The Companion to Irish Traditional Music – edited by Fintan Vallely

A review of a the first enyclopaedia of Irish traditional music.

When I first heard that compilation had begun for The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, I must admit I was not convinced that it would amount to anything. Not, however, because I though it would be a superfluous volume to the needs of traditional music – readers, do you realise that despite the millions of words written about Irish traditional music in newspapers throughout the world over the last ten years, until now there has been no serious book to put things in perspective, separate the gloss from the hard thinking, and give the important ideas room to breathe! By putting down some facts and presenting a clear way of discussing and thinking about traditional music, we can perhaps at last begin to combat the amount of nonsense written and spoken about it.

Nonetheless, this was certainly not what I expected when I heard about the initiative, and from Fintan Vallely’s Introduction I gather there were many musicians’ curious and some suspicious about the editor’s intentions. The fact that there is so much ambiguous rubbish swirling around the music, I thought to myself, where is Fintan Vallely to start? Oh, I sighed, it will probably be a cosy assemblage of sleevenote philosophising and over-enthusiastic nonsence.

Not so! In fact, I can report that not at any stage during my perusal of this book did I cringe, scoff, or vehemently disagree with anything written. In fact, Vallely has somehow managed to rise above the commercial maelstrom that makes a mockery of the music and inject a bit of discernment and intelligence into the whole affair. How did he do it? Simple, he asked the musicians and those intrinsically involved in the music to do the contributing! For they are the people that know more about it than anyone, and in this volume their writing is very clear, thoughtful and constructive. Furthermore, there is no dogma.

The book is in A-Z format, which works very well, and it has a splendid bibliography, discography, and a chronology of events in traditional music throughout history.

It is extraordinary how different the musician’s perception of this music is to that perception which throngs our national newspapers and the radio and television coverage of the music. The real questions are: where to now? How can we capatilise on this initiative? Will the book be left to stand alone, eventually becoming a dusty historical reference, or will more books, encouraged by its success, spring from it? The writers obviously exist. What about a publisher? It is welcome that a book publisher (even better, an Irish one) has taken traditional music seriously, and perhaps Cork University Press will be spurred on to produce even more books written by traditional musicians.

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Nov–Dec 2000), pp. 19

Published on 1 November 2000

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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