-to-face teaching methods which are applied today in new social contexts.

Styles are now easily identifiable on account of the shrinkage of the music back to geographically and culturally remote core areas in the mid-twentieth century, these achieving “reputation as ‘islands of purity’ in the greater ‘river’ of Irish traditional music”. Standardisation is identified as the enemy of stylistic differentiation, a hybridisation resulting variously from “recordings, printed notation, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann classes and competitions, group performance, broadcasters, personal audio-recorders, and the increased mobility of musicians”. The associated commodification has now placed regional style in the same jeopardy as, in the mid-twentieth century, traditional music itself was vis a vis other musical tastes. No analogy is sought for this by the writer, nor indeed by anyone else. But it is worth considering what exactly regional style is, outside of repertoire. For instance, if on the same instrument people in diverse parts of the island, by dint of listening to local performers of stature who themselves have learnt only locally, produce different sounds within the same overall music body, is this not the same process as passing on accent in speech? Most of us on this island speak the same Hiberno-English, but it sounds radically different in different localities. Spoken English, with regard to pronunciation and idiom, can change greatly over a few miles: witness the variation in accents within, say, Dublin itself. Accents shade from soft and lilting in the south – where, arguably, one is close to the full use of facial muscles as practised in French, the visible “oo” sound – to hard and guttural in north Antrim with its classic Scots accent where the lips may not appear to move at all. Why not so in music? On a fiddle in particular all notes can be shaded as the player decides, or as directed by local example, through taught and learned convention, for the fiddle has no directive frets as has a guitar. It is played in every folk and classical music in the world, so adaptive it is to infinite permutations of colour, timbre and pitch. It is no accident that the Irish regional styles are defined on it.

However, with modern transmission methods, the experience of hearing other styles will present individual players with a range of choices as to which playing accent they finish up with. This leads, as O’Shea does note, to the imposition of the style of the “best” – or perceived best – players as the standard style, or it can also yield hybrid styles. She quotes Hazel Fairbairn’s 1994 essay wherein “regional style, typical of revivalist representations, is closely related to the nativist utopia of a unified national culture, with its rural lifestyle, integrity, intimacy, inheritance and evolution”. Yet Fairbairn iterates that such cannot really be copied perfectly, that “while the phenomenon of players learning tunes and style from old recordings may preserve and even regenerate the surface technical features of regional styles, by definition these styles cannot be reproduced”.

This, for O’Shea, produces key contradictions, not least of which is a pivotal part of her study, the awareness that style, or local accent, can be and was, in a Clare session she encountered, used as a barrier to outsiders joining in. Again, the analogy of spoken accent might be drawn to support her thesis. People who change county, or country, typically will eventually come to speak in the accent of the new place; because language is pervasive, and must be lived in as a sonic immersion, this is unavoidable for most, especially where a new vocabulary is being learnt. If so, a Donegal person who has gone to live in Kerry is likely to end up with an identifiable Kerry speech intonation. But a Donegal person simply “putting on” a Kerry accent will sound just like that – a Donegal person putting on a Kerry accent. This is heard all the time as people – notably comedians – take off the accents of other places, often with unconvincing results. That is to say, as the quoted Fairbairn implies, bluffers will likely be “found out”, and, as O’Shea observes, the temporary visitor may be scoffed at by the locals.


So what of “authenticity” being used as a prop to cronyist exclusivity, or for the creation of exclusivity in order to maintain an economic performance niche? Around the country there is an openness and warmth at most sessions, and style is not a barrier to casual performance. Too much is made of it anyway, for every player has a smattering of something else. Helen O’Shea points to a particular excess of it in Peadar Ó Riada’s sleeve notes to Mary MacNamara’s CD The Blackberry Blossom. This is an example of a common rhetoric: “The music is of the land and of the people and the interrelationship between them … an expression of a unique place and a flow of history … [Mary MacNamara’s] body, through her fingers and through to her concertina, becomes the voice of tribe or people.” Apart from the fact that this has all been said before, notably by Tony MacMahon, what if, as is the universal experience, the musician is playing tunes which are played also in other places? What if these words were describing Michael Coleman, for instance, an important chunk of whose repertoire is by origin Scottish? For the music, as O’Shea regularly reiterates in this study, is decidedly not always “of the land”, and indeed may be, literally, from an urban area, or the United States or London. In just what way is the interrelationship of land and people expressed in tunes? Haven’t all local places got uniqueness, by definition, and hasn’t the whole island got “history”, sharing as the western seaboard does, for instance, the Famine? But then Wexford, Drogheda and Co Antrim could be said to have plenty of history too. As for “tribe” or “people”, well, that’s noble, but is this saying that all others need not apply?


There is a profound difference between PR spin and analytical comment. Why not just acknowledge exceptional talent as such and say that “hers is a brilliant recording of an artiste who has an exceptional personal style and talent” and be done with it? It may be acceptable (perhaps) to gild a CD liner notes with honeyed words which could swing sale of it to the gullible, or maybe to a tourist who needs to hear puff in order to be convinced. But unless the musician is the only concertina player in Clare worth listening to the words mean nothing. Style preference and exceptional talent aside, among players of an equivalent standard there is no greater difference between their performances in their different regional styles than there is in debate among a variety of regional speakers of equivalent fluency and intellectual ability. This is a major tenet of ethnomusicology – and a hard-fought principle at that, one which established that all peoples’ musics be regarded as aesthetically equivalent regardless of wealth, instrumentation or circumstances. It is this thinking which sees traditional, popular, rock, jazz, classical and contemporary musics as being equally acceptable for music performance in most Irish second- and third-level music education. If PR-speak and tourism blarney are taken as real by musicians, the session is in trouble. This issue may well be a factor in the bar scene experience described by the author, where she reports something like all the good and bad of schoolyard factions.

One of the most articulate voices in verbalising music emotion is Martin Hayes, who for the author transcends localism by identifying the how and why of the raw personal feeling in his playing. Significantly he goes beyond cliché, and like MacNamara touches listeners, even non-aficionados, with his personal style. For the author, the latter’s “musical style and identification remains consciously fixed in the musical and social relations of the East Clare she remembers”, while Hayes “has developed a much broader and more fluid sense of his musical place”. Yet “shared aesthetic and music sources also permit them to play well together”. But perhaps cynicism gets the better of this reviewer in his inability to understand one of the author’s conclusions – that these two “share an aesthetic, a musical ethos, associated with rural small farming and its idealization within nationalist discourse”. How many small farmers are engaged in traditional music today? How many depend on it for a living, and how many have jobs outside – from which they actually live? Do they drive cars, watch Coronation Street and do the Internet? How many Clare residents live in the Ennis boomtown? Yes indeed, as the author says, they both come “from a cultural identity that is static and bounded” but haven’t both moved away – permanently – to another place where PR controls consumption and travel is the prerequisite for the authority of stardom? That the chosen performers are seen to exhibit in their musics features that are “simultaneously local and global, contemporary and continuous with the past” with a “cultural identity that is static and bounded … ” surely begs a word which is less profoundly mercurial than “paradox”. Good style persists because it is good, and that is clearly what Clare music possesses. But regional style alone does not sell tickets and CDs – personal talent is necessary too.


Yet it is the homey genuineness which lures the music tourists to Ireland in their “tens of thousands”, as “Musical Pilgrims: seeking authenticity in the west of Ireland”. They are catered for kindly, and are provided with opportunities to learn, to take home recordings, but above all to experience – live – a strong subculture with a real presence. Belfast and Derry in the 1970s had the same experience with what restaurateur Margaret Gaj in Dublin describes as “revolutionary tourists” – young committed British, French, German, Dutch, Italian and American idealists seeking an authentic revolutionary immersion. Nashville too has it for country music. What Helen O’Shea highlights is a downside of this, where players can’t get a seat in their local bar, and so resort to “booking stools”, a practice unheard of in bars generally. She finds her observations verified by other players also, leading her to make cutting comment on relative musicianship. This generates productive thinking on “the sound of difference”, where interviewees relate tales of frustration at being ostracised or subjected to rudeness for being foreign. This is extended to observations on sexism – “men leading the session” – and, in one report, sexual harassment and assault. Yet it must be said that all performers, whether Irish or otherwise, experience a feeling of oddness when joining an unfamiliar session. The “regulars”, as a particular group of like-minded people, are bonded variously by weekly playing, and/or by seasonal, even annual meeting up. Like any group of friends, they have a particular affinity together and may not feel comfortable with strangers. Have they the right to be this way? The myth of the session is that it is an open-entry event. It is not, for indeed as Helen O’Shea and her interviewees note, one can easily be made feel unwelcome. But entry to any “local” bar where like-minded natives do nothing else but drink and talk will generate the same kind of tension, and one would not expect to just join in the conversation. Outsider visitations can be hard work, and if they disrupt the comfort of locals’ lives regularly, the incomer may initially meet frostiness. Yet there are many other music bars in Co Clare where things are not so tight as the author experienced in Feakle. Few people want to be a guinea pig for any investigator, and one can’t help feeling that in her Feakle explorations the writer was also, as an anthropologist, being treated with suspicion.


Sexism is the challenging focus of the concluding chapters. The writer’s analysis of women musicians in Galway deals with an urban environment which does not have the excuse of “no-alternatives” bars. She notes fiddler Lucy Farr’s comment that in the 1960s public bars were once “a place where you sort of felt that you shouldn’t be – and where being acknowledged or heard is contingent upon special dispensations being made”. Now however things are different and various acceptance routines are noted by O’Shea: “having a powerful male mentor, or becoming, through talent and reputation, an ‘honorary male’”. Thus the pub is seen as essentially still a “masculine space”. Several women interviewed had grasped the nettle and set up their own session, but ironically they found themselves feeling exclusivist in their attitudes to men who presumed they could just join in with them. The fact that this led them to play at home is hardly so odd as to be a scandal however. For many musicians, especially older ones, simply couldn’t be bothered with playing among strangers or in unpleasant circumstances and will either play out only when at festivals, or otherwise with friends in houses. The experience of a woman getting paid twenty-five per cent less than the male session members in a Doolin bar, and of being harassed, does says much however. It is an issue needing to be recorded, yes, but it isn’t music-specific. It is also to do with the particular publican and bar, rather than being typical of traditional music venues in general. Male musicians as well do spot, and loathe, chancy publicans.

Yet the flow of consciousness which is generated from this is good, that the woman’s “presence in the Doolin pub session was disruptive not only because she was a woman doing a man’s job, but also … she did not perform femininity in a socially acceptable way”. Despite the grubbiness of this experience however, it must be said that not all session bars are remotely like this, any more than all non-music bars or clubs are. There will inevitably always be a certain amount of raunchiness, rudeness and sexual aggression among the young male pub-going age group, particularly at holiday time in tourist areas and at weekends. For a place to drink or play music out, women in Ireland will choose a bar carefully, unless they want to live on the edge. These experiences support the central thinking in this book, and lead the author back to gendered considerations of the nation state, and to sub-gendering within the world of traditional music as masculinist. This for her represents the failure of the session to “correspond to its idealization as a musical community”. But does it have to? Each session is different, and the experience depends on who you know, or who will talk to you. Some places are simply awful: so what? Sessions are, at their best, groups of friends or like-minded people. There are many, many mixed gender sessions where female performers feel no threat, and where there is intense community camaraderie among people for whom the only common denominator is music-making in that venue on that night. But Helen O’Shea is surely aware of this from her experience of playing in Australia.


The finale to this work is both sudden and gloomy: ” … Irish traditional dance music, saturated in nationalist ideology, is incompatible with an inclusive narrative”. One wonders why the author’s early opinion that “the myth of racial and cultural purity that continues to nourish Irish nationalism” is permitted to let down her many pages of provocative thinking in some excellent chapters. Yet even in this deep hole of dismissal the book stands as a challenge to complacent attitudes. It may not reach the appropriate audience, however, because of its uneven writing: terrific in the introductory chapters, it is weak on its interview material, overwhelming in its theoretical asides and, as stated, poorly concluded. The last word goes to Ó Riada’s 1982 analogy of traditional music to a river. But it diverts from the Big Man’s original idea that “Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in … but they do not … stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it …” Instead O’Shea concludes from her own experience that “the music of others, as well as outsider-musicians, will remain foreign bodies to be dissolved in the river of sound”. One feels that had she chosen any one of many, many other places, or if her interviews had been more extensive – say statistically sampling each music region, if not all Irish large towns, or at the very least each music venue in Clare – her experience might have been quite different. What we have is not a comparative study of several locations but a study of a very particular and isolated local one. The issue raised at the beginning of this review comes to mind again – for until practitioners at home begin to look past the limelight and analyse themselves there may be no other light cast other than such searing observations. Helen O’Shea puts it up like one getting rid of a too friendly cat: if you want to get a result, you rub the fur the wrong way. Traditional music has been the cuddly toy of the Celtic Tiger in a rallying Irish identity, often to the great disdain of those in other music forms. Despite its weaknesses, this book is a timely shake-up.

Fintan Vallely is a musician and writer on traditional music. His major written and edited works are The Blooming Meadows – the World of Irish Traditional Musicians (1998), The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1999, 2009), John Kennedy – Together in Time (2001), Sing Up, Comic Songs and Satires of Modern Ireland (2008) and Tuned Out – Traditional Music and Identity in Modern Ireland (2008). His doctoral thesis (UCD, 2004) concerned the flute in Ireland and his continuing work is on music, movement, place and identity.



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