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HARRY WHITE & BARRA BOYDELL (EDS) - The Encyclopedia Of Music In Ireland

HARRY WHITE & BARRA BOYDELL (EDS) - The Encyclopedia Of Music In Ireland
UCD Press, Dublin ISBN: 9781906359782

From time to time one hears researched radio essays about curious aspects of recreational and devotional musics in 18th-19th century Dublin, Belfast, Cork and the major Irish towns. A lot of it is of interest to, and important for, understanding traditional music, but for its followers, historians, musicians and students and for those involved in Irish Studies, getting access to that kind of data in the one place has not yet been possible. The Encyclopedia Of Music In Ireland (EMIR) addresses this, a resource that is a panoramic window on to formal and informal music-making on the island over some three centuries. The literate music traditions – early Classical, music in the Churches, Choral and the music of politics - dominate, but Irish indigenous (‘Traditional’) music and song are covered too. All entries are authoritative, eye-opening and record-straightening and most are on needed and expected topics and themes which throw light on society over a period in which what we now call ‘Traditional’ was the popular music for the majority of the poorer classes on the island.

The two volumes have about 69% of Classical, Church and Musicology, 25% on Traditional (Irish) music and 6% on modern Popular/Rock musics. The primary critique of a dictionary concerns presences and absences of particular categories or people; after that the word-count is assumed to reflect on significance and/or editorial preference. So, one wonders why Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s D.G., Labhrás Ó Murchú is missing from biographical entries, as is also Adrian Scahill, the very section editor for Traditional music! Scahill had charge over a quarter of the book’s total content and although thanked in the acknowledgements, he does not appear in the credits page and his biography is missing. Yet the entry on the word ‘traditional’ alone has a whopping, text-book swathe of about 13 pages - a major essay. This however emphasizes a major unevenness or uncertainty with this genre, for while all aspects of Classical musicology, including the Churches and marching and police bands, are placed confidently in the alphabetic structure, traditional music is not considered to be so familiar. For instance, one might have expected the terms ‘bands’ or ‘groups’ (the lingua franca in both rock/pop and traditional) to be in the alphabetic listing, just as ‘orchestras’ appears alphabetically and not as a sub-category of ‘Art music’ or ‘Classical’. Neither of these latter two terms themselves in fact are listed for definition, a critical absence perhaps, for since ‘Art’ and ‘Classical’ appear frequently in a genre sense over the course of articles and are also applicable adjectivally to the top end of Traditional-music performance today, they do merit clarification here. The assumption in not doing so may be that they are perfectly common terms (which they may be indeed, but by rote, and, typically, are inadequately understood, as well as being challenged). The term ‘Traditional music’ however is no more clear or unclear, yet is (appropriately and well) explained in great detail.

A political observation is perhaps appropriate too for a book covering all forms of music in Ireland, for ‘Anglo-Irish’ is not a listed concept; nor are ‘British’, ‘English’, ‘Imperial’, ‘ideology’, ‘Hiberno-English’, ‘Republican’ or ‘Musicians’ Union’. A somewhat disappointing set of omissions, considering that ‘Loyalism’, ‘Orange Order’ and ‘Ulster-Scots’ are covered. Those absences can only serve to shut out the active consideration of class, linguistic, cultural and political tensions between native and colonist, between the poor and the rising native middle class, Ireland and ‘the Crown’, the breadwinning musician and the theatre managers, which, since these are bound up with survival, opportunity, function, fashion and exclusion, are the very stuff of impetus and change in all musics, are particularly relevant to Irish Traditional.

Yet the book does not ignore the consequences of politics over the centuries; rather its modus operandi is to step back and observe, typically in meticulous data on music associated with each of the post-Reformation churches, on music business and on not only all of the great volume of Anglo-Irish engagement with European Classical music, but also on the exploration of indigenous Irish melodies and forms by both musicians patronized by the Irish establishment elite and those composers in Britain and Europe who were fascinated by ‘ancient’ dance music and song. Thus we have a terrific résumé by Axel Klein on the fashionable ersatz and the researched orchestral and choral arrangements of indigenous Irish material.

This popularity of distinctively-Irish material highlights a critical distinction in ‘Irishness’ which is raised elsewhere in this book, that between music which is indigenously Irish on the one hand and that composed by people of Irish birth or domicile on the other. Thus Klein can note that while in modern times those Irish Contemporary-Classical composers such as Gerald Barry can have an influence in movements in German music, this was not at all the case for earlier Irish-born, European-Art-music composers in the 19th century, due to “the lack of a sufficiently large number of eminent musical personalities among Irish immigrants”. A pointer indeed back to the impact of the Famine and the music of the Irish masses, for it generated a migratory exodus to America and Britain: vast numbers of poor, dispropertied and damaged people who were not typically of the classes blessed by music education or European music experience. Among these were “countless numbers of undocumented musicians, singers and dancers” who are described through song by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin in what is the most traumatic article in the volume.

The encyclopedia has extensive analytical articles on Traditional music per se, as well as 360-odd biographies of that music’s leading personalities, stylists and ideologues. Among its 215 or so descriptive pieces is writing covering such as Traditional music in America and England, dance, song, transmission, gender issues, collection, revival, aesthetics, broadcasting and recording, superb articles by Scahill, song authority John Moulden and fiddler and Traditional-music University lecturer Martin Dowling stand out. These are a tremendous resource, a tribute to section-editor Scahill’s own writing and analytical skills as well as his planning, commissioning and editing. The more academic of these are comprehensive and text-book in style, providing a thematic and contextual cross-linking and balance. A weakness among this material is an underplaying of the scale of Traditional music performance in some of the ‘city’ articles, notably in that on Galway.

Some of the analysis is ‘opinion’ in style, but it nevertheless invites observation and debate on key topics, even where some generalisations are questionable. Another concerns ‘Loyalism’ which, as a major player in attitudes to Traditional music without question should be covered. But its presence in any document on Ireland demands balance by giving equal weight to its raison d’être, ‘Republicanism’ which, though equally profoundly represented by song, is not covered in this book. This feels like a blinkering out of the anti-British ‘other’ in EMIR.

Politics aside, the vital topics in Traditional music are covered descriptively in fine writing with succinct precision; the broader historical data on Classical forms, events and issues serve to provide a valuable contextual and complementary palette of information which applies across the genres – making sense indeed of some of what is now embedded in ‘Traditional’. Information quality is underpinned by the fact that the writers are mostly musicians themselves and most are involved as academics in teaching in Universities and colleges. These are jobs which couldn’t have been dreamt of when the Traditional-music revival got under way in the 1950s, but which passionate educators like uilleann piper and bandsman Seán Reid (covered in the text) likely hoped for as he argued successfully with Co. Clare Vocational Education Committee in the 1960s for teaching-space for music.

The EMIR is an overdue and important work, a kaleidoscopic record of what was and what is in the artistic and intellectual potential of ‘music’ in Ireland. And even though it has major errors and omissions that should be corrected in future editions, it is quite a monument which is vital to cultural understanding in and of Ireland, and will be particularly valuable to those seeking a deeper appreciation of Traditional musics.

Fintan Vallely is a musician and writer, and an Adjunct Professor at University College Dublin’s School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics. He is editor of the 880-page encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music (2011). Statistical data on the content balance of the Emir can be found on his website,

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This album was reviewed in Issue 100 of The Living Tradition magazine.