How Ireland Thinks About Music

Toner Quinn illustrating a point in his recent lecture at Farmleigh House (Photo: Tim Fleming)

How Ireland Thinks About Music

Does Ireland have its own way of thinking about music? How might this perspective have developed? And could it explain the current dynamism in Irish musical life? In this essay, the edited text of a talk given at Farmleigh House on 11 May, Journal of Music Editor Toner Quinn explores these questions and more.

Almost four months ago, I published the book What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, and I realise this title may sound presumptuous, but in reality every country has something to teach the world about music, because every country has its own history and musical traditions. Ireland, therefore, should have something that it can offer the world, particularly given the impact our music has had, and even if, publicly, we tend not to talk too much about what that might be.

The book title comes from an essay of the same name, in which I describe the characteristics of Irish traditional music that make it such a dynamic force in our society. I am always developing my thinking around these ideas, and in this essay I put forward some further thoughts on the subject and point to musical examples. My hope is that we might start to talk about this art form in a more useful way, beyond the PR-filled platitudes, economic exploitation and political manipulation.

How Ireland uses music
One of the reasons I started writing about music in Ireland was because of the ways it is used here – politically in order to make a statement, economically to sell the country, and socially for big occasions. As a musician, I didn’t think it should all go unquestioned. 

The reality is that Irish music is a powerful symbolic force and there are historical reasons for this. When so many other forms of expression were closed to us, articulating ourselves through music took on a deeper, more pointed significance. Politically we were disenfranchised, religiously we were penalised, and linguistically – the very words coming out of our mouths – we were repressed. Music absorbed some of that cultural pressure; perhaps it absorbed a lot of it.

There are significant repercussions for our music because of this. In our public conversation today, music is often completely overwhelmed by the political discussions around it, such as whether or not we should be in the Eurovision because of Israel’s involvement, or why Irish bands boycotted the SXSW festival in Texas in March, or RTÉ’s expenditure on Toy Show The Musical. I write and speak about these issues too – they are important – but it often seems that these conversations are our only public discussions around music. Irish music rarely becomes part of the national discourse unless there is a controversy around it. 

And the political controversies keep coming. A recent development is the way Irish music is now used in anti-immigrant protests: crowds marching banging a bodhrán in Wicklow in April, or playing Sinéad O’Connor and the Chieftains at the protest in Dublin in May. The irony is that so much of traditional Irish music and song documents the migrant experience for Irish people – folk songs like ‘Spancil Hill’ and ‘Skibbereen’ and modern songs such as Luka Bloom’s ‘City of Chicago’ and Christy Moore’s singing of Bobby Sands’ ‘Back Home in Derry’ – even The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ is about the Irish emigrant experience. These are songs that tell of Irish desperation, isolation, poverty and discrimination. And now, Irish people are using Irish music to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. We have almost completely lost our historical perspective, and we need to regain it.

Inside Irish music
In this essay, however, I want to move the focus away from political uses of Irish traditional music to the music itself, because, as I say, what is happening within the music tends to get lost in the national conversation.

Today, we have something quite remarkable: a multi-faceted contemporary musical life across all genres but with an incredibly strong, vibrant and historically continuous folk music and song tradition right at the heart of it all. From hip hop to contemporary composition, artists draw on this folk tradition and are inspired by it, just as traditional musicians move in and out of their own practice and into other genres all the time, while still holding on to a robust core tradition of solo performance. 

The question we have to ask, however, is how did we get here? We have a general idea of the historical reasons, which I have mentioned already, but they would not be enough on their own to produce the vibrancy we are witness to. My experience, from playing this music for almost forty years, is that there is something else at work.

I want to suggest that, along with the repertoire of music and song that have been handed down to us, combined with the styles and techniques, we have also developed a way of thinking about music, and that this way of thinking is more responsible for the dynamism of Irish music than any symbolic value it might have. I think we could even call it a musical philosophy, but because we don’t talk about it publicly in any in-depth way, or communicate it clearly to the wider public, it is being thinned out all the time and it’s quite possible that this way of thinking is in danger of just fading away, like so much of Irish culture that we have already lost.

I suspect that this way of thinking developed in response to the constraints on cultural expression that the Irish were grappling with, and the huge cultural loss we were experiencing, but it also seems to have deeper roots that we can only speculate upon. It balances some difficult things: an extreme flexibility of approach but also a paradoxical rigidity. It’s not easy to get this balance right.

The result of this history and dialectic, however, is that Irish musical life has characteristics that make it very dynamic. These features are most evident in Irish traditional music and song, but they spill out into many aspects of our musical life. It’s a way of thinking that informs how the music is performed, taught and shared, as well as the role of music on social occasions, and the combination of all these aspects.

I believe that if we understood this way of thinking more, talked about it publicly, and encouraged a wider appreciation of it, then we would not only strengthen our musical life further but other communities could learn from it too. Visitors to Ireland often look at our musical life and wonder what is driving it, and I am not sure we have given them a satisfactory answer.

Among the everyday
The first characteristic I would like to draw attention to is the value that we put on sheer spontaneity in Irish traditional music – raw, spontaneous performance in community settings, literally among people in the everyday of life. It’s not uncommon in traditional music for musicians in sessions to play with people they have never played with before, and may never even have met before, for hours on end, with hardly a plan about what they are going to play, and regardless of whether there is an audience or not! In this way of thinking, music is something that can be played anywhere, anytime, with anyone, and in almost any environment. 

A recent example is the group of Cavan teenagers who last November started playing on a delayed Aer Lingus flight from Frankfurt. The footage shows a vibrant session with accomplished musicianship and a positive response from passengers on the flight.

However, when the footage began to spread online, the response was mixed. The session was breaking the rules of modern public decorum. The Irish media picked up on it, there was a mocking article in the Irish Times, and Newstalk asked the concertina player Edel Fox to come on air to explain. She pointed out that it is not that uncommon in traditional music to have this spontaneous element and made a strong case for taking pride in it.

We could also ask, however, what kind of thinking informs this spontaneity? How did this thinking about music come about? What have these Cavan teenagers absorbed through Irish traditional music that tells them this is a natural part of this art form? The Cavan plane session isn’t an isolated incident. There are videos online of Irish musicians playing in all sorts of environments – Daoirí Farrell starting a sing-song in an airport (a video that has over 29 million views), the late Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Liam O’Flynn playing tunes on the whistle on a plane with members of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland (including a teenage Mairéad Hickey, the renowned classical music violinist), as well as plenty of other footage of Irish musicians on planes, trains, boats, the Tube in London, on streets, and of course in pubs. 

These scenes could be dismissed as a little bit of fun, but this kind of spontaneity is everywhere in traditional music. There is, of course, footage of people from other countries playing in public places, but not to this extent. Spontaneity – embracing the moment – seems to be a key value in Irish music.

Music of the displaced 
But why is this? Firstly, we could note that this art form emerged as an outdoor music, played by fiddlers and pipers at fairs, dances and markets, and the music had to be robust enough to adapt. We could also remember that this is the music of a displaced people. The Irish were a displaced population; we were forced to leave our land – both within the country through waves of colonisation, pushing us from east to west and all other directions, and of course expelled abroad too. We had to constantly adapt, accept the environments we found ourselves in, and find the potential for expression within.

If this is too speculative, then we should also consider that there may be a precedent for this adaptability. This music is dance music, and at the time that it emerged in Irish history, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, dance was one of the main social activities for Irish people. When one reads about that time, for example, in Mary Friel’s Dancing as a social pastime in the south-east of Ireland, 1800–1897it’s clear that this very same kind of spontaneity was part of that culture. 

The image of Irish dance that has come down to us (and I mean long before Riverdance) is Irish people ‘dancing at the crossroads’ – but  that was only a part of it. The Irish danced everywhere.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, dance was part of the farming and religious calendar in rural Ireland and integral to social occasions. Travellers to Ireland often commented on this: people danced at cattle fairs, market days, hurling matches, horse races, bonfire evenings, weddings, when the harvest was completed, every Sunday after mass, and even during rests when working on the bog – at lunch they would find a grassy patch called the móinín and organise a dance. If there were no instruments one or two might lilt the tunes. They would also dance on village greens, in barns with the dancing master when he would visit, at religious celebrations, in bars and síbíns, and at crossroads. (The reason they chose crossroads was, in part, because they were meeting points at the edge of parishes so that if a priest came along they could move to the next parish. The clergy were constantly discouraging this music, and again this encouraged our adaptable approach.)

Even on ‘coffin ships’ during the Famine, dance was present. Every Irish child learns about the coffin ships at school, boats full of death, disease and misery that carried Irish people to America and Canada away from the Famine. But there is also documentation of young people organising dances up on deck while terribly sad situations were taking place below, for example, in Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary. The deck was a perfect place for a dance because of the space and the sound it would make. Similarly, in the early 1800s in Ireland, Irish people would often take the cottage door off its hinges and put it on the ground to dance on, to obtain the battering sound.

As Friel writes, ‘Dancing was an activity that could happen at anytime, anywhere, in the life of the lower classes. No ballroom was required. A musician was a bonus but one could dance to whistling, singing or lilting if the need arose … music could move the Irish peasantry to dance spontaneously wherever they could find a space’ (p. 25/26). It seems, therefore, that this spontaneity was part of our culture of dance when this music emerged. Is it somehow still encoded in our culture today? However it arose, it is a clear characteristic. I think that if there had been a broader appreciation of this facet when the Cavan plane session broke out, that there may in fact be deep cultural reasons for this spontaneity through displacement, we would have had quite a different public conversation. Instead of the negative reaction, the public would have said, ‘Ah yes, that spontaneity is Irish music’, and know the reasons why. 

All sounds the same?
Spontaneity not only relates to where and when the music is played, but it is also embedded within the structure of the music itself. It is too often said that Irish traditional music is ‘repetitive’, but in reality it never stops changing material, more than many musics in fact. We play traditional music in ‘sets’ – sets of tunes, and the tunes are very short. It takes you around 30 or 40 seconds to play a whole tune through and you may play it just three times, so every 90 seconds or two minutes, you are quickly assessing what tune to go into, and that unpredictability adds to the spontaneity in the music. Traditional musicians can play for hours without repeating a tune. When we hear the comment, therefore, that traditional music ‘all sounds the same’, we should be pushing back on this publicly, because it is imposing on one of the key characteristics of the music, which is its spontaneity. In fact, these comments rob it of this key trait.

An extraordinary example of this spontaneity in Irish music is the footage online of Martin Hayes and Steve Cooney playing at the Doolin Folk Festival in 2018. Hayes plays three tunes, beginning with the ‘Maghera Mountain’ reel and then moving into ‘The Crooked Road’ at a faster pace. A deep intensity arises in the second tune, and suddenly, rather than moving on to the third reel, ‘The Foxhunter’s’, they decide to continue playing the second one, and you can witness the total unpredictability at work. In this liminal space, anything can happen.

Hayes and Cooney have recorded two of these tunes together so it is not entirely unplanned, but the way they play them is clearly spontaneous, and this flexibility feeds the music and encourages risk-taking, to the extent that at one stage the music borders on the edge, with percussive elements from Cooney and Hayes stretching the melody with spiccato bowing.

Maybe not precisely like this, but this same kind of unpredictability and spontaneity can be seen in traditional music sessions all the time. This adventure is not something novel in the music, nor exclusively the domain of exceptional musicians like Hayes and Cooney. It is an intrinsic value and one of the qualities that gives the music its strength. If someone therefore describes the music as repetitive, that it ‘all sounds the same’, or worst of all, as ‘diddly-aye’, it means they haven’t heard that spontaneity, and I think that is partly because we don’t talk publicly enough about it. We have allowed this misinterpretation to persist and it is time we began to challenge it more.

Passing it on
A third noticeable characteristic of traditional music is the seriousness with which we take the passing on of the music to the next generation. This is a really important part of what traditional musicians do. They don’t hesitate to share their knowledge with younger musicians, regardless of whether they are their ‘teacher’ or not. Many traditional musicians describe themselves as ‘self-taught’, but it is only in a community in which everyone is your ‘teacher’ that this could happen. 

I am often struck by the status that a young musician can have at a traditional music session. A child playing a simple tune will sometimes command more attention than experienced artists. Young musicians are taken seriously, and listened to closely by the community, and they are talked about and held up as signs of vibrancy in the music. Again, this is informed by our history. If you didn’t ‘pass on’ the music – the style, repertoire and techniques – it simply faded away. This is why traditional musicians always talk about where they obtained a tune before playing it. It reflects the values that are deep within the music.

A way of understanding the importance of transmission, or passing on the music, is by comparing the written notes of a tune to how traditional musicians actually play. It is radically different – rhythmically and melodically; often, when musicians are playing in a session, it can take them a few moments to recognise a tune that they play regularly, simply because there are so many different ways of playing these melodies. This variety, which is not written down, and often can’t be written down, illustrates just how much knowledge is passed on by aural transmission, down through the generations over the years. Traditional musicians pick up a huge amount of musical information through listening, talking and playing.

Again, this emphasis on passing on the music, which is such a part of traditional Irish music, spills out into our wider musical culture. It is interesting that of all the causes that U2 could have funded, they chose to focus on music education, a national programme called Music Generation. In 2009, they committed to part-funding this initiative. At the time, The Edge said, ‘Access to music for children and young people is something that is very close to our hearts … the chance to pass that on is important.’ Again, there’s a variation on that phrase – ‘pass it on’

Helping us through
One advantage of having such a robust process for handing on this music is the continuity we have with the past. It gives us a cultural and social strength that we can draw on at challenging times and therefore this deep-rooted tradition also helps Ireland psychologically. 

The most recent example was the pandemic, which shocked the whole country, cut people off from their families, and caused the death of almost ten thousand people in Ireland. Irish musicians, as soon as the pandemic struck, instinctively reached out to people online and tried to create a sense of community again, and that set the tone for how the country dealt with the pandemic thereafter – as a community. But then, after almost two years of restrictions and that related trauma, something else happened that shocked the whole country, the death of Ashling Murphy. A 23-year-old excellent fiddle player and primary school teacher who was also learning the uilleann pipes, she was out for a run near Tullamore and was murdered. 

Just two days later, on 14 January 2022, the Late Late Show on RTÉ television broadcast a tribute to her and invited a number of traditional musicians and singers to perform. Two of the artists that night were Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlátharta from An Áird Mhóir near Carna in Conamara, and as a tribute they sang a sean-nós song called ‘Anach Cuain’. It is a performance that is both ancient and modern because they use harmony, but the skill of their traditional singing is what makes it so powerful. Caoimhe and Séamus are a result of the kind of thinking in traditional music that I have described already. I recently attended Féile Joe Éinniú – the Joe Heaney festival of sean-nós singing in Carna – which is now in its 38th year and is run by a voluntary committee. Every year the festival provides workshops for children to learn sean-nós. Caoimhe and Séamus literally grew up with that festival, learning through it and from those involved with it. 

On the Late Late Show, they sing just one verse and it is only two minutes long, but you can see how our rooted music tradition comes to the fore at moments like this, and how all of the power and learning that this art brings expresses a grief that is beyond words. 

‘Anach Cuain’ is a song written almost two hundred years ago about a drowning in Galway, and it is sung in a language that not everyone watching the programme would have understood, and yet it is incredibly moving. Once again, Irish music is an expression of community, helping us through these difficult moments, and I think we need to talk more about how having such continuity in music gives us a social solidarity that helps us deal with these kinds of shocking events, and will again in the future.

Everyone together
The last characteristic of Irish traditional music that I would like to discuss is communal involvement, the idea of involving everyone in the music. In Irish traditional music sessions, musicians will often reach out to a singer in the room who is not necessarily part of the group of musicians, and they may not even know them, or if there are people from abroad who are listening they will often ask them to sing, or they may ask a musician to join them for a tune, or encourage people to be involved somehow. I know these aspects of Irishness can be caricatured in our popular culture, but there is a genuine impulse behind them. It is almost as if the more people musicians can get to connect with the music, the more powerful it is, and it may be partly related to our history and the significance that Irish music took on: in a form of expression that was under pressure, under stricture, under surveillance, there is safety in numbers. For Irish musicians, having more people involved means they are getting closer to what they instinctively feel this music is about, which is community, nurturing that sense of community, and maybe even building resilience.

Of course, we see communal involvement in all types of music, but it seems to be a particularly important value in Irish traditional music, and then it spills out into other aspects of our musical culture.

An example was the Ceiliúradh concert from almost exactly ten years ago in April 2014. This concert took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London and it was organised to mark the first visit of the President of Ireland to Britain, following the Queen of England’s visit to Ireland three years previous. This was an historic visit and a cathartic event for Ireland, marking improved relationships between the two countries. It was, as the director of the event Philip King said recently on RTÉ radio, ‘an emotional night’.

At the end of the concert, when a whole host of Irish musicians and British-born Irish musicians were on stage singing the ‘Auld Triangle’, Glen Hansard speaks to the audience before the very last chorus and encourages them to join in. What happens next is remarkable. The response from the audience is instinctive: the entire Royal Albert Hall stands up and sings a capella. Clearly, from an Irish perspective, the evening would not have been complete without involving everyone in the room, and everyone understood this. 

Not every music is like this
I think many readers may be familiar with the characteristics I have described above. We reference them in our popular culture, but sometimes I don’t think we realise how powerful they actually are, and that not every music is like this – or at least they have not managed to hold on to these characteristics in the same way.

This musical culture has developed over centuries, and the way of thinking that accompanies it is essential to it, but unless we deepen the discussion around this music, and broaden the public conversation, then these characteristics will inevitably fade away, as they probably already have in certain areas.

On the other hand, if we can expand our understanding of what makes Irish music such a valuable part of our society, support these innate characteristics, and temper the politicisation of the music, then we can look forward to an even more vibrant Irish music into the future.

This is the edited text of a talk given at Farmleigh House, Dublin, on 11 May 2024, as part of the OPW’s cultural programme. Toner Quinn’s new book What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music is available to purchase here.

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Published on 20 May 2024

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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