The Mandarin, the Musician and the Mage: T.K. Whitaker, Seán Ó Riada, Thomas Kinsella and the Lessons of Ireland’s Mid-Twentieth-Century Revival, by John Fanning, Peter Lang: Reimagining Ireland vol 110, 282 pp, €52.86, ISBN: 978-1800795990
This is the 110th volume in the series “Reimagining Ireland”, which began in 2009. Many volumes in the series are limited in scope (a particular author-subject, a specific genre or historical period). Few in fact facilitate a “reimagining” of Ireland, and certainly not a “reinvention”. John Fanning’s study, however, is perfectly suited to this series, since it not only studies three key characters who did, indeed, re-imagine the Ireland of their times (the 1950s and 1960s) but enables us, through the author’s own lenses, to re-imagine Ireland in the twenty-first century.
Not only that, but John Fanning’s intelligence, imagination and capacity for lateral thinking and creative allusions equip him superbly as an analyst of Irish emergence from the doldrums of the 1950s.
This book originated in Fanning’s 2009 PhD thesis, and those of us lucky enough to read it at the time have been waiting eagerly for its publication. To the first two parts of the original (an account of the individual achievements of TK Whitaker, Seán Ó Riada and Thomas Kinsella, and the economic and social turnaround since 1950) he has added a consideration of “The World in the 2020s and How Ireland might Respond”.
TK Whitaker, at thirty-nine, was the youngest ever secretary of the Department of Finance, and the mind behind the “First Programme for Economic Expansion” (1958). Seán Ó Riada was a musician who transformed our understanding of Irish traditional music and its role with the formation of Ceoltόirí Chualann, which led to the phenomenon of the Chieftains. Thomas Kinsella was both a poet and translator who brought The Táin into modern Ireland as, in Fanning’s words, an act of “cultural retrieval and transformation”. Fanning uses a phrase of Kinsella’s, “I always remembered who and what I am”, as a motif in his study – and implicitly adds “and who and what I might become”.
There is a thin biographical thread linking the three: Kinsella was, for a short time, Whitaker’s civil service secretary, and the two maintained contact after Kinsella was liberated into literature. Kinsella and Ó Riada were close friends (Kinsella commemorated Ó Riada in A Selected Life and the two did in fact work together when Ó Riada wrote music for a radio broadcast of Kinsella’s version of The Táin.) But the conceptual thread that provides the core of this book is how each, in his own sphere of influence, changed Ireland’s perception of itself, and how their cognate intellectual and artistic energies created, in Fanning’s argument, a “second revival”, in the years 1956-1963, in succession to the original “Celtic Revival’ at the turn of the twentieth century.
Fanning admires in these three men their capacity for creative latitude. “They were exceptionally self-confident at a time when an inferiority complex hung like a huge nimbus cloud over the country.” The momentum generated by Whitaker produced, or coincided with, exciting figures in the Irish public service whom Fanning identifies: Michael Killeen at the Industrial Development Authority, Tom O’Driscoll at Bord Fáilte, Ivor Kenny at the Irish Management Institute and Tom Barrington at the Institute of Public Administration: all of whom embodied that same self-confidence.
Seán Mac Réamoinn spoke positively of Ó Riada’s “arrogance” emanating from fear which, he said, is a common condition of the artist in Irish society. I think the same inhibitions faced, and were overcome by, these public servants whose work Fanning discusses:
He knew that as an artist there was, in the long run, no place for him in our social structure … For the Irish artist, the conflict is seldom wholly an external one, as between him and society: it is matched by an inner battle fought out between the creative force which is his individual gift and the ghastly inherited negations.
Fanning has pointed out that one in four people born in the decade 1931-41 emigrated; and that Ireland exhibited signs of “mental as well as physical deprivation”. He quotes Whitaker, the architect of economic recovery, to the effect that a question mark hung over “the achievement of national independence” which might “prove to have been a futility”. Instead, as Terence Brown notes, during the years when it might be argued that Ó Riada wrote his most significant works (1957-63) “a new kind of Ireland began to come to life … with a renewed national self-confidence”.
We do not know how or in what direction Ó Riada’s music would have developed had he not died so young (aged forty). Music critic Charles Acton said of his premature death “He could have been our badly needed Sibelius. But he would not be. But he altered the course of our nation’s attitudes”, while Thomas Kinsella asserted that he “altered the character of a nation’s culture”. The comparison with Sibelius was valid, because Sibelius’s music was one of the vehicles for Finnish self-awareness. But the best parallel I can think of is Mikis Theodorakis, who, after studying in Paris with Olivier Messiaen, joyfully combined Greek folk music and the Byzantine conventions of the Orthodox liturgy with “classical” modernist techniques to produce music that would be at once unmistakeably Greek and yet accepted as part of the European mainstream. In both Ireland and Greece, a debate in the early 1900s concentrated on whether a national conservatory should teach “our own” (indigenous) music or that of the European mainstream – the assumption being that one couldn’t study both.
If one is lucky enough to hear the extant recordings of Our Musical Heritage, Ó Riada’s 1962 radio series, the passion in his intonation is palpable:
Let nobody say that our traditions are inferior to those of any other country. They are our traditions, and as such they suit us best. If they had not suited us, they could not have become traditions in the first place. It is precisely because of their suitability that they have survived so long, in the face of so much opposition, from our own people and also from our oppressors.
Irish music is not merely not European, it is quite remote from it. It is, indeed, closer to some forms of Oriental music. The first thing we must do, if we are to understand it, is to forget about European music. Its standards are not Irish standards; its style is not Irish style; its forms are not Irish forms … By “traditional” I mean the untouched, unarranged, undiluted, unEuropeanised, unWesternised, undressed up, native, orally transmitted music which is still, to the best of my knowledge, the most popular type of music in this country.
It was the same insistence on the continuing validity and relevance of the traditional and its transmission that also makes Kinsella’s contribution so compelling. I think Fanning does not go quite far enough in exploring this. He seems willing to accept the judgement of Harry White that Ó Riada was, musically speaking, a failure in that he did not succeed in making a similar joint or hybrid music in Ireland. White’s condescending attitude to Irish folk music, and his insistence that European “art” music was the way to go, in my view disqualifies him to discuss Ó Riada’s contribution to Irish culture. In considering the dilemma and the paradox that is Ó Riada, Fanning might more profitably have looked at some more recent commentators, such as Benjamin Dwyer, whose substantial Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland (2014) develops these arguments.
Fanning places considerable importance on three factors in traditional Irish society: fiosreacht (intellectual curiosity), meitheal (co-operation among neighbours) and dinnseanchas (the emphasis on the local). Here, we have a Greek equivalent, deeply relevant to the Ó Riada-Theodorakis nexus: the emphasis on the topos or, even more intensely, the choros of the intimately local; it not only supersedes other considerations but, as far as external influences are concerned, it finds them irrelevant. Greece today, like Ireland, is torn apart by the twin imperatives of the local and the global. Ó Riada’s dilemma was, in a sense, the same that faced Whitaker and Kinsella: how to bring Ireland’s indigenous culture (its politics, mythology, the cadences of its oral culture) into fruitful conjunction with the “modern” world.
It is in Fanning’s final section, “How Ireland Might Respond” to the 2020s (note: “respond”, not “lead”), that the issues of his original thesis are re-rehearsed. How Whitaker would have resolved the economic collapse of 2010, neither we, nor Fanning, can determine. Ironically, in music, poetry and prose writing (the areas in which Ó Riada and Kinsella excelled), Ireland could not be more vigorous, more assured and more outward-looking, nor more internationally acclaimed. Which suggests that the future, which Fanning explores with a sanguine and balanced pen, depends not alone on Ireland’s economic welfare but on what its culture (and I use that term, as does Fanning, in its broadest, Tylorian sense) offers.
Politicians and scientists, even when cajoled by plain-speakers like Greta Thunberg, cannot of themselves down-face the crisis of climate change, nor can the rise and fall of global economies be averted by any single government. As Fanning judiciously observes, national sovereignty is on the way out, and nation-building is a risky business. But in matters of ethics, social welfare and the broad issue of “culture”, there is no significant successor today to the example of the three men under review. No firm leadership, no decisiveness, no broad vision. Instead, hesitancy, the same fear that Mac Réamoinn identified, and the force majeure in so many worldwide phenomena, encourage a coalition of weakness.
To emphasise unduly the backward, reverential glance at whatever residue of the “spiritual” can be detected is not helpful. Irish creative genius is up there with the best in the world: not just responding, but leading. The “usual suspects” are obvious: U2 and The Chieftains; John Banville, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney. But there are outstanding examples, also, in classical music: Thomas Kinsella’s brother John (with whom I worked for many years in RTÉ) was a composer whose late flowering as a writer of concertos and symphonies earned him the epithet (from the BBC) of “the most significant Irish symphonist since Stanford”). He was also noted for a brilliant setting of his brother’s “A Selected Life” (1973) commemorating Seán Ó Riada.
But the mind of Ireland, as a future-oriented entity, is in thrall to Starbucks, Ryanair, Amazon and Ferrero Rocher. The environment – moral, ethical, intellectual and basically cultural – which enabled Whitaker, Ó Riada and Kinsella to promulgate their visions is comparatively empty. What the “Irish mind” from Eriugena to Berkeley to Beckett exhibited was an “other” kind of reason, the capacity to think round corners rather than in straight lines. This is what made the intervention of Whitaker in economics, Ó Riada in music and Kinsella, in both translation and his own poetry, so vital.
Branding – on which Fanning is a professional expert – has created a mindset in which the icons of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Google are more important than their content. Ó Riada’s 1962 warning is salutary: “Our way of life, and our customs, are being thrown out in favour of an alien materialism … Our nation, that was bought with blood, is being sold, spiritually as well as physically, before our own eyes, a great madness.”
Yeats’s and de Valera’s visions (which Fanning discusses as lynchpins of the first, Celtic, Revival) eschewed change for the sake of change and espoused basic ethical and communal values (Fanning’s meitheal) as the building blocks of the future. But were Yeats and Dev right for the wrong reasons, or wrong for the right reasons? That critical decision faces us today.
John Fanning brings to this subject the same creative latitude that we can see in his involvement in Captivating Brightness, celebrating the hearth at Ballynahinch Castle as a “forum” for the “party of words and images”, that he co-edited with Des Lally and Peter Fallon: a cultural embrace of how (to use Heaney’s much over-quoted phrase) hope and history rhyme. This is a very important study of ideas which remain central to “reimagining” Ireland, and we should be very grateful that it has at last been published.
Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu and previously worked in the Music and Public Affairs divisions of RTÉ. Among his many books are The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World (2014), Greece Through Irish Eyes (2015) and The Eye of the Xenos: Letters about Greece (2021).
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