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TOM MUNNELLY - The Singing Will Never Be Done: Collected Essays And Lectures, 19902007

TOM MUNNELLY - The Singing Will Never Be Done: Collected Essays And Lectures, 19902007
The Old Kilfarboy Society ISBN 9780955603747

Don’t be deceived by the subtitle. This is in no way the dry and humourless tome that it might appear, as those who knew Tom will know very well. Perhaps a few brief biographical notes will set the scene. Tom grew up in Dublin, starting work in a knitwear factory before coming into contact with traditional song and subsequently developing an interest in the collecting of songs. This in turn led to a lifelong career, much of which was spent in the field, working (if that’s the right word for such a congenial occupation) for the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. He dealt mainly with Irish traditional songs in the English language, helped by his easy sociability, natural rapport with his source singers and (it has to be said), a taste for a pint of porter, and during his working life became an expert in the entire traditional culture and history of Ireland, and very knowledgeable about a good deal of other cultures as well.

In numerical terms he must be one of the most prolific collectors of songs from traditional sources there has ever been, eclipsing single handed most of the English collectors put together. This, together with his lively intellect, meant that his observations on songs and singing were always cogently argued and placed in the context from which they came – something that not every collector is able to do. But all this is to miss one of the most vital attributes of this most entertaining and interesting of men – his sense of humour. Quick, incisive and devastatingly pointed on occasions, it spiced his talks and larded them with a life that other speakers could only envy. And now we have a substantial number of these talks in book form.

The book begins with a brief foreword by his long time colleague and fellow collector, Ríonach uí Ógáin, who briefly and (I believe) accurately assesses Tom’s character and achievements. The first lecture in the book proper is entitled Forty Years Folk Song Collecting and sets the scene for the remainder of the book. Tom’s detached view and his light touch on important issues tell you all you need to know about the man and his career, and you rapidly realise, if you were lucky enough to hear him lecture “live”, that you’re hearing his voice again. If you never had that privilege, then you’re in for a treat!

After that, it’s on to the main part of the book, which deals in detail with subjects as diverse as love, emigration, humour, religion and historical events as related through the medium of traditional song around the island of Ireland. I cannot over-emphasise how well all these subjects are put into context, both historically and socially, allowing the listener (and now the reader) to make a holistic judgement of the meaning and value of the songs to their original composers and to those from whom Tom collected. There are many examples of songs to illustrate the points he’s making, which were usually taken from Tom’s collecting archive, although some have been amended by the editor, Anne Clune, from other more recently recorded sources. It’s difficult to put into words, but you come away from each chapter feeling that your perspective on the subject has been enhanced and with a better knowledge of where it fits in the overall picture – not just of singing, but of the culture and values of the time.

There are chapters on Napoleonic song, narrative song in Co Clare, and the fortunes of traditional Irish song through the 19th and 20th centuries. All these are addressed in typical Munnelly fashion, with sudden darts of humour and sometimes startling comparisons with other cultures and other times. If every folklorist, ethnomusicologist and collector could lecture like this, there’d be huge queues to study the subject at every university in the land!

The book fairly fizzes with memorable quotes and it’s tempting to give many of them here, but I’ll restrict myself to a couple which will, I hope, give a flavour of the book. Firstly, Tom on “excellence in traditional singing”: “traditional singers....were the vehicle through which the song flowed. The song was the star, not the singer.....they were subservient to their art and maintained an objectivity about it. This required an artistic maturity that is lacking in so many cases today....this very important point is missed by so many.”

And contrasting murder ballads and humourous songs: “In the murder ballads the victim dies, but if a comic song is performed to an indifferent audience, the singer dies.” Very true!

Finally, there is a poignant aside in what must have been one of Tom’s very last talks, delivered in Ballyliffin, on the Flight of the Earls and subsequent events, and the songs that resulted. In a rare personal comment that reflects his lifelong passion for singing, he refers to “some health problems” that had kept him away during the period before the talk. These, alas, were to take him altogether within a few months, but the lecture was as robust and intriguing as any he ever gave.

The book ends, most appositely in my view, with the text and air of a song made in Tom’s memory by that master of humorous song, Con Fada Ó Drisceoil, describing Tom’s arrival at the pearly gates and the ensuing conversation with St Peter. The satisfying outcome of this “grand conversation” forms a fitting end to the book, which is well referenced and indexed for those who wish to follow particular avenues of enquiry further. What more could you want?

You’ll probably gather that I thought this an excellent and well put together book, and you’d be right. I had the pleasure of hearing several of these talks when they were first delivered, and to be able to read them again at this remove in time is a great and unexpected pleasure. But above and beyond that, and given the perspective that the passage of time brings, this is an important book, because it documents the broad vista of Irish culture from an exceptionally objective viewpoint while paradoxically, the lecturer himself is entirely engrossed and committed to his subject. In doing all this, it becomes a yardstick by which to judge your own culture – Irish or otherwise.

This book can be enjoyed on many levels – as a memoir of the man, as a commentary on Irish history, as an extended observation of Irish culture, or as a companion to the extension of one’s knowledge of particular aspects of traditional song. However you read it, it most certainly deserves to be on the bookshelf of every song enthusiast throughout these islands and beyond, not just those interested in Irish song. And while it has underlined my regret that Tom isn’t around to enjoy the praises that will, I’m sure, be heaped on this collection, I have to say I’m glad he won’t be reading this review – I’m sure I’d be on the end of a typically pithy Munnelly comment!

John Waltham


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