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Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

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Music and Identity in Ireland
and Beyond

Edited by

Mark Fitzgerald
Conservatory of Music and Drama, Dublin Institute of Technology,

John O’Flynn
St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University, Ireland
© Mark Fitzgerald, John O’Flynn, and the Contributors 2014

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.

Mark Fitzgerald and John O’Flynn have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the editors of this work.

Published by
Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate Publishing Company
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Music and identity in Ireland and beyond / edited by Mark Fitzgerald and John O’Flynn.
pages cm
 Includes bibliographical references and index.
 ISBN 978-1-4724-0966-9 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-4724-0967-6 (ebook) —
ISBN 978-1-4724-0968-3 (epub) 1. Music—Ireland—History and criticism. 2. Music—Social
aspects—Ireland—History. 3. Music—Northern Ireland—History and criticism. 4. Music—
Social aspects—Northern Ireland—History. I. Fitzgerald, Mark. II. O’Flynn, John. –
  ML287.M87 2014

ISBN 9781472409669 (hbk)

ISBN 9781472409676 (ebk – PDF)
ISBN 9781472409683 (ebk – ePUB)

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Printed in the United Kingdom by Henry Ling Limited,

at the Dorset Press, Dorchester, DT1 1HD

List of Contributors   vii

Foreword:by Gerry Smyth   xi
Acknowledgements   xiii

Introduction   1
John O’Flynn and Mark Fitzgerald

Part I:  Historical Perspectives

1 ‘Whatever has a Foreign Tone /We like much better than

our own’: Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the
Eighteenth Century   19
Barra Boydell

2 Traditional Music in the Irish Revival   39

Martin Dowling

3 ‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’:

Re-appropriating the Early Twentieth Century into a Chronology
of Irish Composition   53
Edmund Hunt

4 The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran   69

Fabian Gregor Huss

5 Inventing Identities: The Case of Frederick May   83

Mark Fitzgerald

6 Forging a Northern Irish Identity: Music Broadcasting on

BBC Northern Ireland, 1924–39   103
Ruth Stanley

Part II: Recent and Contemporary Production

7 ‘From Inside my Head’: Issues of Identity in Northern Ireland

through the Music of Kevin O’Connell   121
Jennifer McCay
vi Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

8 The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence: Issues of Irish

Identity in the Music and Writings of Raymond Deane   137
Adrian Smith

9 Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed: Irish Traditional Musical

Identity in Changing Community Contexts   151
Kari K. Veblen

10 Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland   165

Isabella van Elferen

11 Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? The Ambivalent and Disruptive

Hybridity of Early 1990s’ U2   179
Noel McLaughlin

Part III: Cultural Explorations

12 Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island   205
Thérèse Smith

13 Positive Vibrations: Musical Communities in African Dublin   219

Matteo Cullen

14 Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music   233

John O’Flynn

15 Music in Ireland: Youth Cultures and Youth Identity   259

Eileen Hogan

16 The Invention of Ethnicity: Traditional Music and the Modulations

of Irish Culture   273
Harry White

Select Bibliography   287

Index   315
List of Contributors

Barra Boydell retired in 2010 from a professorship in music at the National

University of Ireland, Maynooth. Editor with Harry White of the Encyclopaedia
of Music in Ireland (UCD Press, 2013), they were awarded (jointly) the Harrison
Medal by the Society for Musicology in Ireland in 2014. Boydell’s extensive
publications also include Music at Christ Church before 1800: Documents and
Selected Anthems (Eighteenth Century Ireland Society, 1998), A History of Music
at Christ Church Cathedral Dublin (Boydell Press, 2004) and Music, Ireland and
the Seventeenth Century, co-edited with Kerry Houston (Four Courts Press, 2009).

Matteo Cullen is currently Lecturer in English at the Military Technological

College, Muscat in Oman. An active rock musician, he previously worked with
Kyoto City Board of Education. He was awarded a PhD by the University of
Limerick in 2012 for his thesis focussing on the music of Rory Gallagher, Phil
Lynott and Van Morrison He has written a number of reviews and book chapters,
including ‘Irish Rock Music 1968–1978’ in Clark and Álvarez (eds) In the Wake of
the Tiger: Irish Studies in the Twenty-First Century (Netbiblo, 2010).

Martin Dowling is lecturer in Irish Traditional Music in the School of Creative

Arts at Queen’s University Belfast. A noted Irish fiddle player, Dowling regularly
performs and teaches at festivals in Ireland, Europe, and the USA. Collaborations
include the CDs A Thousand Farewells with Christine Dowling and Daithí Sproule
(1998) and TwentyTwelve (2013) with the Trad Noise Trio, which he co-founded
with Ryan Molloy and Úna Monaghan. He has published extensively in the area
of Irish social and music history, including Traditional Music and Irish Society:
Historical Perspectives (Ashgate, 2014).

Isabella van Elferen is professor of Music at Kingston University London. She

is the author of Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (University of Wales
Press, 2012, winner of the Alan Lloyd Smith prize), Mystical Love in the German
Baroque: Theology – Poetry – Music (Scarecrow Press, 2009), and the editor of
Nostalgia or Perversion? Gothic Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century until
the Present Day (Cambridge Scholars, 2007). She is currently working on a new
book, Goth Music: From Sound to Subculture (Routledge, forthcoming, 2015)
with Dr Jeffrey Weinstock.

Mark Fitzgerald is a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory

of Music and Drama. He was executive editor of the Encyclopaedia of Music in
viii Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Ireland (UCD Press, 2013) for which he also wrote a number of articles, including
those on Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane, Ergodos, Modernism and Oscar Wilde.
Forthcoming publications include an article on Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust,
an article on Gerald Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise for Irish Musical Studies 11 (Horton
and Cox (eds), Four Courts Press, 2014) and a book on the Irish composer James
Wilson (commissioned by Field Day).

Eileen Hogan is a lecturer in Applied Social Studies at University College Cork,

with particular interest in music-oriented research. She is currently completing
doctoral studies at the Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool on music
making, identity and popular music policy, involving ethnographic research in
Cork city. Eileen’s other current research activities include a principal investigator
role in a collaborative, interdisciplinary, all-Ireland study of music education-
oriented youth work and an archival research project and exhibition on the iconic
Sir Henry’s music venue in Cork. Publications include a range of conference
papers, book chapters, and journal articles.

Edmund Hunt is completing a PhD in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire,

UK, under the supervision of Edwin Roxburgh and Richard Causton. Prior to this he
completed an MMus at Newcastle University, where he specialized in composition
and musicology with particular focus on composition in twentieth-century
Ireland. Today, Edmund’s primary activity is composition. His works have been
performed by soloists and ensembles including Psappha, The Northern Sinfonia,
Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, CHROMA, BCMG, ICARUS
Vocal Ensemble, The Britten Sinfonia and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fabian Gregor Huss is a part-time lecturer and research assistant at the University
of Bristol, UK, where he completed his PhD on Frank Bridge in 2010. He is
currently completing a monograph on Bridge’s music (Boydell, forthcoming).
He has published articles on E.J. Moeran, in the Dictionary of Irish Biography,
the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, Journal of the Society for Musicology in
Ireland, the Musical Times, Tempo and for Irish Musical Studies 11 (Horton and
Cox (eds), Four Courts Press, 2014). He also contributed to The Music of Herbert
Howells (Cooke and Maw (eds), Boydell Press, 2013).

Jennifer McCay is completing a PhD on the music of Kevin O’Connell at

University College Dublin. She lectures in the Royal Irish Academy of Music on
second- and third-level courses and is also a Senior Examiner with their Local
Centre Examinations Office. She was co-editor of The Musicology Review Issue 6
(Dublin, 2009–10) and has contributed to Issue 7 (2011) and the Encyclopaedia
of Music in Ireland (UCD Press, 2013). She is pianist for Pro Nuova of the Pro-
Cathedral, Dublin.
List of Contributors ix

Noel McLaughlin is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Northumbria

University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK. He has written extensively about Irish
popular music, most recently in Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and
After U2 (with Martin McLoone, Irish Academic Press, 2012). Noel is currently
co-editing a special issue of Popular Music History with Sean Campbell exploring
Irish popular music in Britain and is also working on a new monograph, The Rock
Musician on Film. He currently lives in London.

John O’Flynn is Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at St Patrick’s College, Dublin
City University. He is author of The Irishness of Irish Music (Ashgate, 2009) and
has penned numerous book chapters, articles, reviews and encyclopaedia entries
on a diverse range of topics in the fields of musicology, music education and
music sociology. He was founding chair of the Society for Music Education in
Ireland 2010–13, and currently acts as chair for the Council of Heads of Music in
Higher Education.

Adrian Smith is completing a PhD on the articulation of formal structure in the

music of Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane and Kevin Volans at DIT Conservatory of
Music and Drama, Ireland, having received John Hume and IRCHSS scholarships.
His research interests include musical modernism, postmodernism, music and
philosophy (particularly the Frankfurt School) and the interaction between music,
literature and the visual arts. Publications include an analytical article on Volans
for Irish Musical Studies 11 (Horton and Cox (eds), Four Courts Press, 2014) and
articles for the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (UCD Press, 2013).

Thérèse Smith has lectured at Brown University, USA, Bowdoin College, USA
and, since 1991, University College Dublin, where she is Associate Professor
of Music. Major published works include “Let the Church Sing!”: Music and
Worship in a Black Mississippi Community (Rochester University Press, 2004),
Ancestral Imprints: Histories of Irish Traditional Music and Dance (ed.) (Cork
University Press, 2012), Crosbhealach an Cheoil : Education and Traditional
Music (co-ed.) (Whinstone, 2013), Moving in the Spirit: Worship through Music
in Clear Creek, Mississippi (documentary LP recording), and Irish Folk Music
Studies/Éigse Cheol Tíre 5–6 (ed. with Hugh Shields and Nicholas Carolan).

Ruth Stanley completed a BMus at CIT Cork School of Music and an MA at Mary
Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland. In 2011 she was conferred
with a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on the history
of classical, popular and traditional musics in Ireland and Northern Ireland in the
twentieth century, particularly in relation to issues of broadcasting and identity.
She is a contributor to the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland.

Kari K. Veblen is Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of

Western Ontario, Canada. She has served as visiting scholar at the University of
x Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Toronto, Canada, research associate at the University of Limerick Ireland, and

curriculum consultant to orchestras and elementary music teachers. She is author,
co-author and co-editor of several books and articles including most recently
Community Music Today (ed. with S.J. Messenger, M. Silverman and D.J. Elliott,
R&L Education, 2013). She is associate editor of the International Journal of
Community Music with Lee Higgins.

Harry White is Professor of Music at University College Dublin and a Fellow of

the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He was inaugural President of the Society for
Musicology in Ireland from 2003 until 2006, and was elected to the Royal Irish
Academy in 2006. His publications include The Keeper’s Recital (Cork University
Press, 1998), The Progress of Music in Ireland (Four Courts Press, 2005) and Music
and the Irish Literary Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is general
editor (with Barra Boydell) of The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (UCD
Press, 2013).
Foreword: The Song Remains the Same
Gerry Smyth

Between October 2010 and January 2011 I offered a lecture course on ‘Music
and Irish Identity’ at the University of Vienna where I was at the time Visiting
Professor. Part of the assessment for the course was a 1,000-word essay on a piece
of music chosen by the students themselves. Amongst all the usual material – good
bad and indifferent – one submission sticks in my memory: it was by a young
Japanese woman who chose to write her essay on ‘Caribbean Blue’ – a song
included on Enya’s 1991 album Shepherd Moons.
The song, wrote the student, made her feel strange; she couldn’t make out all
the lyrics (and what she could make out she couldn’t really understand), but every
time she played it she saw pictures in her head and she could feel her temperature
and heart rate changing. She noticed also that listening to ‘Caribbean Blue’ had
a profound impact on her mood – after hearing it, she felt differently about the
world and about herself. She felt jealous, she wrote, that she didn’t come from
a background in which such music could be produced, and she envied those for
whom it was part of their cultural inheritance.
I ran into the student just before I left Vienna, but had to wait for her to shed a
set of headphones before I could talk to her. When I asked what she was listening
to, she handed me the machine on the mini screen of which was the cover of The
Celts, the remastered version of Enya’s eponymous debut album from 1986. She
loved it, I hated it – there was a moment …
The student did well enough in the assessment, and I gave her some feedback
on technique and sources. What I didn’t mention was how jealous I felt of her, and
of her ability to be able to hear music in the way she had described in the essay.
‘Enya’ signifies many things to me, but the list does not include ‘excitement’,
‘imagination’ or ‘life-affirming magic’. I’ve read too much about microphone
technology and equalization, international publishing and distribution deals, niche
marketing and genre development; I’ve also read too much about mystical Celts,
about colonialist stereotyping and identity politics. When I hear ‘Caribbean Blue’,
I cannot but hear it with reference to this array of issues; to put it technically,
my engagement with the music is over-determined by a range of non-musical
discourses. The fact is that I could not possibly hear what the Japanese student
heard, and I feel my life to be somewhat impoverished as a result.
Although people have been studying Irish music, as well as music in Ireland for
a long time, it has become increasingly clear in recent times that a series of wider
developments – Popular Music Studies, Cultural Studies, the New Musicology
xii Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

and so on – has revolutionized the field, and that this has in turn necessitated a
new conceptualization of what ‘Irish music’ is and how it functions. This volume
represents an important contribution to that developing tradition. The assembly of
established, emerging and new scholars makes for a fascinating mix of approaches
and perspectives. At the same time the breadth of the material and the brilliance
of the contributions auger well for an expanding field that is still finding its way
in the modern academy.
This is all as it should be, and I’m very glad to a part of this exciting project,
and to be able to support the current venture. At the same time, I remember the
look on the student’s face when she handed me the iPod, and the melancholy
feeling that overcame me when I realized that ‘knowing’ the music had in some
senses deprived me of the excitement and the pleasure that she was experiencing.
This is a variation of the old Wordsworthian adage that ‘We murder to dissect’ –
that the drive to find out how something works is, at least in part, a destructive
gesture. And yet we are, to coin a phrase, the dissecting animal: our civilization is
to a defining degree a function of our insatiable need to know how things work,
and that extends as much to the cultural realm as to the natural world.
As I read these brilliant interventions on music and Irish identity, and as I
follow the arguments and discover more about how ‘the thing’ works, I try hard
(it’s not easy) to recall how the music made me feel before I became obsessed
with dissection. It’s a small gesture, but I invite other readers to attempt the same.

The idea for this book emerged from the symposium ‘Music and Identity in
Ireland’ which took place in December 2006 at the National University of Ireland
Maynooth, and which was co-organized by Barra Boydell and the editors. We
wish to acknowledge Barra’s initiative and significant contribution, not only
before and throughout the symposium, but also during the early planning stages
for this publication.
The editors would also like to acknowledge the assistance of friends, colleagues
and others in the preparation of this manuscript: Gerry Smyth and Jan Smaczny for
their substantial feedback on earlier drafts; Heidi Bishop, Emma Gallon, Barbara
Pretty, Sarah Price and their colleagues at Ashgate; Gwen O’Dowd, for generously
granting permission to reproduce her artwork; Patricia Flynn; Marie Hanlon;
Gareth Cox; Eugene O’Brien.
Preparation for the book was aided through the following institutions: An Foras
Feasa (The Institute for Research in Irish Historical and Cultural Traditions) by
funding research leave in spring 2011 and conference attendance in summer 2012;
St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University by contributing to cover design costs.
Finally, the editors wish to express heartfelt thanks to all the authors whose
commitment, scholarship and unique perspectives combine to offer an appropriately
kaleidoscopic vista of the subject matter in question.
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John O’Flynn and Mark Fitzgerald


Associations between the entity of Ireland and music have occupied cultural
commentators, scholars, musicians and ideologues for several centuries now;
while often disparate in terms of interpretation and intent they nonetheless
constitute a continuous hegemonic trajectory that continues to assume significance
in contemporary imaginings of, and debates about, Irishness and music. As has
been underlined in several recent publications, this centrally involves a dominant
narrative that acts to sustain homogenizing representations of Irish people and Irish
music, albeit a trope that has consistently been subject to negotiation, contestation
and re-articulation.1 Of course, the manipulation of collective identities to
facilitate nationalist projects has not been unique to Ireland, and accordingly Irish-
related identity issues need to be considered as part of a pan-European (and later,
a worldwide) movement that gained momentum from the late eighteenth century
onwards, with music featuring highly in both ethnic and civic constructs of national
belonging.2 However, as numerous commentators have by now noted,3 a range of
factors that were specific to Ireland’s cultural and political history would lead to
a dominant conception of the relationship between music and nation that was at
considerable variance with patterns observable elsewhere in Europe.
Let us first deal with what appears as the teleological status of the ‘indigenous’
traditional music of Ireland, which in some quarters continues to be regarded
as synonymous with Irish music, an idea-qua-ideology that acts to exclude or
at best ignore other music histories, styles and socio-cultural groups associated
with the island. Notwithstanding a more recent ‘deconstruction of Irishness

 Marie McCarthy, Passing it On: The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture
(Cork, 1999); John O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music (Farnham, 2009); Helen O’Shea,
The Making of Irish Traditional Music (Cork, 2008); Gerry Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural
History (Dublin and Portland, OR, 2009); Harry White, The Keeper’s Recital: Music and
Cultural History in Ireland, 1770–1970 (Cork, 1998).
 See, for example, Harry White and Michael Murphy (eds), Musical Constructions
of Nationalism (Cork, 2001); Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter (eds), Music and German
National Identity (Chicago, 2002).
 See note 1 above.
2 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

into a multicultural and multivocal diversity’,4 initiated by critical commentary

but arguably intensified and to some degree realized in the wake of political,
cultural, economic and demographic change, residual elements of ‘essential-ist’
Ireland occasionally re-emerge to perpetuate notions of homologous links
between traditional music and the values of an homogenous and harmonious Irish
population.5 And yet the Irish state has in other ways implicitly privileged the
status of western art music over ‘its others’6 through various forms of selective
institutional support. This in turn has maintained other types of exclusion, including
the downplaying of vernacular/popular cultural forms and their audiences, and
restricted access to music education (across all genres) on the part of many groups
within society.
Although youth-oriented popular music phenomena became established
somewhat later in Ireland than in other western countries, there can be no
doubting the subsequent and present-day ubiquity of popular music production
and consumption throughout the island. For the most part, domestic popular
music has tended to be appraised in sociological and/or industrial terms, with
little consideration given to its wider cultural significance or, for that matter, to
its musical substance. It remains a broad category of music that largely does not
feature in the ongoing contestation for symbolic recognition and material support
at statutory level, a struggle that can still be characterized by the competing forces
of art music and traditional music interest groups. A positive interpretation for this
state of affairs might be to recognize a greater global connectivity and orientation
on the part of Irish popular music enterprises, but the same might be argued in
respect of other Irish-produced music, especially if we consider the substantial
transnational success of traditional music and its contemporary derivatives. And
indeed, this is where many hagiographic accounts of Irishness and music often
lead us, much to the exclusion of everything else that might be associated between
the idea and reality of Ireland and its multifarious articulations of musical culture.
The conception of music collectively proposed by this volume is one of a
highly differentiated, but ultimately interrelated field that encompasses various
aspects of culture in local, national, diasporic and wider global settings. It is an
idea that also takes a broad view of music-identity interactions in historical as
well as present-day contexts, allowing for different foci of scholarly analysis
that potentially includes everything from the everyday/mundane through to the
mainstream/successful to the cutting edge/avant-garde. Accordingly, the book

 Brian Graham, ‘Ireland and Irishness: Place, Culture and Identity’, in B. Graham (ed.),
In Search of Ireland: A Cultural Geography (London and New York, 1997), pp. 1–15, at p. 9.
 Instances of the employment of such rhetoric by government ministers are recorded
in O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, pp. 124–5, 126, and also in Harry White’s chapter
in this volume.
 To adopt the phrase coined in the title of Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh
(eds), Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation and Appropriation in
Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000).
Introduction 3

yields multiple themes and perspectives on music and identity among its various
contributions. It follows that a uniformity of approach and/or a consensus on ‘what
counts’ is clearly not the intention here; rather, the conversation(s) suggested by
the diversity of research topics, academic orientations and interpretive stances can
be viewed as analogous to the intricacies and attendant difficulties of negotiating
music and identity matters related to the island. Indeed, the various ‘musicological
identities’7 suggested by authors’ standpoints might themselves be considered part
of the subject matter of this book.
The idea of Ireland proposed by this collection extends beyond the parameters
of the nation state for several reasons. First, we acknowledge the substantial
political complexities that obtain, not only in relation to the existence of two
distinct jurisdictions, Ireland (The Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland,
but also regarding the associated layers of ethnicity that can include Irishness,
Britishness and Ulsterness, in addition to newly formed social contexts and
groupings arising from recent and comparatively rapid demographic changes.8 The
second reason for thinking beyond the nation state lies in the island’s long history
of emigration, resulting in a worldwide population collectively recognized as its
diaspora9 (or diasporas if we conceive of more than one ethnicity). But we are also
mindful that engagement with the idea of Ireland and its associated music(s) may
also transcend specificities of place and ethnicity as, increasingly, aspects of that
culture are received, reproduced and appropriated in global contexts that extend
beyond the national and the diasporic, a process that in turn impacts on real and
imagined facets of music production, mediation and consumption on the island.10

Identity and Music11

One might be forgiven for considering the analytic construct of identity to have
been overused to the point of redundancy over the past few decades; at the

 A term used in the title for Stephen Baur, Raymond Knapp and Jacqueline
Warwick’s edited collection of essays in honour of feminist musicologist Susan McClary:
Musicological Identities: Essays in Honor of Susan McClary (Aldershot, Hampshire, 2008).
 See Pádraig Ó Duibhir, Rory Mc Daid, and Andrew O’Shea (eds), All Changed?
Culture and Identity in Contemporary Ireland. The Fifth Seamus Heaney Lecture Series
(Dublin, 2011).
 See Thomas Turino, ‘Introduction: Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communities’,
in T. Turino and J. Lea (eds), Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communities (Warren,
MI, 2004).
 Our approach here is similar to that articulated in Beverley Diamond, ‘Introduction:
Issues of Hegemony and Identity in Canadian Music’, in Beverley Diamond and Robert
Witmer (eds), Canadian Music: Issues of Hegemony and Identity (Toronto, 1994).
 Some of the points discussed in the next two sections also appear in John O’Flynn,
‘Identity and Music’, in H. White and B. Boydell (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Music in
Ireland (Dublin, 2013), pp. 515–17.
4 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

same time, it remains a concept that ‘matters because it is the basic cognitive
mechanism that humans use to sort out themselves and their fellows, individually
and collectively’.12 In its original Latin identitas refers to ideas of sameness13 and,
by implication, difference,14 while the modern conception of the term has its roots
in psychology, linking identity with notions of ‘self’. Both of these ideas have
been adapted by various branches of social science to a range of academic and
clinical concerns regarding individuals and groups, and the processes by which
they conceive of themselves in relation to others, and to their social, political,
cultural and environmental surroundings.15 Identity studies also embrace a range
of perspectives from humanities, leading to a complex and often disputed area of
scholarly interest;16 it is a conceptual area, moreover, that increasingly comes to
encompass a ‘multi-faceted … [and] … spatially and temporally variable’ field.17
A cursory glance at the table of contents for this volume provides evidence of such
contestation and variability. Additionally, the sum of its various chapters adumbrate
two imaginary axes represented in the broad spectrum of identity studies: first, the
alternating foci of the individual and the collective, and the myriad relationships
between these,18 and second, the interaction between static conceptions of identity
as received and more fluid and dynamic views of identity or ‘identification’.19 In
the cultural sphere, we might regard acts of identity/identification not only as
interpretive processes in the production and reception of artistic practices and
texts on the part of individuals and groups, but additionally as representative

 Richard Jenkins, Social Identity, 3rd edition (Abingdon, Oxon, 2008), p. 13.
 Italian anthropologist Francesco Remotti problematizes the modern idea of
‘identity’ and makes a compelling argument for replacing the term with the less bounded
conception of ‘resemblances’, in ‘Identity Barriers and Resemblance Networks’, Acta
Musicologica 84/2 (2012): 137–46.
 Harris M. Berger and Giovanna P. Del Negro, Identity and Everyday Life: Essays in
the Study of Folklore, Music, and Popular Culture (Middletown, CT, 2004).
 Manuel Castells: The Power of Identity, 2nd edition (Malden, MA, 2004); John
Shotter and Kenneth Gergen, Texts of Identity (London, 1989).
 Tope Omoniyi and Goodith White, ‘Introduction’, in T. Omoniyi and G. White
(eds), The Sociolinguistics of Identity (London and New York, 2006), pp. 1–10, at pp. 1–3;
Berger and Del Negro, Identity and Everyday Life.
 Brian Graham and Peter Howard, ‘Introduction’, in B. Graham and P. Howard
(eds), The Ashgate Companion to Heritage and Identity (Aldershot, 2008), pp. 1–15, at p. 6.
 George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society (Chicago, 1934); David Block,
‘Identity in Applied Linguistics’, in Omoniyi and White, Sociolinguistics of Identity,
pp. 34–49; Minette Mans, Living in Worlds of Music: A View of Education and Values
(Dordrecht, 2009), pp. 95–105.
 Berger and Del Negro, Identity and Everyday Life, pp. 148–9. Stuart Hall, ‘“Who
needs identity?”’, in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity
(London, 1996), pp. 1–17; Jenkins, Social Identity, pp. 13–15. See also, Nicola Wood,
‘Playing with “Scottishness”: Musical Performance, Non-representational Thinking and the
“Doings” of National Identity’, Cultural Geographies 19/2 (2012): 193–215.
Introduction 5

of phenomena that for themselves may be consciously adopted, performed or

enjoyed.20 Thus, in the case of music, positions and constructions of identity are
mediated, reflexive practices that can be recognized as aesthetically experienced –
in addition to, and in relation to the music phenomena under consideration.21
While modern conceptions of identity came to be adopted comparatively late in
the mainstream of musicological inquiry, an interest in relations between musical
texts and the national has engaged scholars since the mid-nineteenth century22
(more of which below). Later, the ‘identity’ of musical works presented an
ontological question for some aesthetic philosophers writing in the mid-twentieth
century.23 However, the adaptation of social science perspectives to readings of the
musical text as they related to the individual subjectivities/identities of composers
and performers – in historical as well as in contemporary contexts – would only
become firmly established by the end of the twentieth century.24 While the music-
identity interests of mainstream (‘classical’) musicology has tended to focus on
individual subjectivity, though not to the exclusion of social concerns,25 a more
systematic engagement with ideas of collective identity and music can be found in
the literature on ethnomusicology.26 Additionally, from the mid-twentieth century

 Berger and Del Negro, Identity and Everyday Life, p. 155. See also Born and
Hesmondhalgh, Western Music and its Others, pp. 35–6; Nabeel Zuberi, Sounds English:
Transnational Popular Music (Urbana and Chicago, 2001), pp. 11–15.
 Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern
Age (Cambridge, 1991); Berger and Del Negro, Identity and Everyday Life, p. 158.
 Richard Taruskin, ‘Nationalism’, in Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of
Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (London, 2001), Vol. 12, pp. 689–706; White and Murphy,
Musical Constructions of Nationalism. For surveys of music and national identity issues
in recent European history see: Mark Slobin (ed.), Returning Culture: Musical Changes in
Central and Eastern Europe (Durham and London, 1996); Philip V. Bohlman, The Music of
European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History (Santa Barbara, 2004).
 James C. Anderson, ‘Musical Identity’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism 40/3 (1982): 285–91; Roman Ingardan, The Work of Music and the Problem of its
Identity, trans. A. Czerniawski, ed. J.G. Harrell (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986).
 Developments in scholarly orientations from this time have led to a plethora of
alternative perspectives, including ‘new’, ‘feminist’, ‘critical’, ‘queer’ and ‘radical’
 Clearly, feminist and/or queer musicologies are engaged with specific social
categories or constructs. That said, the bulk of scholarly work represented by these branches
of musicology tends to be centred on the individual subjectivities/identities of composers
or performers in relation to historical musical works, and to a lesser extent on the reception
of the same repertoire among particular social groups. See, for example, Sophie Fuller and
Lloyd Whitesell, Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity (Urbana and Chicago, 2002).
 Philip Bohlman, ‘Traditional Music and Cultural Identity: Persistent Paradigm in
the History of Ethnomusicology’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988): 26–42; Julian
Gerstin, ‘Reputation in a Musical Scene: The Everyday Context of Connections between
Music, Identity and Politics’, Ethnomusicology 42/3 (1998): 385–414; Martin Stokes (ed.),
Ethnicity, Identity and Music (Oxford and New York, 1994).
6 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

onwards, sociological and cultural studies would increasingly pay attention to

the potential role of diverse music styles and practices in the construction and
maintenance of distinct identities within modern differentiated populations. Much
of the initial focus was on youth subculture, social class and associated musical
genres.27 A more explicit engagement with the analytic construct of identity, along
with associated social constructivist and phenomenological ideas of identification
came to occupy a central theme in many music studies during the first decade of
the twenty-first century, the majority of these being concerned with producers and
consumers of popular music genres.28 An overarching sociological perspective has
informed many recent studies, leading to a more extensive consideration of such
categories as race, gender, geographical location, ethnicity and sexuality.29
From this cursory review of music-identity studies, we might interpret distinct
yet overlapping trends in scholarly foci that may be given different weighting
according to musical style (and associated ‘musicological identity’), from the
conventional distinction made between individual and collective identities, to
contesting ideas of ‘essential identity’ and ‘identification’. A key question posed
by the broad range of topics constituting this volume is how to make sense of
‘the relationship between individual subjectivities and discursive formations or
dominant cultural systems’,30 and some such tensions come to be explored in a
number of chapters, including those of Noel McLaughlin, Isabella Van Elferen,
Jennifer McCay and Adrian Smith.

Music and Identity: Ireland

National issues have occupied a central theme in Irish musicology of the past
two decades, which has for the most part presented a modernist critique of
the ideological underpinnings of nationalism and its dialectical counterpart,
colonialism. A number of writers, most notably Harry White, have commented
on the impact that these forces brought to bear on music development (or the

 A seminal work in this regard was Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style
(London, 1979).
 Andy Bennett, Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place
(Basingstoke, 2000); Simon Frith, ‘Music and Identity’, in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds)
Questions of Cultural Identity (London, 1996), pp. 108–27; Raymond MacDonald, David
Hargreaves and Dorothy Miell, (eds), Musical Identities (Oxford and New York, 2002);
Richard Young (ed.), Music Popular Culture Identities, (Amsterdam, 2002).
 See, amongst others: John Connell and Chris Gibson (eds), Sound Tracks: Popular
Music, Identity and Place (London and New York, 2003); Sheila Whiteley (ed.), Women
and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity (London and New York, 2000);
Peter Wade, Music, Race, and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia (Chicago and
London, 2000); Sheila Whiteley, Andy Bennett and Stan Hawkins (eds), Music, Space and
Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity (Aldershot, 2005).
 Born and Hesmondhalgh, Western Music and its Others, p. 33.
Introduction 7

lack of it) and broader music and identity issues in Ireland right up to the present
day. White’s first book, The Keeper’s Recital (1998), provocatively argues that
the emblematic status afforded to traditional music by nationalists and cultural
revivalists acted to impede the growth of art music production and reception in
Ireland. Other musicological approaches contributing to a contemplation of Irish
musical identities (or to the negation of claims about such identities) include
analytical and biographical studies (notably, in the seventh volume of Irish
Musical Studies in 200331 and in the shortlived series of Field Day monographs on
twentieth-century and contemporary Irish composers of art music).
An alternative perspective on the formation of Irish musical identities is
presented in the work of Marie McCarthy. In Passing it On (1999) McCarthy adopts
a cultural historical perspective on music transmission and education, interpreting
the contestation of musical identities between and among different social strata
and what the author terms ‘subcultures’ in colonial and post-colonial Ireland.
Published one decade later, John O’Flynn’s The Irishness of Irish Music presents a
contemporary and mainly sociological exploration of music and identity in Ireland
across a range of music styles and social groups. This extends to a consideration
of perceptions of Irish popular music, an area of domestic musical culture that
comes to be more extensively examined in the writings of Noel McLaughlin,
Martin McLoone and Gerry Smyth.32 The past decade has also seen the emergence
of a more substantial engagement with music and identity issues in Northern
Ireland, especially in relation to the demarcation and interface of ‘native’ Irish
and Ulster Scots musical traditions.33 All the above can be interpreted as positive
developments, given an overarching tendency in many journalistic and in some
academic accounts to present homogenous, or worse, stereotypical representations
of musical ‘Irishness’ throughout the island. Also to be welcomed is a growing

 Gareth Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century. Irish
Musical Studies 7 (Dublin, 2003).
 Noel McLaughlin, ‘Pop and Periphery: Nationality, Culture and Irish Popular
Music’, DPhil thesis (University of Ulster, 1999); Noel, McLaughlin and Martin McLoone,
‘Hybridity and National Musics: The Case of Irish Rock Music’, Popular Music 19/2
(2000): 181–99; Gerry Smyth, Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music
(Cork, 2005); Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, Rock and Popular Music in Ireland:
Before and After U2 (Dublin, 2012).
 Among a number of recent publications that focus on musical identities in Northern
Ireland see Fiona Magowan, ‘Drums of Suffering in Belfast’s European Capital of Culture
Bid’, in Victoria Rogers and David Symons (eds), The Legacy of John Blacking: Essays on
Music, Culture and Society (Crawley, WA, 2005), pp. 56–78; David Cooper, The Musical
Traditions of Northern Ireland and its Diaspora (Farnham, 2009); and Gordon Ramsey,
Music, Emotion and Identity in Ulster Marching Bands: Flutes, Drums and Loyal Sons,
(Oxford, 2011).
8 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

scholarly interest in phenomena and readings of Irish musical identity amongst

diasporic and other transnational cultural groupings.34
Indeed, while it could be argued that previous cultural histories of Irish music
were indirectly concerned with the identification of distinct ethnic groups, most
typically ‘Gaelic Irish’ and ‘Anglo-Irish’, anthropological, ethnographic and
phenomenological approaches to an understanding of culturally demarcated
musical identities have only recently come to the fore.35 This holds potential for
further studies of genres and musical practices and beliefs among established, as
well as recently arrived national and ethnic groupings on the island. It might also
lead to inquiries into musical-cultural phenomena that have hitherto tended to be
regarded as unspectacular; for example, ‘Country and Irish’ genres in many rural
regions, or choral traditions in large towns and cities. Related to this point, it can
be observed that music and identity studies pertaining to sociological categories
or groups/sub-groups in Ireland have only lately begun to emerge,36 notably in
relation to gender and Irish traditional music.37 Cultural associations between
music and place have also recently come under the purview of economics and
critical geography, with initial studies exploring insider/outsider identities of Irish
music in domestic, tourist-oriented settings and, more broadly, the dialectical
interplay between conceptions and articulations of the local, the national and the
global.38 Associations between music and other cultural texts presents another
potential site for the formation of identities in Ireland, and this is an area that
has received some attention from musicologists and other scholars, notably with
regard to literary arts and to a lesser extent, film.39

 The ‘Irish community’ in Britain presents one such significant grouping. See: Marion
Leonard, ‘Performing Identities: Music and Dance in the Irish Communities of Coventry
and Liverpool’, Social and Cultural Geography 6/4 (2005): 515–29; Sean Campbell, ‘Irish
Blood, English Heart’: Second Generation Irish Musicians in Britain (Cork, 2011).
 For example, O’Shea, The Making of Irish Traditional Music; O’Flynn, The
Irishness of Irish Music; Ramsey, 2011.
 A pioneering work in this regard is Barbara Bradby’s analysis of music-identity
construction among lesbians at a Dublin club/bar in the early 1990s: Barbara Bradby,
‘Lesbians and Popular Music: Does it Matter Who is Singing?’ in Gabrielle Griffin (ed.),
Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture (London, 1993).
 Leith Davis, Music, Postcolonialism and Gender: The Construction of Irish
National Identity (Notre Dame, IL, 2005); O’Shea, The Making of Irish Traditional Music.
 See, for example: Frances Morton, ‘Performing Ethnography: Irish Traditional
Music Sessions and New Methodological Spaces’, Social and Cultural Geography 6/5
(2005): 661–76; Bernadette Quinn, ‘Shaping Tourism Places: Agency and Interconnection
in Festival Settings’, in Michael Cronin and Barbara O’Connor (eds), Irish Tourism: Image,
Culture and Identity (Clevedon, 2003), pp. 61–80.
 Seán Crosson, “The Given Note”: Traditional Music and Modern Irish Poetry
(Newcastle, 2008); Harry White, Music and the Irish Literary Imagination (Oxford, 2008);
Smyth, 2009.
Introduction 9


From the brief review of literature discussed above, it can be ascertained that the
subject matter of Irish-related musical identities has steadily grown over the past
decade or so, in terms of scholarly orientation as much as volume. Music and
Identity in Ireland and Beyond provides additional case studies for this expanding
corpus, and moreover sets out to juxtapose different foci and perspectives in one
volume, in what is hoped will stimulate further inquiry, reflection and debate on a
diverse and ever-evolving cultural field.
The collection is pluralist in methodology, incorporating a range of approaches
drawn from musicology (in diverse styles/genres), cultural studies, sociology and
ethnography. Thematically, the book divides into three parts, namely, ‘Historical
Perspectives’, ‘Recent and Contemporary Production’ and ‘Cultural Explorations’.
While some of the chapters might appear to rest quite squarely in their proposed
category, others, if not most, could comfortably move across these given lines.
Thus, while our approach is to offer the reader some structure in negotiating the
various contributions to the book, we are also mindful (and hopeful) that other
connections and ‘conversations’ may also be interpreted.

Part I: Historical Perspectives

Much recent musicological writing on Ireland, including some of the chapters

included in this collection, take as one of their starting points the idea that, apart
from the dominant of society, there is also the ‘hidden Ireland’40 for which the
rules of engagement with music may be different. On the other hand, there has
often been a tendency to simplify the role of music as signifier of identity through
binary oppositions of traditional music versus art music, along with the more
general Protestant versus Catholic and unionist versus nationalist. In a country
where history and romance have become so intertwined (and where balanced
sources can at times be rare) there can also be difficulties in reconstructing the
realities in which the music operated.
The eighteenth century is a period that lends itself to myth-making, as it is
distant enough in time from the present but is also the epoch before the Act of
Union of 1801, which resulted in the abolition of the Irish parliament and the
downgrading of Dublin from second city of the Kingdom to provincial outpost.
It can be interpreted as a golden period before the destruction brought about by
complete political union with Britain and/or by the stirrings of nationalism that
would ultimately lead to the dismantling of ascendency glory, depending on one’s
perspective. Barra Boydell’s chapter examines this period from the vantage point
of the eighteenth century as a gilded ascendency period, showing the ways in

 The term derives from Daniel Corkery’s book The Hidden Ireland: A Study of
Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin, 1924).
10 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

which art music and traditional (folk) music shared a platform among this audience.
Crucially, not only does the chapter examine the period from the viewpoint of, and
in defence of, an Anglo-oriented society, he also draws a sharp distinction between
a form of patriotism that celebrates Ireland as part of a United Kingdom and a
separatist form of patriotism that would come to dominate the subsequent history
of the country. The dressing of Irish melodies in Italian garb to suit the passing
fashions of Dublin’s modish society who anxiously looked towards Europe to
provide the necessary layer of sophistication may provoke a wry smile from a
contemporary audience that has been witness to many modified presentations of
Irish traditional music in recent years. The chapter also highlights the nature of
the sources available and the ambiguity within them as to whether polite society
viewed traditional melodies as musically important or as mere table-music.
The figure of Handel, of course, looms large behind Boydell’s chapter and it
is perhaps a measure of how Dublin’s importance had diminished over the next
century that the great names of ‘British’ music over the following century, Haydn
and Mendelssohn, did not feel the need to travel to Dublin for concerts, leaving
musicologists with the sense that Ireland was the land with even less music than
its near neighbour.41 Reflecting this perhaps, our collection of papers skips over
this period to the end of the nineteenth century, though the great issues of that
century, famine, nationalism, the gradual decline in use of the Irish language,
modernization and revival all stand in the background of the remaining chapters
in this section. Martin Dowling’s chapter highlights the importance of the revival
period as the era that provides modern writers with many of their preconceived
ideas about the position of music in Irish society while also negotiating the
economic realities that shaped the trajectory of music at this time. The role of
education is also interrogated and its legacy, and that of the other issues examined
in Dowling’s chapter, is reflected in Edmund Hunt’s examination of the concept
of a school of Irish composers. For Dowling, the vacuum at the top of society, in
terms of investment in music, explains the lack of a national art musical legacy
comparable to that of for example the Czech lands, whereas for Hunt the late arrival
of independence and the awkward entanglements of Britain and Ireland culturally
may be more to blame. Both recognize the key importance of the infrastructural
deficit in Ireland. Hunt draws attention to the idea that in many countries the
surge of nationalism coincided with the discovery of traditional music, whereas in
Ireland the music had been discovered and had already been re-commodified (or
as Dowling suggests, sentimentalized) long before independence and he proposes
that this also plays an important role in understanding the ways in which art music
developed in Ireland.
Hunt also draws attention to the fact that the late arrival of modernism
to Ireland could be responsible for the protraction of late-nineteenth-century

 This is of course not to suggest a dearth of musical activity or social change in the
intervening decades. See, for example, Michael Murphy and Jan Smaczny (eds), Music in
Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Irish Musical Studies 9 (Dublin, 2007).
Introduction 11

arguments about what Irish music should do, arguments that would endure into
the late twentieth century. He also emphasizes the importance of rejection and
reaction in the formation of composers’ voices where previous studies have tended
to concentrate on influence and absorption. By drawing comparisons between
Irish and British music and composers, Hunt’s chapter also opens a discussion
on the tangled relations between these two countries, a topic that reverberates
through a number of chapters in the volume. Fabian Huss’s chapter on Arnold
Bax and E.J. Moeran concentrates on two figures often seen to occupy an
ambivalent position between Ireland and Britain. The preference for prejudices
over precise definition on the part of both Irish and British musicologists and other
commentators to date comes to the fore in this exploration. Also dwelt on by Huss
is the potential role Ireland plays as an idealized state from which inspiration can
be derived. The place of these composers’ music in Ireland and the influence it had
on other Irish composers is something that is often overlooked in surveys of Irish
twentieth-century music that concentrate on a more blinkered vision of Irishness.
Mark Fitzgerald’s chapter also tackles the question of British influence but from
a different perspective, examining how Irish musicologists have constructed their
image of what an Irish composer should be and how a particular composer has
been forced into this mould. It offers a reorientation of perspective in terms of the
sources of May’s compositional voice and also suggests a number of other paths
that could be explored but that have to date been ignored in favour of an unrealistic
construct that attempted to align Irish music with central European modernism.
If the interaction between Ireland and England seems complex in these
examples, as one turns to the question of music in Northern Ireland the complexities
and nuances become even more intricate. Ruth Stanley looks at the issue of folk/
traditional music via the prism of the BBC’s policy towards music in the early
years of the existence of Northern Ireland. Again simple binary equations fail to
apply to the music as communities shared this cultural legacy as part of an Ulster
identity before politics was to force people to comply with preconceived notions
of what each community should listen to.

Part II: Recent and Contemporary Production

The past few decades of music in Ireland and among its diaspora have
witnessed phenomenal growth and diversity, notwithstanding the persistence of
infrastructural constraints and residual ideologies alluded to above. Previously
lacking by comparison with many other European nation states, the scale of art
music composition on the island has increased exponentially over two generations,
and for many contemporary composers the lack of any direct or definable lineage
affords a creative space in which ‘new’ music can flourish.42 Developments in
popular music, which initially lagged behind post-war movements in North

 O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, pp. 41, 113–14.
12 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

America, Britain and elsewhere, produced a significant cluster of Irish rock artists
reaching global audiences by the 1970s,43 with a more sustained growth for domestic
popular music scenes and industries established in the wake of U2’s initial success
in the 1980s. Most spectacular of all was the rise and rise of traditional music, both
as living practice and commercial enterprise, from the volunteerism of Comhaltas
Ceoltóirí Éireann44 in the early 1950s through to the phenomenal success and
influence of traditional music’s contemporary derivatives, notably Riverdance in
the 1990s. Inevitably, cultural developments in any milieu are linked to the social,
economic and political factors that obtain in that period. Over the past several
decades in Ireland these would include: sustained economic growth (but with
intermittent periods of recession leading to emigration) and increasing participation
in global affairs; membership of the European Union facilitating geopolitical and
cultural associations that transcended the old national–colonial divide; sectarian
and political strife in Northern Ireland that lasted well into the 2000s and that
ultimately led to reappraisals of North–South and British–Irish relations (and
identities) following the most recent political resolution at the beginning of the
twenty-first century; a gradual if somewhat recalcitrant liberalization of social
legislation on both sides of the border; and recent patterns of immigration and
multiculturalism that have acted to challenge stereotypical assumptions of cultural
homogeneity, particularly in urban areas.
The first two chapters in this section dovetail with some of the themes that
emerge in Part I insofar as they are concerned with how political and artistic issues
can combine to influence the output and subjectivities of art music composers.
While the impact of the conflict in Northern Ireland is foreshadowed in Ruth
Stanley’s chapter, it is made more explicit in Jennifer McCay’s study of Kevin
O’Connell, a composer from a nationalist background who grew up during the
troubled decades of the 1970s and 1980s and received his most important early
commissions from the British Broadcasting Corporation rather than from its Irish
counterpart. What Stanley’s and McCay’s chapters both demonstrate is something
that can be encountered anecdotally in Northern Ireland today: whatever a person’s
sympathies, for many people their primary ‘identity of place’ – as complex and/or
as problematic as that might be – lies not with the Republic of Ireland nor the United
Kingdom but in Northern Ireland itself, something that is quite separate from both
neighbours despite the ways in which it draws from both ‘national’ entities. One
way in which the conflict in Northern Ireland affected cultural thought in the south
can be seen in Adrian Smith’s exploration of Raymond Deane’s writings, which are
used to illuminate the composer’s compositional standpoint. Deane’s thoughtful
exploration of the marginalization of the composer in modern Ireland links this
to Fitzgerald’s study on May in Part I, while also providing a further backdrop to

 The ‘first wave’ of Irish rock music has recently come to be examined in Matteo

Cullen, ‘Vagabonds of the Western World(s): Continuities, Tensions and the Development
of Irish Rock Music, 1968–1978’, PhD thesis (University of Limerick, 2012).
 Trans. Association of Musicians of Ireland.
Introduction 13

the chapter on O’Connell. Deane is that rare thing in Ireland, a composer who is
willing to engage directly with political ideas; the lack of such work in Northern
Ireland has been attributed to the conflict there, as can be seen in McCay’s chapter,
but this may also underlie the similar lack of such commentary in the south.
The remaining chapters in this part offer some snapshots of traditional and
popular music phenomena over recent decades. Kari Veblen’s contribution could
be regarded as pivotal from an historical/contemporary perspective in that it
juxtaposes traditional music forms, practices and settings from the mid-twentieth
century with those that obtained during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era of the 1990s
and 2000s, and that continue to exert influence in present-day contexts. The
chapter not only compares performative aspects of selected recordings from these
periods involving, respectively, uileann piper and tune/song collector Séamus
Ennis and the Afro-Celt Sound System, it also examines the evolving ways in
which traditional music has come to be mediated over time. Additionally, the
chapter offers an etic perspective in its overall narrative inquiry, drawing on the
author’s evolving experiences of Ireland and its traditional music culture over
several decades.
A different type of insider/outsider dialectic can be interpreted in Isabella
van Elferen’s chapter on Morrissey. The chapter begins by exploring a number
of identity issues that are explicitly articulated in two albums released by the
artist during the mid-2000s: the experience of being second-generation Irish in
Britain, sexual ambivalence and a troubled engagement with Catholicism leading
to spiritual longing. Focussing on song lyrics, van Elferen interprets continuities
between the subjectivity and artistic output of Morrissey and that of prominent
figures from Irish literature including Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Patrick
McCabe. Key to her analysis is the concept of the Gothic, which can be viewed as
a way of negotiating constructions, expressions and readings of Irish ‘Otherness’
against an Anglo-centred backdrop.
Noel McLaughlin’s chapter charting stylistic and identic transitions for U2
between the 1980s and 1990s presents a detailed analysis in which it is argued that
aspects of the band’s transformation during this period acted to disrupt dominant
narratives of Irish rock that were hitherto constructed in reference to the ‘authentic’
roots of US-based blues rock. In addition to drawing comparisons over time,
McLaughlin’s review also alludes to contrasting identities of place and space, as
U2 negotiated different sounds, cultural references (including self-referencing of
their earlier recordings and tours) and presentation modes during these respective
‘American’ and ‘European’ phases, culminating in the band suggesting a more
‘postmodern’ aesthetic sensibility in their later work.

Part III: Cultural Explorations

Two senses of the term exploration give rise to the book’s final theme. We have
first the idea of musical-cultural journeys and encounters that, depending on the
14 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

context, involve different combinations of individuals, groups, genres and values.

Another type of exploration conceived here concerns scholarly inquiries into the
relationships between, on the one hand, music products, practices and beliefs, and,
on the other hand, specific socio-cultural groups and categories along with broader
conceptions of society, nation state and intercultural/transnational groupings.
Thérèse Smith’s account of song collector Tom Munnelly’s visit to Cape
Clear Island in the early 1970s resonates to a degree with Veblen’s first vignette
(describing fieldwork carried out by Séamus Ennis and American folklorist Alan
Lomax) in recognizing the agency of archivists and other scholars in promoting
revivals of traditional music. While Smith’s chapter provides rich insights into
song texts and performance practices, it is the very encounter between archivist and
traditional musician that prompts much of the discussion. The description of this
interaction between an English-speaking Dubliner and an Irish (Gaelic)-speaking
island community (the most vocal representative in this narrative being 80-year-
old Máire ‘Babe’ Breathnach) demonstrates that an insider/outsider dialectic of
Irishness and music pertains not only to distinctions between Irish and non-Irish,
but also between different individuals and communities within Ireland, in this case
constructed with reference to language and geographical location.
The context for Matteo Cullen’s chapter, African communities in Dublin
during the early 2000s, suggests a dramatic shift in demographic patterns at
the beginning of the twenty-first century. Cullen acknowledges his own subject
position in this ethnographic account, providing a unique vantage point that arises
from his dual African and Irish heritage. His fieldwork uncovers a network of
musical happenings involving relatively closed socio-musical groups (based on
faith and/or African nation of origin) along with more fluid gatherings of music
consumers at commercial venues. A key finding to emerge from this study is the
difficulty in demarking a unitary ‘African’ musical identity among the multiple
diasporic groups represented in Cullen’s study. This multicultural dimension
serves to remind us that music and identity issues in Ireland are not necessarily
concerned with conceptions of Irishness (and this is a point that applies as much
to the past as to the present).
The various productions of Celtic music as interpreted in John O’Flynn’s
chapter seem very far removed from the descriptions of African music in Cullen’s
study. And yet, as O’Flynn argues, a consistent trope to emerge in commentary on
Irish popular and traditional music is an assumed association between Irishness
and blackness (a tendency also noted in McLaughlin’s chapter). O’Flynn sets out
to interrogate real and imagined aspects of Celtic music history and its underlying
ideologies, and in common with van Elferen’s elaboration of the Gothic, suggests
that Celtic music occupies a core position in the mainstream of white Anglo-
American music while simultaneously projected and received as ‘other’. Moreover,
he argues that the idealization of ‘disembodied’ female performers in Celtic music
production may inadvertently or otherwise reinforce racialized white identities.
Referring back to George Lipsitz’s notion of dangerous crossroads in the context
Introduction 15

of world musics, O’Flynn argues the need for a greater critical consciousness on
the part of those involved in Irish-Celtic music production.
Eileen Hogan’s chapter represents one of the first explorations of youth
issues in Irish musical studies. Adopting a sociological lens and referring to
established approaches in the study of youth, culture and music, she examines
three instances where specific genres and practices have impacted on the social
experience and identities of young people in Ireland. The first case presented is
that of the showband/ballroom era in the 1950s and 1960s, which Hogan interprets
as constituting a quietly liberating movement following the socially conservative
climate that prevailed during the early decades of the independent Irish state.
The next case refers to Northern Ireland during the late 1970s and here Hogan
explores the extent to which local punk scenes enabled the interruption of received
sectarian identities. Finally, she points to the emerging significance of distinct
youth identities within the broader sphere of Irish traditional music.
The final chapter, authored by Harry White, argues for a more substantial
engagement with cultural and social factors in studies relating to music – in
particular, traditional music – in Ireland. Addressing some of the issues outlined in
the opening paragraphs of this introduction, White provocatively suggests that not
only has traditional music itself been reified as a result of material and ideological
forces specific to Irish history (as Dowling’s chapter to a lesser degree implies),
but that the very ethnicity it is assumed to represent also emerges as unassailable
or at least has done so until quite recently. Notwithstanding recent developments
in traditional music scholarship and in more general surveys of music in Ireland,
he construes a largely positivistic, taxonomic and overall conservative approach
in this area that largely eschews sociological or phenomenological approaches
to identity matters, and in which critical perspectives are rarely adopted. Indeed,
White’s argument here could be applied to the entire field of music genres, practices
and mediations that are in one way or another associated with the entity of Ireland.
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Part I
Historical Perspectives
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 1
‘Whatever has a Foreign Tone /
We like much better than our own’:
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the
Eighteenth Century
Barra Boydell

Laurence Whyte’s poem ‘A Dissertation on Italian and Irish Musick, with some
panegyrick on Carrallan our late Irish Orpheus’, published in Dublin in 1740,
satirizes musical tastes in mid eighteenth-century Ireland, more specifically within
Anglo-Irish society.1 Whyte sums up these musical tastes by the lines ‘Whatever
has a Foreign Tone / We like much better than our own’. This chapter examines
the interest in and attitudes towards the indigenous repertoire of ‘traditional’
Irish music that is apparent within eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish society.2 The
presence of Irish tunes in the musical repertoire of eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish
society reflects an engagement with that repertoire that, whether or not it may have
reflected any conscious desire to express a particular identity, nevertheless casts
light on the nature and identity of that society. In short, why was Irish folk music
popular (to the extent that it can be shown to have been), and what does this tell us
about the identity of Anglo-Irish society?
Ireland is internationally identified by its indigenous musical traditions, an
association that can be traced back to the eighteenth century and earlier and that
by the nineteenth century, primarily influenced by the international success of
Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, had firmly established Ireland as ‘the land of
song’, a description first expressed in James Hardiman’s Irish Minstrelsy, or, Bardic
Remains of Ireland (London, 1831). The use of the harp as Ireland’s national
symbol offers a direct if symbolic association of music with the construction of
Irish national identity. The identification of Ireland with the harp was already
established by the sixteenth century when Vincenzo Galilei could write in his
Dialogo della Musica Antica e della Moderna, published in Florence in 1581,

 Published in Whyte’s collection Poems on Various Subjects, Serious and Diverting
(Dublin, 1740); reprinted in Seamus Deane (ed.) Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (3
vols, Derry, 1991), Vol. 1, pp. 412−15. Cited hereafter as Whyte, ‘Dissertation’.
 The term ‘Anglo-Irish’ is used here to refer broadly to the English-speaking,
Protestant population of Ireland, irrespective of its ethnic background or political leanings.
20 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

that the harp ‘was brought to us … from Ireland, where it is excellently made and
in great quantities’ and that it was ‘the special emblem of the realm, where it is
depicted and sculptured on public buildings and on coins’.3 But an association of
Ireland with music had already been established by Giraldus Cambrensis in the
twelfth century when he commented in his Topographia Hibernia (1188) that: ‘It
is only in the case of musical instruments that I find any commendable diligence in
the [Irish] people. They seem to me to be incomparably more skilled in these than
any other people that I have seen.’4
Leith Davis has drawn attention to the impact of Cambrensis’s comments
on the eighteenth-century contribution to the construction of Irish identity in
her examination of published collections of Irish music from John and William
Neal’s Col[l]ection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes (1724) through to Edward
Bunting (1796, 1809, 1840) and George Petrie (1855), and antiquarian and
other writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through which music
was invoked in the creation of Irish national identity.5 Cambrensis had been
translated into English in the late sixteenth century,6 but it would appear to have
been Dermot O’Connor’s 1723 translation of the seventeenth-century Catholic
Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, who had acknowledged Giraldus’s praise of
Irish music on the part of ‘a writer who renounc’d all partiality in favour of the
Irish’,7 that brought Giraldus Cambrensis’s comments to the particular attention of
the English-speaking public in eighteenth-century Ireland. As Joep Leerssen has
noted, ‘O’Connor’s translation [of Keating] … marked an important development:
Keating’s history, directed towards Gaelic-speaking Irishmen, now became
available to a larger English and Anglo-Irish audience’.8 Cambrensis came to be
widely cited in support of the identification of Ireland with music: in 1753 Charles
O’Conor cited him, quoting his Latin text in a footnote, as one of ‘the most
radicated Enemies of the Nation [Ireland] doing Justice to the Excellency of our

 Cited after: Joan Rimmer, The Irish Harp, 3rd edition (Dublin & Cork, 1984),
pp. 41−2. On the harp as a symbol of Ireland see Barra Boydell, ‘The Iconography of the
Irish Harp as a National Symbol’, in Patrick Devine and Harry White (eds), The Maynooth
International Musicological Conference 1995. Selected Proceedings Part Two. Irish
Musical Studies 5 (Dublin, 1996), pp. 131–45.
 Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], The History and Topography of Ireland
[Topographia Hiberniae] trans. John J. O’Meara, revised edition (Portlaoise, 1982), p. 103.
 Leith Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender: The Construction of Irish
National Identity, 1724−1874 (Notre Dame, IL, 2006), p. 1.
 See, for example, John Hooker, The Irish Historie Composed and Written by Giraldus
Cambrensis, and Translated into English … by J[ohn] Hooker … (London, [1587]).
 Jeoffrey [sic] Keating, The General History of Ireland. trans. Dermot O’Connor
(London, 1723; 2nd edition 1726), p. xi.
 Joep Leerssen, Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality,
its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (Cork, 1996),
p. 319.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 21

Music’;9 in 1777 Thomas Campbell could comment in A Philosophical Survey of

the South of Ireland that ‘[t]he Cogniscenti, I think, allow that Ireland is a school
of music’;10 and Joseph Cooper Walker cited Cambrensis both in translation and in
the original Latin.11 Walker’s Historical Memoirs of the Ancient Irish Bards (1786)
firmly blamed the English for the spread to Ireland of Italian music, which ‘began
to reign with despotic sway’ in London, from whence ‘its influence spread so
wide, that it reached these shores. Our musical state became refined and our sweet
melodies and native musicians fell into disrepute.’12 Establishing ‘ancient’ Irish
music, in particular an antiquarian perception of the Irish harp and ‘ancient Irish
bards’, as central to Irish national and cultural identity, Walker presents perhaps
the most articulate expression of the identification of Ireland with music among
eighteenth-century writers.13
Music’s role in the construction of Irish identity was but one of a number of
specific elements, symbols or signifiers consciously selected in the course of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as expressive of a distinctive and recognizable
national identity. Some of these symbols of Irish identity – the round towers and
Irish wolfhounds of nineteenth-century nationalist iconography, for example –
have not retained their currency, but the success of the identification of Ireland
with (traditional) music is underlined by the commodification of ‘Irish music’
in the international branding of Ireland today. From the historical perspective,
Harry White has argued that, while music became enshrined within the very heart
of Irish self-identity, it also became part of a polarized discourse within Irish
cultural history, which has removed it from a meaningful role within Irish cultural
discourse.14 Alongside this role as a conscious marker of Irish identity, music can
also be interpreted as expressing the unconscious identity, the cultural environment
that any social group establishes for itself by the choices it makes, in this case as
to what music it plays or listens to. Such choices reflect the social and cultural
identity of the group, and the identification of these choices – in the context of
this chapter, the musical tastes – must contribute to a fuller understanding of the
particular social group.

 Charles O’Conor, Dissertations on the Antient History of Ireland (Dublin, 1753),
p. 55. Davis cites O’Conor in the 1755 edition of the same book as describing Cambrensis
as ‘enraptured with our music’. Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender, p. 11.
 [Thomas Campbell], A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, in a Series of
Letters to John Watkinson, M.D. (London, 1777), p. 449.
 Joseph Cooper Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Ancient Irish Bards
(London, 1786), pp. 102−3.
 Ibid., p. 158.
 See Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender, Chapter 2 and Harry White,
The Keeper’s Recital: Music and Cultural History in Ireland, 1770–1970 (Cork, 1998),
pp. 20−25.
 White, Keeper’s Recital. See also Harry White, Music and the Irish Literary
Imagination (Oxford, 2008).
22 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Information on traditional Irish music in the eighteenth century is sparse. As

Nicholas Carolan has written within the context of Irish song, ‘It is not surprising
that eighteenth-century song in the Irish language is poorly documented. Among
those who practiced it or shared its culture it was almost entirely an oral tradition.
Few outsiders were interested in it, and fewer still penetrated the barrier of
language.’15 The poems of Matthew Pilkington and Lawrence Whyte, and the
writings of Oliver Goldsmith, Campbell, Walker and others are among the rare
published contemporary commentaries on music in eighteenth-century Ireland.
These sources discuss music in support of political/patriotic, aesthetic or, later
in the century, emergent-nationalist viewpoints in which music is called upon
to serve an end beyond itself. They serve the ‘conscious’ expression of music
within the construction of national identity. In contrast, however, the views of
those who engaged with music at the domestic or public-concert levels, and the
musical repertoire reflected both in public concerts and in print, provide a different
perspective, that of the ‘unconscious’ engagement with music.
Frank Harrison addressed this ‘unconscious’ articulation of identity through
music in eighteenth-century Ireland in his 1986 paper ‘Music, Poetry and Polity in
the age of Swift’, commenting that:

it is axiomatic that the poetry the people of Ireland read and declaimed, the
songs they heard and sang, the church music they accepted, the sonatas and
concertos they listened to were all a functioning part of their ‘nation’ … and at
certain times also an affirmation of their religious and political convictions …
On the one hand [verse and music] reinforce social identifications; on the other,
they assert distinctions, whether national, religious, political or generational.16

Suggesting ways ‘in which [music] affirmed and promoted the self-identification
of the several “nations, interests and religions” into which the country was
divided’, Harrison discussed a range of musical contexts from the cosmopolitan
household music of George Berkeley as bishop of Cloyne, through cathedral music
with particular reference to Jonathan Swift, to theatre music in eighteenth-century
Dublin including the presence of Irish tunes in ballad operas. Harrison described
his paper as ‘one among many ways into increased knowledge of a formative
period in the history of modern Ireland’.17 A quarter century later, the question
of musical identities as reflected in the musical repertoires of eighteenth-century
Ireland repays investigation.
The question of the popularity of Irish music within eighteenth-century Anglo-
Irish society and what this may reveal about the identity of that society raises issues

 Nicholas Carolan, ‘Gaelic Song’, in Hugh Shields (ed.), Popular Music in
Eighteenth-Century Dublin (Dublin, 1985), pp. 18−23, at p. 18.
 Frank Harrison, ‘Music, Poetry and Polity in the Age of Swift’, Eighteenth-Century
Ireland, 1 (1986): 37–63, at p. 37.
 Ibid., pp. 62−3.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 23

in relation to the extent to which contemporary attitudes and opinions regarding

indigenous Irish music – or indeed any other forms of music – can indeed be
established. The views expressed in print by Pilkington, Whyte and others may
indeed reflect opinions more-or-less widely held within the social milieu from
which these authors came, but they may also be coloured by the desire to shape
rather than reflect opinion. With the noted exception of Mrs Mary Delaney (née
Granville), whose published correspondence provides such a vital insight into the
cultural world of mid eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish society,18 relatively little
private commentary on contemporary musical taste is available. Nevertheless, by
combining the views expressed in both the printed and the (rare) private sources
with the evidence of concert programmes, newspaper reports and the musical
repertoire published in eighteenth-century Dublin, some attempt may be made to
understand the musical attitudes and tastes of the Anglo-Irish classes, in particular
with regard to indigenous Irish music, and thus to understand how music reveals
their social and cultural identities.
Irish society in the eighteenth century has traditionally been seen as
fundamentally and irreconcilably divided, comprising two separate cultures
defined by religion and ethnicity, the ‘two Irelands’ between which there existed
a gulf revealing itself as much through music as through other aspects of culture,
religion and society. As Harry White comments in the introduction to his chapter
on musical thought in eighteenth-century Ireland in The Keeper’s Recital,
‘a distinction between the achievements of the Ascendancy mind and those of the
“Hidden Ireland” has long been a commonplace of Irish history’. He notes that this
concept of the ‘two Irelands’ is ‘a perspective which originated not in the aftermath
of modern commentary but in the period [the eighteenth century] itself. Within the
Ascendancy mind, the sense of two cultures was formed.’19 White’s investigation
of the relationships between the two musical cultures in eighteenth-century Ireland,
the ‘dialectic between ethnic and colonial ideologies of culture’, is central to his
interpretation of music ‘as an intelligible factor in the development of Irish ideas’.20
The bi-polar perception of ‘two Irelands’ with little or no contact with each other
was strengthened and retrospectively redefined throughout the succeeding two
centuries during which Irish identity was shaped by emerging political, cultural
and religious nationalism and by the realization of the independent nation-state in

 Lady Llanover (ed.), Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs
Delaney (5 vols, London, 1861–62); selected correspondence in Angélique Day (ed.) Letters
from Georgian Ireland: The Correspondence of Mary Delaney, 1731–68 (Belfast, 1991).
 White, Keeper’s Recital, p. 13. The term ‘Hidden Ireland’ was coined by Daniel
Corkery, whose book The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth
Century (Dublin, 1924) popularized the view that the impoverished Catholic peasantry
of the Penal Law era preserved the rich, Gaelic Irish culture that remained ‘hidden’ in
that it was virtually ignored within the Anglo-Irish narrative that had dominated Irish
historiography up to that time.
 Ibid., p. 2.
24 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

the twentieth century. This perception has more recently been questioned as the
contacts, the social and cultural exchanges, and the overlapping economic levels
that the two cultural traditions so often shared have come to be acknowledged.
That political power and wealth were controlled by the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy
is not in question, but culturally – and at some levels socially – the ‘two Irelands’
rubbed shoulders in common cause. An acknowledgement of their shared interests
offers possibilities for a reassessment of eighteenth-century Irish culture and
society. Despite the differences between the two traditions, the gulf was not as
unbridgeable – nor unbridged – as might at first appear. This is reflected in music
that embodies identities that at times overlap or find common ground.
Toby Barnard has exposed one of the most persistent myths associated with the
bi-polar view of Irish society in the eighteenth century, namely that all members
of the Protestant population by definition enjoyed power, wealth and prosperity:

as much as 90 per cent of the Protestant population competed (or cooperated)

with Catholics to hew wood and draw water, or – more realistically – to till the
land, serve in houses, run messages and carry packs … many more [Protestant
households] lay outside than within the office- and property-holding elites.21

Furthermore, the Anglo-Irish population included significant numbers of

Dissenters (especially in Ulster): Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists and others who
were not members of the established (that is, Anglican) church and who were as
much discriminated against under the Penal Laws as were Catholics. Conversely,
although many Catholic landowners converted in order to retain their estates,
others maintained their faith with reduced estates, while the Penal Laws did not
seriously affect the wealth of Catholics of the mercantile and trading classes, nor
of larger tenant farmers and middlemen.22 The extremes of economic status were
indeed drawn along confessional lines, but a substantial middle ground was shared
by people of both traditions.

* * *

In the opening lines of his poetic ‘Dissertation on Italian and Irish Musick’
Laurence Whyte emphasizes the fashion for the ‘new’ and the ‘foreign’:

Begin my Muse, with tuneful Stanza’s

Concerto’s, or Extravaganza’s,
With something new not sung before,
That shall demand a loud Encore,
Overture, Symphony, or Solo,

 Toby Barnard, A New Anatomy of Ireland (New Haven and London, 2003), p. 281.

 S.J. Connolly (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2nd edition

(Oxford, 2002), p. 462.

Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 25

Goes down with universal Volo;

Some brisk Alegro’s, Fuges, and Jiggs
Will please young Ladies, and young Priggs

At the time Whyte was writing, Italian music, represented by visiting Italian
musicians including the prominent violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani
and the music of Corelli, Vivaldi and others, or composers such as Handel
influenced by Italian music, dominated Dublin’s musical taste. Fifteen years before
Whyte, Matthew Pilkington in his poem ‘The Progress of Musick in Ireland. To
Mira’ (1725) had acknowledged William Viner, appointed Master of the State
Music in 1703 (a position he held until his death in Dublin in 1716), as having
initiated a new era of music in Ireland. Pilkington commented that Viner ‘touch’d
[choral strings] into voice, and waken’d [them] into sound’, a comment that
supports the identification of Viner as the principle conduit for the introduction
of the Italian string-concerto style into Ireland.23 Viner’s own violin sonatas,
published posthumously in 1717, are in the Italian style and he is known to have
performed Corelli’s sonatas in London in 1710 (and doubtless he did so too in
Dublin); Johann Sigismond Cousser, who succeeded Viner in Dublin as Master
of the State Music, owned a manuscript by Viner of Corelli’s sonatas.24 Pilkington
proceeds to chart the successive arrivals in Dublin of foreign musicians associated
with Italianate music, naming the castrato Nicolini (who visited Dublin in 1711),
the violinist Matthew Dubourg (first documented in Dublin in 1723, subsequently
Master of the State Music and the leader of the orchestra for Handel’s oratorio
performances in 1741–42) and the Italian cellist Lorenzo Bocchi (in Dublin
c.1724).25 The opening of Crow Street Music Hall in 1731, built at the request
of members of the Musical Academy for the Practice of Italian Music, and the
presence in Dublin between 1733 and 1740 of Geminiani (who subsequently
returned to Ireland in 1759 and died in Dublin in 1762) are but highlights in the
growing dominance of Italian musical taste in Dublin concert life in the earlier
eighteenth century.26 This fashion for all things Italian, including music, reflected
an almost pan-Europe desire among the socially better-off to identify themselves
with Italian culture, widely considered the touchstone of artistic taste and

 Matthew Pilkington, ‘The Progress of Musick in Ireland. To Mira’ (Dublin, 1725),
lines 134–5; reprinted in Deane, Field Day Anthology, Vol. 1, pp. 410−15, at p. 410.
 Michael Tilmouth, ‘A Calendar of References to Music in Newspapers Published
in London and the Provinces (1660−1719)’. Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle
1/2–7 (1961): 1−107, at p. 69; Neal Zaslaw, ‘Ornaments for Corelli’s Violin sonatas, op.5’,
Early Music 24 (1996): 95−115. For ongoing examples of Italian musical taste in Dublin see
Brian Boydell, A Dublin Musical Calendar, 1700−1761 (Blackrock, 1988), passim.
 On Bocchi see Peter Holman, ‘A Little Light on Lorenzo Bocchi: An Italian in
Edinburgh and Dublin’, in Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman (eds), Music in the British
Provinces 1680–1914 (Aldershot, 2007), pp. 61–86.
 See Brian Boydell, Dublin Calendar, passim, and Barra Boydell, ‘Geminiani in
Ireland’, in Christopher Hogwood (ed.), Geminiani Studies (Bologna, forthcoming).
26 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

refinement. However, the desire of the Irish Protestant elite to identify itself with
this refined European taste (primarily as channelled through London) occurred at
a time when the very nature of its own identity was uncertain. In the early years
of the eighteenth century, as Dublin society was beginning to embrace Italian
taste, the political system that supported the Protestant Ascendancy through the
imposition of the Penal Laws had been in place for barely a decade. While some
of the Anglo-Irish could reasonably be described as English living in Ireland,
many belonged to families that had lived in Ireland at least since the early-to-
mid seventeenth century if not for generations and that regarded themselves as
Irish, not English. And yet, as English speakers who, with rare exceptions, could
neither engage directly nor identify themselves with the native Gaelic-speaking
population, their need to establish a distinct identity was of paramount importance.
As Roy Foster has commented within the context of the outstanding architectural
achievements of eighteenth-century ascendancy culture: ‘The Ascendancy built in
order to convince themselves not only that they had arrived, but that they would
remain. Insecurity and the England-complex would remain with them to the end.’27
Thus the Ascendancy class established a distinctive physical identity for itself
through its architecture, both public and ‘private’ (the latter being itself in part a
public statement: the grand Palladian country house as a statement of economic
and social power visible within the landscape, the town house with its imposing
public face visible to the street). But where their physical, built environment gave
the Anglo-Irish elite an identity exclusive of the wider population and that aligned
them with the wider European world of high culture, such an identity was neither
so clear-cut nor necessarily so exclusive within the realm of music: the music of
the native Irish tradition played a small but significant role within eighteenth-
century elite society, despite the latter’s overwhelming taste for ‘the foreign note’
and desire to identify itself with European and London-based musical tastes.
Pilkington’s poem ‘The Progress of Music in Ireland’ articulates the early
eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish need to claim an identity within the modern,
‘civilized’ world by rejecting the music of the harpers and bards associated
with Ireland’s past and with the dispossessed Catholic Irish. Born in Co. Offaly
c.1700, graduate of Trinity College Dublin, ordained in the established church
and sometime friend of Swift, Pilkington speaks as an Irishman, but as one who
identifies himself not with the past but with the brave new world of progress.28 The
‘progress’ of music is delineated through stages, each of which is portrayed as an
advance over the former. The peak of native Irish music is reached as the ‘vagrant
bard’ (the harper, understood here to refer specifically to Carolan) ‘charms the
villages with venal lays’ and ‘Joy spreads her Wings o’er all the raptur’d Isle,
/ And bids each Face be brighten’d to a Smile.’ In turn, however, ‘The Muses

 Roy Foster, Modern Ireland 1600−1872 (London, 1988), p. 194.


 See A.C. Elias Jr., ‘Pilkington, Matthew (1701–1774)’, in H.C.G. Matthew and

Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (60 vols, Oxford, 2004),
Vol. 44, pp. 327–9.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 27

from Albion’s Isle retreat, / And here with kind indulgence fix their Seat.’29 As
noted above, this ‘progress’ of the Muses (representing European art music) is
charted by Pilkington through the arrival in Dublin of Viner, Nicolini, Dubourg
and Bocchi. Pilkington’s poem concludes with the ‘rude lays’ of the native Irish
music overshadowed and devalued by the rise of the ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ taste
of foreign musical styles:

Th’awaken’d Muse thus rises, thus refines,

Improves with Time, and in Perfection shines;
The first rude Lays are now but meanly priz’d,
As rude, neglected, as untun’d, despis’d:
Dead – (in Esteem too dead) the Bards that sung,
The Fife neglected, and the Harp unstrung.30

Underlying this rejection of the ‘rude lays’ of native Irish music in favour of the
refinement of (foreign) art music is the identification of beauty with classical ideals
of proportion and artifice, with progress and civility. Thus ‘rude’ nature must be
rejected or controlled, an aesthetic reflected in the formal layout of gardens and
the discrete control of nature in the eighteenth-century parkland. Later in the
eighteenth century the aesthetic of the sublime would encourage the appreciation –
the fearful admiration – of uncontrolled nature; so too emerging Romanticism
would encourage the identification of ‘folk music’ with nature as something to be
admired, just as Rousseau admired the ‘noble savage’. Thus, Irish music would
gain wider currency within the Anglo-Irish musical world later in the eighteenth
century, but at the time Pilkington was writing in the 1720s such ideas had not
yet gained currency. An interest in Irish music on the part of members of the elite
Anglo-Irish society was initially tentative and fraught with concerns that in such
an engagement its ‘rude nature’ might threaten their fragile sense of civility.
Fifteen years after Pilkington’s rejection of Irish music, Laurence Whyte’s
‘Dissertation’ already suggests a change in the place of the indigenous repertoire
within Anglo-Irish musical life over the intervening period. Thus, where Pilkington
echoed the fear of too close an engagement with the ‘rude nature’ of native Irish
music, Whyte could comment in 1740 that:

Sweet Bocchi thought it worth his while,

In doing honour to our Isle,
To build on Carallan’s Foundation,
Which he perform’d to Admiration,
On his Pheraca’s went to work,
With long Divisions on O Rourk.31

 Pilkington, ‘Progress of Musick’, lines 125–6, 131−2.
 Ibid., lines 199–204.
 Whyte, ‘Dissertation’, lines 138–43.
28 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Here Whyte expresses admiration for the arrangement by Lorenzo Bocchi of

Carolan’s Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough [sic], ‘improved with different divitions
after the Italian maner with a bass and Chorus’ and published in John and William
Neal’s Col[l]ection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes (Dublin, 1724).32 Neal’s
Celebrated Irish Tunes, the earliest printed collection of Irish tunes, itself presents
the Irish musical repertoire through the filter of Italianate musical taste, as Leith
Davis notes:

The pervading influence over this important collection is neither Irish nor Anglo-
Irish, but Italian. The tunes have all been set as performed at the ‘Subscription
Consort’ by an Italian musician, Lorenzo Bocchi … Even the name of one of the
Irish composers, Turlough Carolan, appears in Italianized form in the tune ‘The
Fairy Queen’ as ‘Sigr. Carrolini’.33

The fact that these tunes are described as ‘celebrated’ and that they had been
performed in public by Bocchi suggests, again to cite Davis, ‘the existence of
a wide variety of popular native Irish tunes from which the editors were able to
choose and implies an active interest by Anglo-Irish musicians in Irish tunes’.34
This comment, however, needs to be qualified by acknowledging that it was
precisely their presentation within the framework of Italianate musical taste that
made these Irish tunes acceptable to Anglo-Irish ascendancy taste: not merely
acceptable but clearly of sufficient interest to warrant the Neals undertaking the
commercial risk of publishing them (although, interestingly, the Neals never again
repeated the experiment by publishing any further collections of Irish music).
When Whyte referred in 1740 to liking the ‘foreign tone … much better than
our own’, what identity was he referring to as ‘our own’? Details of Whyte’s
life are little known beyond his being a teacher, primarily of mathematics, who
prepared pupils for Trinity College Dublin, although he was not apparently a
student there himself. He was probably born in Co. Westmeath and his mother’s
family was Catholic.35 The subscription list of his Poems on Various Subjects
(which includes the Dissertation on Italian and Irish Musick) has been described
as ‘a veritable directory of Catholic gentry in the Pale area’36 and, to quote David

 Nicholas Carolan (ed.), John and William Neal’s Col[l]ection of the Most
Celebrated Irish Tunes, Dublin 1724, 2nd facsimile edition (Dublin, 2010), hereafter: Neal
(ed. Carolan). The spelling of the title of Carolan’s tune varies between the title page of
Neal’s publication and the page on which the music is printed, the latter being cited here.
 Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender, p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 34.
 Patrick Fagan, ‘Whyte, Laurence’, in James McGuire and James Quinn (eds),
Dictionary of Irish Biography (9 vols, Cambridge, 2009), Vol. 9, p. 920; David Hunter,
‘Inviting Handel to Ireland: Laurence Whyte and the Challenge of Poetic Evidence’,
Eighteenth Century Ireland 20 (2005): 156–68, at p. 156.
 Kevin Whelan, ‘An Underground Gentry? Catholic Middlemen in Eighteenth-Century
Ireland’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland 10 (1995), p. 27, cited after Hunter, ‘Inviting Handel’, p. 157.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 29

Hunter, he appears in his poems to have ‘downplayed binary divisions such as

low and high culture, locals and foreigners, rural and urban, as well as Catholic
and Protestant … Whyte apparently saw his responsibility as linking the various
societal levels and places of Ireland and was unafraid to hymn them all.’37 Patrick
Fagan likewise notes Whyte’s association with the Charitable Musical Society, a
musical club of mixed religious and political backgrounds that he represents as
‘a bridge-builder between catholics and protestants, with membership open to all
comers’.38 Whyte regrets the overwhelming popularity of Italian music, suggesting
that it has even displaced the traditional musical fare of the farm labourer:

There’s scarce a Forthman or Fingallion,39

But that sings or whistles in Italian,
Instead of good old Barley Mow,40
With Tamo tanto41 drive the Plow.42

In contrast, however, he notes the preference of the ‘country squire’ (identified

from the first song reference clearly as belonging to Protestant stock):

Who’d rather hear Lill’bolero,43

And having neither Air nor Voice,
Of Bobbin Joan wou’d make his Choice.44

 Hunter, ‘Inviting Handel’, p. 157.
 Fagan, ‘Whyte, Laurence’.
 Respectively from the Barony of Forth in Co Wexford and from Fingal in north
Co. Dublin.
 ‘Barley mow’, an English folksong. It is not cited in Aloys Fleischmann (ed.),
Micheál Ó Súilleabháin and Paul McGettrick (asst. eds), Sources of Irish Traditional Music
c.1600–1855 (2 vols, New York and London, 1998).
 ‘T’amo tanto’ (‘I love you so’), from the opera Artaserse (1724) by the London-based
Attilio Ariosti, is cited in a number of ballad operas c.1730 (see http://www.csufresno.edu/
folklore/Olson/BALOP.HTM, accessed 20 July 2010). It appears in a keyboard arrangement
in Peter Prelleur, The Modern Musick-Master, or the Universal Musician (London, 1730/
repr. 1731), pp. 13–14, and it was the third song in the popular song collection The Musical
Entertainer, Vol. 1 (London, 1737 and later editions).
 Whyte, ‘Dissertation’, lines 117–20.
 ‘Lillibullero’, a ballad attacking the appointment of Richard Talbot, earl of
Tyrconnell, as lord lieutenant in 1687 in whose ‘patriot parliament’ of 1689 there was a
substantial Catholic majority (see Deane, Field Day Anthology, Vol. 1, p. 413 n.13), became
associated with supporters of William of Orange. The tune remained popular throughout the
eighteenth century and was used in The Beggar’s Opera (1728).
 Whyte, ‘Dissertation’, lines 46–8. Bryan Colbourne notes that ‘there are two
unrelated tunes with the name of “Bobbin Joan”, one in Playford’s English Dancing
Master (1651), the other in undated Irish collections probably of the second half of the
eighteenth century’ (Deane, Field Day Anthology, Vol. 1, p. 413). Fleischmann does not
cite ‘Bobbin Joan’ under Playford, 1651 (Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, pp. 7–8): the
30 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

But he notes the popularity of Irish tunes within his own, Anglo-Irish circles:

But Drimin duh45 is still in favour,

Since we from Murphy,46 beg, and crave her,
[ … ] She, and old Eveleen a Rune,47
Are by the Muses kept in Tune … 48

Whyte suggests here that, while the rural labourer has forsaken his native repertoire
for Italian music and the ‘country squire’ is characterized by an absence of musical
discernment, the urban concert public has supposedly abandoned its love of Italian
music for an interest in Irish tunes. But these Irish tunes are not simply in fashion:
they are ‘kept in tune’ by the Muses, that is, arranged and clothed in (Italianate)
art-music taste.
To what extent would the Dublin musical public actually have encountered
traditional Irish music? About 80 per cent of Dublin’s population of c.125,000
in 1750 were servants and lower classes and it is among this largely (but certainly
not entirely) Irish-speaking majority that traditional music and song (sometimes
with Irish, sometimes with English words, and including the widespread practice
of ballad singing)49 would certainly have been common. However, interest in this
repertoire on the part of those who might have written about and commented on it is
slight, there being only occasional passing references in contemporary reports and
literature to Irish song or to dancing.50 That traditional music was surely part of the
everyday soundscape of eighteenth-century Dublin is emphasized in a sketchbook
of ‘The Cries of Dublin, &c Drawn from the Life’ by Hugh Douglas Hamilton
dated 1760, a collection that includes a drawing of ‘Blind Daniel the Piper’, one

earliest he gives for a tune entitled ‘Bob and Joan’/’Bobbing Joan’ is in Neil Gow, Part
Second of the Complete Repository of Original Scots Tunes, Strathspeys, Jigs and Dances
(Edinburgh, 1799–1817) (Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, p. 655), although he does refer to
similar tunes ‘Miss Murray’s reel’ in Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country
Dances (London, 1759–61) (Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, p. 287) and ‘Miss Murray’s Jig’
in ‘Reels, Minuets, Hornpipes, Marches for Violin, Flute etc’ (GB-En: MS 3346, c.1765)
(Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, pp. 287, 321).
 ‘Druimin dubh’ (Black cow), a tune widely known in the eighteenth century. See
Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, passim.
 Apparently the harper ‘Mr Murphy’ who performed in Dublin between 1721
and 1746, in Cork in 1723 and 1753 and, if the same ‘Murphy’, also in London between 1712
and 1715. See Seán Donnelly, ‘The Famousest Man in the World for the Irish Harp’, Dublin
Historical Record 57/1 (2004): 38–49.
 On ‘Eveleen a Rune’ (Eibhín a rún) see below.
 Whyte, ‘Dissertation’, lines 120–21; 124–5.
 See Hugh Shields, ‘Ballads, Ballad Singing and Ballad Selling’, in Shields, Popular
Music, pp. 24–31.
 See note 15 above.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 31

of the earliest known portrayals of an uilleann piper.51 It is worth recalling too that
during his visit to Dublin in 1741–42 Handel was sufficiently interested in a tune
he heard played or sung by ‘a poor Irish boy’ to note it down in one of his musical
sketchbooks (as ‘Der arme Irische Junge’).52 While the song and dance music of
the lower classes must have come to the notice of the wealthier, concert-going
public, the music of the Irish harpers, most notably Turlough Carolan who was at
the height of his fame in the early eighteenth-century, was of greater interest to
them and would appear to have been the prime means through which Irish music
came to the wider notice of Anglo-Irish society. The emphasis on Carolan’s music
in publications of Irish music in the eighteenth century will be noted below, but
there is also evidence for the patronage of harpers by the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.
While most of Carolan’s patrons were from prominent Irish Catholic families,
he also enjoyed the support of Anglo-Irish patrons including Dr Patrick Delaney,
Professor of Oratory at Trinity College Dublin, afterwards Dean of Down and
a friend of Jonathan Swift (who is also reputed to have known and admired
Carolan).53 Dr Delaney later supported the publication in 1748 of a collection of
Carolan’s music (in which a bass was provided for all the tunes) by Denis Connor,
in association with Carolan’s son.54 Mrs Mary Delaney, his second wife, reported
in 1745 from Hollymount, Co. Down: ‘We have got an Irish harper in the house,
who plays a great variety of tunes very well; he plays to us at our meals and to me
whilst I am drawing.’55 Five years later she wrote from Mount Panther, Co. Down,
that ‘We have the same harper in the house we had when at Hollymount; he
plays very well, and knows a vast variety of tunes.’56 She also refers to Carolan’s
music, evidently from the collection her husband had supported, as being ‘very
pretty’,57 a term defined in Samuel Johnson’s contemporary Dictionary as ‘neat,
elegant’ or ‘beautiful without grandeur or dignity’;58 this is a term she also used to
describe Matthew Dubourg’s ‘pastoral’ birthday ode performed at Dublin Castle
in 1751 and suggests the fullest praise for music but of a smaller scale than, for
example, Handel’s oratorios which she so admired.59 Robert Edgeworth (father
of the novelist Maria Edgeworth) made frequent payments on a fairly regular

 See William Laffan (ed.), The Cries of Dublin. Drawn from the Life by Hugh
Douglas Hamilton, 1760 (Dublin, 2003), pp. 134–5.
 Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MU MS 263, p. 58 [fol. 29v].
 On Carolan’s patrons see Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan. The Life Times and Music of
an Irish Harper (2 vols, London, 1958), Vol. 2, passim.
 Advertised in the Dublin Journal, 11−14 June 1748; see Brian Boydell, Dublin
Calendar, p. 116. See also Sandra Joyce, ‘An Introduction to O’Carolan’s Music in 18th-
Century Publications’, in Devine and White, Maynooth, pp. 296−309, at p. 298).
 Day, Letters from Georgian Ireland, p. 259.
 Ibid., p. 211.
 Citing an edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language
published in Dublin in 1768.
 Day, Letters from Georgian Ireland, p. 49.
32 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

basis to harpers, including one ‘Brogan the harper’, over a period of about 30
years between 1734 and 1764 at his country house at Edgeworthstown (Mostrim),
Co. Longford.60 A second collection of Carolan’s music, partially based on that
of 1748, was published by John Lee in 1778 and copied (with minor differences)
by other Dublin publishers including Maurice Hime.61
If Carolan’s music dominated published collections in Dublin, other Irish tunes
enjoyed considerable popularity, appearing in theatre and concert programmes and
being published in vocal or instrumental arrangements. Certainly the most popular
of these throughout the mid eighteenth century was Aileen aroon (Lawrence
Whyte’s ‘Eveleen a Rune’), which first appears in print in the Irish playwright
Charles Coffey’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Wedding of 1729 as the tune for the
song ‘How bashful Maids appear’.62 According to Horatio Townsend in 1852,
Handel ‘is said to have declared that he would willingly resign the fame he had
acquired by his most celebrated compositions, for the glory of being the inventor of
the air Aileen Aroon’.63 In August 1741 the London-based singer Mrs Kitty Clive,
who was appearing in a number of operas and other productions including the first
Dublin performance of Arne’s Comus, was announced in the press as ‘learning the
celebrated Song Elen-a-roon’, which she then performed at her benefit concert in
the same month.64 Although this is the first documented concert performance of the
song since its introduction in The Beggar’s Wedding more than a decade earlier,
it would appear already to have gained considerable popularity: Kitty Clive was
doing no more than was the common practice for visiting soloists of including
an arrangement of a popular local air in their concert programmes, a practice for
which Aileen Aroon would become one of the most favoured local tunes. Mrs
Clive later sang Aileen Aroon at Covent Garden theatre in London, where the
music was subsequently printed.65 Matthew Dubourg’s variations on the same
tune were published in 1746, and variations on this and other popular traditional
melodies featured in many instrumental concerts of the period.66 Thereafter Aileen

 Nora M. Grealis, ‘Aspects of Musical Activity in Anglo-Irish Homes outside Dublin


during the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century’, MA thesis (St Patrick’s College,
Maynooth, 1995), Ch. 3, passim, pp. 119−22.
 National Library of Ireland, JM 4608.
 On the possible origins of Aileen Aroon see Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, p. xviii.
 Horatio Townsend, An Account of the Visit of Handel to Dublin (Dublin, 1852),
p. 64.
 Brian Boydell, Dublin Calendar, pp. 72−3.
 ‘Ducatu non vanna. Aileen aroon. A Irish Ballad sung by Mrs Clive at ye theater
Royal’ [London, c.1740]. British Library, G.315, at p. 152.
 Select minuets, Collected from the Castle Balls, and the publick assemblies in
Dublin … to which is added Eleena Roon by Mr. Dubourgh (Dublin, [1746]; National
Library of Ireland, Add. Mus. 9013). For further discussion on the use of Irish tunes in
eighteenth-century Dublin see Brian Boydell, ‘Georgian Lollipops, or The Lighter Sides
of Classical Music’, in Popular Music in Eighteenth-Century Dublin, pp. 5−11, and Brian
Boydell, Rotunda Music in Eighteenth-Century Dublin (Dublin, 1992), pp. 157–8.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 33

Aroon (with various spellings) can be traced in close to 30 concert programmes

in Dublin over the following 40 years, often being referred to as the ‘celebrated
song’ or ‘favourite air’.67 On occasions it was ‘introduced’ by visiting singers into
plays and operas, in which case the tune might be adapted to new words. A duet
version ‘introduc’d by Miss Catley and Miss Wewitzer in the Beggar’s Opera’, for
example, was published in Dublin in the mid 1770s by Thomas Walker. Here the
tune was used for Polly and Lucy’s duet in Act 3 of The Beggar’s Opera, ‘A Curse
attend that Woman’s Love’, originally sung to the tune O Bessy Bell.68 In the 1770s
Thomas Campbell commented that ‘Ellen-a-Roon has always been esteemed as
one of the finest melodies of any country’, and the song was still being published
by F. Linely in London c.1798.69
Irish tunes such as Aileen Aroon clearly enjoyed abiding popularity as the basis
both for concerto movements in Dublin concert programmes and for arrangements
published for the amateur market. The practice of incorporating Irish tunes – or for
that matter Scottish, English or other ‘folk’ or popular tunes – into the concert or
domestic musical repertoire was, and has continued to be, widespread. As Whyte
says elsewhere in Poems on various subjects of himself, John and William Neal
and other members of the Charitable and Musical Society:

Each night we shook off our domesick Cares,

By Irish, English or Italian Airs,
Scotch, French, or Dutch, sometimes wou’d do as well70

Their musical tastes were eclectic, but the fact that Whyte elsewhere identified
Irish tunes as ‘our own’ in contrast to ‘the foreign tone’ nevertheless underlines the
bridge that linked both sides of Irish society, Harrison’s two ‘nations’. Conversely,
Carolan’s engagement with Italian music (reflected in his ‘Concerto’ with its
supposed origins in a musical meeting between Carolan and an Italian violinist)71
and the fact that, as noted above, both he and other harpers were patronized by
both the Gaelic Irish and the Anglo-Irish further emphasize the links between the
two cultural traditions.

 Brian Boydell, Dublin Calendar (see esp. p. 299) and Brian Boydell, Rotunda,
p. 158.
 National Library of Ireland, Add. Mus. 12,589. Further on Anne Catley see Brian
Boydell, Rotunda, pp. 213−14; on Miss Wewitzer see Peter Thomson, ‘Wewitzer, Ralph
(1748−1825)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 58, pp. 331−2 and Jonah
Barrington, Personal sketches of his own times (2 vols, London, 1827), Vol. 1, pp. 314−16).
 [Campbell], Philosophical Survey, pp. 449–50; British Library, H.1652.hh, at p. 17.
 Laurence Whyte, ‘An Historical Poem, On the Rise and Progress of the Charitable
and Musical Society, now Assembling at the Bull’s Head in Fishamble-street, Dublin … ’,
Poems on Various Subjects, p. 222.
 For a discussion of this story and the later identification of the Italian musician with
Geminiani, see O’Sullivan, Carolan, Vol. 1, pp. 145–8 and Barra Boydell, ‘Geminiani’.
34 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Anglo-Irish society’s active engagement with Irish tunes and its developing
interest in the harp music in particular of Carolan highlights particular issues
relating to music and identity. Does this interest in Irish music reflect a nascent
sense of national identity, of what would later be understood as nationalism? Does
it reflect an interest in what could be construed as an ‘exotic’ musical world distinct
from that of the predominantly Italianate world of ascendancy musical taste? Or
is it nothing more than the adoption of tunes considered attractive irrespective of
where they come from?
The possibility of a nascent sense of nationalism at this period is unlikely. On
the one hand, the later concept of nationalism is anachronistic; on the other hand,
Irish tunes, like Scottish and others, had long formed part of the popular repertoire
in England where they appear for example in the many editions of Playford’s
Dancing Master (from 1651), just as Scottish, English and other ‘national’ tunes
circulated in Dublin. Alongside their Celebrated Irish Tunes of 1724 John and
William Neal had published collections of Scottish and English tunes, drawing
attention on the title page of the Celebrated Irish Tunes to their having ‘lately
Printed a Quarto Book of the best Scotch Tunes and another of the Finest English
Ayres & Newest Minuets’.72 Leith Davis notes that these Scottish and English
tunes (the former possibly introduced largely by Bocchi who had previously been
in Edinburgh,73 the latter in fact primarily taken from operas by Handel, Scarlatti,
Bononcini and Ariosti) are all presented in an Italianate style and that there is little
to distinguish between them.74
A sense of Anglo-Irish identity separate from that of England was indeed
emerging in the early eighteenth century, articulated and encouraged by Jonathan
Swift in particular through his pamphlets including A Proposal for the Universal
Use of Irish Manufacture, &c (1720) and the Drapier’s Letters (1724−25).75 In the
preface to The Beggar’s Wedding (1729) the Dublin playwright Charles Coffey
wrote of his ballad opera that ‘were it wrote on t’other side of the Water …
the same Piece would have influenc’d the Tower much more in its Favour: but
Prejudices of this kind are not to be accounted for’, ending with the wish that

 In addition to the 1724 Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, Nicholas

Carolan lists the following publications by Neal of ‘national’ tunes: A Collection of the
Most Celebrated Scotch Tunes for the Violin … (before 22 August 1724), A Collection/
Book of Irish and Scotch Tunes for the Flute (before 22 August 1724), A Second Collection
of English Airs & Minuets … (c.1726), A Third Collection for the Violin of the Newest
English Airs & Minuets … (1727), A Collection of English Songs (before September 1733),
A Collection of the Most Celebrated Scotch Songs (1733), and five collections of ‘country
dances’ (before November 1726, before November 1734, 1734, 1737 and 1739). See Neal
(ed. Carolan), pp. 26–7.
 See Holman, ‘A Little Light’.
 Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender, pp. 31−2.
 See Deane, Field Day Anthology, Vol. 1, pp. 341–50.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 35

‘Hybernia flourish, and her Sons be perpetuated to all succeeding Ages’.76

Sentiments such as these reflect the eighteenth-century ideal of ‘patriotism’ with
its emphasis on contributing to the common good of one’s country, so different
from later separatist concepts of nationalism: Bishop Berkeley defined a patriot
in 1750 as ‘one who heartily wisheth the public prosperity, and doth not only
wish, but also study and endeavour to provide it’.77 Such sentiments do not equate
with a nationalism invoking Irish tunes in the construction of separatist identity.
This can be demonstrated by the widespread currency of Irish tunes in England
just as in Ireland: approximately one quarter of the tunes (18 out of a total of 69,
or 26 per cent) in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera first staged in London in 1728
and having no particular connection with Ireland are identified by Fleischmann
as being Irish tunes, a reminder that certain songs and melodies travelled around
and that London, then as now, was a cultural melting-pot.78 Conversely, despite
Charles Coffey’s clear patriotic sentiments and its having first been performed
in Dublin, the proportion of tunes in The Beggar’s Wedding (which is a direct
imitation of The Beggar’s Opera) is effectively identical (15 out of 55, or 27 per
cent, one of these being Aileen aroon, as noted above).79
Harrison characterized the appearance of Irish tunes in ballad operas as the
‘crossing over of tunes between “nations”, both from the indigenous Irish repertory
and from the Carolan-country repertory, into that of ascendancy and urban circles’.80
While reflecting the fluid musical boundaries between the two ‘nations’, was this
‘crossing over’ possibly motivated by an exotic interest in Irish tunes? While an
element of exoticism certainly cannot be ruled out, comments on Irish tunes in
the eighteenth century suggest an interest in them more as attractive melodies in
their own right than for any ‘exotic’ cultural associations. Whyte groups tunes
such as Aileen aroon together ‘With many others we know well, / Which do in
harmony excel’.81 He refers to Dubourg’s set of instrumental variations on Aileen
aroon (published in 1746) but praises him for ‘never [straying] from the subject’.
He comments on Bocchi’s respect for the melody when he ‘thought it worth his
while / In doing honour to our isle’ in writing variations on Carolan’s Plearaca na
ruarca. While voicing the English-speaking, urban public’s preference for music
of a ‘foreign note’, Whyte contrasted this with what he identified as ‘our own’, the
indigenous musical repertoire with which he identified as an Irishman, but of the

 The Beggar’s Wedding. A New Opera. As it is Acted at the Theatre in Dublin, with
great Applause. By Mr Char[les] Coffey … (Dublin, 1729), p. v.
 Cited after Leerssen, Mere Irish, p. 300. Further on patriotism, see Joep Leerssen,
‘Anglo-Irish Patriotism and its European Context: Notes Towards a Reassessment’,
Eighteenth-Century Ireland 3 (1988): 7–24; ‘Patriot and Patriotism’, in Connolly, Oxford
Companion to Irish History, pp. 457–8.
 Fleischmann, Sources, Vol. 1, pp. 102–5.
 Ibid., pp. 109–11.
 Harrison, ‘Music, Poetry and Polity’, p. 60.
 Whyte, ‘Dissertation’, lines 128–9.
36 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

English-speaking ‘nation’. Irish tunes were clearly not a strange, exotic ‘other’
for Whyte, however distant the indigenous Gaelic culture from which these tunes
arose may have been from the urban Anglo-Irish culture in which he places them.
Brian Boydell characterized eighteenth-century Dublin society as being
‘solidly Tory and royalist’,82 and certain aspects of its musical repertoire, not
least that associated with celebrations by the Ascendancy at Dublin Castle and in
Christ Church and St Patrick’s cathedrals of English royal occasions or military
victories, certainly projected a strongly unionist, Protestant identity. Nevertheless,
an inclusive, essentially non-sectarian and non-political interpretation of musical
identities with regard to the engagement with indigenous Irish music can be
proposed within Anglo-Irish culture, an interpretation that supports an inclusive
rather than a separatist understanding of the ‘two nations/two Irelands’ view
of eighteenth-century Irish society. Towards the end of the century, however,
emerging nationalism begins to imbue Irish music with a clearly political and
nationalist identity, a development charted by White and by Davis,83 and to which
Moore’s Irish Melodies would later make such a defining contribution.
In their 1998 study of Irish nationalism and identity O’Mahony and Delanty
proposed two dominant perceptions of Irish identity in the eighteenth century:

The Protestant Ascendancy regarded themselves as the Irish ‘Nation’ on the

basis of birth and residence. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, appealed
not to residence but to a communitarian ideology of descent from a dispossessed
Gaelic civilisational order.84

In the 1720s Pilkington had portrayed music as ‘progressing’ from the ‘rude
lays’ of the Irish tradition towards the perceived perfection of contemporary art
music, a view that clearly represented Irish music as an earlier, primitive form
of music now shaken off and rejected. In contrast, O’Mahony and Delanty’s
‘ideology of descent’, which defined national identity by reference to the past,
contributed to the perception of indigenous Irish music, in particular that of the
harpers, as the vestiges of an ‘ancient’ tradition to be preserved and revered as a
core element in the new construction of an Irish, nationalist identity. Its expression
was not, however, exclusive to the Catholic tradition. Almost in a mirror-image
of Pilkington, Joseph Walker in 1786 regretted the decline of ‘ancient Irish’
music from a former golden age to its present depressed state, expressing most
clearly this new interest – antiquarian but now also increasingly political – in
Irish music.85 The impetus for perceiving Irish music as a signifier of national
and cultural identity came largely from Anglo-Irish, Protestant society: it is worth

 Brian Boydell, ‘Georgian Lollipops’, p. 6.


 White, Keeper’s Recital; Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender.


 Patrick O’Mahony and Gerard Delanty, Rethinking Irish History – Nationalism,
Identity and Ideology, revised edition (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 39.
 Walker, Historical Memoirs.
Irish Music and Anglo-Irish Identity in the Eighteenth Century 37

recalling that patriotic leaders such as Henry Grattan, Lord Edward Fitzgerald,
Wolfe Tone and others were themselves of ascendancy stock, a fact that reflects
the distinctive nature of emerging nationalism in late eighteenth-century Ireland.
The organizers of the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, that most iconic expression of
late eighteenth-century Irish musical identity, were largely of Scots Presbyterian
descent and closely associated with the United Irishmen, established in Belfast in
October 1791. In their stated aim to revive ‘the ancient music of this country’86 and
‘to preserve from oblivion the few fragments which have been permitted to remain,
as monuments of the refined taste and genius of their ancestors’,87 they emphasized
both this perception of Irish music, specifically that of the harpers, as a relic of
antiquity, and asserted the common Irish identity of Catholic, Protestant and
Dissenter. This emphasis on Irish music as ‘ancient’ is clearly signalled in Edward
Bunting’s use of the adjective in the titles of his three published collections of
Irish music: A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (London, [1796]); A
General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin and London, 1809); and
The Ancient Music of Ireland Arranged for the Pianoforte (Dublin, 1840). Indeed,
the term ‘ancient’ became almost synonymous with perceptions of traditional Irish
music well into the nineteenth century, George Petrie likewise using the term in
The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin, 1855).
This common identity was central to the founding ideals of the United Irishmen,
and the choice of melodies used in the various United Irish songbooks reflects both
on this shared identity and the changes that took place within the United Irish
movement during the 1790s. As I have noted elsewhere,88 the songs of the United
Irishmen were initially set predominantly to English and other non-Irish melodies,
reflecting the catholic (with a small ‘c’) musical tastes and identities discussed
above, the predominantly Anglo-Irish and Dissenter origins of the United Irishmen,
and their inclusive ideals. Later editions of their songbook Paddy’s Resource show
a marked increase in the number of Irish tunes as the movement took on more
of a nationalist hue and expressed itself musically through a more consciously
Irish idiom.
In conclusion, Anglo-Irish musical tastes within eighteenth-century Ireland
with regard to the indigenous musical traditions support an inclusive interpretation
of cultural identity. In as much as a sense of national identity can be said to
have emerged during the eighteenth century, the Protestant, English-speaking
population considered itself overwhelmingly as Irish, but it was not until later in
the century that this identity would begin consciously to express itself through
Irish traditional (or ‘folk’) music and the music of the Irish harpers. When that did
happen, notably with Walker, Bunting and Thomas Moore, Irish folk music would

 Belfast Newsletter, 26 April 1792. Reproduced in Grainne Yeats, The Belfast
Harpers Festival 1792 (Dublin, 1980), p. 21.
 Cited after C.M. Fox. Annals of the Irish harpers (London. 1911), pp. 97–8.
 Barra Boydell, ‘The United Irishmen, Music, Harps and National Identity’,
Eighteenth-Century Ireland 13 (1998): 44–51.
38 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

become an important signifier of Irish national identity. Earlier in the eighteenth

century, however, while music clearly reflected social and cultural identities, it
certainly did not express national identity. Early to mid eighteenth-century Anglo-
Irish society certainly identified to some extent with the concept of ‘our own’
music, as Laurence Whyte reminds us, but this engagement with indigenous
Irish music was not motivated by a sense of political identity, but rather by the
aesthetics of the music that they came in contact with: a ‘good tune is a good
tune’, regardless of its origins. Prior to the emergence of antiquarianism and the
beginnings of nationalism towards the end of the century, there is little evidence
to suggest that the Anglo-Irish were interested in Irish music specifically because
it was Irish, rather than because they liked some of the tunes they heard or were
attracted by the music of the harpers. Rather, the complex interplay of musical
identities supports the interpretation of eighteenth-century Irish society not as the
bi-polar ‘two Irelands’, but rather as one that, while certainly incorporating stark
economic and political contrasts, was by no means as socially and culturally black-
and-white as has been portrayed by the predominantly nationalist historiography
that subsequently shaped perceptions of Irish history.
Chapter 2
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival
Martin Dowling

Musical and Literary Nationalism

The fall of Charles Stewart Parnell and the dissipation of Parnellite politics ushered
in a post-Parnellite ‘cultural turn’ in Irish politics creating a milieu in which, as
Terry Eagleton has written, ‘cultural practices did not so much displace political
activity proper as continue it by other means’.1 In an elegant chapter entitled
‘The National Longing for Form’, Declan Kiberd has argued that political and
economic stagnation after the Great Famine made Ireland into ‘a sort of nowhere’
out of which it must reinvent itself.2 Caught in this ‘sort of nowhere’ between the
twin abstractions of ‘citizen’ and ‘homo economicus’ on the one hand and the
ambivalent national identity fostered by the Act of Union of 1801 on the other,
Irish desires and aspirations for meaningful identity, as Eagleton put it, ‘cry out
for some concrete instantiation if they are to mean very much, and nationhood
or ethnicity, in all their rich specificity … [are] … admirable candidates for
this role.’3 This cultural moment of Irish politics was relatively short-lived,
inaugurated by Douglas Hyde’s speech on ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicization of
Ireland’ in 1893 and exhausted by the outbreak of politics proper in revolutionary
movements and international conflicts manifested in the Great War and the war
for Irish independence.4 This moment has, nevertheless, had a lasting legacy in
Irish cultural and intellectual life. The political field was briefly reoriented so
that the pursuit of the artistic, literary and cultural practices had become political
careers. As one commentator wrote in 1900, ‘Whatever D.P. Moran may say about
“decisive campaigns” and “triumphs”, it still appears to most people who have

 Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture
(London, 1995), p. 232. Eagleton relies on John S. Kelly, ‘The Fall of Parnell and the Rise
of Irish Literature’ Anglo-Irish Studies 2 (1976): 1–23. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–91)
was leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party until his death. His campaign for Home Rule for
Ireland ended in failure due to the moralistic reaction of the public to his involvement in the
divorce of Captain William O’Shea from Parnell’s mistress Katherine O’Shea.
 Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation
(London, 1995), p. 115.
 Terry Eagleton, ‘Nationalism and the Case of Ireland’, New Left Review 234
(1999): 46.
 John Hutchinson, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: the Gaelic Revival and
the Creation of the Irish Nation State (London, 1987), p. 187.
40 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

any experience of the matter that the work of improving, by re-nationalizing, our
artistic work in Ireland is, and will be, difficult, slow, and gradual.’5 William Butler
Yeats arrogantly equated his intellectual biography with the development of the
nation. Lacking an adequate political identity, the artist must bring that identity
into being through his work. Autobiography for Yeats was ‘the bringing into being
of a real man who might finally be found to lie behind the style which evoked
him’.6 The ‘national longing for form’ so acutely felt by aesthetic producers like
Yeats was therefore a kind of macro version of this autobiographical effort: the
need to bring into being a real state that might be found to lie behind the culture
that evoked it.
One remarkable legacy of this important era is the privilege given to literary
production over other aesthetic forms in the articulation of that culture. What
causes the predominance of the literary in the nationalist imaginary? We know
from the work of Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm that a literary and textual
tendency was characteristic of the late nineteenth-century nationalist imaginary in
many countries.7 Anderson’s influential thesis is that communities become nations
only after they have been ‘imagined’ in textual form. In pre-literate, unmediated
contexts, communities are merely ‘performed’ in face-to-face rituals and spectacles.
But in the imagined community of the emergent nation state, the authority of the
text usurps that of the performance. The advance of print capitalism and literacy,
which in Britain and Ireland dates from the eighteenth century, is a precondition
for this process. The novel becomes the characteristic vehicle for fixing the shifting
time-space of social antagonism, providing a material referent where one can say
‘meanwhile’ something else is happening simultaneously. The tendency applies
also to the constantly evolving cultures of vernacular music, song and dance. The
efforts to transcribe the musical repertoire, to fix in printed collections the unstable
and ever-changing repertoire, co-extensive with the rise of print capitalism since
the early eighteenth century, provide powerful examples. The author of an early
English tract on the history of social dancing concludes by praising the great
step forward of ‘the art of writing down dances in characters whereby masters
are able to communicate their compositions … over ever so great a distance’.8
Without the graphical technique of transcribing dances onto the printed page the
phenomenon that came to be called ‘English’ country dancing could not have
come into existence. By the end of the century these types of manuals for social
dancing began to distinguish between English, Scots and Irish repertoire. The first
collection devoted to exclusively Irish material was published in 1724, and there

 ‘M’, ‘The Musical Season in Ireland, 1899–1900. II.’ New Ireland Review 13/2
(December, 1900): 104–5.
 Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, p. 122.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread
of Nationalism, 2nd edition (London, 1991); Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism
since 1780: Programme, Myth, and Reality (London, 1990).
 John Weaver, Essay Towards a History of Dancing (London, 1712).
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 41

followed a long tradition from Edward Bunting, George Petrie, and P.W. Joyce in
the nineteenth century to Chicago chief of police Captain Francis O’Neill, the most
notable collector of the revival era, of preserving in printed collections the ‘ancient
music of Ireland’,9 usually packaged with romantic imagery and up-to-date piano
arrangements. The national longing for musical form was, for centuries, not much
more than this effort to fix into print the vernacular or ‘antient’ repertoire.
There is an old presumption that the frustration of Irish national aspiration
pushed its culture back from more substantial arts to poetry and, less significantly,
to music. In The Hidden Ireland, Daniel Corkery hinted that the nation was hiding
as much as it was hidden. About the eighteenth century poets he wrote:

A rush light, and to be let alone, were all they asked. Their fathers, themselves,
had suffered so much from the authorities and their laws, that an overlooked
existence had now become for them a boon. This overlooked existence is to be
felt in almost every poem they made for their own solacing. Those poems tell us
that they were a people on whom the gates had closed. Their artwork consists of
literature and music only – arts that require little or no gear.10

He then quoted Romain Rolland, who argued that when ‘material conditions are
harder, when life is bitter … when the opportunity of outside development is
withheld, then the spirit is forced back upon itself … and it seeks refuge in more
intimate arts, such as poetry and music’.11 The subaltern cultural essence of the
emergent nation is a powerful and resonant presupposition, and Corkery’s effort
to uncover, to make visible, this subaltern culture is a typical postcolonial gesture.
By the end of the nineteenth century the international context of national musical
form had developed dramatically. The symphony, like the novel or the painting,
aspired to be what Adorno called a ‘monad,’ a symbol of the whole of society.12
At its most evocative, it incorporated the partial bits and pieces of indigenous,
vernacular tradition into that whole, representing a national essence. This is
a subtle art. In an essay entitled ‘An Irish School of Music’, Brendan Rogers
worried that ‘National influences make themselves less powerfully felt in music
than in poetry or painting … her subjects are usually vague and indeterminate, her
vocabulary made up of a few scales, and for the rest we are told that her genius is
limited to the common emotions of mankind and the common inheritance of pure

 For the publication record up to the Victorian period see Aloys Fleischmann (ed.),
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin & Paul McGettrick (asst. eds), Sources of Irish Traditional Music,
c. 1600–1855 (London, 1998).
 Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth
Century (Dublin, 1924), p. 127.
 For the concept of monad in Adorno, see Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno.
Or the Persistence of the Dialectic (London, 1990), pp. 182–9.
42 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

form.’13 Like the new poetry and theatre, music must also somehow become new
and essential, national like contemporary French or German national music were,
similar to them in their structures and contexts of performance, recognizable in
the international forum of the orchestral concert hall, but distinct in some essential
way at the level of content because it is simultaneously created out of without
merely replicating local vernacular material. Rogers wrote:

By a National School of Music we mean that class or style or order of music

which has sprung from a people’s nature, has grown with their growth, has been
broadly, deeply, and strongly tinctured with their hereditary characteristics, which
becomes the fitting medium by which they give expression to the changeful
moods which the varying fortunes of their history have made characteristic of
their daily lives … What is true of the life of a nation as a whole is equally true
of its music, of that expression of the national soul as intimate as the language it
speaks, as vital as the breath it draws.14

A nation’s music was not merely a ‘hidden’ practice subject to the rescue
operations of literate collectors. The preservation of vernacular tradition in printed
collections was necessary, but insufficient, to create a national musical form. In
a review of O’Neill’s Irish Music: A Fascinating Hobby and Irish Minstrels and
Musicians, the well known musical activist Annie Patterson wrote: ‘Tunes by the
thousand, the reader realizes, have been collected and published – but what use
are we making of them? To be regaled with vocal and instrumental “chestnuts”
in monotonous repetition year after year is, to say the least, a severe test on our
patience, if not a reflection on our intelligence.’ She continued: ‘We have native
tunes galore, but how have we developed them, in a way, say, of making them the
groundwork and inspiration of lengthy and developed musical “forms,” such as
the orchestral movements of all kinds, from the Tone-Poem to the symphony, also
in cantatas and operas.’15 As the nineteenth century progressed, the gap between
the essential musicality of the national community imagined by Anglo-Irish elites
and the actual contemporary musical practices of that community widened.
The impossible task of developing an internationally recognized Irish art
music has preoccupied Irish musicology ever since. Harry White asks: ‘Why could
not Ireland achieve what Poland achieved in the nineteenth century and Hungary
in the twentieth: art music of international currency underwritten by a tangible
corpus of ethnic melody?’16 White’s answer to his own question is important for

 Brendan Rogers, ‘An Irish School of Music’, New Ireland Review 8 (May 1900): 150.

 Ibid., pp. 149–50.


 ‘Niamh’, ‘Music Notes’, Journal of the Ivernian Society 6/24
(July–Sept 1914): 252–4. See also ‘Niamh’, ‘Music Notes’, Journal of the Ivernian
Society 7/25 (October–December 1914): 43–4.
 Harry White, The Keeper’s Recital: Music and Cultural History in Ireland, 1770–1970
(Cork, 1998), p. 59.
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 43

understanding prevailing understandings of traditional music in Irish cultural

history and is worth quoting at length:

If nationalism inspired music in Poland, we might evenly respond that

music inspired nationalism in Ireland. The complete dearth of educational
infrastructures, the cultural divide between the ethnic and art traditions (a
divide which Poland pragmatically bridged), the ideological weight of musical
preservation and the projection of music as a badge of sectarian culture, second
only to language, collectively made the development of an emancipated
compositional voice in Irish art music an impossibility. Instead the preoccupation
with ‘folksong’ (increasingly the term used to describe the ethnic repertory), not
as a resource but as a substitute for the art tradition, hindered the transformation
from Gaelic to modern Irish modes of musical expression in the second half of
the nineteenth century.17

In White’s narrative of the chronically impoverished condition of art music in

Ireland across two centuries, the period of the Irish revival begins from a low
water mark. The threadbare fabric of the classical tradition in Ireland – declining
from modest Georgian heights, when cultural life in Dublin was led by Dublin
Castle elites – stretches to the breaking point as White describes ‘that slender
continuity of commitment’ by a mere four individuals in Dublin musical circles,
all of who died in the 1890s or earlier.18 The Irish trend starkly contrasts with the
general European one. The growth of the European symphony orchestra and the
opera transformed national musical culture into something more like architecture
or the visual arts, requiring deep and sustained investments in human and physical
capital. It required, to quote Corkery again, considerably more ‘gear’ than was
forthcoming in Victorian and Edwardian Dublin. It is not hard to see that what lies
behind this ‘cultural divide,’ and the source of the ‘ideological weight of musical
preservation’ is the unwillingness of the Irish landed aristocracy and its urban
class allies to make the same kinds of investment in a national musical culture
that occurred on the continent, including in many comparably peripheral agrarian
nations of the east.

The Music of the Black Coated Workers

Neither public commentary during the revival nor subsequent Irish musicology
dwells on this diagnosis of the chronically backward state of elite Irish musical
culture, preferring instead to focus on philistine and bigoted Irish petit bourgeois
taste and the impoverished and decrepit musical culture of the peasantry. An

 Ibid., p. 73.
 Ibid., p. 99.
44 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

editorial in the New Ireland Review of 1901 described the downward trajectory of
musical life in Ireland since the age of Carolan as:

A painful and marked decay. The harper has died out utterly, and the Feis
Ceoil has not succeeded in reviving him; the piper and fiddler have sunk into
lamentable coarseness and poverty of invention and execution, which the Feis
has already done something to reform. Left to their inevitable ignorance and
unproductiveness the people and their musicians merely sink lower and lower in
their standards and cultivation of music.19

Music historian Marie McCarthy blames the so-called payment-by-results system

in the National Schools (1872–99), where teachers’ salaries were tied in these
years to their pupils’ results on standardized examinations of centrally organized
curricula, for the ossification of bourgeois musical culture. McCarthy argues that
the system ‘brought music teaching and learning to a low ebb, resulting in what
was perhaps the most destructive period for music in the entire history of that
subject in Irish education’.20 High brow critics targeted the two generations of
‘petit bourgeois philistines’ allegedly produced by this system. Complaints such as
this one, made by Grace O’Brien in 1915, were ritually raised against these heirs
to an art music tradition in chronic decline since the age of the harpers and bards:

Music, to the vast majority of Dubliners, means songs and nothing else. That is
why they are so fond of a certain type of so-called ‘ballad opera’ … The serious
acceptance of the maudlin song with its senseless words and worthless music is
an astounding phenomenon. Our artistic sense must be thoroughly deadened;
else these effusions could only strike us as nauseating or ludicrous. It is not as if
there was any lack of good songs. We have our own beautiful traditional airs to
draw from and in foreign music there are rich stores that we neglect.21

The declining vigour of the song tradition was visible from below as well as
above. In his survey of nineteenth-century popular politics, Hoppen has suggested
that ‘across the whole spectrum of political ballads a distinct slackening of
drive and softening of tone becomes apparent in the second half of the century’.
Hoppen writes that ‘a kind of indirect neutering had spread out from Young
Ireland’s genteel warblings and from the artificial “literary” ballads increasingly
popular in nineteenth-century drawing rooms. Strong views were now made

 ‘O.G.’, ‘Musical Notes: “The Leader” on the Feis Ceoil’, New Ireland Review 15
(March 1901): 49–52.
 Marie McCarthy, Passing It On: The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture
(Cork, 1999): 79, 82.
 Grace O’Brien, ‘The National Element and Music’, Irish Monthly 43
(September–November, 1915): 711. See also Edward Martyn, ‘The Gaelic League and Irish
Music’, Irish Review 1 (Nov, 1911): 450.
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 45

to dress for dinner.’22 The popularization of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies

by the charismatic Moore himself as well as by other performers abetted this
domestication, refinement, and packaging of the song tradition for consumption
in music halls and concert rooms in Britain and Ireland. Victorian performers
like Samuel Lover and Frederick Horncastle articulated a cohesive package of
‘Irish Music’ in which rough-edged rural ballads and songs of occupation, as well
as the now iconic Irish pipes and harp, were integrated into a repertoire centred
on the Moore and Thomas Davis mainstream.23 The type of song repertoire that
became typical of ‘Irish concerts’ had also been embedded in school curricula
in the decades before the ‘payment by results system’ was set in place. Pupils,
typically ‘of respectable parents of the country, and from the neighbouring towns’,
were trained with the new sanitized repertoire in the model schools, institutions
for the training of teachers in the National Schools system. A government report
of 1853 contrasted the repertoire in question, a mixture of material from British
education manuals and Moore’s Melodies, to that learned by the ‘humbler classes’
of children that was for the most part ‘vicious trash, hawked about by itinerant
ballad singers; at times of political excitement often seditious, and frequently
obscene and demoralizing’.24 By comparison, Moore’s Melodies, with their generic
themes and lack of specificity concerning actual political events, were considered
safe. So, for example, the concert programmes for model schools in Clonmel,
Ballymena, and Coleraine from the 1840s to the 1860s include such items as ‘The
Last Rose of Summer’, ‘Dear Harp of my Country’ and selections from composers
such as Bellini and Donizetti. In 1870 a writer in a magazine published by Carlow
College, praised the National Board of Education for giving the rudiments of
music, part singing, and elevated musical taste ‘to the rising generation of our
humbler classes’ who will hopefully ‘not rest satisfied with the strains of the ballad
singers, fiddlers, pipers, and such other wandering minstrels as they were obliged
to put up with for many a year’.25
Along with this bland repertoire came the piano, an instrument whose
presence in petit bourgeois households was as fraught with ambivalence. Long
the exclusive pastime of a well-educated lady, Victorian society saw the piano
descend down the social scale. The greater accessibility of classical music in the

 T.K. Hoppen, Elections, Politics, and Society in Ireland, 1832–1885 (Oxford, 1984),
pp. 425–7, 429. See also Maura Murphy, ‘The Ballad Singer and the Role of the Seditious
Ballad in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Dublin Castle’s View’, Ulster Folklife 25 (1979),
p. 100.
 Patrick Rafroidi, ‘Thomas Moore: Towards a Reassessment?’, in Michael
Kenneally (ed.), Irish Literature and Culture (Gerrards Cross, 1992), pp. 55–62. Thomas
Davis (1814–45) was a member of the revolutionary Young Ireland movement and an
author of nationalist ballads.
 McCarthy, Passing It On, p. 216, n. 58.
 T. ‘On the Cultivation of Music in Ireland’, Carlow College Magazine (1870),
quoted by McCarthy, Passing It On, p. 93.
46 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

music hall, plummeting costs of pianos and printing, and massive increases in the
supply of cheap instruction, fuelled both widening access and social confusion.26
According to Cyril Ehrlich, the economic historian of the piano, ‘professional
virtuosity and amateur fumbling were both growing apace, with increasing
divergence’.27 The mania for the piano caught the attention of no less an authority
than the British Medical Association, which published an article in 1899 claiming
that ‘the present day piano is too much with us’ and warned against the continued
‘torture’ of professional performance and the ‘damnable iterations of the learner’
to which were attributed ‘the chloroses and neuroses from which so many young
girls suffer’.28 With the downwardly extending class location of piano culture
came anxiety over the role the piano played in marking of distinctions within the
gradations of the bourgeois and working classes. Ehrlich concludes, referring to
the work of sociologist Thornstein Veblen, that ‘neither a growth in purchasing
power nor the exploitation of musical needs would have been sufficient to elevate
the piano to its extraordinary place in Victorian society. A more fundamental
social need was at work – and this was respectability.’ The piano became ‘the
great Victorian Shibboleth and criterion’ marking ‘the sharpest of all lines of
social division’.29 The piano functioned as a class Shibboleth in Ireland as well.
But its meaning was further confounded by its foreign status. The instrument most
powerfully associated with access of the ‘middling sort’ to elite musical taste, it
was viewed by some as the true heir to the Irish harp. However, for many others,
it was a symbol of national debasement, to be driven out along with barrel organs
and melodeons in the concerted effort of de-Anglicization.30

Transformations of Vernacular Music, Song, and Dance

Considering the enormous influence of traditional Irish music on Irish identity

since the 1970s, perhaps we need to look beyond academic preoccupations with
achievement in the literary field and failure in the field of art music, and revise
our view of the allegedly debased cultural milieu shared by the Irish peasants
and the petit bourgeoisie, the so-called ‘black coated workers.’31 By exploring

 Cyril Ehrlich, The Piano: A History (London, 1976), pp. 93ff.


 Ibid., p. 93.

 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 For various opinions on the piano, see Annie Patterson, ‘Notes on Music, Art, etc.’,
Journal of the Ivernian Society 1/3 (March, 1909), pp. 199–200; Richard Henebry, ‘Irish
Music’, The Irish Year Book (1908): 233–8; Edward Martyn, ‘The Gaelic League and
Irish Music’, Irish Review 1 (November 1911): 449–51; William Donn, ‘Folk Music in the
Concert Room’, Uladh 1/1 (November 1904), p. 19.
 Indeed, one perceptive scholar of Irish literature has already made a similar
suggestion. See Joe Cleary, ‘Towards a Materialist-Formalist History of Twentieth Century
Irish Literature’, Boundary 2 31/1 (2004): 238–40.
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 47

the subdominant position of music, we might better understand the processes of

exclusion and inclusion that structure the discourse of identity and nationhood in
the public sphere, and learn something about how a constellation of forces that
includes the legitimacy of a political constitution, the trajectories of class, gender,
and ethnic tension and antagonism, and the state of markets and technologies
of cultural production affect the ways in which music and other aesthetic forms
interact in the construction of national identity. Rather than lamenting the absence
of a competitive international art music field, we might attend to how Ireland’s
uniquely vigorous musical culture might have benefited from this vacuum at the
top, which allowed for an evolution more strongly coloured by the class fractions
of the towns and hinterlands, further from the influence of the metropolis and
the state.
Of course, the ‘sort of nowhere’ thesis applies also to the development of
traditional music. The Great Famine dealt a severe blow to the vigorous, wild,
outdoor musical culture that had developed during the incredible demographic
expansion of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the
economically harsh post-Famine landscape, the distinction between this older
culture and the culture of the strong farmer and urban bourgeois was clarified
by evolving practices of what eventually came to be called ‘traditional music’.32
However, commentators who saw only decline and debasement missed dramatic
and important developments both in Ireland and especially in the massive urban
diaspora. The older, wilder, outdoor culture of song and dance adapted and
developed in more claustrophobic habitats.
Economic trends positively affected popular musical culture. The liberalization
of trade between nations, the innovations in transport on the sea, and the penetration
of the railroad across continental Europe and the United States, had the effect of
drawing the Irish agricultural economy into an international, if not quite globalized,
economy. The period saw a massive expansion in the production of livestock at the
expense of tilling the soil, a trend which affected not only large and aggrandizing
graziers but right down the social scale to the very smallest farmers who might
breed a few calves or graze a few sheep every year.33 The landless agricultural
labourer, a fixture of the pre-Famine countryside, began to disappear. This is the
basis of the shifting economic and social role of the towns and their shopkeepers
in rural society. Towns, according to Samuel Clarke, ‘had lost whatever status they
had formerly enjoyed as viable economic entities in their own right [i.e., as centres

 On the effects of the Famine on vernacular musical culture, see Gearoid Ó
hAllmhuráin, ‘Amhrán an Ghorta: The Great Famine and Irish Traditional Music’, New
Hibernia Review 3/1 (1999): 19–44; Sally Sommers Smith, ‘The Origins of Style: The
Famine and Irish Traditional Music’, Eire-Ireland 32/1 (1997): 121–35; Kevin Whelan,
‘The Cultural Effects of the Famine’, in Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly (eds), The
Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 137–54.
 Donald Jordan, Land and Popular Politics in Ireland: County Mayo from the
Plantation to the Land War (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 130–46.
48 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

of textile production or grain processing]. They became appendages to the farming

population; and their main function was to serve its needs.’34 For example, in the
major towns of Mayo, Castlebar, Westport, Ballinrobe, and Ballina, the suburban
proletariat of artisans and agricultural labourers dwindled while the shops
servicing the surrounding community of strong farmers flourished.35 In the 1890s
the global economy famously shifted gears. This was the era of Taylorization, of
the ‘Visible Hand’ of scientific management and corporate centralization, of the
mass market and its blossoming service sector, the age of the bicycle, the vacuum
cleaner, the gas cooker, aspirin, the motor car, new media technologies, and the
commercialization of leisure in the cities of England and America. This was the
period in which the repertoire, the style, the instruments, and the characteristic
contexts of performance and reception came together to form what we now call
traditional music.
This was also the age of the mass produced accordion, fiddle, flute and
concertina. Paolo Soprani had begun to manufacture diatonic accordions near
Ancona Italy in 1863, and became known worldwide as manufacturers along
with Hohner and Dallape in the 1870s. The Wheatstone concertina, which since
the 1830s was a parlour instrument of the upper bourgeoisie, was being surpassed
in popularity by the mass-production of cheaper instruments by Louis Lachenal
& Co from the 1860s. Having lost its upper-class associations by the end of the
century, the push/pull Anglo concertina, adapted from German models invented
in the middle of the century, became increasingly associated with both urban and
rural music settings throughout England and Ireland. Developments in the design
and production of the concert flute for European orchestras caused the dumping of
flutes with outmoded key systems unto second hand musical instrument markets,
taken up and adapted by fifers and pipers throughout Ireland and the diaspora.36
The nation’s only indigenous instrument, the union – later called uilleann – pipes,
also received important developments at the hands of the Taylor brothers of
Drogheda and Philadelphia.
The vanishing Irish left behind them, in the small towns and countryside,
institutions of the state and the church that had consolidated themselves and
increased their control over the population that remained.37 The less crowded and
more economically rationalized post-Famine geography crystalized and inscribed
class differences on the landscape. The changing structure of the household and
the new secular attitude towards delayed marriage and celibacy and against
fecundity manifested itself in a tension between generations over access to the
opposite sex and the capital necessary to establish an independent household in
the countryside. Culture moved indoors, where it was kept under watchful eyes.

 Samuel Clark, The Social Origins of the Irish Land War (Princeton, 1979), p. 135.

 Jordan, Land and Popular Politics, pp. 157–69.


 ‘Accordion’, ‘Concertina’, and ‘Flute’, in Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell (eds), The
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (20 vols, London, 2001).
 Hoppen, Elections, Politics, and Society, pp. 171, 414.
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 49

Elizabeth Malcolm highlights the significance of the banning of Donnybrook

Fair in Dublin and Easter Monday celebrations on Cave Hill above Belfast in
the 1860s. As her research shows, the publican/shopkeeper came to dominate the
social and economic life of farming and small town communities more centrally
in the decades after the Famine, not by expanding in numbers and wealth but
by holding their own and consolidating their businesses while the rest of society
decreased.38 The impression is of a society increasingly obsessed with the familial
relations to the rural private property system, an obsession that fuelled a culture of
surveillance and control on the part of male heads of farming households and their
younger sons in the priesthood and the police force.39 This culture of surveillance
can be seen in the forms and styles of both dancing and musicianship that come to
us from the early twentieth century. For example dancers of the new sets and two-
hand dances had necessarily to be in close proximity while simultaneously holding
them in such a way as not to breach impropriety. ‘Dancers [therefore] assumed
a fixed stare and avoided eye contact, and they held their bodies at an angle to
each other and at a distance, with their bottoms protruding to avoid frontal bodily
contact.’40 The farmhouses or licensed premises in which dancing and music-
making took place differed very little in the structure of their internal spaces,
divided between private and public spaces. Music-making and dance, in the form
of performance of a solitary musician or singer, or the tight choreography of the
set or the solo dance performance on the half door, was, in these spaces, a vehicle
for the negotiation for the expressiveness and energy under surveillance. This
culture of surveillance also created sub-cultures of music and dance practitioners,
sub-cultures that existed within and between families, and in social spaces on the
margin of controlled public spaces such as fairs, in between zones of surveillance
on the peripheries of parish boundaries, or on the porous borders between the
public and the private space in households and licensed premises. Here again
we see the ambiguous tension between the ‘the hidden Ireland’ and ‘the hiding
Ireland’. I am suggesting here that Corkery’s euphemism, which resonates
today with traditional music activists,41 is an outcome of a rural culture that is

 The rise of the pub also marked the decline of unregulated outdoor drinking,
which ‘often entailed a freer and more equal mixing of the sexes’, and the separation of
the sexes and their music-making, confining women to the home. See Elizabeth Malcolm,
‘The History of the Pub’, in James S. Donnelly, Jr. and Kirby Miller (eds), Irish Popular
Culture, 1650–1850 (Dublin, 1997), pp. 51, 64, 74.
 These were more likely to be the sons of farmers than any other occupation by
the end of the century, and shopkeepers and publicans shared with them the same political
interests, social pastimes, and moral sentiments. Hoppen, Elections, Politics, and Society,
pp. 224–32, p. 412.
 Reg Hall, ‘Irish Music and Dance in London, 1890–1970: A Socio-Cultural
History’, PhD dissertation (University of Sussex, 1994), Vol. 1, p. 37.
 For example, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs, and
Traditions of Oriel (Dublin, 2003) and the recent CDs and books produced by the Fermanagh
Traditional Music Society entitled The Hidden Fermanagh.
50 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

specific to the Revival era, and not earlier. The open, public, outdoor, character of
vernacular music before the Famine became a more privatized affair, confined to
semi-public spaces, negotiating with increasingly omniscient and powerful forms
of surveillance by strong farmer patriarchs, priests and police. A new type of
musical expression was cultivated in these circumstances, in which the wildness
of the outdoor pipers and the fiddlers influenced by them was replaced by a more
controlled and repetitive style suited to a more precise dance aesthetic. Many
of the contemporary characteristics of the Irish traditional music – its repetitive
rhythmic intensity, its chromatic restraint, its tightly constrained improvisations,
the disciplines of unison playing in ensemble – developed out of the multifarious
contexts of music-making in the Irish countryside, small towns and the urban
ghettoes of the diaspora in this period. These were potent developments, not to be
fully unleashed upon the world until the folk revival of the 1960s swept through
popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. However, during the decades when
‘The Irish revival began to be appreciable’, as the narrator of James Joyce’s story
‘A Mother’ put it, few of the powerful voices in the public sphere concerned with
the search for a national aesthetic form understood or appreciated these exciting
developments, if they were aware of them at all.
Awareness of the significance and value of this music is not obvious from the
public discourse of the time and is perhaps not fully appreciated by Irish cultural
historians. Hobsbawm argues that nationalist desire is rooted in the experiences
and anxieties of the new urban, literate, creole classes. Neither the peasantry and
working classes, who abandoned without remorse local languages that were not
useful for getting along in the world, nor the haute-bourgeoisie and aristocracy,
were committed to linguistic and literary nationalism (though the Anglo-Irish elite
appear to have been exceptional).42 These classes suffer from the symptoms of what
Pierre Bourdieu called ‘hysteresis’, an identity crisis brought on by life trajectories
that crossed the various geographic and occupational divides on the shifting sand of
economic, social and political change.43 The umbilical cord to the relatively stable
rural world they left behind was still not cut, while their position in relation to the
emergent modern state and private capital was uncertain. The ‘educated middle
strata’, the ‘lesser examination-passing classes … occupying non-manual jobs that
required schooling’, the ‘provincial journalists, school teachers, aspiring subaltern
officials’, the urban sons and daughters of rural artisans and tradesmen – these
groups had much invested in ‘the official use of the written vernacular’.44 Recent
research on the membership of the Gaelic League during this period shows how
well Ireland fitted this pattern. Many activists in the movement, having come from
peasant backgrounds, had achieved a high degree of education and middle class

 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 101–30.


 See Bourdieu’s use of the term hysteresis in Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory

of Practice (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 78, 83, and Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of
Taste (London, 1984), p. 142.
 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 117–18.
Traditional Music in the Irish Revival 51

status.45 One study of the social background of committee members of branches of

the Gaelic League in its early years also shows that cohort to be highly socially and
geographically mobile. Skilled artisans and the so-called ‘black-coated workers’
(clerks, shop assistants, minor civil servants, teachers and clergy) predominated
in the membership of these branches.46 To understand the role of music in the
Irish revival, and the strong Irish musical identity that developed in the twentieth
century, we must pay more attention to the musical activity and tastes of this social
milieu. If the very survival of Ireland’s art music culture into the twentieth century
may well be owing to ‘that slender continuity of commitment’ of a handful of
activists, the rude health of the vernacular tradition in the twentieth century owes
much to the disparate activities of a much larger cohort of dancers, musicians,
publicans, instrument makers, founders of pipers clubs, organizers of Gaelic
League branches, and, eventually in the 1920s, radio broadcasters and recording
entrepreneurs. In academic circles, the appreciation of Irish traditional music has
moved from the wine reception to the seminar room, and a fuller understanding of
traditional music in the Irish revival is now firmly on the research agenda.

 Martin Waters, ‘Peasants and Emigrants: Considerations of the Gaelic League as
a Social Movement’, in Daniel J. Casey and Robert E. Rhodes (eds), Views of the Irish
Peasantry, 1800–1916 (Hamden, 1977), pp. 168–71.
 Timothy G. McMahon, ‘“All Creeds and Classes?” Just Who Made Up the Gaelic
League?’ Éire-Ireland 37/3–4 (2002): 131–40.
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Chapter 3
‘A National School of Music Such as the
World has Never Seen’: Re-appropriating the
Early Twentieth Century into a Chronology
of Irish Composition
Edmund Hunt


Indeed, there is a bright prospect for Irish music … Given a generous measure
of Home Rule, there is every reason to believe that in the new social order music
will develop on right lines, and we may hope for a national school of music such
as the world has never seen.1

I and other Irish composers have sought in vain for the giants on whose shoulders
we should stand. There has been no Irish school.2

The question whether there is or has been an Irish school of composition I would
personally answer with a hesitant yes, though it certainly looks very different
from what the early activists of Irish music would have desired.3

These three opinions illustrate the extent to which the national school has formed
a continuous thread through much discussion of twentieth-century art music in
Ireland. Considering the vibrant condition of contemporary Irish music, not to
mention the multiplicity of today’s musical styles, we might assume that the
national school idea could safely be laid to rest. However, the examples suggest
a difference of opinion that forms a lingering question-mark over past Irish
composition. Is it possible that some early twentieth-century ideas of national

 William H.G. Flood, Introductory Sketch of Irish Musical History: A Compact
Record of the Progress of Music in Ireland during 1000 Years (London, 1922), p. 99.
 Frank Corcoran, ‘“I’m a Composer” – “You’re a What?”’, The Crane Bag 6/1
(Special Issue: James Joyce and the Arts in Ireland) (1982): 52–4, at p. 53.
 Axel Klein, ‘An “Old Eminence Among Musical Nations”. Nationalism and the
Case for a Musical History in Ireland’, in Tomi Mäkelä (ed.), Music and Nationalism
in 20th-Century Great Britain and Finland (Hamburg, 1997), pp. 233–43, at p. 241.
54 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

schools have cast a disproportionate shadow over our perception of Irish music of
that period? Moreover, what exactly is meant by an Irish school of composition,
and how and why is such a concept relevant to our understanding of contemporary
Irish musical identity? Perhaps the longevity of the concept is in part due to its
ambiguous dual nature, whereby the term is used to refer both to students of the
same master and to those who have similar principles and methods.4
So what is the relevance of earlier twentieth-century schools of Irish
composition? More importantly, how does the classification of this music affect
our appreciation of it? Do contemporary reclassifications of this music have
any relevance to current Irish musical identity? In considering these questions,
this chapter will argue that the presence (or absence) of earlier schools of Irish
composition is not simply a fact of history, but is a vital part of the chronology of
music in Ireland. This is not to say that composers necessarily build on the music
of their predecessors. Throughout history, new movements have tended to react
against existing musical traditions. Yet if earlier twentieth-century Irish music
is ignored, contemporary composers are denied part of the tradition that is the
prerogative of new generations to challenge. When, in 1983, the composer Frank
Corcoran (b.1944) proposed that Irish composers could gain little help from the
past because Ireland had had ‘almost no tradition of art-music’, he was reiterating
a discourse that had tended to dissociate contemporary Irish composers from their
twentieth-century Irish and European forbears.5 While much has changed since
the 1980s, there is still a need to reconsider earlier twentieth-century composition
as part of the musical legacy of that century. Whereas the idea of a school might
imply a rigid compartmentalization, separating one generation of composers from
the next, this chapter will proffer the idea of the school as a porous, even fluid
framework in which to consider Irish composition. The complexities of early
twentieth-century Irish history mean that some composers from this period could
belong to more than one school at different stages of their career, perhaps in more
than one country.
This chapter focuses on art music during the first half of the twentieth century,
when ideas about a national school of Irish music were the cause of much debate.
I do not attempt to bring to the fore under-represented Irish composers of the
earlier twentieth century. Valuable work in this area has already been done by
scholars including Axel Klein and Joseph Ryan.6 Nor do I intend to evaluate the
quality or success of the music under consideration. Instead, the chapter focuses

 ‘School’, in Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172522
(accessed 5 June 2011).
 Corcoran, ‘Composer’, p. 53.
 For example: Axel Klein, Die Musik Irlands im 20. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, 1996);
Klein, ‘A Twentieth-Century Irish Music Bibliography’, in Gareth Cox and Axel Klein (eds),
Irish Music in the Twentieth Century. Irish Musical Studies 7 (Dublin, 2003), pp. 183–204;
Joseph J. Ryan, ‘Music in Independent Ireland Since 1921’, in Jacqueline R. Hill (ed.), A
New History of Ireland VII: Ireland 1921–84 (Oxford, 2003), pp. 621–49.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 55

on written opinion by those who might have identified a school of Irish composers.
Evidently there could be a risk of accepting critics’ views at the expense of the
historical record of compositions and their performance. However, the focus of
this chapter is to examine such opinions within their historical setting, in order to
ascertain their relevance within the chronology of Irish composition. This chapter
does not attempt to classify Irish composers according to their school, but rather
to suggest the possibility of using the school model as a means to consider links
between composers both within Ireland and further afield. The first section of
the chapter focuses on the development of the national school idea, considering
the rise of Romanticism in relation to concepts of musical identity. A few brief
examples of national school debates from continental Europe are included, to
locate the Irish debate within a wider context.7 The second main section of this
chapter focuses on contemporaneous national school ideas in both Ireland and
Britain. Particular consideration is given to the ‘Celtic Twilight’ and ‘pastoral’
schools of composition as the roots and outgrowths of early twentieth-century
Irish and British art music were sometimes intertwined. As a result, the complex
musical relationships between the two countries before and immediately after the
foundation of the Free State provide interesting material to compare and contrast.
A brief consideration of later twentieth-century and contemporary composition
will lead to some conclusions.

The Development of the National School


The longevity of the Irish school idea might obscure its origin in European
intellectual thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the Romantic
movement gathered momentum, Johann Gottfried Herder’s apparent coinage of the
term Volkslied (folksong) coincided with a belief that folk music could embody the
soul of a people.8 Works such as Herder’s Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (1778–9)

 For detailed comparisons between the development of art music in Ireland and in
other European countries see, for example: Jan Smaczny, ‘Musical National Traditions
in Ireland and the Czech Lands in the Nineteenth Century: Similar Roots, Creative
Divergences’, in Michael Murphy and Jan Smaczny (eds) Music in Nineteenth-Century
Ireland. Irish Musical Studies 9 (Dublin, 2007), pp. 278–92; Harry White, ‘Nationalism,
Colonialism and the Cultural Stasis of Music in Ireland’, in Harry White and Michael
Murphy (eds), Musical Constructions of Nationalism: Essays on the History and Ideology
of European Musical Culture 1800–1945 (Cork, 2001), pp. 257–71; White ‘Art Music and
the Question of Ethnicity: The Slavic Dimension of Czech Music from an Irish Point of
View’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 35 (2004): 29–46.
 Peter Branscombe, ‘Herder, Johann Gottfried’, in Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12842
(accessed 9 April 2009).
56 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

were mirrored by the publication of similar collections across Europe. Yet as early
as 1724, John and William Neale published A Collection of the Most Celebrated
Irish Tunes.9 This was followed later in the eighteenth century by events such
as the Belfast Harp Festival (1792) and the systematic publication of the Irish
music collections of Edward Bunting (beginning in 1797) and Thomas Moore
(beginning in 1808). Across Europe, nationalism engendered a revival of interest
in folk music, language and culture in areas that had hitherto been dominated
by colonial powers.10 ‘National Music’ could be seen as illuminating the ‘inward
man’ and revealing ‘the character and temperament of different races, and the
degree of affinity which exists between the different human families’.11 Thus it
was vital for new, national music to be seen as different from the homogenizing or
oppressive tendencies of colonial culture.

National Schools in Early Twentieth Century Europe

Publications from the first half of the twentieth century suggest that throughout
Europe, localized artistic movements were seen as indicators of renewed
national consciousness. Indeed, the discussion of national traits in the arts might
almost seem like an attempt to vindicate the independence of aspiring nations,
as Schoenberg wryly observed in 1947.12 In Ireland, music was at the forefront
of debates concerning an authentically Irish voice in the arts. Annie Patterson
(1868–1934) was one of a number of commentators who proposed that a ‘native
school’ would be based upon the study of Irish folk music.13 As a prominent figure
in Irish musical life, Dr Patterson was strongly in favour of the development of an
Irish school. Indeed, through her work as a composer, folksong collector, writer
on music and university lecturer, she appears ideally placed to have advanced
such a cause. In England, the writer, folksong collector and editor Cecil Sharp
(1859–1924) expressed a similar philosophy of national music.14 In many places,
such discussions arose when it seemed that a country had not yet appropriated its
national musical identity. Thus in 1911, Béla Bartók (1881–1945) stated that the

 Barra R. Boydell and Lasairíona Duignan, ‘Neale’, in Grove Dictionary of Music
and Musicians Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/
music/19651 (accessed 1 September 2010).
 ‘Folk music’ was the accepted term among composers and critics during the period
under consideration in this chapter. For consistency, I have used ‘folk music’ (rather than
‘traditional music’) in this discussion.
 Carl Engel, ‘The Literature of National Music’, The Musical Times and Singing
Class Circular 19 (1878): 374–7, at p. 375.
 Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg,
ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (London, 1975), p. 161.
 Annie W. Patterson, ‘The Folk-Music of Ireland: Its Past, Present and Future
Aspects’, The Musical Quarterly 6 (1920): 455–67, at p. 466.
 Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, rev. by Maud Karpeles with
an appreciation by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 3rd edition (London, 1954), pp. 134–5.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 57

day was yet to come when ‘a musical art grown out of the Hungarian soil’ was fully
developed.15 In 1929, the Russian composer and musicologist Leonid Sabaneev
(1881–1968) was an enthusiastic advocate of a forthcoming ‘Jewish national
school’ in music.16 In discussing the burgeoning ‘Swedish school’ of composition,
the German musicologist and director Fritz Tutenberg (1902–67) noted that
this was ‘contemporary with the rise of all national schools of composition of
all European nations’.17 Although these articles in English might not reflect the
entirety of the debate, they nonetheless seem to illustrate aspects of cultural
‘co-nationalism’, which linked cultures that had previously been overshadowed
by Italian, French and German musical traditions.18 Ireland, in common with many
other nations, needed its own flavour of classical music in order to satisfy the
critics’ aspirations.
Yet if national music was a pressing concern in small nations, it was also
important in larger populations in which a multinational, imperial identity had
appeared to subsume regional differences. In this respect, the anticipated Irish
and British schools of composition might be seen as complementary answers to
the same basic question of how to reinvigorate an autonomous artistic identity.
In the context of early twentieth-century Britain, Dibble proposed that the threat
of the First World War stimulated English nationalism. This led to a rejection of
the old-fashioned Victorian and Edwardian values of Parry (1848–1918), Stanford
(1852–1924) and Elgar (1857–1934).19 The congruent rise of Irish nationalism
would have caused Stanford’s music to appear equally outmoded, since his output
did not address the issues of nationhood that preoccupied some advocates of an
Irish national school.

National Schools and the Folk Music Revival

As critics and composers on both sides of the Irish Sea sought to redefine musical
identity, it became necessary to find distinctive musical elements from which to
build new, national music, and writings by figures such as Patterson and Sharp
appear to reflect general opinions regarding the fundamental importance of
folksong. Yet early twentieth-century discussion suggests substantial differences

 Béla Bartók, Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), p. 302.
 Leonid Sabaneev, ‘The Jewish National School in Music’, trans. S.W. Pring, The
Musical Quarterly 15 (1929): 448–68.
 Fritz Tutenberg, ‘A National School of Composition in Sweden’, The Musical
Times 76 (1935): 122–3, at p. 122.
 Tomi Mäkelä, ‘Towards a Theory of Internationalism, Europeanism, Nationalism
and “Co-Nationalism” in 20th-Century Music’, in Tomi Mäkelä (ed.), Music and
Nationalism in 20th-Century Great Britain and Finland (Hamburg, 1997), pp. 9–16, at
p. 15.
 Jeremy Dibble, ‘Parry, Stanford and Vaughan Williams: The Creation of Tradition’,
in Lewis Foreman (ed.), Vaughan Williams in Perspective: Studies of an English Composer
(Ilminster, 1998), pp. 25–47, at pp. 46–7.
58 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

in opinion regarding the place of folk music in Ireland and Britain. While critics
seemed unanimous in praising the riches of Irish folk music, many were perhaps
oblivious to English folk music. Indeed, the English composer and writer Rutland
Boughton (1878–1960) proposed that ‘if the gulf between folk-music and art-
music yawned wide for the Irish composer, how much worse was the position
of the average English composer who was not even aware of the existence of his
folk-music!’20 Evidently the reputation of folk music had not survived uniformly
across Europe, as is implied by Boughton’s remarks regarding Ireland and
England. Indeed, in a retrospective consideration of ethnomusicology in Finland,
Erkki Pekkilä noted that early twentieth-century nationalism demanded the very
acknowledgement of Finnish folk music.21 During the early twentieth-century
period of revival and rediscovery, composers including Vaughan Williams and
Bartók turned their hands to ethnomusicology, collecting traditional material that
was to form the basis of many of their compositions. Yet in Ireland, published
collections of Irish folk music had existed since the late eighteenth century. The
widespread appreciation of the material in these Irish collections might imply a
clear advantage in the development of a national school inspired by folk music. So
what became of the grandiose school of which Grattan Flood had expressed such
fervent hopes?

The National Schools of Music in Early Twentieth-Century Britain

and Ireland

In Britain and Ireland, some critics blamed the inadequacies of musical life on
the legacy of foreign aristocracy in both countries. Despite the obvious political
differences between Britain and Ireland, the similar tone of some musical debate is
perhaps unsurprising at a time when both countries were redefining their identity
in the wake of changing political situations. When discussing British music,
the figurehead of the English pastoral school, Vaughan Williams (1872–1958),
proposed that the ‘foreign court’, coupled with the existence of an ‘uncultured
landed gentry’, had fostered the idea that music was not native to Britain and
thus ‘when imported from abroad it must of necessity be better’.22 If Vaughan
Williams’s theory is applied to early twentieth-century Ireland, it is possible to
see how the perceived dependence of international, European art music upon a
colonial culture led to the popular perception of this music as ‘Anglo-Irish music’.23

 Rutland Boughton, ‘English Folk-Song and English Music’, The Musical Times 51
(1910): 428–9, at p. 429.
 Erkki Pekkilä, ‘Nationalism, Regionalism, Leftism, and Individualism’,
Ethnomusicology 38 (1994): 405–8, at p. 405.
 Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays, 2nd edition
(Oxford, 1996), p. 5.
 Charles Acton, Irish Music and Musicians (Norwich, c.1978), p. 1.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 59

In both Britain and Ireland, the identification of traditional music with national
identity could be problematic for composers. In 1936, Fleischmann remarked that
‘unless his [the Irish composer’s] music is confined to arrangements of traditional
tunes, or at most to sets of variations on these tunes, he may indeed risk being
classed by the rank and file as Anglo-Irish, even as anti-Irish’.24 Yet in Britain,
the folksong-inspired music of the English ‘cowpat school’ of Vaughan Williams
risked the stereotype that British music had to contain ‘folky wolky melodies on
the cor anglais’.25 Indeed, the conservative, Romantic, yet popular language of
some of Delius’s successors was termed ‘watercress music’.26 This accusation is
still levelled at the English ‘pastoral school’.27 Yet whereas in most of Europe the
folksong debate was soon eclipsed by the explosion of modernism, in Ireland folk
music remained central to many discussions of an authentic compositional voice.
However, the association of art music with a ruling elite was widespread,
as Barra Boydell’s comparison of the music history of Ireland and Estonia has
illustrated.28 Throughout Europe, art music prior to the twentieth century had
been largely the preserve of the rich and powerful. The idea that such music was
‘borrowed’ from cultural centres in France, Germany and Italy was common to
countries on the peripheries. Yet in Ireland, the notion of a borrowed culture of art
music has persisted, in some circles, until the present day. Thus in 2005, David
Flynn asserted that the music of many contemporary Irish composers belongs
to ‘central European and American schools’, and is thus incompatible with
‘Irishness’.29 In Klein’s opinion, the notion of a borrowed musical tradition has
helped to marginalize Irish art music.30 In Ireland, one result of the early twentieth-
century quest for a national musical aesthetic was that some critics focused on
preservation rather than on innovation. Evidently certain Irish critics viewed the
folksong revival as the culmination of a new, Irish musical identity. Thus in 1936,
the prolific commentator and composer Éamonn Ó Gallcobhair (1900–82)
encouraged the ‘atavism’ of future Irish music, noting that ‘the Irish [folk] idiom

 Aloys Fleischmann, ‘Composition and the Folk Idiom’, Ireland To-Day 1/6
(1936): 37–44, at p. 44.
 ‘Cowpat Music’ in Michael Kennedy (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Music
Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e2526 (accessed 5
April 2009).
 A.J.B Hutchings, ‘The Technique of Romanticism. IV. The Latest Phase Delius
(Concluded)’, The Musical Times 71 (1930): 889–92, at p. 890.
 Christopher Fox and Robin Holloway, ‘Letter to the Editor’ [Letter from Robin
Holloway], Tempo 192 (1995): 64.
 Barra Boydell, ‘Mountains or Molehills? Perspectives for a National Music
History’, in Urve Lippus (ed.), Music History Writing and National Culture: Proceedings
of a Seminar, Tallinn, December 1–3, 1995 (Tallinn, c.1995), pp. 1–3.
 David Flynn, ‘Looking for the Irish Bartók’, Journal of Music in Ireland 5/4
(2005): 4–6.
 Axel Klein, ‘Roots and Directions in Twentieth-Century Irish Art Music’, in Cox
and Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 168–82, at p. 169.
60 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

expresses deep things that have not been expressed by Beethoven, Bach, Brahms,
Elgar or Sibelius’.31 In more recent discussion, the composer Brian Boydell
(1917–2000) attributed such opinions to the ‘de Valera attitude’, which placed
immense value in the past and rejected ‘nasty foreign influences’.32 Consequently,
the very concept of compositional schools would have seemed irrelevant to those
who saw the indigenous tradition as Ireland’s answer to western art-music.
The record of earlier twentieth-century Irish composition and performance
is often concealed by the significant obstacles to music during these years. For
example, in the Republic, a permanent, full-time symphony orchestra did not
exist until the establishment of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra in 1948
(becoming the RTÉSO in 1961), and the goal of a purpose-built national concert hall
was not realized until 1981. The complex roots of this situation have been traced
back to various historical factors including the Act of Union, the preponderance
of amateur rather than professional music-making and centuries of oppression of
the Roman Catholic majority. Indeed, anti-colonial sentiment is clearly behind
James Devane’s accusatory remark that ‘had this [Irish] people the advantages
of a normal people, from them would have come symphonies, operas, string
quartets and all the rich trappings of a distinguished culture’.33 Yet even those of
less strident politics were gloomy in their appraisals of Irish musical life of the
earlier twentieth century. With a direct sense of urgency, composers like Aloys
Fleischmann (1910–92) bemoaned what he saw as the almost negligible amount
of musical activity in Ireland.34 Similarly, the composer Frederick May (1911–85)
lamented that ‘anyone who reflects on the present state of music in Ireland is bound
to be filled with the most profound depression’.35 In campaigning for a healthier
culture of music in Ireland, composers such as May and Fleischmann appear to
have shied away from discussing their own works in relation to this aim. Indeed,
the two articles mentioned above give little or no indication that their authors were
composers. The fact that such prominent composers eschewed self-promotion in
favour of higher ideals is commendable. Yet their apparent reticence in what has
become such a high-profile debate, combined with the limited performance and
recording of their works, might have facilitated their marginalization from the
history of Irish composition.

 Éamonn Ó Gallcobhair, ‘Music: Atavism’, Ireland To-Day 1/4 (1936): 56–8, at
p. 58.
 Michael Dungan, ‘Everything Except Team Games and Horse-Racing: Interview
with Brian Boydell’, (1997), http://www.cmc.ie/articles/article535.html (accessed 7
August 2006).
 James Devane, ‘Is an Irish Culture Possible?’, Ireland To-Day 1/5 (1936): 21–31,
at pp. 28–9.
 Aloys Fleischmann, ‘Ars Nova: Irish Music in the Shaping’, Ireland To-Day 1/2
(1936): 41–8, at p. 44.
 Frederick May, ‘Music and the Nation’, The Dublin Magazine 11/3 (1936): 50–56,
at p. 50.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 61

Although the infrastructure for classical music was worse than in many other
contemporaneous countries, the tone of opinions voiced by May, Flesichmann
and others was not unique to Ireland. Surprisingly, there was a greater similarity
between British and Irish perceptions of musical life of this period than we might
suppose. Despite the subsequent popularity of the English ‘pastoral school’, many
critics were scathing about the lack of quality and quantity of British music of
these decades. For example, in 1924, the critic W.J. Turner lamented the ‘almost
absolute dearth of English musical genius during so many generations’, with ‘no
signs anywhere of an increase in musical talent’.36 Cecil Sharp noted the lack of
a ‘National School of English music’ and asked the question ‘is England … to go
down in posterity as the only nation in all Europe incapable of original musical
expression?’37 Yet the early twentieth century saw the composition of many of
the pillars of the English pastoral school, including Vaughan Williams’s The Lark
Ascending (1914, revised 1920) and Sir John in Love (1924–28) to name but two.
Evidently the idea of the English pastoral school developed over time, as works
gained in popularity through performance. The limited resources for the repeated
performance and broadcast of earlier twentieth-century Irish works perhaps
prevented such works from being accepted as part of a canon of Irish school
compositions. In particular, the works of Brian Boydell such as his string quartets
(1949–69) and violin concerto (1953–54) and Frederick May’s String Quartet in C
Minor (1936) are striking Irish examples of their respective idioms. Boydell and
May are often noted for their engagement with central-European musical styles.
This would suggest a certain similarity of aims and working methods, which was
earlier defined as one of the possible criteria for a school. Although two composers
are perhaps not enough to constitute a conventional picture of a musical movement,
their legacy surely deserves consideration.

Complexities of Early Twentieth-Century Irish Musical Identity

A key barrier to the widespread recognition of an Irish school of composers was

undoubtedly the complexity of Irish identity during the first half of the twentieth
century. Even after independence, conflicting ideas of ‘Irishness’ led commentators
such as James Devane to the provocative assertion that the composite nature of
Irish identity rendered an Irish culture impossible.38 The ‘Irishness’ of certain
composers was often seen as part of a regional, British identity. Indeed, in 1918,
the critic Francis Toye maintained that the music of the ‘Irishman’ Arthur Sullivan

 W.J. Turner, ‘Why We Have No English Music’, New Statesman 19 (1924): 41–2,
at p. 42.
 Sharp, English Folk Song, p. 129.
 Devane, ‘Is an Irish Culture Possible?’, pp. 23–4.
62 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

was typically British.39 A similar ambiguity is sometimes encountered regarding

Stanford. In 1926, the critic Dyneley Hussey awarded Stanford ‘the chief credit for
the revival of an English school of music, as opposed to a school imitating foreign
models’.40 More recently, Paul Rodmell’s biography of Stanford drew attention to
the composer’s unionism.41 Yet in 1927, Thomas Dunhill asserted that ‘Stanford
rose to the highest eminence as a national composer for “in spite of all temptations
to belong to other nations,” he remained – an Irishman’.42 As Stanford’s nationalism
was cultural rather than political, subsequent discussion has tended to exclude him
from the early development of an Irish school. Interestingly, Stanford was a vice-
president of the Irish Folk-Song Society, and he emphasized the role of folk music
in creating a national style.43 Nonetheless, Stanford’s idea that Hungarian and Irish
folksong might have a shared ‘Oriental’ origin suggests that he valued Irish music
for its exoticism rather than for its appeal to nationalist sentiment.44
Due to his unionism and to his role within the British musical establishment, it
is easy to see how Stanford did not fulfil the expectations of early twentieth-century
advocates of an Irish school of composition. However, through his professorial role,
Stanford’s influence loomed large over early twentieth-century music. As a teacher
at Cambridge and later at the Royal College of Music, Stanford’s protégés had
included Ernest Moeran (1894–1950). Together with John Larchet (1884–1967),
Arnold Bax (1883–1953) and Sir Hamilton Harty (1879–1941) these composers
are often referred to as the ‘Celtic Twilight school’.45 Yet although the composers
of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ frequently used Irish subject matter, shared a similar
aesthetic, and with the exception of Bax were all of Irish heritage, the perception
of their mixed British and Irish identity perhaps complicated their incorporation
into an Irish school. Indeed, Gareth Cox proposed that, until the 1940s, Irish art
music constituted a ‘local branch of Anglo-Saxon music’, since it reflected the
general trend of English musical pastoralism.46
There is undoubtedly significant overlap between the music of the English
pastoral and ‘Celtic Twilight’ composers, as both schools contain examples

 Francis Toye, ‘A Case for Musical Nationalism’, The Musical Quarterly 4/1
(1918): 12–22, at p. 15.
 Dyneley Hussey, ‘Nationalism and Opera’, Music & Letters 7 (1926): 3–16, at p. 12.
 Paul Rodmell, Charles Villiers Stanford (Aldershot, 2002), p. 390.
 Thomas F. Dunhill, ‘Charles Villiers Stanford: Some Aspects of his Work and
Influence’, Proceedings of the Musical Association, Fifty-Third Session (1926–27),
pp. 41–65, at p. 44.
 Charles V. Stanford, ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Folk-Song and Nationality’, The
Musical Quarterly 1 (1915): 232–45.
 Ibid., pp. 232–45.
 Gareth Cox, ‘The Development of Twentieth-Century Irish Art-Music’, in Hermann
Danuser and Tobias Plebuch (eds), Musik als Text: Bericht Über den Internationalen
Kongress der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1993 (2 vols,
London, c.1998), Vol. 2, 560–62, at p. 560.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 63

of modal harmony, melody derived from folksong, and rural subject matter.
Moreover, composers such as Bax have been located in both groups. Evidently
a musical school that appeared to transcend national boundaries might not have
appealed to Ó Gallcobhair and the more vociferous advocates of an insular, purely
Irish musical movement. Yet the ‘Celtic Twilight’ was in part motivated by the
political and cultural climate of its time. Regardless of whether or not it engaged
with key issues in Irish musical discourse, the ‘Celtic Twilight’ reflects aspects
of the cultural milieu in which it developed and arguably constitutes a significant
body of music from early twentieth-century Ireland.
If the music of the Celtic Twilight sometimes appeared un-Irish because of its
affinity with the English pastoral school, the converse was seemingly not the case.
Moreover, the pastoral school came to be regarded as the aesthetic of Englishness.
Whereas some British and Irish critics of the early twentieth century had seemed
united in their gloomy appraisals of music in their respective countries, opinions
had diverged by the 1950s. Some Irish critics now drew attention to the possible role
models afforded by British and Continental composers. Donoghue believed that
Ireland needed ‘a Vaughan Williams or a Hindemith’ to ameliorate the condition
of Irish composition.47 Irish music festivals were compared unfavourably with
their internationally renowned counterparts in England.48 Some looked for an Irish
version of a great composer such as Sibelius.49 As Deane noted, the absence of a
hypothetical ‘Irish Bartók’ had been a perennial theme.50 In the eyes of some critics,
Ireland was still waiting to realize its musical potential. For example, in 1952,
May stated that ‘it is doubtful if any nation with such a wonderful storehouse
of traditional music has made such a negligible contribution to art music as we
have, and it is high time we set about redressing the balance’.51 The previous
year, the composer Brian Boydell had stated a similar view.52 There are striking
similarities between these comments and those of Fleischmann, May and others
during the 1930s. Evidently developments such as the foundation of a permanent
orchestra in Dublin were welcome improvements. Yet the strident views of leading
composers, combined with the limited performance opportunities for their works,
could easily give the impression that little was composed during these years. Only

 Denis Donoghue,’The Future of Irish Music’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review of
Letters, Philosophy and Science 44 (1955): 109–14, at p. 113.
 Éamonn Ó Gallcobhair, ‘The Cultural Value of Festival and Feis’, in Aloys
Fleischmann (ed.) Music in Ireland: A Symposium (Cork, 1952), pp. 210–13, at p. 211.
 James Travis, ‘Irish National Music’, The Musical Quarterly 24 (1938): 451–80,
at p. 480.
 Raymond Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence: Classical Composers in Irish
Society’, in Gerard Gillen and Harry White (eds), Music and Irish Cultural History. Irish
Musical Studies 3 (Dublin, 1995), pp. 199–211, at p. 208.
 Frederick May, ‘The Composer in Ireland’, in Aloys Fleischmann (ed.), Music in
Ireland: A Symposium (Cork, 1952), pp. 164–9, at p. 169.
 Brian Boydell, ‘The Future of Music in Ireland’, The Bell 16/4 (1951): 21–9, at
pp. 21–2.
64 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

the existence of their music, of which much remains unrecorded, gives evidence to
the contrary. The rediscovery and performance of forgotten or unperformed works
might yet engender a change in the way that earlier twentieth-century Irish music is
perceived. Klein cited numerous examples of potentially significant yet little-known
works by Irish composers, of which Rhoda Coghill’s (1903–2000) cantata Out of
the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (1923), Ina Boyle’s (1889–1967) orchestral works
and songs, the songs of Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882–1957), the chamber and
orchestral music of Mary Dickenson-Auner (1880–1965) and Robert O’Dwyer’s
(1862–1949) opera Eithne (1909) are among the most striking examples.53
All of the above composers, in common with many others including Stanford,
had spent some time studying abroad. As Stanford had taught Vaughan Williams
and a number of prominent British composers, so Vaughan Williams taught
leading Irish composers including Ina Boyle, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–94),
Frederick May, Joan Trimble (1915–2000) and Archibald James Potter (1918–80).
Indeed, May’s works of the early 1930s have been described as ‘the voice of the
Vaughan Williams school’.54 Yet in general, Vaughan Williams’s Irish pupils have
not been grouped together as an Irish school. To a large extent, this might be due
to stylistic differences, such as between Maconchy’s modernism and Trimble’s
impressionistic traits. More importantly, a reluctance to classify these composers
as a school might simply arise from the fact that much of their music remains
poorly known.
However, the example of Vaughan Williams raises further questions. For
example, in the 1950s, Frank Howes proposed that ‘nationalism in Britain did not
found a school, though there have been adherents of the second generation to the
creed formulated by Vaughan Williams, viz. Moeran, Finzi and Rubbra’.55 Today,
such names are virtually synonymous with the idea of an English school (although
Moeran also spent much time in Ireland). Could a similar re-evaluation be applied
to John Larchet? In his detailed consideration of Irish musical life, the musicologist
Richard Pine proposed that Larchet did not establish a school, since ‘he himself was
not a “great” composer in the same sense as Stanford and Vaughan Williams who,
at the RCM, had taught the majority of English composers and thereby founded
a “school”’.56 Yet the idea of the ‘great’ composer perhaps requires clarification.
Larchet was not a great composer when measured by international recognition,
numbers of published scores or recordings. But these factors might result from the
general difficulties faced by the composer in mid twentieth-century Ireland, rather

 Klein, ‘Roots and Directions’, pp. 168–82.


 Axel Klein, ‘Irish Composers and Foreign Education: A Study of Influences’,


in Patrick F. Devine and Harry White (eds), The Maynooth International Musicological
Conference 1995. Selected Proceedings: Part One. Irish Musical Studies 4 (Dublin, 1995),
pp. 271–84, at p. 277.
 Frank Howes, ‘The Influence of Folk Music on Modern English Composition’,
Journal of the International Folk Music Council 5 (1953): 52–4, at p. 54.
 Richard Pine, Music and Broadcasting in Ireland (Dublin, 2005), p. 274.
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 65

than from a rejection of his music. Indeed, during his long tenure at the Royal
Irish Academy of Music and at University College Dublin, Larchet’s composition
students included Seóirse Bodley (b.1933), Frederick May and Brian Boydell. So
can it really be said that Larchet did not establish a school of Irish composition? A
similar re-evaluation could be applied to other teachers of composition in Ireland.
Consider the example of James Wilson (1922–2005), the English-born composer
who taught at the Royal Irish Academy of Music from 1969 until 1980, whose
many pupils included John Buckley (b.1951), Jerome de Bromhead (b.1945)
and Brian Beckett (b.1950). Wilson co-founded the Ennis Summer School of
Composition in 1983 and has been described as ‘probably the most influential
teacher of composition in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century’.57
What about Aloys Fleischmann, who was chair of music at University College
Cork from 1934 until 1980 and who acted as mentor and teacher to composers
including Gerard Victory (1921–95) and Séamas de Barra (b.1955)?
Although the aforementioned composers can be grouped according to their
mentors, such classifications do not entirely answer the question of whether or
not there have been earlier twentieth-century Irish schools of composition. The
definition of a school, cited at the beginning of the chapter, referred to similar
principles and working methods. Yet several of the composers listed above
developed along quite different lines, despite having studied with the same
teachers. For example, Bodley’s oeuvre has developed through a number of
different phases, including tonality, serial and integral serial techniques, and the
use of Irish folk music. Much of his work is very different from that of Larchet’s
other students, such as May and Boydell. Moreover, Larchet was not the only
teacher of these three composers, all of whom also spent time studying abroad.
Thus, taken out of context, the ‘Larchet school’ might belie the diverse influences
that are integral to the music of these three composers. At worst, the idea of a
school might suggest an artificial, seamless continuity between one generation
and the next, without the changes of style and direction that are a vital part of most
composers’ creative journey.
Yet movements in composition need not be defined by ideas of continuity.
Indeed, new musical developments are often characterized by a break from the
immediate past. For example, in Britain, the mid twentieth-century ‘Manchester
school’ of Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934), Alexander Goehr (b.1932) and Peter
Maxwell Davies (b.1934) looked to Viennese modernism rather than to any
immediate British forebears.58 Interestingly, Maxwell Davies’s route led to
an engagement with earlier British music. Yet this engagement bypassed the

 Axel Klein, ‘The Composer in the Academy (2) 1940–1990’, in Charles Acton
and Richard Pine (eds), To Talent Alone: The Royal Irish Academy of Music 1848–1998
(Dublin, 1998), pp. 419–28, at p. 427.
 Jonathan Cross, ‘Manchester School’, Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/49722 (accessed 5
June 2011).
66 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

immediately preceding centuries, focusing instead on medieval and renaissance

music as in the wind sextet Alma Redemptoris Mater in 1957, which draws on
a motet of the same name by John Dunstable (c.1390–1453). The example of
Maxwell Davies illustrates continuity in music, although it is continuity with
a much earlier past. Similarly, the Irish composer Gerald Barry (b.1952) has
drawn on material from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with particular
focus on the music of Bach and Handel. In reference to British composers such
as Maxwell Davies and Benjamin Britten (1913–76), both of whom have found
inspiration in music from before the Romantic age, the Irish composer Raymond
Deane (b.1953) proposed that the idea of a ‘great gap’ could stimulate the creative
process. Indeed, Deane argued that twentieth-century Irish classical music was
not an independent force as long as composers attempted to ally themselves with
historical continuities.59
Perhaps the idea of a gap is exemplified today in the music of composers who
look beyond the traditions of western art music, embracing influences of various
popular genres. Among the younger generation of Irish composers, this approach
is shown in the work of Ed Bennett (b. 1975), Andrew Hamilton (b. 1977) and
Seán Clancy (b. 1984), to name but three. Such influences are also present in
the music of British composers, including Tansy Davies (b. 1973) and Joe Cutler
(b. 1968), as well as others from many different countries. There appears little
relationship between the music of these composers and that of the earlier twentieth
century Irish and British schools. Yet the idea of a school is not simply about
relationships from one generation to the next. Just as today’s composers might
have complex musical DNA, made up of diverse influences, so earlier twentieth-
century Irish composers might have similarly complex identities.


It is evident that questions of identity have prolonged debates regarding Irish

schools of composition and their place within the history of music in Ireland.
Yet the classification of composers according to different schools has been (and
remains) subject to the changing opinions of those who write about music. Clearly
it has been difficult to categorize some early twentieth-century Irish composers.
Circumstances including the emigration of Stanford, Harty and others to Britain,
Stanford’s politics and the prominence of these composers in British musical life
have perhaps clouded the perception of their identity. Yet orientation towards
England, together with emigration, were arguably influential aspects of Irish
identity before independence ended the union with Britain. The tendency among

 Raymond Deane, ‘Exploring the Continuum – the Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’,


The Republic: A Journal of Contemporary and Historical Debate (Special Issue: Culture in
the Republic: Part 2) 4/4 (2005): 100–15, http://www.raymonddeane.com/articles_results.
php?id=11 (accessed 5 June 2011).
‘A National School of Music Such as the World has Never Seen’ 67

some twentieth-century commentators to marginalize emigrant and Anglo-Irish

composers perpetuated the idea of a lacuna in the chronology of Irish composition.
Thus when, in the early 1980s, Corcoran struggled with the difficulties of being
heir to such a history, he felt it was necessary to exclude Stanford and earlier
composers because they were ‘England-oriented, lived abroad, and founded no
national schools’.60 Over 20 years later, Klein’s work in demonstrating the depth
and breadth of Irish composition illustrated the necessity of including the very
composers from which Corcoran and earlier commentators felt distanced. In
Klein’s opinion, ‘Anglo-Irish culture is – whether one likes it or not – just as much
a part of Irish culture as the Bavarian is to the German’.61 In accepting the so-called
Anglo-Irish composers into the history of Irish composition, we must also accept
the significant role of these composers in early twentieth-century British musical
life. Evidently there were difficulties in developing a healthy infrastructure for
composition during the early twentieth century. Moreover, the compositions
of this period covered a spectrum of style and quality. When faced with the
complexities surrounding the history of composition in Ireland, the composer
might question the relevance of this history to the vitality of contemporary Irish
composition. It might be expedient to see the success and deserved recognition of
today’s Irish composers as independent of what has gone before. However, such
a view is ultimately unsatisfactory, both for Irish composers and for the wider
world. Perhaps the vibrancy of contemporary Irish composition is partly due to its
decisive break with aspects of earlier twentieth-century music. Arguably such self-
confidence was not preceded by a vacuum in Irish music history, but by a varied
legacy of classical composition to which today’s composers can respond. In 2003,
Klein asserted that a ‘healthy state of Irish musical culture’ would only be achieved
when Irish concert programming included Irish works from the eighteenth century
to the present day.62 The achievement of this goal would be both a condition and
a result of the ‘rehabilitation’ of Irish composers from before the middle of the
twentieth century.

 Frank Corcoran ‘New Irish music’, Interface 12/1–2 (1983): 41–4, at p. 41.
 Axel Klein, Irish Classical Recordings: A Discography of Irish Art Music (Westport,
CT, 2001), pp. xi–xii.
 Klein, ‘Roots and Directions’, pp. 181–2.
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Chapter 4
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and
E.J. Moeran
Fabian Gregor Huss

An examination of national identity in the music of Arnold Bax (1883–1953)

and E.J. Moeran (1894–1950) not only yields insights into the composers’ work,
but also raises a number of questions about national identity in music in general
and ‘Irishness’ as a quantifiable characteristic of art-music in particular. The
two composers were good friends, and their estimations of their own and each
other’s national identities are significant, as are remarks by other commentators.
However, while many writers on Bax and Moeran refer in some way to their Irish
connections, such discussions have tended to be cursory, and often insufficiently
supported. J.A. Westrup, for instance, in his chapter on Moeran in British Music
of Our Time, makes several references to Moeran’s ‘Irishness’: ‘Anyone coming
to Moeran’s music for the first time could hardly fail to be struck by a recurrent
character in his themes which is unmistakably Irish’; ‘we may safely attribute
[this character] to Irish ancestry’;1 ‘[Moeran] is more inclined to express himself
than to reason. It may be that here we have a further evidence of the Irish strain in
him: the Irishman is never strongly committed to logic.’2 Westrup does not clarify
what precedents, musical or otherwise, he bases this assumption on, but it would
seem to spring from the same preconception that saw Shaw pit ‘the Professor’
against ‘the Celt’ in Stanford’s music.3 Moeran’s Irish ancestry has itself often
been a cause for comment; Lionel Hill suggests: ‘His unique appeal stems from
his dual ancestry – his mother being English and his father Irish, and this fusion
of cultures is immediately heard in his music which benefits enormously from this
mixed heredity.’4 How mixed heredity leads to a fusion of cultures (and how these
cultures are defined and manifest) is not explored. Lewis Foreman suggests in his
biography of Bax that ‘it was to Ireland that he … turned, and from Ireland that he

 J.A. Westrup, ‘E.J. Moeran’, in A.L. Bacharach (ed.), British Music of Our Time
(Harmondsworth, 1946), p. 175.
 Ibid., p. 184.
 George Bernard Shaw, ‘Going Fantee’, The World, 10 May 1893, as reproduced in
Dan H. Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music (3 vols, London, 1981), Vol. 2, 1890–1893, p. 879.
This may be further related to Matthew Arnold’s concept of Celticism.
 Lionel Hill, sleeve notes for the Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Norman Del Mar
recording of Moeran’s Cello Concerto and Sinfonietta (Chandos, CHAN 8456), 1986.
70 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

was to forge his mature style’.5 Unfortunately Foreman does not explore how this
might affect the national identity of the music.
Both Bax’s and Moeran’s music can be accommodated comfortably into
discussions of music in England/Britain, with numerous elements relating directly
to its British environment, most notably an impressionistic preoccupation with
nature, and in Moeran’s case the influence of folksong and Tudor music; for that
matter, the influence of the French impressionists and Sibelius is also typical, both
being widespread in British music of the early twentieth century, particularly the
former. In discussions of Bax and Moeran within a British context, if an Irish
influence is mentioned at all, it is almost invariably cursory, with no real exploration
of the relevant issues. Discussions by Irish commentators, meanwhile, have been
few, and have focussed to a large degree on the national identity of the composers
and their music, to the exclusion of almost all other issues, and the evident desire
simply to either claim them as Irish or disqualify them from such an identity has
tended to preclude more considered approaches. It is my intention to explore some
of the complexities in greater detail. Bax and Moeran are sometimes mentioned
or discussed together, for instance in Colman Pearce’s chapter ‘Contemporary
Irish Music’ in Four Centuries of Music in Ireland and Joseph Ryan’s doctoral
dissertation Nationalism and Music in Ireland, as well as his chapter ‘Nationalism
and Irish Music’ in Music and Irish Cultural History.6 The pairing of Bax and
Moeran is thus not unprecedented, and is particularly interesting because of the
possibilities for comparison it presents.

Approaching Ireland

Pearce describes Bax and Moeran as ‘two English composers whose emotional
bond with Ireland, and involvement with Irish culture, have made them, in the
opinion of many (both in England and Ireland), “spiritual” Irishmen’.7 Upon closer
scrutiny it will become clear that the composers’ ‘emotional bond with Ireland’
and ‘involvement with Irish culture’ differed substantially and also varied over
time. Let us begin by considering their first experiences of and initial responses
to Ireland.

 Lewis Foreman, Bax: A Composer and his Times, 3rd edition (Woodbridge, 2007),
p. 39.
 Colman Pearce, ‘Contemporary Irish Music’, in Brian Boydell (ed.), Four Centuries
of Music in Ireland (London, 1979); Joseph J. Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music in Ireland’
(PhD dissertation, National University of Ireland, 1991); Joseph J. Ryan, ‘Nationalism
and Irish Music’, in Gerard Gillen and Harry White (eds.), Music and Irish Cultural History.
Irish Musical Studies 3 (Dublin, 1995). The call for papers for the Music and Identity in
Ireland symposium (December 2006) for which this chapter was originally produced is a
further example, suggesting both subject and title.
 Pearce, ‘Contemporary Irish Music’, p. 51.
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 71

Bax famously discovered his ‘inner Celt’ when he stumbled upon the poetry
of Yeats, specifically The Wanderings of Oisin, in 1902, and he soon began
visiting Ireland.8 Thus we find in Bax’s relationship with Ireland the defining role
of literature from the very outset; we also find a preoccupation with mythology,
and Bax wrote of seeing ‘archetypes’ and ‘gods and heroic shapes’ instead of
‘real figures of flesh and blood’ on one of his earliest visits.9 In a letter to a
friend he refers to himself as ‘Irish Dermid [sic]’, writing ‘this is the real Dermid
at any rate and the English edition is only a reprint somewhat soiled and very
much foxed.’10 Clearly, Bax’s Ireland is highly romanticized, and he seems to
acknowledge his youthful romanticism at the conclusion of his autobiography,
referring to the period ‘when for too short a time I was an adopted – and, I like to
believe, not unloved – child of Eire. Farewell my youth!’11 This seems to suggest
that Bax’s ‘Irish period’ was a relatively self-contained (‘youthful’) episode in
his personal and perhaps musical development, a closed chapter with a distinct
role in forming his identity. Furthermore, already in this earliest contact with
Ireland we can observe an intensely personal, even introverted, perspective: Yeats
revealed Bax’s ‘inner Celt’ – a component of Bax’s personality rather than an
external reality – and in Ireland Bax saw mythic ‘archetypes’; the relation of
these figures to the ‘flesh and blood’ Irishman seems tenuous. It should thus be
noted that Bax’s early view of ‘Ireland’ may have contained as much fantasy as
reality, a fantasy that changed and diminished in potency as Bax outgrew the
period of his life that produced it.12 A sincere attachment to Ireland (resulting
in regular visits to Glencolumcille, Co. Donegal, and Cork throughout the rest
of his life) remained, but the influence Bax perceived Ireland to have on him,
and, significantly, on his music, gradually declined. Before Ireland and its myths
elicited from Bax a musical response, he began writing poems and stories on
Irish subjects; his last direct and intense engagement with Ireland was again
literary: the autobiography quoted from above. He was not, however, oblivious to
musical stimuli, and he quickly developed an interest in Irish folksong, an interest
reflected in his music from the period.
E.J. Moeran’s first encounter with Ireland was occasioned by considerably
different circumstances, and although he too took an immediate interest in Irish folk
music, his fundamental attitude to such material was already entirely different to

 ‘I came upon W.B. Yeats’s “The Wanderings of Usheen” [sic] in 1902, and in a
moment the Celt within me stood revealed.’ Arnold Bax, Farewell My Youth (London, 1943),
pp. 41–2.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Quoted in Foreman, Bax, p. 25.
 Bax, Farewell My Youth, p. 112.
 Séamas de Barra, has explored why Bax experienced Ireland as a sort of escapist
fantasy or dream world removed from the ordinary reality of life in England. Séamas de
Barra,‘Into the Twilight: Arnold Bax and Ireland’, The Journal of Music in Ireland 4/3
(2004): 25–9.
72 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Bax’s. The music of Vaughan Williams had fully revealed to Moeran the potential
of folksong as a stimulus for composition in the winter of 1913–14, during his
brief period of study under Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and it seems
likely that Stanford would have encouraged his enthusiasm. The outbreak of war,
however, curtailed his opportunities to pursue an active interest in folksong, as
Moeran soon enlisted. After being severely injured in France in 1917, Moeran
was stationed in Boyle, Co. Roscommon (he was later stationed in Castlebar,
Co. Mayo and Randalstown, Co. Antrim). This was Moeran’s first experience of
Ireland, even though his family on his father’s side was of Irish origin, and his
father had been born in Dublin. According to his friend Michael Bowles, Moeran
later ‘remembered his socialite days in Boyle with a light and totally irreverent
distaste’, but he did find time to write down a number of folk tunes, the influence
of which can be identified in the music written following his time in Ireland,
including his first published work, the Three Pieces for Piano (1919).13 Ideas for
his first major orchestral work, In the Mountain Country (1921), also began to take
shape on this and a subsequent visit to Ireland.
Musically the two composers reacted to folksong in a similar manner, finding
in it a means of forging a more personal style, and distancing themselves from the
established, largely outmoded continental practices of their apprenticeships. Some
of the principal contrasts in outlook are also immediately apparent, however.
Moeran’s interest was initially occasioned by English folksong, and his music
is closely affined to the English pastoral school; indeed, folksong was a defining
influence in Moeran’s musical development.14 Bax, on the other hand, had little
interest in English folksong, and his music is strongly differentiated from that
of the pastoral school composers. His interest in specifically Irish folksong may
thus be understood to have had a mainly personal significance (that is, as an
expression of cultural identification), rather than being a fundamental influence
on his musical language. Furthermore, the folkloristic/literary element of Bax’s
enthusiasm is not shared by Moeran, and the specific focal points of literature
and nationalism in Bax’s preoccupation with Ireland contrast with the vagueness
of Moeran’s engagement with his Irish heredity. Connections with prominent
literary figures in Dublin and nationalist circles associated with the literary revival
aroused in Bax strong nationalist sympathies, and the Easter Rising inspired a

 Quoted in Geoffrey Self, The Music of E.J. Moeran (London, 1986), p. 103.

Michael Bowles (1908–98) was conductor of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra and
Radio Éireann’s director of music during the 1940s; he conducted the premiere of Moeran’s
Cello Concerto (Dublin, 1945) and must have been at least partly responsible for the large
number of broadcasts of Moeran’s music during this time.
 The music of Vaughan Williams encouraged a deeper interest in folksong generally
as a stimulus for composition, but as a collector Moeran tended to focus on specific areas,
particularly those in which he lived (primarily East Anglia, Kent and Kerry), his three
published collections making specific reference to Norfolk, Suffolk and Kerry, respectively.
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 73

volume of poetry which was banned by the censor.15 Both Moeran and the British
composer Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), who was later to become a close friend
of both Moeran’s and Bax’s, were staying in Ireland around this time, Heseltine
commenting in a letter:

The political situation in this country is very much more serious than the English
newspapers care to represent it. And the enlightened policy of the military is
doing about as much to quench the now-no-longer-merely-smouldering fire of
discontent, as a tin of petrol thrown on a burning haystack!16

Meanwhile, Moeran, an officer of that military, (in the words of Michael Bowles)
‘with very light duties and, above all, competent skill in music, was very much
in demand in Boyle society’.17 Bax’s sensitivity to political issues and Moeran’s
avoidance of, and lack of interest in, such matters is a recurring contrast, and
Bax commented in an obituary in Music and Letters that Moeran ‘very wisely …
refused to take part in any discussion of Irish politics, even if he was ever more
than dimly aware that such matters for violent debate existed’.18 Whether Bax
would have considered such unconcern ‘wise’ in 1916 is debatable.
The Easter Rising elicited a strong emotional response from Bax; it seems to
have affected him more directly than the First World War. A number of musical
reactions to this event were produced, for instance In Memoriam Pádraig Pearse
(1916), the Elegiac Trio for flute, harp and viola (1916) and In Memoriam (An
Irish Elegy) for cor anglais, string quartet and harp (1917), and a similar emotional
influence can be conjectured in a number of other works composed around this
time. The picturesque Celticism of earlier works such as the tone poems Into the
Twilight (1908), In the Faery Hills (1909) and Roscatha (1910) had disappeared –
Bax’s romantic, escapist vision of Ireland was no longer possible, or at any rate had
changed fundamentally. Perhaps this encouraged the shift in Bax’s style during the
period, leading to the maturity of works such as November Woods (1917) and the
First Symphony (1922), and helps to explain the diminishing presence of Ireland
as a point of reference in his music. The increasingly potent influence of Russian
music is surely also significant.

 A Dublin Ballad and other poems was printed in 1918 (Candle Press, Dublin), but
was not officially released.
 Letter to Colin Taylor, dated 15 August 1917; Barry Smith (ed.), The Collected
Letters of Peter Warlock (4 vols, Woodbridge, 2005), Vol. 3, 1916–21, p. 89.
 Quoted in Self, The Music of E.J. Moeran, p. 20.
 Arnold Bax, ‘E.J. Moeran 1894–1950’, Music and Letters 32/2 (1950): 126–7.
Ian Maxwell’s recent speculation that Moeran may have sympathized with the nationalist
cause, and perhaps even played an active part in 1919, requires further evidence if it is to
be credible (in a paper at the First International Conference on Irish Music and Musicians
University of Durham, 12–15 July, and the article ‘E.J. Moeran – an Irish Composer?’ in the
British Music Society Newsletter, No. 127 (September 2010): 330–34).
74 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The presence of Ireland in Moeran’s music is less self-contained chronologically,

as he felt certain works to be connected more closely with Ireland (particularly
those that were first conceived there) than others. The Violin Concerto (1941)
and unfinished Second Symphony are particularly striking examples, while the
intervening Sinfonietta (1944), for instance, appears to be entirely unconnected
with Ireland.19 An escapist element can be detected in Moeran’s view of Ireland,
although it again contrasts strongly with the escapist strain in Bax’s construct of
the country. Given the circumstances of his first visit to Ireland, it seems likely
that Moeran associated Ireland with peace – an escape from the horrors of war.
His retreat to Ireland to rework and complete his Symphony in G minor in the
mid 1930s was similarly something of an escape, to a place in which he could
live and work in peace and quiet, a new start after the troubled years at Eynsford
(where he shared a cottage with Philip Heseltine), during which his output
dwindled alarmingly. Heseltine’s overpowering personality and the often wild
lifestyle at Eynsford clearly had a negative effect on Moeran’s creativity, and
he subsequently favoured solitude and secluded locations in which to compose.
Following this unproductive period, the restoration of his creative impulses was
marked by the composition of the concise and accomplished Sonata for Two
Violins (1930) and String Trio (1931), preceded by the Seven Poems of James
Joyce and Rosefrail (also Joyce) of 1929.20 Perhaps a preoccupation with Irish
literature contributed to a gradual renewal of interest in Ireland while he was
searching for a suitable place to live and work at the time. The Symphony in
G minor (completed in 1937) initiated a series of mature, substantial orchestral
works, many of which were closely associated with Ireland. The country may
thus have represented an ideal to Moeran, just as it had to Bax, but whereas Bax’s
was an escape from the drab reality of everyday life, Moeran’s was an escape to
the peaceful environment in which he could work successfully.

National Identities

What Bax and Moeran have in common is the direct, affirmative nature of their
musical responses to Ireland – both composers considered their music to be
distinctly ‘Irish’. Bax asserted that he was ‘the first to translate the hidden Ireland

 For a discussion of the Second Symphony, see F.G. Huss, ‘E.J. Moeran’s Symphony

No. 2 in E flat’, Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland 6 (2010–11). For a
discussion of the significance of local inspiration on Moeran, and its effect on his music,
see F.G. Huss ‘The Construction of Nature in the Music of E.J. Moeran’, Tempo 63/248
(2009): 35–44.
 For a detailed discussion of the Sonata for Two Violins and String Trio, and their
significance in Moeran’s output, see F.G. Huss, ‘Technical Focus and “Stylistic Cleansing”
in E.J. Moeran’s Sonata for Two Violins and String Trio’, in Gareth Cox and Julian Horton
(eds), Irish Musical Studies 11 (Dublin, 2014).
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 75

into musical terms’,21 while Moeran noted the Irishness of several of his works,
for instance the Second Symphony: ‘It started out by being Irish, and if I try and
put it right here [in England], it only ends up being pastiche Irish.’22 In 1938,
Fleischmann had presented some of Moeran’s music at a concert in Dublin
featuring music by Irish composers, and following its success he considered
putting on a similar event in London.23 Moeran offered to make enquiries, but the
response in London was unenthusiastic, and after the outbreak of war the plan
was abandoned. Interestingly, Moeran sanctioned the inclusion of his own music,
while he objected to the inclusion of Bax’s music, as Bax was not Irish. Evidently
he saw himself as ‘Irish enough’ to be included. If Moeran was merely being
opportunistic, his rebuff of Bax seems uncharacteristically ungracious.
Moeran’s objection was thus made on the strength of Bax’s nationality,
raising the question of how the ethnicity of a composer affects the national
identity of his music. This is often a complicated issue in cases where separate
national influences interact, or where there is some sort of mixed heredity,
whether it is conceived culturally or ethnically; consider such cases as Charles
Villiers Stanford, Hamilton Harty, Howard Ferguson and Frederick May.24 It is
often difficult to evaluate the significance of individual elements, and both Bax
and Moeran provide particularly thorny cases. The fact that both composers’
engagement with Irish folk music was largely defined by personal interests, rather
than by an exploration of an Irish musical tradition, is crucial. The disparity of
motivation in this engagement – the construction of cultural identity in Bax’s case
and an ongoing interest in folksong in Moeran’s – further illustrates the point.
Arguably, then, the ‘Irishness’ of their music was formulated by the composers,
not by Ireland. Indeed, the music of all of the composers mentioned above relates
ambiguously to the ‘profound examination of the peculiar Irish condition’, that
benchmark of true Irishness that Joseph Ryan holds to be missing in Moeran’s
music, however it might actually be defined.25

 Arnold Bax. ‘A Radio Self Portrait’, in Lewis Foreman (ed.), Farewell, My Youth
and Other Writings by Arnold Bax (Aldershot, 1992), p. 166.
 Letter to Peers Coetmore, Cheltenham, dated 14 June 1949, quoted in Rhoderick
McNeill, ‘A Critical Study of the Life and Works of E.J. Moeran’, PhD dissertation
(University of Melbourne, 1982), p. 311. Moeran’s differentiation of the influences
he perceived different surroundings to have on his creativity is a recurring topic in his
correspondence. See n. 31 below.
 I am grateful to Séamas de Barra for bringing information about this concert to
my attention.
 A fanciful but instructive exercise would be to ask: under what circumstances
would one consider William Walton’s music to be Italian? As a long-term resident of Ischia,
what level of engagement with Italian culture and music would be necessary to qualify him
for consideration as a composer of ‘Italian’ music; conversely, how would the existence of
Italian ancestry affect our evaluation?
 Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music in Ireland’, p. 255.
76 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The Irish identities of both composers are often hazy. Moeran, by his Irish
ancestry and prolonged residence in Ireland, perhaps has some claim to Irish
nationality (he would, for instance, be eligible for the national soccer team),26 but
he appears to have had limited interest in politics and did not participate in debates
about Irish culture, art or music; and his works do not consistently articulate an
Irish identity. Bax, on the other hand, during his ‘Irish period’, professed strong
nationalistic Irish political and cultural ideals (the expression of which often leads
to a body of work being regarded as ‘national’), a preoccupation furthermore
persistently articulated in his music and writings, but he had no Irish ancestors
and his passion grew more moderate as he aged. In Bax’s case, this discussion
might therefore apply primarily to his early music, as after 1916 (the year of
the orchestration of The Garden of Fand, and the composition of In Memoriam,
Pádraig Pearse and the Elegiac Trio) his music seems to manifest a more
generally ‘northern’ rather than specifically Celtic influence, although these seem
to be strongly related, not least in Bax’s mind.27
Aidan Thomson has argued persuasively that Bax’s Celticism may be seen as a
means of distancing himself from English pastoralism, finding links between Bax’s
earlier, more obviously ‘Irish’ music, and his later, more generally ‘northern’ music,
identifying in that development a maturation of style or integration of stylistic
elements (the influence of Russian music and Sibelius may be significant here);
Bax’s later ‘northern’ Celticism is thus a continuation of his initial interpretation
of Ireland as an opposing identity to Englishness.28 His celebration of a (varying)
Irish-Celtic-northern ‘other’ in music underlines the difference in attitude to
Moeran, whose approach tends towards a synthesis of influences.
Bax’s ‘Irishness’ and its bearing on the identity of his music are thus unclear.
The dismissal by some commentators of the Irish elements in Bax’s music as

 This seems whimsical, but is illuminating in terms of the popular understanding of
parameters of nationality and national identity it implies: few people strenuously object to
the participation of a player with ‘sufficient’ Irish ancestry in a national team.
 The connection between the Irish and northern aspects of Bax’s music is noted by
both Foreman and Aidan Thomson, in his paper ‘Bax and the “Celtic North” as a Critique
of English Pastoralism’, given at the annual conference of the Society for Musicology in
Ireland, Dublin, 11–13 May 2007, which will be discussed presently.
 Thomson, ibid. Interestingly, Julian Herbage commented in 1946: ‘In many ways
[Bax] is a psychological revolt against his ancestry, and his complex character may largely
have been built up through the clash between his conventionally English surroundings and
the almost pagan striving after beauty in his spirit’ (Julian Herbage, ‘Arnold Bax’, in British
Music of Our Time, p. 114). This striving could furthermore be equated with the escapist
tendencies identified by de Barra. Bax acknowledged the complete absorption of the Irish
influence into a personal style in his later music: ‘[I] began to write Irishly using figures of
a definitely Celtic curve, an idiom which in the end was so much second nature to me that
many works of mine have been called Irish or Celtic when I supposed them to be purely
personal to the British composer Arnold Bax’ (Bax, ‘A Radio Self-Portrait’, p. 165) – that is
how (in Lewis Foreman’s words) Bax ‘forged his mature style’ from Ireland.
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 77

manifestations of an exoticist approach is, however, unfair, since these elements

are both sincere and at least potentially artistically valid. Bax applied an approach
similar to that found in his writings, thereby articulating Irish cultural ideals,
which he combined with a sincere interest in Irish folk music. That Bax was
something of an isolated figure as an ‘Irish’ Celtic Twilight composer makes
it difficult, in the absence of a wider trend, to accept this ‘Irishness’, which
(particularly in its role as ‘non-Englishness’ in Bax’s inner life) is inevitably
played out against a backdrop of English identity, something he could never hope
to overcome, try as he might. His ‘Irish’ writings, which relate directly to the
context created by the writers he associated with, can justifiably be labelled as
such; the absence of a comparable context for his music should not disqualify it
from assuming an Irish identity.
Moeran in turn provides an entirely different conundrum: through his Irish
ancestry he appears to have a more convincing claim to Irish ethnicity – but does
that make his music ‘more Irish’? A degree of Irish ethnicity certainly doesn’t
make it ‘less English’. That this music could be claimed as Irish at will (by figures
such as Pearce and Larchet, see below) points again to the absence of a conflicting,
established type of Irish composition, although both composers could perhaps be
seen as developing a precedent set by Stanford and Harty, however much such
an interpretation would have pained Bax. Commentators that simply assert or
deny Bax’s and Moeran’s Irish identity (or at least that of some of their music)
underestimate the complexity of the matter.
The two composers, like their music, were on occasion subject to appropriation
as Irishmen by Irish commentators. Bax was once described by a journalist as
having been born ‘in a bog lake in County Mayo’ and at one point a rumour
circulated that he was a ‘spoiled priest from Maynooth’;29 Bax described these
rumours as ‘picturesque, but unfortunately not true’.30 Moeran, meanwhile was
described variously in the press as ‘Irish’, ‘half-Irish’ and ‘British, but strongly
Irish-associated’.31 Attempts to make Moeran ‘more Irish’ are occasionally
fascinating, for instance the assertion that, ‘an Irish parson’s son, and the brother
of an English rector, his own inclinations are High Church, hence in Kenmare he
invariably attends Mass rather than go to the Protestant service on Sunday’.32 These
efforts demonstrate a desire to establish the composers’ Irishness, suggesting a
corresponding attempt to claim their music as Irish.

 Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, 1946); and Tilly Fleischmann,
‘Reminiscences of Arnold Bax’ (unpublished, August 1955).
 Bax, Farewell My Youth, p. 7.
 Irish Independent, 19 April 1938 (‘All Irish Programme: Sunday’s Radio
Concert’), 4 May 1944 (‘Spectator’s Leader Page Parade: Kerry Concerto’), and 8 May 1944
(‘Spectator’s Leader Page Parade: First Decision’).
 Irish Independent, 17 January 1946 (‘Spectator’s Leader Page Parade:
Kenmare Inspiration’).
78 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The Irish Context

In terms of subject matter, much of Bax’s and Moeran’s music is clearly concerned
with Ireland, for instance Bax’s early tone poems and Moeran’s In the Mountain
Country (1921) and Violin Concerto (with its central ‘Fair Day’ scherzo).33 The
Mountain Country may be Irish (according to Moeran’s programme note it was
inspired by the landscape of western Connaught), but that does not necessarily
make the music more Irish; similarly, Herbert Howells’s Third Violin Sonata (1923)
is not noticeably ‘American’ as a result of its inspiration – his first visit to the
Rockies. More readily identifiable in the music itself – than myths or landscapes –
are Bax’s and Moeran’s references to Irish folk music, if not by direct quotation,
then by allusion to its melodic and rhythmic inflections. Although (as already
noted) Bax and Moeran approached folk music from very different ideological
standpoints, it is this element of both composers’ music that has traditionally been
understood as a particular link with Irish music and culture. Given the role of folk
music in establishing other European national styles, for instance in England and
Hungary, and the comparative lack of further identifiable distinguishing ‘national’
features – that is, those that mark the music out as being specifically Irish – this
is perhaps understandable. It is worth remembering, however, that references to
folk music do not necessarily establish national identity in music in any significant
way, and a reliance on melodic material derived from Irish traditional music is a
slim criterion on which to base the identity of ‘Irish art music’, especially given
that the type of music it refers to stands essentially apart from art music, whether
Irish or otherwise. The English style that developed during the early twentieth
century (and with which both Bax and Moeran are closely associated – Moeran in
particular is often cited as a typical example of English pastoralism) is defined by
numerous factors, of which English folksong is but one.
While what we now understand as ‘the English style’ developed to a stage
where it became a recognizable and definable entity (even though it incorporated
considerable diversity in the work of different composers), the development of
an ‘Irish school of composition’, as hoped for by Fleischmann, was hampered
from the outset by the self-conscious and somewhat paradoxical preoccupation

 Edwin Evans, in his Musical Times article on the Violin Concerto, notes that the

second movement ‘expresses the spirit of the famous Puck’s Fair of Killorglin’ (‘Moeran’s
Violin Concerto’, The Musical Times 1098/75 (1934): 233–4, at 233); according to Hubert
Foss, ‘one important theme is a tune written by the composer in imitation of the effect of a
tune he heard a young man playing on the melodeon at one of the Irish fairs’ (Compositions
of E.J. Moeran, London, 1948, p. 8). Moeran himself described how he ‘soak[ed] [him]self
in traditional fiddling with its queer but natural embellishments & ornamentations’ in
preparation for the concerto (in a letter to May Harrison, dated Whit Sunday 1939, quoted
in Lewis Foreman (ed.), From Parry to Britten (London, 1987), p. 215).
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 79

with, simultaneously, the originality and authenticity it engendered.34 Whereas the

English style evolved, shaped by many developments and incorporating folksong
as one influence among others of similar importance, the endeavour, in Ireland,
to consciously create a national style was fundamentally flawed. Aside from the
problematic political considerations to be addressed or avoided, the plethora of
stylistic and ideological directions in international art music of the period (often
tending, furthermore, towards cosmopolitanism) meant that the evolution of a
modern style of ‘Irish’ composition, sufficiently uniform to distinguish it clearly
as such, was never a realistic possibility, facing the charge of being either out of
touch with music or out of touch with Ireland. The activities of figures such as
Stanford, Bax and Moeran were too isolated from Irish musical life to have the
necessary impact (and musical infrastructures would probably have been incapable
of absorbing them anyway) – Fleischmann’s initiative and the conditions needed
for its success both came too late.
Instead of engaging with a distinctly Irish tradition of composition, Bax and
Moeran applied largely the same standards and procedures that otherwise made
their music English. (It is instructive to compare, again, Bax’s literary style, based
on Irish models, with his musical style, for which no obvious comparable models
were available.) Fleischmann recognized in the English musical renaissance a
possible model for the development of an Irish school of composition, and much
music by Irish composers of the period seems to follow English precedents,
particularly in the use of folksong. Obviously this is not helpful in defining or
distinguishing a genuine ‘Irishness’ in music, particularly when dealing with
English composers. The differentiation between English, British and Irish
identities further complicates matters, as these may be seen to overlap in certain
ways (Stanford, for instance, would not necessarily have considered ‘Irishness’ and
‘Britishness’ to be opposing forces), and the relationships between them changed
with time.35 Thus when Moeran returned to Ireland to complete his Symphony
in G minor in the mid 1930s, concepts of ‘Irishness’ and ‘Britishness’ and the
relationship between such identities would have been radically altered since
his 1917–18 sojourn, although whether this influenced Moeran’s understanding of
his own national identity, or that of his music, is unclear.36 Given Moeran’s mixed

 See Aloys Fleischmann, ‘The Outlook for Music in Ireland’, Studies 14/93
(1935): 121–30; Aloys Fleischmann, ‘Composition and the Folk Idiom’, Ireland To-day, 1/6
(1936): 37–44. See also Séamas de Barra’s article, ‘Aloys Fleischmann and the Idea of an
Irish Composer’, The Journal of Music in Ireland 5/5 (2005) and Ryan’s ‘Nationalism and
Music in Ireland’ for a discussion of these articles and the debate they initiated.
 For a discussion of Stanford and national identities, see Michael Murphy, ‘Race,
Nation and Empire in the Irish Music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’, in Richard Pine (ed.)
Music in Ireland 1848–1998 (Cork, 1998).
 There are of course further potential distinctions, for instance those noted by Harry
White: ‘the terms “Native Irish”, “Anglo-Irish” and “Unionist” all denote distinct categories
of Irishness, each, as it happens, with its own distinctive traditions of musical engagement.’
Harry White, ‘Art Music and the Question of Ethnicity: The Slavic Dimension of Czech
80 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

heredity and experiences of Ireland and Britain, he would not necessarily have
considered Irish and British cultures to be conflicting influences, indeed he may
have felt them to converge in his own ‘cultural composition’. His view of Ireland
is thus selective – not a symbol of his inner life, as in Bax’s case, but a reality
suited to Moeran the composer (and hence the man). His somewhat narrow – one
might say blinkered – view of Ireland may then be understood as a psychological
necessity, providing a suitable place to create.
Moeran did, however, perceive the two countries to have markedly different
effects on him, particularly in terms of inspiration.37 This somewhat paradoxical
combination of attitudes – of distinguishing between Irish and English influences,
but treating them in essentially the same way – is central to his national identity:
he and his music were shaped by both Britain and Ireland, and their differentiation
was a personal matter. It is significant that the works Moeran associated most
strongly with Ireland, the Violin Concerto, Rhapsody in F# (1943) and the Cello
Concerto and Sonata (1947), are also among the most individual, synthesizing
disparate elements into a personal musical language, couched in individual forms.38
Harry White, in his illuminating comparison of Stanford and Dvořák, notes that
a model of national spirit in art music was available to the latter in the music of
Smetana.39 This was not so in Stanford’s case, nor in the cases of Bax, Moeran or
composers such as Harty, May and Fleischmann. The lack of an ‘Irish Smetana’ (not
to mention Bartók) meant that composers such as Bax and Moeran, constructing
Ireland musically on their own (largely English) terms, did not have to engage with
an established model of Irish art music. The reasons for the failure of such a figure
to appear have been widely debated, and it is easy to see why Stanford, Bax and
Moeran (all for very different reasons) were unsuited to such a role.
To conclude, I would like to propose an alternative approach to the Irish
identity of this music. As discussed above, it is difficult to define the Irishness
of Bax’s and Moeran’s music in terms that go beyond the composers and their
personal motivations; but instead of focussing on the Irishness it lacks, let us
consider its place within Irish music history, however variable or vaguely defined
that ‘Irish music’ may be. That some of Bax’s and Moeran’s music is somehow
connected with Ireland cannot be denied (otherwise this discussion would, after
all, be redundant). Furthermore, in the period during which Bax and Moeran
produced their ‘Irish’ music, they were not the only composers to relate in an
ambiguous manner to the distinctly Irish musical context; consider, for example,

Music from an Irish Point of View’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology
of Music 35/1 (2004): 29–46, at p. 42.
 This relates directly to Moeran’s attitude towards environmental influence; see
Huss, ‘The Construction of Nature in the Music of E.J. Moeran’.
 As we have seen, the Second Symphony was also strongly associated with
Ireland, but the incomplete nature of the work makes it difficult to evaluate – see Huss,
‘E.J. Moeran’s Symphony No. 2 in E flat’.
 White, ‘Art Music and the Question of Ethnicity’.
The ‘Irish Music’ of Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran 81

predecessors such as Stanford and Esposito, and contemporaries such as Harty

and Fleischmann. All four worked or were trained outside Ireland, and much of
their music relates strongly to German, English/British and other models. Yet all
four are major figures in Irish music with a lasting influence on music in Ireland.
While it is difficult to disentangle apparently Irish elements in a comparison, the
music of Bax and Moeran relates in many ways to the music of these and other,
more or less Irish composers. Let us not forget that Moeran’s music in particular
was performed regularly in Ireland during the last decade of his life, when his Irish
connections and residence were reported widely in the press, being described as
among ‘the best that is in Irish music’ as early as 1939.40
Michael Beckerman conceives of Smetana, Dvořák, Janácek, Suk and Martinů
as forming a sort of ‘musical family’, thereby building an identifiable concept
of ‘Czechness in music’.41 The same idea may be (tentatively) applied to the
composers mentioned here – Moeran and Harty were certainly influenced by
Stanford, and it seems likely that Fleischmann’s idea of Irishness in music was
somehow influenced by the music of Bax and Moeran, it is also interesting to note
that Larchet referred to Moeran as a ‘great builder of [Ireland’s] future music’.42
This is certainly no more far-fetched than exploring the Englishness of Bax’s
music through, say, links with Elgar and influences shared with his contemporaries
(including figures such as Frank Bridge and John Ireland, who likewise largely
rejected English folksong and Tudor music as prominent influences – could ‘a
French influence’ be a permissible characteristic of an English style?). The
difference is that such a strain of Irishness has traditionally been a matter for
debate, while comparable concepts of Czechness and Englishness are now taken
for granted. In this way we may understand the ‘Irish’ music of Bax, Moeran, their
precursors, contemporaries and successors in terms of its contribution to, indeed
creation of, an Irish musical context (as one of many contexts in which this music
might be placed), rather than focussing on the vagueness of the context at any
given point.

 ‘Coming National Concert’, Irish Independent, Friday, 15 March, 1939.
 Michael Beckerman, ‘In Search of Czechness in Music’, 19th Century Music 10/1
(1986): 61–73.
 Quoted in the article reporting of Moeran’s death in the Irish Press, 2 December, 1950,
p. 1.
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 5
Inventing Identities: The Case of
Frederick May
Mark Fitzgerald


In the closing scene of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, Oscar Wilde,
living in Dieppe as Sebastian Melmoth, tells A.E. Housman, the central figure of
the play, that ‘biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes’.1 This
meeting, of central importance to the play, never in fact occurred, but as Stoppard
remarked he was ‘not going to be thwarted by a mere detail like that’.2 Indeed,
why would he? Reality does not necessarily make great theatre and besides the
lacunae in Housman’s biography positively invite the writer to fill them with
imaginings. Of course, the scholar is defined by their refusal to allow flights of
fancy that contravene the known facts, as Houseman explains earlier in the play
to his younger self: ‘Poetical feelings are always a peril to scholarship. There
are always poetical people ready to protest that a corrupt line is exquisite … To
be a scholar is to strike your finger on the page and say, “Thou ailest here, and
here.”’3 And yet, scholars can be just as ready to plumb for the poetical tale when
it supports an attractive idea.
This chapter focuses on the composer Frederick May (1911–85), who is
acknowledged as a key figure in the history of art music in Ireland in the twentieth
century. Despite this there has been no serious biographical study to date and
commentary on his music has generally been relatively facile. Reconstructing
May’s life would pose formidable challenges for any author; due to a chaotic later
life marred by alcoholism when, apparently homeless, he took to sleeping at night
in Grangegorman asylum in Dublin, there is no substantial body of private papers
for anyone to draw on and while there are plenty of people who can remember the
late years of May’s life when he was to a certain extent recognized for his work,
finding people who can recall the early years of May’s life is far more difficult. This
study is neither a new biographical study of May, nor will it analyse in detail any
of the music. Instead I will take the various frayed threads of May’s life, pulling at
different ones to see how they have been viewed, ignored or even reset by various

 Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love (London, 1997), p. 93.
 Ira Nadel, Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard (London, 2002), p. 508.
 Stoppard, The Invention of Love, pp. 36–7.
84 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

musicological and journalistic commentaries in the hope of illuminating both the

music and the underlying concerns of musical commentators in Ireland. Rather,
therefore, than structuring this in a conventional chronological manner I will begin
by providing a brief synopsis of May’s compositional career as it appears in the
main musicological studies.4
Born in Dublin, May studied music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music under
the tutelage of John Larchet before studying for a bachelor of music at Trinity
College Dublin.5 He then studied composition in London at the Royal College of
Music for several years with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. In 1933
his Scherzo for orchestra was performed in London, as a result of which he won a
travelling scholarship. Instead of setting off at once he waited until either late 1935
or early 1936 to travel to Vienna in order to study with Alban Berg (1885–1935),
but unfortunately Berg died on 23/24 December 1935.6 May therefore studied
for some time with Egon Wellesz (1885–1974), another Schoenberg pupil, who
introduced May to serialism. Simultaneously, in 1936, May was also appointed
as John Larchet’s successor as Director of Music at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, a
post he held until 1948. At some stage between 1933 and 1936 he composed the

 While this narrative can be found in most recent musicological studies the main texts
are Joseph Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music in Ireland’ (PhD dissertation, National University
of Ireland, Maynooth, 1991) and ‘Frederick May’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://
dib.cambridge.org (accessed December 2013); Philip Graydon, ‘Modernism in Ireland and
its Cultural Context in the Music of Frederick May, Brian Boydell and Aloys Fleischmann’,
MA dissertation (National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 1999) and the article with
the same title in Gareth Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century.
Irish Musical Studies 7 (Dublin, 2003); Axel Klein, Die Musik Irlands im 20. Jahrhundert
(Hildesheim, 1996), ‘The Composer in the Academy (2) 1940–1990’, in Charles Acton
and Richard Pine (eds), To Talent Alone: The Royal Irish Academy of Music 1848–1998
(Dublin, 1998) and ‘Irish Composers and Foreign Education: A Study of Influences’, in
Patrick F. Devine and Harry White (eds), The Maynooth International Musicological
Conference 1995. Selected Proceedings: Part One. Irish Musical Studies 4 (Dublin, 1995);
Robert W. Wason, ‘Interval Cycles and Inversional Axes in Frederick May’s String Quartet
in C minor’, in Cox and Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century. There are some
slight variations between these, particularly as regards dates and these will be examined later.
 The extent of the possible influence of his piano teacher Michele Esposito has been
overlooked, though May described how Esposito ‘managed to spare the time too to look
through and advise on the juvenile efforts of a young would-be composer’. Frederick May
‘Intermezzo’, in Charles Acton and Richard Pine (eds), To Talent Alone: The Royal Irish
Academy of Music 1848–1998 (Dublin, 1998), p. 392.
 Joseph Ryan and Philip Graydon place May’s arrival after the death of Berg, conjuring
the poignant image of May, arriving in Vienna only to find his proposed teacher was dead:
Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music in Ireland’, p. 405 and ‘Frederick May’ in Dictionary of Irish
Biography; Graydon, ‘Modernism in Ireland’, p. 58. Axel Klein places May’s arrival slightly
earlier, but at a point in 1935 when Berg was already fatally ill (i.e. post August): ‘Alban
Berg akzeptierte ihn als Schüler, doch war dieser schon zu krank, als May 1935 in Wien
eintraf. Bis 1936 studierte er daher bei Egon Wellesz’. Klein, Die Musik Irlands, p. 436.
Inventing Identities 85

work that is today seen as his masterpiece, the String Quartet in C minor. This
was followed by a small output of pieces; Symphonic Ballad, Spring Nocturne,
Lyric Movement for Strings, Suite of Irish Airs, Songs from Prison, and a number
of short songs and arrangements. His last original work was an orchestral piece
written in 1955 entitled Sunlight and Shadow.7 From the mid-1930s onwards May
suffered increasingly from otosclerosis and combined with depression this resulted
in him abandoning composition. May’s life is one of particularly tragic unfulfilled
potential but, despite the obvious chronological problems with the outline above,
in the years since his death he has been called upon to play an important role in the
emerging narrative of Irish art music.

May as Modernist

Every discipline needs its icons and also its history. The growth of musicological
study in Ireland is still a relatively recent phenomenon while the serious study of
Irish art music is even more recent. Whereas mainstream musicology has tended
to move away from grand narrative histories and establishment of canons as a
reaction to previous generations of scholarship, in Ireland these fundamental tasks
had never actually happened.8 Much writing about twentieth century art music
has therefore been about imposing an orderly narrative upon a rather disparate set
of people and events, frequently entwined with agonizing over issues of national
identity. Two figures from the first 70 years of the century have been isolated
for the role of icon, Frederick May and Seán Ó Riada. Ó Riada was the choice
of the literary world, with eulogies penned by poets from Thomas Kinsella to
Seamus Heaney, and through his film music and work with the traditional music
group Ceoltóirí Cualann he reached a much wider audience in the 1960s than most
composers. Fredrick May, on the other hand, was the composer’s composer, fêted
by figures as diverse as Brian Boydell and Raymond Deane; the one who, unlike
Ó Riada, had bequeathed at least one important contribution to the Irish art music
repertoire. While some would only see him as a forerunner of Ó Riada, for many
musical commentators he marked a new period in composition in Ireland. The
way in which this idea has developed can be illustrated through an examination of
an exhibition held at the end of 2010 in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, to mark
its 20th anniversary, entitled ‘The Moderns’.
The visual arts were represented in a highly inclusive manner to give the
clearest picture of their development in Ireland over the century and throughout
the catalogue questions about whether or not modernism existed within Ireland

 For many of these works the exact date of composition is unclear and different dates
are given in different sources.
 The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland edited by Harry White and Barra Boydell
(Dublin, 2013) is the first serious attempt at establishing a positivist musical landmark; a
thorough history of Irish art music has yet to be written.
86 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

or had largely failed in Ireland are raised by a number of commentators.9 Theo

Dorgan, writing about film, blithely dismisses modernism’s existence while also
noting more generally: ‘Modernism as it impinged on Ireland, chiefly in painting,
was second-wave Modernism, perhaps best expressed with a lower-case “m”.’10 By
contrast the section entitled literature can dispense with any lengthy foreword, the
names on many of the displayed book covers earning their place not just in a local
study of the movement. Turning to the section on music one might expect a similar
ambivalence to that found in the other non-literary arts, particularly considering
the fact that application of techniques associated with the European avant-garde
tended to be tokenistic and lagged far behind even Britain in terms of when they
appear, but instead we find a swaggering appropriation of the modernist mantle:

Frederick May was the first Irish composer to take the principles of Schoenberg
seriously and write within the idiom of European modernism … Though Berg
died prior to his arrival in 1935, May remained in Vienna as a student of Egon
Wellesz, consolidating his commitment to a modernist aesthetic. The immediate
result of these formative experiences was his String Quartet in C minor …
completed on his return to Dublin in 1936, which sustains over three almost-
self-contained sections an original voice balancing in its mood and construction
Viennese atonality and serialism with pastoral elements and their associated
images of loss and withdrawal.11

This confident repositioning of May can be traced back through the work of a
number of musicologists who, looking for a musical counterweight to Ireland’s
canonical literary figures, found in May abundant possibilities for symbolic
development. Philip Graydon, for example, isolated May, with Brian Boydell and
Aloys Fleischmann as the first modernists with May playing the role of pioneer
of Irish musical modernism.12 This is, however, merely building on Joseph Ryan’s
idea set forth in his study of music and nationalism of a ‘progressive school’,
comprised of the same three composers, to whose works he frequently applies
the descriptor ‘modernist’.13 Positing May as a modernist does raise a number of
problems. Even if we leave aside the fact that modernism itself has to be redefined

 See for example Enrique Juncosa’s ‘Foreword’ or Bruce Arnold’s chapter ‘The
Yeats Family and Modernism in Ireland’, in Enrique Juncosa and Christina Kennedy (eds),
The Moderns: The Arts in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s (Dublin, 2011).
 Theo Dorgan, ‘Swimming with sharks, going our own sweet way: Poetry,
Modernism and Film in Ireland’, in Juncosa and Kennedy, The Moderns, p. 501.
 Brian Cass, ‘Modern Music in Ireland’, in Juncosa and Kennedy, The Moderns, p. 554.
 Graydon, ‘Modernism in Ireland’ (both the article and MA thesis).
 Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music’, pp. 431–40. The distance Boydell and Fleischmann
had in reality from the European modernist movement can be gauged by their allegiances.
Fleischmann travelled to Germany hoping to study with Hans Pfitzner, best known today
for his stridently anti-modernist writings. Brian Boydell, in listing the main influences on
his work, allied himself with the music of Bartók, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Martinů, all
Inventing Identities 87

to make elements such as atonality and formal and rhythmic experimentation

peripheral while centralizing the idea of openness to European influences (albeit
those of a previous generation) and rejection of the simple superimposition of
Irish traditional melodies onto symphonic structures, the trajectory of May’s
compositional career tends to pull against the theories superimposed upon it. May’s
most chromatic (and thus in a simplistic sense most modern sounding) composition
is his Quartet in C minor from 1936. His later works are more clearly related to the
English school of his teacher Vaughan Williams and other English composers such
as Delius, Bridge or Warlock, none of them recognized modernists. Axel Klein
resolves this by conjuring a paradoxical figure whose most profound influences
are demonstrated in his minor compositions, while the less important influences
pervade his major works:

May was … one of the first Irish composers to be influenced by the Vaughan
Williams school of thought. Certainly I think this influence was stronger than
his other major influence, the later study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna. The
Vaughan Williams influence I would like to describe as a more or less direct
‘rubbing-off’ of the teacher’s style, a late romantic idiom with overtones of folk
melody, occasionally tinged with modal harmony. One may argue my point,
since May’s most important works, such as the String Quartet in C minor (1936)
and the Songs from Prison (1941) … lead away from this very clearly. But since
May’s work of the early thirties reflects the great Englishman’s style, and he
later returns to it in the works of the fifties, I am not convinced that those more
serious works really represent his deepest musical beliefs.14

Ryan, on the other hand, manages to solve this conundrum, partly by exaggerating
the modernism of the quartet but also managing to align May even closer to the
European movement via his teacher Egon Wellesz:

At the outset [of the Quartet] it appears that May is embarking on a dodecaphonic
composition, but this is not consistently pursued, giving way instead to a freer
atonality. This remains his most avant-garde achievement. It is telling that it was
being written before he studied with Wellesz; because May’s later works suggest
the influence of his teacher in that they forsake Schoenbergian principals and
revert to the style of Reger and Mahler just as Wellesz himself had done. After
the spell in Vienna, May underwent an ascetic renunciation of the most extreme
technical innovations and while his subsequent compositions are modernistic
none is as determinedly so as is the String Quartet.15

essentially pre-war composers whose work (with the exception of Bartók’s) could be said
to fall outside the modernist fold due to its links with tonality and traditional forms.
 Klein, ‘The Composer in the Academy (2)’, p. 421.
 Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music’, p. 412. In reality there is nothing in the work to
suggest any detailed knowledge of the serial technique, the opening passage being merely
88 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Of course this theory relies on two crucial ideas; the first, that May, a budding
modernist, travelled to Vienna to become acquainted with the dark art of serialism,
and the second that the quartet was written in 1935, before he studied with Wellesz.
May’s own words in interview in the 1970s might suggest the shakiness of the
ground underneath these ideas:

I must say I could never really understand the doctrine of the Schoenberg
school … It certainly produced some wonderful work like Berg’s Wozzeck and
so on; but if you look at the subject matter, it was all of the most horrifying
nature. There seemed to be no room in their work for anything joyful like the
coming of spring. Of course it’s an absolutely legitimate interpretation of life
but it’s the very antithesis of Haydn and Mozart, isn’t it? I have great respect for
Vaughan Williams because he made such a great effort to rescue English music
from the domination of Wagner and his ilk.16

The interviewer concludes by noting that May admitted to being ‘of the romantic
school’ with particular regard for the late Beethoven quartets and the music of
Schubert, Mahler, Delius and Sibelius.
To deal with the second point first, the date of composition of the quartet has
been debated by a number of commentators. May himself noted in the published
score that it was written ‘in 1936, shortly after I had returned from a period of
study in Vienna’, that the third movement was the first to be written and that the
central section of the second movement was ‘suggested to me by the death of
Alban Berg, which occurred while I was at work on the music’.17 Most recently,
Robert Wason at first seems to confirm Ryan’s theory by using May’s comments
to demonstrate that the work must have been composed at the height of May’s
modernist phase, prior to his taking up his scholarship for the planned study with
Berg.18 His theory, however, is based on the idea that May was a tidily methodical
composer who must have written the music of most of the first and second
movements prior to the central section of the second movement, and would not
have sketched a few bars upon hearing of Berg’s death, incorporating them at a
later stage into an appropriate part of the quartet.19 At present there would seem
to me to be no particular reason to doubt May’s contention that the majority of
the work was written in 1936 and the difference in tone and formal construction
between the third movement and the rest of the work would support the idea that it

an exploration of the full chromatic spectrum. The rest of the work retains a sense of tonal
rootedness throughout and contains no aural traces of contemporary Viennese modernism.
Ryan’s reading also rests on a distorted view of Wellesz’s career.
 ‘Kay Kent talks to Frederick May’, Irish Times, 12 December, 1974.
 Frederick May, String Quartet in C minor (Dublin, 1976).
 Robert W. Wason, ‘Interval Cycles and Inversional Axes’, 81.
 In reality, one could even argue that this passage of the second movement could
have been the starting point for the entire composition.
Inventing Identities 89

was composed first. While one can debate this point in several directions, the first
idea is more critical. However, the question here is not why did a man with strong
allegiances to Vaughan Williams, whose music demonstrates no particular leaning
towards the avant-garde, wish to study with Berg, but rather what evidence there is
that May ever intended using his scholarship to study with Berg and that his period
with Wellesz was an unfortunate result of circumstances.
The Berg scholarship story appears in a number of journalistic commentaries,
including the preamble to the article by Kent quoted above. Its most colourful
version is in an article marking May’s death by Charles Acton, Irish Times critic
and promulgator of a number of important Irish music narratives, including
that of Ó Riada as the greatest Irish composer and author of the first Irish
serial compositions:

The first shattering disappointment of his life was that when he had been
accorded a travelling studentship to study with Alban Berg in Vienna in 1935,
that great composer and teacher died … Berg’s death was, clearly, the biggest
obvious disaster, even though he was able to work in Vienna with Berg’s pupil,
Egon Wellesz.20

On the other hand it is striking that May never mentions this story in the introduction
to the score of his quartet, even though he does refer to the impact of Berg’s death
on the second movement, highlighting instead the fact that in London he had been
‘the pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer for whose music I have had a
life long admiration’.21 The scholarship story also fails to make an appearance in
the note written by James Plunkett to accompany the recording made of the work
by Cladagh; in fact it specifically states that he arrived in Vienna at the age of
twenty-two, which would imply sometime between June 1933 and June 1934.22
Similarly a profile printed in 1970 gives some detail regarding May’s studies in
London, including a short reminiscence by Gordon Jacob before adding that May
then ‘went to Vienna for a period to study with Dr Egon Wellesz, the Austrian
musicologist and composer’.23
Looking back further to May’s time in London, the surviving evidence is
small but throws further light on the image constructed posthumously for May.
May studied at the Royal College of Music from September 1930 until sometime
in 1933.24 He was awarded the Foli Scholarship in 1932 and the Octavia Travelling

 Charles Acton, ‘Frederick May: an appreciation’, Irish Times, 10 September 1985.
Wellesz was of course not a pupil of Berg’s.
 May, String Quartet in C minor.
 James Plunkett, ‘Frederick May’, Cladagh Records CSM2, 1974.
 T.O.S. ‘Spring Nocturne: A Profile of Frederick May’, Counterpoint 2
(November 1970): 14–18, at p. 14.
 Composition was his principal study and he was enrolled with Charles Kitson,
Ralph Vaughan Williams, R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob. He also studied piano with
90 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Scholarship in 1933, the latter award being announced in the Musical Times of
October 1932.25 A letter from May’s father to the Royal College of Music that month
requests that the Foli scholarship be given in two parts, expiring at Easter 1933 at
which point the Octavia scholarship ‘would come into operation.’26 His Scherzo
for orchestra was performed on 1 December 1933 at an open orchestral rehearsal
in the Royal College of Music under the auspices of the Patron’s Fund.27 On 22
January 1934 his Four Romantic Songs for tenor, piano and string quartet were
performed at a Macnaughten-–Lemare concert causing the critic of the Times
to note:

The word ‘romantic’ is not usually applicable to anything that is played or

sung at the Macnaghten-–Lemare concerts, but on Monday night at the third
of the series at the Ballet Club devoted to songs and string quartets, it appeared
unblushingly in the title of the first work. The Four Romantic Songs for tenor,
piano and string quartet, by Frederick May, were sung by Mr Steuart Wilson
and played by the Macnaghten String Quartet, with Miss Irene Kohler at the
piano. They lived up to their romantic designation, being warm with impulse
and diffuse in composition.28

There were several opportunities for May in London to encounter some of Berg’s
music both in concert and via BBC broadcasts, some of the most notable events
being performances by the Kolisch Quartet of the Lyric Suite in April 1932 and
February 1933, performances of the Three Wozzeck Fragments under Henry
Wood in May 1932 and March 1933 and under Adrian Boult in February 1934
prior to his famous broadcast of the entire opera in March of that year, and a
performance of the Chamber Concerto and extracts from the Lyric Suite conducted
by Webern in April 1933.29 However, while Wellesz’s music was not performed

Edward Mitchell and conducting with W.H. Reed and Aylmer Buesst. I am indebted for
this and the following information regarding May’s time at the Royal College of Music to
Mariarosaria Canzonieri, Assistant Librarian (Archives), Royal College of Music.
 ‘Royal College of Music’, The Musical Times 73/1076 (1932): 932.
 Letter from Frederick May (senior) dated 31 October 1932, Register of the Royal
College of Music. At the top of the letter is written ‘Agreed to terms’.
 The format this followed was that the works in the concert were rehearsed from 10
am until approximately 11.20 am and then played straight through at 11.30 am. The Patron’s
Fund was established by Ernest Palmer in 1903 ‘for the encouragement of native composers
by the performance of their work’.
 Review, The Times, 26 January 1934. The Macnaughten–Lemare concerts
were founded in 1931 by Elisabeth Lutyens, Anne Macnaghten and Iris Lemare to give
performances of contemporary British music. See Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten:
A Biography (London, 1992), pp. 46–8. At the 1934 concert May shared the programme
with Dorothy Gow, Alan Rawsthorne and Gerald Finzi.
 For more detail regarding these performances see Jennifer Doctor, The BBC and
Ultra-Modern Music 1922–1936: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge, 1999).
Inventing Identities 91

as often, he would not have been unknown in London circles. In 1932 he was
invited to England by Sir Hugh Allen where he received an honorary doctorate
for his compositions from Oxford University; as well as being a member of the
university faculty, Allen was director of the Royal College of Music.30 In October
and November 1933, at the invitation of Sir Robert Meyer, Wellesz delivered three
lectures on opera at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music
and Trinity College of Music for the University of London, the third of which
covered twentieth-century developments. More pertinently, an interesting pattern
emerges when one examines the careers of other Vaughan Williams pupils who
won the Octavia Scholarship. Grace Williams used her award in 1930 to travel to
Vienna to study with Egon Wellesz and was followed by Dorothy Gow in 1932
and Peggy Glanville Hicks in 1936, both of whom also used their scholarships to
study with Wellesz.
An early newspaper report of May’s scholarship again does not mention Berg
but states: ‘In 1933 he won a travelling scholarship, after which he visited Vienna,
Florence and Rome. He studied in Vienna with Egon Wellesz.’31 The interesting
thing here is the date of the report – August 1935 – which demonstrates that
May had been to Vienna, had visited Italy and returned to Dublin at least four
months before Berg died, if not substantially earlier. The division of the Octavia
Scholarship agreed by the Royal College of Music with his father, and the date of
its award would suggest in fact that it is most likely that he travelled to Vienna
in either 1933 or at the latest early 1934. The existence of a letter of introduction
from Vaughan Williams to Wellesz dated ‘July 13’ again suggests that the latest
possible date for the visit was summer 1934 and further undermines the traditional
narrative while supporting the view that there was a pattern of Vaughan Williams
pupils studying with Wellesz and that May’s period with Wellesz was not a chance
occurrence caused by Berg’s death.32 Until further evidence emerges, the extent
of May’s contact with either Berg or his music remains an unresolved question.
That this story originating in a few newspaper articles could then be taken up
so enthusiastically by scholars without evidence and privileged over the actual
sound of the music is probably due to the sheer power of the image; a story
that forged a definite link between Ireland and canonical European masters and
legitimated the newly created history. It acted as a perfect symbol of the rending
of both the bonds of enslavement to English musical rule and the Irish tyranny
of traditional music while also signalling the birth of a new age in Irish musical
history. It also seemed to prove Irish musical engagement with one of the key
artistic movements of the twentieth century even if there was little aural evidence
of this in the surviving music.

 Caroline Cepin Benser, Egon Wellesz: Chronicle of a Twentieth-Century Musician
(New York, 1985), p. 97.
 [Untitled] Irish Independent, 25 August, 1935: 4.
 Österreichische Nationalbibliothek F13 Wellesz 1656. May’s presence in Ireland
in 1935 is also demonstrated by a number of radio broadcasts throughout the year.
92 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Ireland, Britain, Europe

it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains
that individual and separate life that we call nationality … .33

Legitimation through alignment with Europe brings us to the other major issue
that has underpinned much of the writing to date; to what extent can someone like
May be considered an Irish composer. The origins of the debate are clear enough
in the clash between the insular view that Irish composition should be national
in character and that this equated simplistically to the use of traditional music
as guarantor of authenticity and those who felt that in an independent republic
a composer should be free to use any material they might wish regardless of
origin and that there was no need, in striving to be Irish, to impose a false purity
that renounced anything that might bear any relation to any other culture. May
himself, living through the height of these arguments, was quick to denounce the
former vision:

Maudlin sentiment and barren theorising must be eschewed; musical criticism

must be creative and not destructive, and one of the most destructive and useless
types of criticism is that which starts out from an unwarrantable premise, such as
that all good music must be demonstrably national in feeling, and then proceeds
to chain down the unfortunate composer on this ready-made bed of Procrustes.
This is one likely way by which the bad may be exalted and the good abased,
for there is no such infallible yardstick by which we may determine what is truly
of permanent value. On the contrary, we must receive all-comers in a spirit of
receptive enquiry, and only examine their credentials to the extent of asking
if they have acquired the requisite technique to realise fully the expression of
their ideas.34

What is unusual is that musicology has lagged so far behind other disciplines.
In literary studies there is no longer a refusal to recognize the Irishness of Wilde
because Lady Bracknell fails to speak with the poetic brogue of a character from
the west of Synge-land; indeed the discussion of Irishness has moved far beyond
such surface features. However, in musicological studies the debates of the 1950s
are still with us along with the simple binary opposition of the Irish and the
International, and there is a strange tussle between attempts to prove the European
quality of music and an equally strong urge to prove that the work is, despite this,
still Irish and contains enough elements of traditional music to prove it. Ryan can
therefore declare:

 Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist Part II in Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under

Socialism and Selected Critical Prose, ed. Linda Dowling (London, 2001), p. 245.
 Frederick May, ‘The Composer in Ireland’, in Aloys Fleischmann (ed.), Music in
Ireland: A Symposium (Cork, 1952), 169.
Inventing Identities 93

[May] was unique among his generation in the degree to which he espoused the
European tradition, and he was, for most of his life, innocent of any conscious
effort to fashion an Irish mode. Where there occurs a phrase which ‘sounds Irish’
such as the second theme of the final section [of the String Quartet] one feels
that this is because May is Irish, that it is innate to him rather than the result of
any managed contrivance.35

Klein also takes this approach isolating a single bar of the quartet (bar 477), which
contains the necessary Irish DNA:

I can even hear a traditional influence in parts of the String Quartet, a work
widely regarded as his most international one in character. The first motif of
the third movement, for instance, with its multiple variants in the course of the
piece, is a clear reference to his Irish heritage. Of course such references are
much more overt in the Scherzo for orchestra (1933), his first orchestral work
composed in London.36

This demonstrates a similar technique to that of critic Fanny Feehan who was able
to write of the quartet:

Fred May does not need folk music of this or any other country to upholster
his imagination, because the mode is woven into the tapestry of the work and
is integral to it. A case in point is the Lento Expressivo of this Quartet, which
contains an ejaculation in the form of a triplet, which is very much in the style
of a sean-nós singer who adds point or pathos to a phrase or idea by the skilled
inclusion of an ornament into a dying phrase.37

For Ryan, unlike Klein, the ‘overtly Irish’ Scherzo for orchestra evokes not
Ireland, but Mahler, and thus acts as the perfect (perhaps premeditated) calling
card to Alban Berg.38 In reality the most obvious influence on this student work was
noted by its first reviewer who, describing the previous work in the programme
as something that might have been called ‘promising’ had it been premiered
some 40 years earlier, added of May’s piece: ‘Frederick May’s Scherzo is rather
less pleasant, but the same epithet [‘promising’] might have been used of it 20
years ago, that is, if it had appeared any time before Holst’s suite “The Planets”.’39

 Ryan, ‘Music and Nationalism’, p. 411.
 Klein, ‘The Composer in the Academy (2)’, pp. 421–2.
 Fanny Feehan, ‘The Fiery Soul’, Hibernia 39 (10 January 1975).
 Ryan, ‘Nationalism and Music’, p. 405. Graydon, weighing the two options, comes
down on the side of Irishness noting gapped scales in bars 94–6 and 103–4, Graydon,
‘Modernism in Ireland’ (MA dissertation), p. 40.
 ‘R.C.M. Patron’s Fund: New Works at Orchestral Rehearsal’, Times, 2
December 1933.
94 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

It would seem that much of the recent critical writing has been less concerned with
the detail of the music and is perhaps motivated by a wishful attempt to parallel in
this reclaimed musical history the achievements of their literary forebears at the
turn of the century, writers such as Wilde, Synge, Yeats and Joyce, who looked to
Europe for their ideas while also using more local inspiration.40 Ultimately these
characterizations, not to mention Wason’s parallels with Berg, Schoenberg, Bartok,
and May’s fellow in aural affliction Beethoven, seem to (perhaps subconsciously)
perform a dual function of building a persona who marries innate natural and
authentic Irishness to European achievement while also excluding England.
Thus, while much ink has been spent on Viennese connections of one sort
of another and the modernism they have imparted, there has been practically no
examination of how May’s chromatic explorations intersect with those of his
actual teacher, Vaughan Williams.41 For many only familiar with popular works
such as The Lark Ascending or the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis Vaughan
Williams is merely a purveyor of Englishness in its twin forms of the pastoral
and recycled Tudor splendour. However, from the mid 1920s Vaughan Williams
went through his own ‘modernist’ phase where his music became increasingly
exploratory, starting with the tonal ambiguity of Riders to the Sea and culminating
in the harsher dissonance of his Fourth Symphony, premiered in April 1935. In
the middle of this period and coinciding with May’s period as student came the
premiere in February 1933 of his Piano Concerto, a percussive piece whose last
movement is an angular ‘Fuga Chromatica’. Nor has there been any study of the
influence of Delius despite May’s profession of admiration in the 1974 interview;
indeed that his love of Delius dates back to at least the 1930s can be discerned
clearly from the fact that one of the first productions he was involved with in the
Abbey Theatre after his appointment was a production of James Elroy Flecker’s
Hassan, with Delius’s 1923 incidental music.42 In an article published the same
year May noted:

Superficially, Delius might appear to be completely self-sufficient; but in reality

he is the last romantic gathering to himself all the dying glory of the movement
which culminated in Tristan – his music is bathed in a gorgeous afterglow, full
of autumn and sunset.43

 See for example ‘Nationality or Cosmopolitanism?’, in Declan Kiberd, Inventing
Ireland: The Literature of a Modern Nation (London, 1996), 155–65.
 Dylan Curran makes a short passing reference to the semitonal dissonance and
semitone dyads in the opening bars of the Fourth Symphony in his study of the May
Quartet but does not develop the point any further. Dylan Curran, ‘Frederick May’s String
Quartet in C minor: A Critical Analysis’, MA dissertaion (National University of Ireland,
Maynooth, 2009).
 Hassan opened on 1 June 1936.
 Frederick May, ‘Music and the Nation’, Dublin Magazine 11 (July–September
1936): 50–56. It is interesting to note in passing that in this article, which an editorial note
Inventing Identities 95

It would seem that even today the founding of a distinctive modern Irish school of
composition needs for some to take place at a safe distance from the music of the
former colonizer as if indebtedness to England would in some way undermine its
value or its national identity.

Different Meshes to Cast over May: Interleaved Variations in Lieu of

a Conclusion

The uneasy equivocations surrounding the English influence on May perhaps link
to another unexplored area in the examination of Irish twentieth-century art music,
for there has yet to be a detailed exploration of the issue of class despite the fact
that the study of music, and, more particularly, the ability to sustain a career solely
on the basis of compositional output, implies the possession of adequate financial
means in a country that was economically stagnant for much of the century. Most
obviously the number of musicians from so called ‘Anglo-Irish’ backgrounds has
more to do with accumulation of wealth and access to facilities than any innate
musicality in a particular genetic pool. However, the lack of such a study merely
consolidates the striking sense that in the construction of this musical icon very
little attention has been given to the known facts about May and the aspects of
his life and work that might normally inform such studies in other disciplines.
It is beyond the scope of this study to pursue the suggestions already alluded to
regarding the music through analytical study but instead I will conclude by pulling
at two further less-frayed chords that seem particularly relevant to May’s work
but have been largely ignored to date to suggest other ways in which May’s music
might be illuminated.
Not everyone has downplayed the English influence on May. Perhaps it is no
surprise that Raymond Deane, a composer who has himself genuinely engaged
with high-modernism, is unequivocal in his description of May’s music:

Frederick May sought again and again to match himself with the English
pastoral tradition, yet approached greatness in the one work – his extraordinary
and extraordinarily flawed String Quartet (1936) – in which he dramatised the
incompatibility between this tradition and the Viennese modernism which had
briefly seized his attention.44

tells us was written while Berg was still alive, May singles out Sibelius as the greatest
living composer.
 Raymond Deane, ‘Exploding the Continuum – The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’,
The Republic: A Journal of Contemporary and Historical Debate (Special Issue: Culture in
the Republic: Part 2) 4/4 (2005): 100–15, http://www.raymonddeane.com/ articles_results.
php?id=11 (accessed December 2013). In his programme notes for the performance of
May’s String Quartet at the first Living Music Festival in 2002 Deane was even more
direct, lamenting the fact that his music had not been ‘purged’ of ‘the lingering vestiges of
96 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The reference to the pastoral tradition here and more pointedly Brian Cass’s
reference quoted earlier to ‘pastoral elements and their associated images of loss
and withdrawal’ raises the question of what the pastoral represents in the music
of May. Most descriptions of the pastoral trope in music tend to concentrate on
earlier periods rather than tangle with the complicated strands of the pastoral in
twentieth-century Britain. For many it is simply a pejorative term synonymous
with nationalism and anti-modernism. In a more nuanced reading Eric Saylor
focuses on pastoral writing relating to the First World War noting:

Pastoral language can gain power when Arcadia is positioned, not as an escapist
safe haven but as a brighter, more appealing world that exists parallel to (or
interspersed within) the grimmer trappings of modernity. Though it may be
possible to imagine such a prelapsarian world, or even catch occasional glimpses
of it, external pressures – social, cultural, historical – preclude its sustained
existence in the postlapsarian present. The attraction of the pastoral vision lies
in part with the tantalizing hope that certain aspects of it, if realized, could offer
a reassuring alternative to modernity’s less savory elements.45

This idea seems particularly relevant to May’s work. His own stated objection to
the Second Viennese School was its supposed inability to conjure ‘anything joyful
like the coming of Spring’, several of his songs deal with images of spring, as do
the titles of works such as Spring Nocturne. The darker side of life is similarly
evoked by the dim shades of Sunlight and Shadow or more starkly in the late
setting of Hart Crane’s North Labrador with its concluding image of the journey
‘toward no Spring – No birth, no death, no time nor sun’. Even the String Quartet
is structured around similar imagery, as May himself detailed:

A little more than half of the way through [the final movement], there is a stormy
and stressful section in which I seemed to see a bird of light and gay plumage
flying through a sun-dappled wood, and closely pursued by another, larger and
predatory, by whom it is attacked and wounded. It manages to escape, however
and flies into the higher branches of a tree, singing quietly as it recovers peace …
The music comes to a serene close, something for which I can offer no rational
explanation but perhaps I was thinking subconsciously of a line of Goethe’s
‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’.46

English pastoral’ and describing the Songs from Prison as ‘a particular disappointment in
this regard’.
 Eric Saylor, ‘“It’s Not Lambkins Frisking At All”: English Pastoral Music and the
Great War’, Musical Quarterly (2008) 91/1–2): 39–59.
 May, String Quartet in C minor. The full text of Goethe’s Wanderers Nachtlied is
‘Über allen Gipfeln / Ist Ruh, / In allen Wipfeln / Spürest du / Kaum einen Hauch; / Die
Vögelein schweigen im Walde. / Warte nur, balde / Ruhest du auch.’ This translates roughly
Inventing Identities 97

Perhaps the most interesting in relation to Saylor’s explorations is the concluding

section of Songs from Prison. The first half of this work sets six extracts from Das
Schwalbenbuch (1923) by Ernst Toller, poetry inspired by swallows that nested in
his prison cell in the Niederschönenfeld penal institute, Bavaria where he was a
political prisoner. The second part of the work is to a text by Erich Stadlen, friend
of May and refugee from Nazi occupied Austria and is based on Toller’s account
of how the governor of the prison reacted after Das Schwalbenbuch had been
smuggled out of the prison and printed:

The Governor revenged himself in his own inimitable way. In the spring the
swallows returned. They picked out our prison and began to build their nest.
Then, at the Governor’s command, warders clattered into the cell and callously
tore down the almost completed nest. Then the swallows, bewildered and
passionately eager began to build three nests simultaneously in three different
cells. But they were only half finished when the warder discovered them
and repeated the outrage. With the energy of despair they started six nests
simultaneously. But they were all torn down. The struggle lasted for seven
weeks. At the end, the swallows gave up. One evening the male swallow came
alone. The female was dead.47

Stadlen and May (and their English translator Nigel Heseltine) create a more lurid
picture in which unnamed figures beat the prisoner, smash the nest and then hack
the swallows to death. The equation of these figures with the Nazis is quite clear
and due to their actions the prisoner is left hopeless while ‘the dear countryside was
senseless desert’. A declamatory section follows in which the singer denounces the
blood-drunk evildoer who builds his state (Reich) with lies, death and treachery
and describes the flight of birds of light from the scene of death. Unexpectedly,
the work concludes with a sudden change of mood as the singer announces: ‘But
spring will come; the earth waits for spring. And out of the sky legions of slender
swallows come swarming back, flying for freedom on the flight of freedom.’48 This
sudden Arcadian vision at the close of the work parallels very clearly Saylor’s
description of the post-First World War English pastoral image.

as ‘Over all the mountain tops is peace, in all the treetops you feel barely a breath of air; the
little birds in the wood are silent. Wait, soon you will also be at rest.’
 Ernst Toller, Letters from Prison, trans. and ed. R. Ellis Roberts (London, 1936),
p. 322. A more detailed account occurs in Toller’s autobiography I was a German, trans.
Edward Crankshaw (New York, 1981) pp. 287–91. The original is reprinted as an epilogue
in Ernst Toller, Das Schwalbenbuch: Neu herausgegeben und mit zusätzlichen Materialien
versehen von Hans-Peter Kraus und Werner Schmitt (Norderstedt, 2010) pp. 69–77.
 The inevitability of spring’s return is stronger in the original German text than in
Heseltine’s translation. ‘Doch Frühling kommt, denn immer noch kam Frühling. Und aus
der Himmeln werden die Legionen der schlanken Schwalben schwärmend wirder kehren.
Fliegend für Freiheit auf der Freiheit Flügel.’
98 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Why did May identify so closely with the plight of the Jews at a time when
news of their plight was being quietly ignored or suppressed by the Irish state,
and why are even his darkest visions illuminated by these pastoral tropes of hope?
Brian Boydell in a radio broadcast commented:

Fred had an ardent sympathy for those whose liberty of thought was threatened.
A stay in Vienna during the traumatic years preceding the war undoubtedly had
a great deal to do with this and he reacted passionately to Ernst Toller’s poems,
written as a political prisoner.49

This was probably written in the belief that May had been in Vienna in 1936 rather
than 1933 or 1934 and until the establishment of the exact date of May’s Viennese
sojourn it is impossible to know what he would have witnessed there.50 His only
contemporaneous public comments on the totalitarian menace in Europe in his
study of the relation between music and nation are tied to the ideals of artistic
expression rather than political reality: ‘It is not surprising that in this mass war of
stupidity versus intellect, artists have been singled out for specially virulent and
relentless attack.’51 May’s identification with the persecuted or marginalized may
in turn stem from his perception of his own place in the stultifying atmosphere of
the Free State, a country that had turned its back on the aspirations of revolution
and replaced them with an inward looking governance where the potent blend
of nationalism and Catholicism were used to hold together a country unable to
generate economic wealth for its people. This atmosphere affected May on a number
of levels. He was someone from a Protestant background who had experienced
the cosmopolitan life of European cities with strong musical traditions against
which he could compare Ireland’s ideological stagnation and haphazard musical
infrastructure. Performance options for his music were few and far between – his

 Brian Boydell, ‘Classics of XXth-Century Music: A series of five programmes
for RTÉ, 23 September 1986’, unpublished scripts, Archive of the Contemporary Music
Centre, Dublin.
 For example, in 1933 there was already high tension between the left and Christian
right after the suspension of the parliament while the accession of Hitler to power in
Germany increased the threat from Nazi sympathizers. If May visited in early 1934 he
could have witnessed the February uprising while a visit in July would have coincided
with an attempted Nazi putsch and the killing of the head of government, Engelbert
Dollfuss. For an account of the period see Barbara Jelavich, Modern Austria: Empire and
Republic 1815–1986 (Cambridge, 1989) pp. 192–208.
 May, ‘Music and the Nation’. By the time he came to write Songs from Prison he
was clear that the work acted as his direct contribution to the war, conveying a deeply urgent
message. See letter from May to E. Chapman, 28 August 1941, British Library, Add. 61886,
ff.68. In his 1974 interview May comments more directly on the political situation, stating:
‘I chose these poems because I thought they had great relevance to the condition of humanity
under Hitler. As I was studying in Vienna in the ’30s I was emotionally very involved with
the whole Hitler menace.’ See ‘Kay Kent talks to Frederick May’.
Inventing Identities 99

String Quartet only received its first Irish performance in 1948, performed by an
English quartet, as there was no adequate Irish ensemble to tackle the piece – and
early performances of his larger, more complex works tended to get poor reviews
from Irish critics unable to comprehend music that stretched beyond the confines
of a late nineteenth-century idiom. Ignorance of both the modernist music of
Vienna and the English pastoral school is clearly demonstrated in Charles Actons’s
review of the premiere of Sunlight and Shadow, as the critic takes the opportunity
to correct the composer for past errors:

Songs from Prison and the String Quartet belong to his Dark Night of the Soul:
for all their value as expressions of personal anguish they are too prolix to live
permanently. This last barren decade has been perhaps, his ‘darkest hour before
the dawn’. Now we have this work to mark his new day, and one hopes that he
can now go forward in peace with full vision. That this is not fanciful is shown
by the serene, fresh, diatonic clarity of Sunlight and Shadow. Mr May has left
behind him the decaying jungle of dying Vienna that he explored in his dark
nightmare: he can now see that there is more in life than Wozzeck.52

The lack of audience, infrastructure and intelligent critical assessment must have
exacerbated May’s sense of isolation. In addition there were his well-known
health difficulties and a further element to May’s life that has not been explored in
musicological works to date, namely his homosexuality.53 Richard Pine’s study of
broadcasting in Ireland is the only musical study in which there is any attempt to
link May’s work, albeit briefly, to his sexuality:

Although by 1958 serious illness had rendered May almost completely defunct as
a composer, it was not only this impediment that made him speak of ‘depression’
and ‘despair’ – his own pre-war experiences, including his disappointment at
the death of Berg, with whom he had intended to study, had produced his string
quartet and the ‘Songs from Prison’, setting words by Ernst Toller. The ‘Songs’,
in addition to embodying a cry for human dignity in general, may well have
had the additional, more specific, focus of May’s own homosexuality in the
homophobic society of Ireland in the 1940s and after.54

May’s implicit criminal status as a homosexual could have made him identify
with Toller, the political prisoner. On the other hand one could follow this train of

 Charles Acton, ‘New Work Performed at Winter Prom in Gaiety Theatre’, Irish
Times, 23 January 1956.
 Philip Graydon summarizes Michael O’Sullivan’s findings in passing in his
dissertation ‘Modernism in Ireland, but does not pursue the connection between May’s life
and his work; for this reason this information does not appear in his later essay for Irish
Musical Studies.
 Richard Pine, Music and Broadcasting in Ireland Since 1926 (Dublin, 2005), p. 225.
100 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

thought further. Michael O’Sullivan in his biography of Brendan Behan describes

May’s infatuation for Behan, concentrating on the period of Behan’s imprisonment
for shooting at a policeman in Dublin in early 1942. May’s Songs from Prison was
premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Clarence Raybould with
William Parsons on 14 December 1942 and at once the possibility of re-reading
the work as inspired by Behan’s sentencing to 14 years’ penal servitude raises its
head.55 This would, however, entail a Stoppardian revision of the actual date of
composition, 1941; while May’s surviving manuscripts give no clues regarding the
date of composition the overlap of material between this work and his incidental
music for the UCD Dramatic Society’s production in March 1941 of Maxwell
Anderson’s Winterset suggest a date early in 1941 and the work was complete by
June 1941 when he travelled to London to show it to Sir Adrian Boult.56 However,
even this earlier date does not rule out the possibility of a personal connection
with one of the themes of the work. May first became acquainted with Behan
in 1938 when Behan was 15.57 A year later, at the age of 16 Behan travelled to
Liverpool where he was arrested in possession of explosives. After three months
in Walton Gaol he spent three years in Borstal detention before returning to Ireland
in November 1941.58 A work penned in the early part of 1941 could therefore
be read as being linked to the imprisonment in England for political reasons of
the boy with whom he had fallen in love. On the other hand one does not have
to map the work in such a simple biographical fashion, as the general themes of
imprisonment, isolation, brutality, intolerance and the belief in the possibility of
a better existence in some utopian spring can all be linked directly to the position
of May as a homosexual in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s where liberty of
thought and liberty of action were both forbidden. There is also no doubt that in
Ireland and Britain at the time Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment was still a resonant
image for homosexuals and so the image of the prisoner could have had an extra
significance, as could the imagined spring of freedom. In this context one could
re-read May’s 1974 comments regarding the conclusion of his Songs from Prison:

Now I still think that Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was the most appalling
crime, but I can see that if I’d been more realistic I’d have understood that

 For an account of the premiere, see Arthur Duff, ‘Songs from Prison: Frederick

May’, Irish Times, 16 December 1942.

 The parts of May’s Winterset music are held by Trinity College Library,
Manuscripts Department, MS4918 with the timpani part catalogued as MS4939/10. His
visit to London is detailed in a letter from May to E. Chapman, 28 August 1941, British
Library, Add. 61886, ff.68.
 Michael O’Sullivan, Brendan Behan: A Life (Dublin, 1997), p. 91.
 Colbert Kearney, ‘Brendan Behan’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://dib.
cambridge.org (accessed December 2013).
Inventing Identities 101

Hitler’s defeat did not mean that humanity would be freed from his system. If
I’d known more about politics I suppose I’d have been more percipient.59

Europe may have been freed from the spectre of the Nazis but the Free State was
not to accept social liberation until long after May’s death.
In an article about Arnold Bax, May described the greatest difficulty of musical
criticism as being the ability to ‘see a work of music through the eyes of its creator
and not through the distorting mirror of one’s own personal preoccupations or
theories’.60 This has been the fate of May in musicological writing to date. One
could almost say that in the absence of an ideal Frederick May it was necessary
for someone to invent him. Of course, May himself was not above a little myth
making. A publicity piece in the Irish Times in November 1935, shortly before he
was appointed music director at the Abbey, describing him as ‘just returned’ from
Europe, carefully juxtaposes an impressive curriculum vitae of awards, prestigious
teachers in London and the glamour of European travel before striking the necessary
national note (possibly with the prize of the Abbey in mind) to conclude: ‘Mr. May
tells me he is going to remain in Dublin. He is deeply interested in folk music,
especially Irish music, and has come back stimulated by his Viennese experiences,
to steep himself in the atmosphere of native music.’61 However, the reworking of
May by journalists and the incorporation of this into musicological studies leaves
May’s music in a position where it can be judged for failing to achieve something
it never set out to achieve. The suppression of aspects of May’s life and character
and the weight placed on artificial measures of Irishness in the haste to create a
distinctively Irish strand of musicology can be seen ironically to maintain and
support the repressive social and cultural order May was trapped by during his life.
We risk being left with a rather pallid shadow-figure – unable to measure up to the
modernism he once sought out, unable to marry the workings of serialism to a jig
and a reel as an Irish composer must, drinking his way to failure – at which point
how he could have inspired and ‘led the way’ for so many of his contemporaries
becomes something of a mystery.

 ‘Kay Kent talks to Frederick May.’
 Frederick May, ‘The Late Sir Arnold Bax’, The Bell 19/3, (February, 1954): 37.
 Kitty Clive, ‘Echoes of the Town’, Irish Times, 22 November, 1935. This interview
was conceivably given just before May began work on his ‘internationalist’ quartet.
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Chapter 6
Forging a Northern Irish Identity:
Music Broadcasting on BBC Northern
Ireland, 1924–39
Ruth Stanley

BBC Northern Ireland1 (BBC NI) began broadcasting for the first time on 15
September 1924. The advent of a radio station to Belfast only shortly succeeded
the emergence of new political systems on the island of Ireland. Following the
Irish War of Independence, fought between republican Ireland and British Ireland
from 1919 to 1921, the country was divided by a partition separating the six
northern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry,2 Down, Fermanagh
and Tyrone, from the remaining 26 counties. Officially created as a separate legal
entity on 3 May 1921, Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK, while the
‘southern’ counties formed the Irish Free State, which asserted its autonomy from
Great Britain. The new Northern Irish state accommodated a two-thirds majority
of Protestants (mainly comprising descendants from Scottish and English settlers),
largely loyal to the British crown, and a disaffected one-third minority of Catholics
(mostly descendants of the Gaelic Irish, many of whom were disposed by the
settlements), who opposed the existence of the new state. Broadcasting within
such a divided region would pose constant challenges for the BBC. In particular,
there was the dilemma inherent in its role of relaying programmes that reflected
the ‘national’ character of the region, while retaining the ‘imperial’ link with Great
Britain.3 This chapter examines the ways in which BBC NI sought to reflect the
national character of the newly formed state of Northern Ireland through music
broadcasts that specifically addressed Irish, Ulster and Ulster-Scots identities.
These broadcasts included both traditional music and ‘classical’ repertoire,
which either evoked a particular identity or location, or used folk music as its

 ‘The Belfast Station’ was the original name for BBC Northern Ireland. In 1934 it was
re-named ‘the Northern Ireland Region’; the title, ‘BBC Northern Ireland’, was used thereafter.
 The naming of the city and county of Derry/Londonderry continues to be a subject
of dispute between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland.
 According to the Belfast Station Director, Gerald Beadle, BBC NI performed two
principal functions: ‘first of all it is an indispensable adjunct to Irish music, Irish drama
and Irish life; secondly it provides a living contact with the “hub of the Empire”’. BBC
Handbook 1928 (London, 1928), p. 181.
104 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

primary inspiration. The chapter also focuses on Northern Irish audiences and
illustrates that while Catholic and Protestant music tastes were not necessarily
mutually exclusive, in a divided community, where a sense of common identity
was extremely fragile, music broadcasts could nevertheless prove to be a source
of considerable contention.4 A complex cultural identity thus emerged within the
forge of broadcasting in Northern Ireland.

Catering for a Nationalist Audience

Surviving correspondence reveals that the BBC in Northern Ireland was conscious
of its nationalist audience and took particular measures to cater for its tastes
through programme interchange with Radio Éireann5 (Dublin’s broadcasting
station), broadcasts of the prizewinners concert from the annual Derry Feis, and
céilí broadcasts. However, the decision to broadcast such music was made for
policy reasons first and foremost, even at the expense of, what the BBC deemed,
acceptable music standards. These sentiments are expressed candidly in a BBC
letter of 1932, which outlined policy regarding liaison between the Belfast and
Dublin broadcasting stations:

The 40% [sic] Catholic-Nationalist population of the North makes it very desirable
for Belfast to keep up its co-operation with Dublin. Dublin programmes are on the
whole bad, but as Dublin is the Mecca of Irish Nationalists, it is my view wise to
put up with a few bad programmes from there … in order to avoid the suspicion of
bias towards the Protestant-Unionist cause. Our unsatisfactory relations with the
R.C. [Roman Catholic] Church over here makes [sic] it all the more important that
we should pander to R.C. sentiment in other ways, provided they are harmless.6

Such ‘harmless’ concession to nationalist sentiment entailed relays of concerts from

Dublin, mutual exchange of conductors and other musicians, and occasional joint
broadcasts between Dublin and Belfast. In addition, the annual prizewinners concerts
of the Derry Feis (also known as Feis Doire, Colmcille) usually included some songs
in Irish. The Belfast Station also held annual broadcasts of prizewinners from other

 Much of the information in this chapter is derived from the author’s larger study
on broadcasting. See Ruth Mary Stanley, ‘A Formative Force: The BBC’s Role in the
Development of Music and its Audiences in Northern Ireland, 1924–39’, PhD diss. (Queen’s
University Belfast, 2011).
 Also called 2RN. See Richard Pine’s detailed studies: 2RN and the origins of Irish
Radio (Dublin, 2002); and Music and Broadcasting in Ireland Since 1926 (Dublin, 2005).
 From (illegible) to Miss Edwin (probably a secretary), 3 December 1932. This letter
provided the basis for a memo sent two days later from Gerald Cock (Controller, London)
to George Marshall (Belfast Station Director). BBC Written Archives Centre (hereafter,
BBC WAC) EI/944.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 105

music festivals or feiseanna in Northern Ireland, including Belfast, Ballymena,

Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Dungannon, Larne, Londonderry (not to be confused with
the Derry Feis), Newry, and Portadown. These competitions, which were widely
documented in the Belfast nationalist newspaper The Irish News, almost certainly
had cross-religious participation. While the Derry Feis had many similarities with
other festivals in Northern Ireland, it was nevertheless notably more nationalist in its
outlook with a greater range of competitions in Irish music and dancing.
Regarding the BBC’s ‘unsatisfactory relations’ with the Catholic Church, Rex
Cathcart recorded that the Catholic Church in Britain disliked the BBC’s emphasis
on ecumenism or ‘a common Christian platform’,7 adding that these reservations
‘were reinforced in Northern Ireland by the unwillingness of the hierarchy to
cooperate with British-based institutions of any kind’.8 In the early years, the
Catholic Church refused to engage with the BBC in Northern Ireland or to partake
in their Advisory Committees. The absence of Catholics on these committees not
only undermined any sense of democratic participation but crucially it deprived
the Catholic community of a significant and potentially influential voice. There
was some easing of tension in relations with the Catholic Church in the 1930s,
originating in 1932 when BBC NI relayed its first ever broadcast of a Catholic
religious service in Northern Ireland.9
Despite the BBC’s negative attitude towards the Dublin Station, it is important
to emphasize that there was, for a considerable time, genuine goodwill between
radio personnel North and South. For example, Belfast generously responded to
letters from the director of the Dublin Station who frequently requested advice
on all sorts of practical matters including policies, salaries, contracts, and
copyright issues.10 In addition, radio staff from Belfast visited Dublin to discuss
joint broadcasting projects or to meet with potential artists. Ultimately, and
inevitably perhaps, programme interchange and friendly relations between the two
broadcasting stations became a subject of controversy. This was especially the case
when, in 1936, a number of visits were made to Dublin by personnel from BBC
NI to discuss elements of cooperation between the two stations. The Dublin Press
reported this as being a positive step in creating better relations between the two
sides of the border. According to John Sutthery, Belfast’s Programme Director:

The real trouble arose when those articles were read by the more rabid type of
Ulsterman, who have [sic] no desire whatever for better relations … the more

 Rex Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924–1984
(Belfast, 1984), p. 53.
 Ibid., pp. 29–30.
 Broadcast on 17 March 1932, the service of pontifical High Mass was relayed from
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick
coming to Ireland. Previously, Catholic services were relayed from other BBC centres
outside Northern Ireland.
 The Dublin side of this correspondence is contained in the files, BBC WAC EI/954–7.
106 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

contact there be between Dublin and Belfast, can be read by the nationalist as a
step nearer the co-ordination of the whole of Ireland on a Free State basis, and …
anything which might tend in this general direction is as the proverbial rag to a
bull, from the Ulster point of view.11

The controversy was indicative of the increasing awareness, particularly in the

North, of the cultural consequences of a partitioned Ireland.
Céilí bands were an important feature of the Belfast programmes, though it was
not until 1938 that they were broadcast with any regularity. There were, in fact, two
types of céilí band used by BBC NI. The first of these, known as Irish Rhythms,
was the station’s own version of a céilí band, whose players were drawn from the
BBC NI Orchestra. However, as a matter of policy BBC NI also broadcast outside
céilí bands that were ‘Catholic organisations of fiddles, piano, accordions, flute etc.
which played for Catholic dances’.12 By 1938, approximately five performances of
this type were broadcast per quarterly schedule.13 Programmes included selections
of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and set dances, with the occasional inclusion of fiddle
and/or vocal items. Given the lack of information on personnel, it has been
impossible to confirm if these bands were, in fact, ‘Catholic organisations’, as
the BBC claimed. The possibility of a religious mix must also be considered
particularly in light of cross-religious interest in Irish traditional music at this time.14
While these local ‘Catholic organisations’ of céilí bands might well have been
considered more authentic than Irish Rhythms, which comprised classically trained
musicians performing from a score, there was nevertheless the perception by the
BBC that their own ensemble was musically superior. Following a request from
BBC Scotland to relay céilí bands from Northern Ireland, for example, Belfast’s
Programme Director replied:

The ceilidh15 bands in existence in the Province … [play] with good rhythm but
their musicianship is not very great. Our own Irish dance music combination is
simply a larger and extremely efficient ceilidh band playing very much better

 John Sutthery (Northern Ireland Programme Director (NIPD)) to the Director of
Empire Services, London, 19 February 1936, BBC WAC EI/947.
 Sutthery (NIPD) to Scottish Regional Programme Director (SRPD), 16
November 1938, BBC WAC R34/492/2.
 Céilí bands and bandleaders which broadcast during this period included: Derry
Colmcille Ceilidhe Band (Michael Hamill); Dungannon Ceilidhe Band (Malachy Sweeney);
Lisbreen Ceilidhe Band (Edward Morris); and Newry Ceilidhe Band (Frank McConville).
 For a recent study on this subject, see Fintan Vallely, Tuned Out: Traditional Music
and Identity in Northern Ireland (Cork, 2008). In particular, Vallely addresses Protestant
attitudes to traditional music in Northern Ireland and challenges the popular opinion that
‘traditional music is Catholic music’, persuasively arguing that such a notion is substantially
superficial and uninformed.
 The older spellings of ‘céilí’ were ‘ceilidh’ and ‘ceilidhe’, both of which were in
use until c.1950.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 107

arrangements of Irish dance music in a very much more musicianly way … The
type of show you would get from either is the same, but one would be indifferent
in quality and the other first class.16

Once again, catering for nationalist tastes was considered primarily a matter of
policy, in spite of the BBC’s belief that the actual music broadcast was below
normal acceptable standards. It is worth adding that musical standards were also
considered below par in many other outside broadcasts, such as the series Provincial
Journey, Country Concert and Country Variety, which featured local musicians
performing a wide range of genres from urban and rural centres throughout the
province.17 Indeed, the BBC’s audition reports often commented acerbically on
the intonation, musicianship and general ability of provincial musicians; yet
these same musicians were subsequently broadcast. Relaying music from the
community was important policy for the BBC and was pursued in spite of the
perceived weakness of many of the musicians.
It would be easy to suggest that BBC NI’s particular attitude to the poor
musicianship of the Catholic céilí bands in Northern Ireland had its basis in
sectarian divide. In fact, it is far more likely that such an attitude was rooted in the
clash of aesthetics between two different music traditions. A constructive parallel
may be drawn with the Dublin Station, Radio Éireann, where negative attitudes
towards broadcasts of traditional music similarly prevailed. Disparaging remarks
about traditional music included ‘bad music masquerading as traditional music’
voiced by Colonel Fritz Brase, conductor of the No. 1 Army Band, and ‘jigs, reels
and hornpipes, played on bad instruments after a few years of untaught or badly
taught desultory playing’ expressed by the Station Director, Dr T.J. Kiernan.18
Central to this debate, then, is the judgement of traditional music through the eyes
of classically trained musicians and the fact that the aesthetics of performance
practice vary between the two music styles.
Broadcasts of céilí music in Northern Ireland had a much wider audience than
a purely nationalist one, although the broadcast of Catholic céilí bands may be
seen as specifically providing for nationalist tastes. Traditional music was not
considered the exclusive province of Catholic musicians in Northern Ireland
and had, in fact, both audience and practitioners among Protestants. This is
corroborated by Marianne Elliott in her history, The Catholics of Ulster:

 Sutthery (NIPD) to SRPD, 16 November 1938, BBC WAC R34/492/2.
 These attitudes are revealed in the following BBC files: (1) Provincial Journey: BBC
WAC NI 3/30, /55, /72, /116, /145, /148, /205, /215, /232, /312, /318, /336, /361, /366, /375,
/407, /416, /467; (2) Country Concert: NI 3/152–68; and (3) Country Variety: NI 3/169–76.
 Nicholas Carolan, ‘From 2RN to International Meta-Community: Irish National
Radio and Traditional Music’, The Journal of Music in Ireland 5/1 (2005): 8–11. According
to Chris Keane, the Tulla Céilí Band received similar criticisms of their musicianship from
Radio Éireann. See Keane, The Tulla céili band (Co. Clare, n.d.). I am grateful to Dr Adrian
Scahill for drawing this information to my attention.
108 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Protestant interest in Irish language and culture did not entirely disappear after
partition. Jack O’Rourke – a traditional piper who came to live in Belfast in
1940 – recalled people from the Protestant Shankill Road and Sandy Row at
céilís … and cross-religious enthusiasm for Irish music … It was, he claimed,
the Troubles which finally destroyed such interest.19

In a similar vein, Fintan Vallely writes: ‘Among the Protestant community in

Northern Ireland, the fact is that Traditional Music is as much their heritage, being
at … one time the popular music – it just did not go through a revival with them.’20
Nevertheless, broadcasts of ‘Irish music’ could, on occasion, provoke
considerable debate. Probably the most contentious broadcasts in the history of
music broadcasting in Northern Ireland were those of the aforementioned programme
Irish Rhythms. First broadcast in 1938 and conducted by local Protestant musician,
David Curry, Irish Rhythms performed arrangements of traditional Irish dance
tunes using modern orchestration. The combination consisted of three violins,
cello, double-bass, harp, flute doubling piccolo, accordion doubling piano, and
xylophone, vibraphone, drums and celeste.21 Aside from those written by Curry,
Irish Rhythms performed arrangements by other composers, including Charles
O’Donnell-Sweeney (conductor of the Dublin Garda Metropolitan Ceilidh Band).
Irish Rhythms ran for over 30 years and was to prove the most successful programme
ever produced on radio in Northern Ireland.22 It was broadcast to all regions of the
BBC as well as on many European networks and elsewhere worldwide. According
to Henry McMullan, former Head of Programmes at BBC NI:

Irish Rhythms came under a good deal of attack because, of course, it was
suggested that it wasn’t representative of Northern Ireland. Various pressures
were put on to get it stopped because it was giving a wrong impression of
Northern Ireland and because it was claimed to belong to a ‘foreign culture’.23

Aside from this, Curry himself was verbally attacked by traditional musicians who
claimed that his arrangements were ‘a perversion of purity’.24

 Marianne Elliott, The Catholics of Ulster: A History (London, 2000), p. 452.


 Fintan Vallely, ‘Making a Song and Dance About It: Politicians & Traditional

Music’, Causeway 1/5 (1994): 17–20. For a recent study in this area, see David Cooper,
The Musical Traditions of Northern Ireland and its Diaspora: Community and Conflict
(Farnham, 2009).
 This instrumentation was listed in a programme in Radio Times, 16
October 1938. It is likely, however, that the orchestration varied to some degree, depending
on individual arrangements.
 Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region, p. 98.
 Henry McMullan quoted in Cathcart, ibid.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 109

The conflict that Irish Rhythms aroused raises a number of complex issues.
The assertion that the music ‘wasn’t representative of Northern Ireland’ and ‘was
giving a wrong impression of Northern Ireland’ is remarkably similar to the type
of comments made in the controversies surrounding the annual St Patrick’s Day
broadcasts in the North.25 Broadcasts of Irish traditional music per se did not
necessarily provoke debate. However, when those broadcasts were relayed to an
outside audience, a feeling of self-consciousness appeared to surface regarding the
official projection of Northern Irish identity. It is debatable whether Irish Rhythms
would have created such ill-feeling had those broadcasts remained within Northern
Irish borders. Arguably, one’s day-to-day perception of one’s identity is not the
same as the ‘image’ of identity that one would wish to promote abroad. And while
this mentality is surely not exclusive to Northern Ireland, it is understandable that
it might be all the more pronounced because of the state’s troubled history.
The accusation that Irish Rhythms belonged to a ‘foreign culture’ was an attack
on the ‘classical’ background from which the ensemble emerged: the musicians
were classically trained orchestral players; the ‘style’ of classical playing was
different from that of traditional practice; musicians played from a score, not
from memory; the orchestration exploited instruments from a ‘classical’ orchestra,
deviating from the more orthodox flute, fiddles, accordion and piano combination;
and the ensemble had a conductor, instead of being led by the band-leader (often
the pianist). Curry was by no means exceptional in his alternative arrangements
of céilí music at this time. Adrian Scahill observes that recordings of céilí bands
from 1920–50 reveal some elaborate arrangements and unusual instrumentation,
most notably in Dick Smith’s Ceilidhe Band and the Dublin Metropolitan Ceilidhe
Band, both of which featured brass instruments, and Frank Lee’s Tara Ceilidhe
Band, which featured fiddle, piccolo, saxophone, piano accordion, piano, harp and
vibraphone in a recording c.1938. Scahill also writes that the cello or double bass
are evident in recordings of the Siamsa Gaedheal Ceilidhe Band and Kilfenora
Céilí Band, and that the saxophone was used in recordings of both the Moate and
Kilfenora Ceilidhe Bands.26
Regarding the specific marriage of classical and traditional genres, there is a
considerable body of Irish music where folk tunes are wedded to ‘classical’ music;
not least the folksong arrangements of Hamilton Harty (1879–1941), Herbert
Hughes (1882–1937) and Charles Wood (1866–1926), all native to Northern Ireland
and whose music was performed on BBC NI without objection. The difference,
perhaps, is that the folksong arrangements of Harty, Hughes and Wood, while
identifiably Irish, are nevertheless more firmly rooted in the classical tradition
and, crucially, their audience perceives this to be the case. Despite Curry’s modern
orchestration, however, the form and structure of his arrangements were virtually

 Ibid. for more detail on these controversies.
 See Adrian Scahill, ‘The Knotted Chord: Harmonic Accompaniment in Printed
and Recorded Sources of Irish Traditional Music’, PhD dissertation (University College
Dublin, 2005), pp. 225–310.
110 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

identical to the original music and the resulting sound of Irish Rhythms was, in
fact, far closer to that of traditional music. While Irish Rhythms was considered
by Irish traditional musicians to be an adulteration of the original, frankly, the
majority of its audience abroad did not know the difference and the perception that
Curry’s arrangements were representative of Irish traditional music is precisely
what incensed the purists most.
The popularity of Curry’s Irish Rhythms was not diminished by the controversy
in Northern Ireland. Aside from its popularity abroad, Irish Rhythms also had
a following in the Irish Free State. Deasún Ó Raghaille, author of A Listener’s
Opinion: Improvements Needed in Radio Eireann, praised the initiative of BBC
NI in its re-invention of Irish music:

[Irish Rhythms] introduced new ideas into the broadcasting of Irish ceilidhe
music. I am not competent to say whether these changes were orthodox from
the point of view of Irish music, but from the ordinary listener’s point of view
they transformed what was becoming the monotonous beat and steady rhythm
of Irish dance tunes into lively airs and sparkling melody … Perhaps the purist
will say that these changes were to the detriment of Irish dance music, but why
should change in form be deplored? Surely if the music be really alive it must
change with the times.27

It is evident that the medium of radio facilitated developments in musical genres,

thereby forging cultural transformations. The debate generated by Irish Rhythms
in particular illustrates how broadcasting was responsible for heightening
an awareness of cultural identity. Indeed, such controversy may have been
symptomatic of a more general need for listeners to assert and position their
identities within the new political and societal system of Northern Ireland.

Irish, Ulster and Ulster-Scots Identities in Music Broadcasts

From the beginning, documentaries and illustrated lectures on Irish music occasionally
featured on the Belfast programmes, with presentations by Carl Hardebeck
(1869–1945), Norman Hay (1889–1943), Sam Henry (1878–1952), Samuel
Leighton (1850–1938), and Annie Patterson (1868–1934). These programmes
were popular with their audience and received many letters of appreciation from
England, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In 1925, Dublin’s Irish Radio
Journal declared: ‘Last week we listened to Mr Sam Henry on Ulster Folk Songs,
and the item was a fitting answer to those who suggested that 2BE [the Belfast
Station] is merely a pocket edition of the British stations.’28 Programmes with an

 Deasún Ó Raghaille, A Listener’s Opinion: Improvements Needed in Radio Eireann
(Tralee, 1944), p. 28.
 Irish Radio Journal 2/3 (1925): 676–7.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 111

Irish theme were regularly presented on BBC NI in the early years, featuring a
variety of music ranging from performances by the Station Orchestra to recitals
by local performers or ensembles. Music might include the overture to Stanford’s
(1852–1924) opera Shamus O’Brien, Walton O’Donnell’s (1887–1939) Irish Tone
Sketches or Norman Hay’s Irish Folk-Songs Suite,29 as well as music by non-Irish
composers such as Three Irish Dances by John Ansell (1874–1948), Molly on the
Shore by Percy Grainger (1882–1961) and The Blarney Stone by Joseph Engelman
(d.1949). Local musicians or soloists drawn from the Station Orchestra performed
songs or instrumental solos, often folksong arrangements by Stanford, Harty,
Hardebeck, Hughes and Wood. Songs were invariably sung in English, even when
the texts were derived from the original Gaelic. Local choirs and bands (accordion,
flute, military and pipe) also featured in these ‘Irish’ programmes.
In addition, there were occasional solo performances by Westmeath uilleann
piper, Richard O’Mealy (1873–1947). O’Mealy’s first broadcast took place on 30
September 1924 with a performance of Irish song tunes, lamentations, jigs, reels
and hornpipes, including titles such as The Donegal Reel and Erin is my Home.
Indeed, this was the premier broadcast of an uilleann pipe performance, certainly
in Great Britain and Northern Ireland,30 if not worldwide. It is possible that the
BBC felt a responsibility to draw attention to, what was at the time, the dying
art of uilleann pipe playing in Ireland. Whatever the exact policy behind these
broadcasts, it must be acknowledged that the BBC played its own small, yet
significant role in the preservation and dissemination of the culture and practice
of uilleann pipe playing. Not least, the BBC’s recordings of O’Mealy in 1943 are
an invaluable archive,31 conserving for posterity his unusual and distinctive style
of staccato playing.
Given the juxtaposition of music by local bands, which were usually Protestant,
with traditional music played by uilleann pipers, or occasionally by fiddlers, it is
evident that these broadcasts were intended for mixed audiences. Perhaps there
was an educational and even a political purpose behind these broadcasts; a desire
on the part of the BBC to expose its audience to the variety of music traditions
present in its community and, in doing so, to forge a greater sense of community
in Northern Ireland. Since so little BBC correspondence survives from these early
days, however, it is impossible to know for certain the exact policy behind these
broadcasts. Indeed, it is possible that no particular policy existed in relation to these
broadcasts, since ‘mixed bag’ programmes were typical of popular programming
trends at that time.

 The premiere of Norman Hay’s New Irish Folk-Songs Suite was broadcast on 10
October 1924. This is unlikely to be its proper title. Hay’s Fantasy on Irish Folk Tunes was
also composed in 1924. However, since the premiere of this work was given on BBC NI’s
opening night, it is unlikely to be the same work.
 Radio Times, 26 September 1924.
 These ten BBC archive recordings of can be heard on: http://www.cl.cam.
ac.uk/~rja14/music/index.html (accessed 20 January 2007).
112 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Similar to the aforementioned ‘Irish’ programmes, BBC NI featured evenings

of Scottish music, presented under titles such as A Bunch of Heather or Scottish
Night. Orchestral items were interspersed with vocal or instrumental arrangements
of Scottish airs in addition to recitals on the Scottish bagpipes. Orchestral items
included, for example, the Highland overture, The Land of the Mountain and the
Flood by Hamish McCunn (1868–1916) and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture.
Arrangements of Scottish airs for voice/instrument and piano such as those by
Scottish composers Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930) and Alexander Campbell
Mackenzie (1847–1935) were also popular. Bagpipe recitals were performed either
by solo pipers or pipe-bands. Programmes such as these were clearly intended to
satisfy the tastes of the Ulster-Scots audience and the proof of their popularity was
evident in the numerous appreciative letters written to the BBC.
The format of both ‘Scottish’ and ‘Irish’ programmes changed over the
years. Indeed, the layout of music programmes in general changed considerably
throughout the period from 1924 to 1939. In later years, music broadcasts were
not as mixed as they had been in the early days. Partly owing to larger shifts in
music programming trends, broadcasts of popular and classical genres were more
likely to be segregated during the 1930s.32 Likewise, bands normally performed
in broadcasts dedicated to band music alone, while traditional music tended to
feature in individual broadcasts, such as the aforementioned céilí concerts, as well
as other specialized programmes, for example, Piping, Fiddling and Singing.
Piping, Fiddling and Singing is of particular significance in that it was the
first time BBC NI broadcast a regular series, which was exclusively dedicated
to traditional music. Inaugurated in 1935, the series became highly popular,
broadcasting for some 20 years. Programmes typically lasted 30 minutes and
featured both Irish and Scottish music. Songs were often sung in Irish or Scots-
Gaelic. Irish music was represented by jigs, reels, hornpipes, and song tunes, while
Scottish music was represented by strathspeys, marches, reels and song tunes.
While the pipes featured were usually either the uilleann pipes or the Scottish
bagpipes, there is also the possibility that the Irish warpipes were broadcast. In a
broadcast on 28 January 1937, for example, the piper Michael Magee performed
a set of Irish tunes.33 Magee was conductor and pipe-major of St Malachy’s
Irish Warpipe Band, a distinguished local band that was placed second in the
championship contest of the North of Ireland Bands Association in 1928.
Serving Irish and Scottish traditional music alike, Piping, Fiddling and
Singing was of utmost importance in its cross-community appeal. Furthermore,

 The Ullswater Report (1936) was responsible for a greater regional focus in the
BBC’s programmes during the mid to late 1930s. For a history of the report, see Asa Briggs,
The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (5 vols,
Oxford, 1965), Vol. 2, pp. 476–504.
 He played jigs (‘The Irish Washerwoman’; ‘The Rakes of Kildare’; ‘Nora Crional’;
‘Lannigan’s Ball’), reels (‘Soldier’s Joy’; ‘All the Way to Galway’; ‘The Wind that Shakes
the Barley’) and a hornpipe (‘Harvest Home’).
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 113

the series would have served to highlight the common roots and links between
both traditions of music. Indeed, the commonality of and similarity between many
traditional tunes in Ireland and Scotland renders it impossible to know the precise
origin of many of them. In this respect, it is fascinating to note that the elements
of a shared music heritage between Ireland and Scotland were problematic for
BBC Scotland, where producers of the series Scottish Dance Music struggled to
ensure a distinctly Scottish character in their programmes. Referring to ‘the fear
of Irish pollution of Scottish music broadcasts’, M.P. Duesenberry notes that:
‘Geographical proximity and frequent population movements between Scotland
and Ireland meant that many tunes were held in common by Scottish and Irish
musicians.’34 Faced with the impossible task of uncovering the origin of traditional
tunes, producers on BBC Scotland concerned themselves with the ‘public
perception of nationality rather than with any empirical testing of the provenance
of particular tunes’.35 In Northern Ireland, however, the co-presentation of Scottish
and Irish traditional music on Piping, Fiddling and Singing might have served as
a valuable example of Edward Said’s lesson that ‘all cultures are involved in one
another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily
differentiated, and unmonoltithic’.36
It has already been noted that a variety of local bands featured in broadcasts on
BBC NI. In fact, there was an extraordinary profusion of bands in Northern Ireland:
in 1924, there were approximately 80 flute bands in Belfast city alone.37 Owing to
various historical factors, the majority of amateur bands in existence in Northern
Ireland at this time were Protestant.38 While political affairs unquestionably played
a major role in shaping the development of band history in Northern Ireland, band
activities were not exclusively defined by politics or religion. In this regard, a key
development in the history of amateur bands was the inauguration of the North
of Ireland Bands Association (NIBA) on 7 March 1907. A non-sectarian and non-
political organization, its chief activity was (and continues to be) the advancement
of music principally through the organization of an annual competition for its band
members. Bands historically affiliated to the NIBA include accordion, brass, flute,
military, and pipe bands.39 For bands seeking radio performances, the role of the
NIBA proved critical because BBC NI only broadcast bands that had received first

 Margaret Patricia Duesenberry, ‘Fiddle Tunes On Air: A Study of Gatekeeping and
Traditional Music at the BBC in Scotland, 1923–1957’, PhD dissertation (University of
California, Berkeley, 2000), pp. 195, 193.
 Ibid., p. 195.
 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London, 1994), p. xxix.
 Radio Times, 26 September 1924.
 The origin of many Protestant bands coincided with the massive growth of
Orangeism in Ulster in the late nineteenth century. The fewer number of Catholic bands
further declined after partition in 1921, when the shift in political power saw severe
restraints placed on nationalist parades in Northern Ireland.
 Pipe bands in Northern Ireland are no longer affiliated to NIBA, but are a branch of
the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association.
114 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

prize in the previous three years of the championship. The decision by BBC NI
to use these annual competitions to judge which bands should be broadcast was
almost certainly guided by pragmatism – the task of independently auditioning
the vast quantity of bands in Northern Ireland would have proved a costly and
logistical nightmare. Furthermore, the decision may be viewed as a deliberate
attempt to avoid accusations of partisanship, either politically or musically.
In fact, the selection process was to become a source of considerable
contention for many bands excluded from broadcasting. Furthermore, amateur
bands complained that the BBC’s remuneration was lower than that paid to the
professional regimental bands. The controversy came to a head in September 1935,
when a deputation from the NIBA met with BBC NI to demand a revision of
fees and the principle under which local bands were selected for broadcast.40 The
meeting was unproductive and from that date until the spring of 1937, no further
engagements of local bands were made by BBC NI. The NIBA reacted with the
launch of a campaign in which petitions were signed by objectors and sent to
government MPs. Protest concerts were organized and posters were printed with
the slogans, ‘Come and hear the bands the BBC won’t broadcast’ and ‘Ulster
bands for Ulster air’. Tickets for the concerts sold out. The Prime Minister, Lord
Craigavon, intervened as mediator in the dispute and summoned both George
Marshall (BBC NI Regional Director) and the secretary of the NIBA to a meeting
in Stormont, where a compromise was duly reached. Marshall was forced to
concede that higher fees would be paid but successfully insisted on the principle
that only prizewinning bands would be invited to broadcast.
Regarding local amateur bands broadcast on BBC NI, it is fascinating to
note that their repertoire rarely included traditional tunes. Pipe bands were the
exception: the limited range of the bagpipe’s chanter precluded them from playing
anything other than the traditional repertoire of Scottish marches, strathspeys
and reels.41 On the other hand, flute, accordion, brass and military bands largely
performed a mixture of light classical and popular music, of the type performed
at the NIBA championships.42 When traditional music was performed by these
bands, it was typically in the form of an arrangement, such as Gems of Irish
Melody and Selection of Scottish Airs. The virtual exclusion of traditional music
in amateur band programmes (excepting pipe bands) may be explained by the
BBC’s ban on ‘party tunes’ or political repertoire, such as the ‘Orange’ tunes, ‘The
Sash My Father Wore’ and ‘Derry’s Walls’. However, much traditional music was
common to both Protestant and Catholic bands, whereas party tunes represented
only a small proportion of their output. Regarding Protestant marching bands in

 The remaining paragraph provides a summary of the more detailed account
provided in Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region, pp. 86–8.
 The scale of the Scottish Highland chanter consists of the notes g, a, b, c, c#, d, e, f#,
g’, a’.
 Light classical pieces included selections and overtures, while more popular items
included marches and arrangements of popular tunes, such as plantation songs.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 115

particular, May McCann observes: ‘It was irrelevant that many of the tunes played
were Irish, whatever the bands played tended to be categorized as Orange music.’43
While the absence of traditional music in band programmes illustrates the BBC’s
attempts to avoid politically sensitive broadcasts, it may be argued that, since the
majority of bands relayed were Protestant, such policy only served to reinforce the
stereotype that all ‘Orange’ music was exclusive to Protestant culture.
In fact, band culture in Northern Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s was a
multi-layered phenomenon with a huge variety of bands ranging from local amateur
bands to regimental bands, police bands and military bands set up by BBC NI.44
The fact that such a wide range of bands was broadcast shows that BBC NI sought
to represent the broad spectrum of bands present in the community. Furthermore,
such policy allowed for broadcasts of bands that may have had a mixed religious
profile: these were most likely to be represented by bands affiliated to a workplace,
such as Queen’s Island Military Band (under the patronage of Harland and Wolff)
and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) band.45 While it is apparent from the
aforementioned controversies that there was considerable loyalty towards and
public identification with local amateur bands in particular, it is evident that BBC
NI made a genuine effort to find a politically neutral basis from which such bands
were broadcast.


Undoubtedly, the BBC faced considerable difficulties in relaying music

programmes that reflected the ‘national character’ of Northern Ireland. In 1934,
the BBC Yearbook reported:

The majority of the problems arise from a fact which also provides an
opportunity, namely, the comparatively short time during which the Province
of Northern Ireland has been in existence. Its character, from the cultural point
of view, is still in the process of formation … The narrow gulf of water which

 May McCann, ‘Music and Politics in Ireland: The Specificity of the Folk Revival in
Belfast’ British Journal of Ethnomusicology (Special Issue: Presented to Peter Cooke) 4/1
(1995): 51–75, at p. 63. McCann’s comments are made in the context of the cultural
implications of partition in Northern Ireland.
 The Belfast Station Military Band was founded in 1927. In 1931, it was renamed
the Belfast Wireless Military Band. In 1935, the ensemble was replaced by the NI
Military Band.
 Although the workforces of Harland and Wolff and the RUC were predominantly
Protestant, it seems probable that band membership included a small minority of Catholics.
Catholic representation of the RUC’s police force was 21 per cent in 1923, declining
to 17 per cent in 1927. By 1970, about 10 per cent of the RUC were Catholics. Statistics
derived from Sean J. Connolly (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2nd edition,
Oxford, 2002), p. 519.
116 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

divides Northern Ireland from the parent country has much to answer for, since it
forms, to some extent, a barrier to the good understanding of one another which
neighbours with common loyalties desire. Broadcasting bridges this barrier, and
the constant relaying of the best of British programmes cannot be other than
welcome to a body of listeners whose interests lie largely in the Empire and
its people.46

Such rhetoric stemmed from the BBC’s overall aim to promote the notion of a
national culture, or, to use John Reith’s term, ‘[to make] the nation as one man’.47
The challenge for the BBC lay in its quest to present unity, on the one hand,
and cultural diversity, on the other. Gillian McIntosh observes that, while BBC
NI ‘played a significant role in creating an image of the state as a “knowable
community”’, it sought to represent as homogenous, what was, in fact, a diverse
and multi-layered society.48 Nationalists understandably felt alienated from a
broadcasting station that emphasized the imperial link with Britain. Paradoxically,
unionists also felt hostility towards the ‘Britishness’ of the BBC.49 A particular
source of discontent for unionists lay in the fact that the majority of the personnel
at BBC NI were either English or Scottish. To quote one dissatisfied listener:

I have no objection to Englishmen personally, but I should like to know if there

is even one Irishman among those at the head of affairs in our local station and
have his name. I suggest the appointment of someone who can with authority
say what Belfast people do and do not like in the way of programmes.50

As Martin McLoone observes:

There is … an irony in the fact that the loyal unionist sought to break free from
the centralized control of the Imperial centre, which could not be trusted to
guarantee proper representation for its loyal subjects. On the other hand, the
expression of Catholic, Irish cultural identity was more likely in a BBC under
the firm control of London, with its more liberal political and cultural ethos.51

 BBC Yearbook 1934, p. 235.


 Quoted in Gillian McIntosh, The Force of Culture: Unionist Identities in Twentieth


Century Ireland (Cork, 1999), p. 69. Reith was Director General of the BBC (1927–38).
 Ibid., pp. 69–70.
 McIntosh observes that BBC NI became a target for some of the anti-Englishness
which ‘was a general feature of unionism’s complex relationship with the British’. Ibid.,
p. 69.
 Northern Whig, 23 November 1924, quoted in Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region,
p. 27.
 Martin McLoone, ‘The Construction of a Partitionist Mentality: Early Broadcasting
in Ireland’, in Martin McLoone (ed.), Broadcasting in a Divided Community: Seventy Years
of the BBC in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University
Belfast, 1996), p. 28.
Forging a Northern Irish Identity 117

For the most part, music tastes were not defined by religious or political affiliations.
Thus, music proved a valuable tool for BBC NI in its efforts to present unity in
its broadcasts. Even so, the BBC’s relays of locally produced music in Northern
Ireland highlighted the diversity and complexity of the region’s culture. In any
part of the world, ideas of ancient common bonds, whether ethnic or cultural, are
powerful images in perceptions of nationality and identity. While music exists in
different cultural contexts, including national, regional and ethnic, the reality is
that there is a diversity and hybridity to all cultural forms that ultimately undermine
simplistic expressions of national identity. To quote Edward Said: ‘Neither culture
nor imperialism is inert, and so the connections between them as historical
experiences are dynamic and complex … Cultural forms are hybrid, mixed,
impure, and the time has come in cultural analysis to reconnect their analysis with
their actuality.’52 The variety of music programmes broadcast on BBC NI revealed
multifaceted and overlapping boundaries of cultural identity. The BBC presented
a range of classical, popular and traditional genres, reflecting British, Irish and
Northern Irish, as well as sub-national and transnational, identities. In its neutral
stance and avoidance of cultural essentialism, the BBC was ultimately responsible
for constructing a complex image of identity in Northern Ireland.

 Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 15.
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Part II
Recent and Contemporary
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Chapter 7
‘From Inside my Head’: Issues of Identity
in Northern Ireland through the Music of
Kevin O’Connell
Jennifer McCay


It is inevitable that a composer’s life experiences and environment are reflected in

their art. The representation of Kevin O’Connell’s birthplace of Northern Ireland in
his music and resultant issues of identity are evident in several of his compositions.
The identity issues of a Northern Irish composer result from a divided society.
While a simplistic understanding of the society often reduces the conflict to a binary
Catholic/Protestant division, this ignores the sub-categories of loyalist, nationalist,
republican or unionist and completely fails to take into consideration the ways such
traditions can combine. O’Connell frequently refers to a quality of ‘Ulsterness’;
the combination of Irish and British influences that the people of Northern Ireland1
experience uniquely. Such a label suggests an alternative identity to describe the
people as products of the situation into which they were born, neither solely Irish
nor British despite what they might choose as their nationality. Within the context
of the island of Ireland then there is the North–South divide that presents many
more differences, from the day-to-day inconveniences of different currencies and
international phone calls, to more lasting consequences of different education
systems and curricula that result in contrasting nationalist ideals and outlooks. On a
broader level, there is the consideration of how Ireland’s art music is placed in the
European context; it is not typically included in any canon or general music history
yet it has a strong musical heritage. This chapter addresses some of these issues
through interviews with Kevin O’Connell (undertaken by the author, by his brother
David O’Connell and through the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin) and by
way of analysis of two compositions entitled From the Besieged City and North.2

 There is a loose use of the term Ulster here with a lack of distinction between the six
counties of Northern Ireland that are under British rule and the nine counties that form the
geographical province of Ulster on the island of Ireland.
 Recordings and scores of From the Besieged City and North can be accessed from
the Contemporary Music Centre’s library; meanwhile a CD containing these pieces will
soon be released on the RTÉ Lyric fm Label.
122 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Kevin O’Connell

Kevin O’Connell was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1958. He began

composing at the age of 12 and while still a college student, he won the composer’s
prize of the RTÉ Musician of the Future competition. O’Connell received his first
BBC commission at 25 with further commissions following, including From the
Besieged City commissioned by Derry City Council in 1989, and North, by BBC
Radio 3 in 1997 – both for the Ulster Orchestra. He studied at Trinity College,
Dublin (1978–82) after which he returned to Northern Ireland for a short time to
teach in several schools and third-level institutions including St Mary’s Teacher
Training College, Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin. It was
not until 1993 that he settled in Dublin. In 2007 O’Connell completed a PhD
in Composition under the supervision of John Buckley. He is currently a senior
lecturer in composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and a member of
Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists.
When asked ‘where do you mostly get your ideas?’ O’Connell replied:

From inside my head. That’s a sufficient answer but scarcely, I know, an adequate
one, because plenty of other people’s ideas have got in there too. This is a help to
a composer and a nuisance. It can take years for you to realise where you have
borrowed an idea from. There is also the more knowing kind of borrowing of
course, about which composers are coy, though we all do it.3

Everything that a person experiences contributes to who they are and how they
perceive life, in the case of an artist, such as a composer, these must influence their
art. Some of the most important experiences specific to O’Connell and explored in
this chapter are his birthplace, the experience of living through ‘the Troubles’ in
Northern Ireland and his decision to move to the Republic of Ireland after growing
up through the British education system in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland

As a native of Derry/Londonderry born in 1958, O’Connell grew up during

the 30 years of ‘the Troubles’, as they have become widely known, in Northern
Ireland. The establishment of Northern Ireland in 1920 by the Government of
Ireland Act led to six counties of Ireland being left under British rule while the
remaining 26 counties formed the Irish Free State (which became the Republic
of Ireland in 1948).4 This resulted in a divided society in Northern Ireland with a

 CMC questionnaire circulated in 2003, http://www.cmc.ie/articles/article648.html


(accessed 23 April 2011).

 Deirdre McMahon, ‘Republic of Ireland’, in S.J. Connolly (ed.), The Oxford
Companion to Irish History, 2nd edition (Oxford, 2002). The author is indebted to Marnie
‘From Inside my Head’ 123

Catholic minority accounting for approximately one third of the population.5 This
minority had reached 40 per cent by 2006.6 Tensions between the predominantly
unionist government and the Catholic minority were then always present,
escalating sharply with the emergence of the civil rights movement’s campaign.7
The deployment of British troops in 1969 to halt major civil strife on the streets
of Derry and Belfast is commonly cited as the start of the Troubles8 although this
viewpoint may not be shared by all.9 The Troubles have caused much grievance
to all people of Northern Ireland and it is a sensitive topic for most to talk about.
In an extended interview led by David O’Connell,10 brother of the composer,
Kevin O’Connell has spoken candidly and in detail about this period:

David O’Connell: [ … ] when did you first become aware that there was
something about life in Derry that was maybe not quite as it should be?

Kevin O’Connell: Well I can actually give the name, time and place which was
the 5th of October 1968 … I remember that day, which is when the thirty years
war got off to a kick start, because older brothers had been ‘up the town’, and
they came back saying there was trouble …

D. O’C: Again what age were you then?

K. O’C: I was nine, so again it didn’t mean anything to me [ … ] but this had
something very ominous about it I remember that … and of course we looked
at the news bulletins later that evening, including the BBC in London, not just
the local ones, and this was already turning into an international news story …
I can’t believe that two or three months after that we moved to Belfast … talk
about an ill timed move, but no one at that time realised what was in store.11

Hay for her guidance with this section of the chapter.

 A.C. Hepburn, ‘Northern Ireland’, in Connolly (ed.) The Oxford Companion to
Irish History.
 Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, 2nd edition
(London, 2008), p. 2.
 Ibid., pp. 4–5.
 Brian Feeney, The Troubles (Dublin, 2007), p. 6.
 See for example Thomas Hennessey, Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles
(Dublin, 2005) p. ix.
 David O’Connell completed a dissertation entitled ‘The Art Music Composer and
the Northern Ireland Troubles’ (University of Glasgow, 2010) in partial fulfilment of an
MA. He is fourteen years younger than Kevin and so does not have any recollection of the
events described.
 David O’Connell, ‘The Art Music Composer’. Square brackets have been used to
distinguish ellipses added by the author from those in the original interview as replicated in
O’Connell’s dissertation.
124 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

One memorable experience occurred when O’Connell’s family moved to Belfast:

D. O’C: If we may Kevin, turn to that experience of the attack? I know it will be
a source of some difficulty and discomfort [ … ]

K. O’C: What happened as I remember it, was … there were three Catholic
families living on that street, or at least our end of it … the houses were attacked
simultaneously … the glass door at the front of the house was broken down.
They fired a shot at Brendan who was in the front room listening to music and
missed him thank God … and … so it was all over quickly. The police arrived
quickly as there was an RUC station quite nearby … father was at a night class
but everyone else in the family was there.

D. O’C: … a horrendous event, and a clear signal from a paramilitary group that
they wanted your family out based on your religious denomination … which
is bound to have affected you personally … is its affect still part of you? The
events of that evening … can you trace any aspects of how that has affected you
up to the present day?

K. O’C: … I don’t know … the obvious immediate affect was that we moved
back to Derry within two weeks of that … and the immediate effect on my
music was that my piano lessons which at that time were with Bob Leonard at
St Augustan’s, stopped. Tens of thousands of people were moving at that time
in the shifting demographics of The Troubles … their unseen contribution to
modern culture in Ireland. Nobody knew what was going to happen from day to
day. This was all in 1972.12

While this brings a personal insight into the experiences of people in Northern
Ireland during the Troubles it also attests to the significant impact that the Troubles
must have had on them, be they artists or not.13 The Troubles commenced when
O’Connell was at an impressionable age, and as such conflict continued and
increased during his compositional career it is likely to have had a significant
impact on his work and life.
The response of composers to this environment was first addressed by Hilary
Bracefield’s study of eight composers’ music from Northern Ireland (undertaken
in the mid-1990s). The composers examined were Elaine Agnew (b.1967), Bill
Campbell (b.1961), Michael Alcorn (b.1962), Stephen Gardner (b.1958), Deirdre
Gribben (b.1967), Philip Flood (b.1964), Kevin O’Connell and Ian Wilson
(b.1964) – all of whom grew up during the Troubles. Bracefield states: ‘To some
extent composers have felt that the time was not right for serious music to confront


 The recollection of this event is a sensitive matter and permission for its inclusion

in this chapter is greatly appreciated.

‘From Inside my Head’ 125

the problem [the Troubles]. The most abstract of all the arts perhaps needs time
or distance to make its statements.’14 Under such sensitive political circumstances,
however, it could be seen as unwise to make statements through one’s art, unless
of course the artist was also a political activist. The composers in Bracefield’s
study do not appear to have been of such a mindset; however, this does not mean
they were immune to the experience of growing up in such a divided society. What
is more probable is that composers will naturally respond to their environment on
a more subconscious level; reference to the Troubles will not be displayed through
outright political statements but will be more apparent through the subtleties of
composers’ creative processes.
O’Connell’s use of both musical and extra-musical references in his work
supports the idea of external influences on his music and raises the possibility that
his upbringing in this atmosphere also had an effect. Various levels of influence
in terms of sense of place are seen in an array of O’Connell’s works; from the
broader European to more specifically Irish. These are depicted through the texts
employed as well as through direct musical quotations. A combined European
element with ‘a more immediate sense of place’ is conveyed in Harry White’s
assessment of O’Connell’s music:

And O’Connell’s work in chamber opera (to texts by Gerard Stembridge and
James Conway [from John McGahern]) suggest[s] that the incisive intelligence
of his musical discourse, which remains resolutely European, can nevertheless
attain to a voice which speaks of a more immediate sense of place … It does,
however, allow for the integration of ‘Ireland’ as an idea in terms of a European
musical discourse which has often hitherto been characterised by the absence
of this idea.15

This European identity is also expressed through the association of the composer
Jean Sibelius with O’Connell’s North, discussed later in the chapter. A more
obvious affinity with his Irish identity is seen through O’Connell’s direct quotation
of a traditional Irish melody in the second movement of his Sonata for Cello and
Piano (1993–95), the slow air Lament for Limerick. Discussing this O’Connell said:

I just loved the sound of the tune … I thought it [Lament for Limerick] would just
work very well on the cello. There is an interesting thing about how I use it that
not many people have picked up on and that is that I don’t use the whole tune …
there is a soaring cantillation in the middle of it which is heart breaking …

 Hilary Bracefield, ‘Musical Perspectives, the Politics of Silence: The Northern
Ireland Composer and the Troubles’, in Julie P. Sutton (ed.), Music, Music Therapy and
Trauma: International Perspectives (London, 2002), p. 92.
 Harry White, ‘The Divided Imagination: Music in Ireland after Ó Riada’, in Gareth
Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century. Irish Musical Studies 7
(Dublin, 2003), p. 27.
126 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

I left it out. From what I can remember, I just wanted to give a suggestion of the
tune … if you want the whole tune go to the tune.16

This leads to questions of identity for a Northern Irish composer in the all-island
Irish context. The quotation of a traditional Irish melody in his Sonata for Cello
and Piano may be read as expressing affinity with nationalist Irish culture or may
simply express the composer’s fondness for the tune itself as expressed in the
interview. Focusing on the situation of Northern Ireland, the various conflicted
factions result in a significantly divided society that fosters many identity-
related issues where one’s name, school or sport can carry political and religious
connotations. A typical example is the choice of name for O’Connell’s birthplace:
is it Derry or Londonderry? Despite both being accepted, the preference for one
name rather than the other stereotypically indicates which side of the division
one identifies with. In considering issues of identity in Northern Ireland many
facets become apparent including the European, Irish, British and Northern-Irish.
These elements all contribute to how a composer from Northern Ireland perceives
themselves, their place in society and in the greater context of the world. These
must then have consequences on their music.
Before moving to a more detailed examination of O’Connell’s work it is
important to consider the role that titles play in an audience’s engagement with
music. Ben Arnold has asserted:

Descriptive titles often create specific expectations and add another dimension
to the otherwise textless instrumental work … In analyzing this music, however,
we must take into consideration the spoken or written ideas the composers felt
the need to convey to the listener through the titles. Robert P. Morgan asserts
‘To ignore these remarks is to rob the work of one of its dimensions, and part of
the analyst’s job should be to consider how well [the work] reflects and makes
musically valid the composer’s stated intentions.17

The titles of both compositions I will examine are discussed to elucidate some
of the possible additional dimensions they bring to the works but the following
analyses employ different methods for each composition; the text and title of
From the Besieged City are assessed and musical thematic relations are examined
alongside the title of North. These methods illustrate different ways in which
O’Connell’s identity is present in his music; through the choice of text, title and
his compositional technique.

 O’Connell, ‘The Art Music Composer’.


 Ben Arnold, ‘Music, Meaning and War: The Titles of War Compositions’,

International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 22/1 (1991): 19–28, at p. 20.
‘From Inside my Head’ 127

From the Besieged City

O’Connell was commissioned to write From the Besieged City in 1987 by the Derry
City Council for the tercentenary anniversary of the Siege of Derry in 1989. The
army of King James II of England besieged the followers of William of Orange;
the siege lasted 105 days during which approximately 15,000 people died.18 The
composition is for a standard symphony orchestra with a mezzo-soprano soloist
and lasts 20 minutes. In interview O’Connell tells of how he came to choose
this medium:

I decided I wanted to do something with text but the idea was that the text
would indirectly reflect on a siege. Now the interesting thing about this is that
the City Council under Kevin Mc Caul also commissioned Shaun Davey to write
his Siege of Derry Symphony.19 And Shaun, everyone knew, would do cannon
effects and Apprentice boys, and you name it, you know, he would do a topical
piece centred on the siege and in some ways I felt that that gave me a lot of
freedom because I felt I don’t have to cover that angle in my piece, basically I
could do whatever I liked really.20

Note how ‘the text would indirectly reflect on a siege’; O’Connell did not want to
address the particular Siege of Derry alone not just because this would influence
the sonic quality of the music, but because it would lead to a more direct political
engagement that he wished to avoid. Instead he wanted to focus on the experience
of siege more generally so the difficult task of finding a suitable text was his
starting point:

And I was reading him [Heaney] speaking about Herbert, the Polish poet who
I’d never heard of to be honest, and he comes to that point in the essay when he
talks about this poem From the Besieged City and the penny dropped, REPORT
from the Besieged City. So I thought I have to hunt this poem down. The excerpts
Heaney quoted made me think this was what I was looking for.

The poem is more about a generalized state of siege rather than an actual siege
like Derry or Leningrad or Troy. It’s a very abstracted space that it takes place
in and he quotes a lot of things that anybody who has read about sieges can
relate to, like people having to eat rats and stuff in order to survive; the state of

 ‘Derry, siege of’ in Connolly, The Oxford Companion to Irish History.
 The description of the first movement of Shaun Davey’s The Relief of Derry
Symphony supports O’Connell’s prediction regarding Davey’s piece: ‘A series of long
graceful fanfares, developing into a sense of ominous foreboding; at the end of the
movement the offstage pipeband is used to evoke the arrival of the besieging forces’, http://
www.shaundavey.com/sdconcertreliefofd.htm (accessed 22 June 2011).
 O’Connell in interview with author, 26 March 2009.
128 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

negotiations that take place between the besieged and the besiegeing parties to
see if the siege can be lifted … The gradual sense of isolation and cut-off-ness of
the people as this dreadful state of affairs grinds on from day to day.21

Report from the Besieged City is the title poem of a book of poetry by the Polish
writer Zbigniew Herbert (1924–98) published in 1983. O’Connell found a
translation of the poem in a book by John and Bogdana Carpenter.22 Other than
solely addressing the reality of a siege, in conversation O’Connell has mentioned
‘siege number one, which is the siege inside the head’.23 He refers to the siege
mentality experienced by those in the thick of the battle – be this a real or mental
one. This brings another dimension to the piece: by not identifying a specific battle
in history this text may also be interpreted to address the internal conflict that is
experienced in one’s mind in getting through life’s challenges.
Discussing the language of the poem O’Connell noted, ‘the language had
a very spare, stripped down quality, not unlike Seamus Heaney for example. It
is not rich in metaphor, it’s not rich in historical illusion and stuff like that; it
reads almost like a factual newspaper report.’24 This was to influence the musical
setting. When writing vocal music O’Connell prefers to use his source text in its
entirety. He believes, ‘A poem is after all a thought-through sequence, it’s not just
something for a composer to cut and paste.’25 Considering this, the significance
of the omission of the word ‘Report’ from O’Connell’s title might be questioned.
Thoughts on this will be offered later but familiarity with Herbert’s text must be
gained first.
From the opening lines an objective stance is evident as the author tells that he
has been given the task of recording events as exactly as possible adding ‘I don’t
know for whom’. The pseudo-journalistic approach is maintained in the following
lines as he records the deteriorating situation with notes such as ‘Monday:
empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency’.26 Herbert’s journalistic
presentation of the siege is in keeping with his title ‘Report from the Besieged
City’; the corresponding passage in O’Connell’s music then presents his portrayal
of Herbert’s intentions. An immediately perceivable feature is the alternation of
voice and orchestra; indeed the voice is not unaccompanied but while it sings, the
orchestral part remains mostly static. Such alternation can be seen as a divergence
of interest between the parts, with the voice adopting the poem’s reportage style
and the orchestra taking a more expressive role. The declamatory style of the voice
is suggested from the outset with the trumpet obbligato line representing a military


 Zbigniew Herbert, Report from the Besieged City, trans. John Carpenter and

Bogdana Carpenter (New York, 1985).

 O’Connell in interview with author, 26 March 2009.
 Herbert, Report from the Besieged City.
‘From Inside my Head’ 129

fanfare before the vocal announcement, which is in a syllabic monotone style.

This approach continues throughout the piece. For example in the opening the
only instruments sounding along with the trumpet and vocal parts are bassoon,
cello and double bass playing a drone of a compound minor second while the
voice recites the text. Between passages of text the orchestra then presents more
substantial musical material, such as a subtle reference to the previous line of
the text: for example ‘everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time’,
which occurs in bars 39–47, is illustrated by complex cross-rhythms between
pairs of flutes, clarinets and oboes. The resulting effect is like a recitative but
with significant orchestral expressions of emotion between passages of the text,
perhaps expressing what words cannot.
Such contrasted yet complementary roles taken by the orchestra and voice
may be interpreted to convey a divided society present in any siege situation. To
quote an audience member at the premiere of From the Besieged City: ‘I really
enjoyed listening to the orchestral music in that, but I couldn’t get the vocal music
at all.’27 The listener’s immediate separation of orchestra and voice was more than
likely triggered by the independence of the vocal part. The result of this division
is that neither element (the music or the poetry) predominates; they are equals.
The experience of a siege is presented by both through two media, voice and
orchestra, and the combination of these then brings a heightened intensity of the
siege experience, whether in its grim reality or in the mental form of ‘siege number
one’. These separate roles do not align themselves to any particular faction but
could be an expression from either side; what is expressed does not come from
the perspective of the besieger or besieged. The focus remains on the hardship
that is experienced by all rather than a sense of blame or conflict between the
sides. The musical presentation and the text are therefore also suggestive of the
inner siege that O’Connell has referred to, that is between rational assessment and
emotional reaction.
Given that O’Connell uses the complete text of Herbert’s ‘Report from the
Besieged City’ and maintains the dispassionate style portrayed by the poet, it
might again be asked why he omits the word ‘Report’ from the title of the poem
when naming his piece? When asked about removing the word ‘report’ O’Connell
merely replied: ‘It was suggested to me by John Lampen – “report” is a bit literary –
‘From the Besieged City’ was nicely suggested to me so I must credit that to him.’28
On the other hand one could argue that O’Connell transformed Herbert’s text from
a ‘report’ into a deeper expression of emotion, adding what words cannot express;
it is therefore no longer a ‘report’, hence the new title From the Besieged City.
With either interpretation, however, it is clear that O’Connell’s music is successful
in presenting the sentiment of Herbert’s poem.

 Kevin O’Connell in interview with author 26 March 2009 quoting an audience
member at the premiere of From the Besieged City.
 Kevin O’Connell in interview with author, 29 June 2009.
130 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond


Returning to O’Connell’s remarks about borrowing, he noted that ‘there is also the
more knowing kind of borrowing of course, about which composers are coy, though
we all do it’. Two types of borrowing are seen in North, the second composition
to be addressed in this chapter. What O’Connell considered as an uncomplicated
borrowing of the title from Seamus Heaney’s collection of poems North results
in further extra-musical relations. Similarly, his quotation of the opening motif
of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony to begin North brings more connotations than a
simple borrowing. The instrumentation of North is that of a standard symphony
orchestra with double winds; all instruments are used quite conventionally with no
experimental performance techniques. The piece is 20 minutes long with a clear
divide in the middle breaking the piece into two 10-minute sections marked as 1
and 2, implying there are two separate movements to the piece. Further examination
will demonstrate that these are not individual, self-standing movements. This idea
will also be considered when addressing Heaney’s North, as it also comprises
two sections.
O’Connell’s North was premiered at the Sonorities Festival in Queen’s
University, Belfast by the Ulster Orchestra in 1998; it was his first commission
following his move from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. He was now
living outside the UK, but the commission was from the BBC; because of this
his thoughts might have been brought back to his previous home and birthplace
of Northern Ireland from which his relationship with the BBC stemmed. This
is, however, just one of a number of possible reasons for his choice of the title
North. When O’Connell was asked why he had chosen the title North he referred
to Heaney’s North, stating that this collection of poems was Heaney’s first
publication on leaving Northern Ireland. O’Connell subsequently found himself
in a similar situation with a commission from the place he had just left. He also
mentioned the two-part structure of Heaney’s collection but observed that he only
became aware of the parallels between Heaney’s approach and his own at a later
stage. In other words, it had not arisen from a conscious decision at the time; his
initial intention had simply been to borrow the title. He concluded by quoting the
Japanese composer Joe Kondo: ‘a title is only a title, it is not a description’.
O’Connell’s interest in literature, in particular Anglo-Irish literature, has
influenced many of his compositions.29 In 1993 he completed a master’s degree
in Anglo-Irish literature for which one of his essays was entitled ‘Representing
Violence: Irony, The Symbolic Order and Seamus Heaney’s North’. Another link
between Heaney and O’Connell is the commissioned piece for string quartet on the
occasion of Heaney’s 70th birthday in 2009, entitled Where should this music be? In
the programme of RTÉ’s ‘Heaney at 70’ celebrations O’Connell described Heaney

 Apart from the works discussed here see, for example, his chamber opera, My Love,
My Umbrella, based on John McGahern’s stories to a libretto by James Conway and his
setting of Beckett’s All the Live Long Way.
‘From Inside my Head’ 131

as ‘a beacon especially for anyone who, like him, grew up in Derry’, highlighting
the importance of this affiliation to O’Connell.30 The composer might attribute no
more significance to the title but once again one can argue that the decisive use of
such a title rather than a more generic functional title would suggest otherwise,
particularly when one takes into account the biographical facts of O’Connell’s
relationship with this place and his close engagement with Heaney’s work.
To further support the significance of Heaney’s North, O’Connell offers two
perspectives to a north-theme in his music just as Heaney also addressed specific
subject matters within this theme. In Heaney’s work readers have discerned a clear
divide in content between the two parts; according to Eugene O’Brien the first is
‘broadly mythic in theme and tone’ while the other deals ‘with issues of a more
contemporary nature’.31 Heaney’s ‘Part I’, as he calls it, consists of poems using his
personal ‘digging’ and ‘bogland’ motifs, referring to his birthplace in ‘the North’
of Ireland in County Derry where he grew up experiencing farm and country
living. This part of the collection has been read as demonstrating ‘tribal writing’
while another interpretation reads: ‘The Iron-Age bog victims … as imaginative
parallels to the victims of contemporary Northern Ireland.’32 It is in ‘Part II’ of
his collection, however, that Heaney turns his attention more obviously to issues
of a contemporary political nature, particularly of the time when this work was
published in 1975; in interview Heaney described it as coming ‘out of the “matter
of the North” of Ireland’33 – that is the divisions present in society and the resulting
Troubles. In 1979 he made the point that his leaving of Northern Ireland in 1972
was viewed in some quarters with a ‘sense of almost betrayal’, adding that the
political situation had generated ‘a great energy and group loyalty’ as well as a
‘defensiveness about its own verities’.34
By referring to Heaney’s North O’Connell builds a strong association to
their birthplace of Northern Ireland but another perspective on the north-theme
is offered through the source of its opening motif: Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony.
Sibelius, and this symphony in particular, has always been admired by O’Connell;
after an interview discussing the symphony Michael Dervan writes, ‘He charts a
line through Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Sibelius, and another leading
from Beethoven, through Berlioz and Liszt to Mahler. And he’s clearly more a
Sibelius than a Mahler man.’35 Similarly, in a questionnaire that the Contemporary
Music Centre Dublin circulated to numerous Irish composers in 2003, O’Connell

 http://www.rte.ie/heaneyat70/pdf/Heaney_at_70_Flyer.html (accessed 23 June 2011).
 Eugene O’Brien, Seamus Heaney: Creating Irelands of the Mind, (Dublin, 2002),
p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Denis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London, 2008),
p. 179.
 O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, p. 16
 Michael Dervan, ‘Everybody is Frightened of the Word Symphony’, Irish Times, 10
January 2011.
132 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

answers that his greatest ambition is: ‘To write something as good as Sibelius’s
Fourth Symphony, or better.’36
O’Connell uses the first three notes of Sibelius’s opening theme and the
intervals between them in the opening of North. This motif subsequently becomes
a cornerstone of the entire composition. This reference strengthens its connection
with Heaney’s collection of poems with its references to different topical norths
other than that of Northern Ireland. It presents the idea of a Northern Irish composer
in a European context; illustrating an awareness of European music (contradicting
the ‘vacuum’ that some have felt Irish art music was in37) while also referencing an
alternative ‘north’. It also implies an affinity with Sibelius’s experiences of living
in Finland during its period of Russian rule. This symphony was often associated
with the words bleak and austere resulting in much speculation about why Sibelius
had chosen to write that sort of music at that time:

Naturally, his recent illness was advanced as one possible cause, if only that
he had lost his grip – after the premiere ‘people avoided our eyes, shook their
heads; their smiles were embarrassed, ironic or furtive’, as Aino recalled much
later. Others wondered if it arose from ‘the unconscious result of a concern
over his country’s difficulties with Russia’ or the increasingly bitter antagonism
between Finns and their Swedish countrymen.38

A consequence of Sweden’s rule of Finland for centuries was that the ruling class
still spoke Swedish.39 From his experience of growing up in Northern Ireland,
O’Connell can identify with the role mixed languages can play and the implications
of political bias associated with them. The later period of Russian rule that Sibelius
experienced in his lifetime could be equated to the situation of the British rule
in Ireland suggesting a possible affinity O’Connell had with Sibelius’s mixed-
cultural identity and the disruptive political situation he also experienced.
The divided structure of Heaney’s and O’Connell’s works may be seen more
directly to illustrate the divided society of Northern Ireland in which they grew
up. Heaney’s collection clearly addressed his given title from two different yet
complementary standpoints just as O’Connell has, through his references to
Heaney and Sibelius. Such a relationship, however, is less apparent in O’Connell’s
music, as without knowledge of Sibelius’s music and biography this connection
is not easily made. One might think this is primarily due to his medium lacking
words, the usual vehicle of communication for people, and that music is instantly
more elusive because of this, but musical language is also open to interpretation

 CMC Questionnaire, http://www.cmc.ie/articles/article648.html.


 Axel Klein, ‘Roots and Directions in Twentieth-century Irish Art Music’, in Cox

and Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 168–9.
 Guy Rickards, Jean Sibelius (London, 1997) p. 110.
 Eric Tawaststjerna, Sibelius, trans. Robert Layton (2 vols, London, 1986),
Vol. 2, 1904–1914, p. 134.
‘From Inside my Head’ 133

and in this case brings O’Connell’s subtleties to the fore. O’Connell has not
presented a direct programmatic representation of Northern Ireland, nor has he
created two sections of music of significantly different mood or spirit or even of
greatly contrasting thematic material. Rather, O’Connell has varied the thematic
ideas presented in the first section to build his second section.
For example North opens with imitative strands presented by viola and cello,
both commencing with the melodic intervals of two semitones followed by a larger
leap; the viola ascending through four semitones followed by the cello descending
through six. The intervals and rhythmic gestures of this motif are manipulated
throughout the entire work. Similarly a more sustained harmonic tension created by
four solo violins (bar 14) recurs throughout, with the intervals of two, three and four
semitones being exploited. These same ideas are then used in the opening of Part
II revealing subtle yet definite parallels between the two halves of the piece. The
first bars of Part II combine the dissonance of the four violins with the rhythmical
leap of the opening of Part I. On this occurrence, however, instead of ascending
through four semitones the leap in the viola has been reduced to three semitones.
Not only does O’Connell use intervallic variation but he also develops rhythmic and
accompaniment motifs first presented in the first section in the subsequent second
section. In Part I a rhythmically repeated chord-idea is presented (bar 39) and an
accompaniment pattern alternating between two voices is established (bar 93).40 The
beginning of the second section brings variations of the repeated chord motif in
the flutes – augmented to give the effect of a hemiola – as well as the alternating
accompaniment pattern. The opening of the second section of North then combines
these with the aforementioned harmonic colouring in the violins and the intervallic
variation from the very beginning of the piece. These are only some examples of the
overlapping thematic ideas between the two sections of North but others also occur.
In the context of the title and the composer’s biography these links acquire a specific
significance. In a divided society there is neither one ‘side’ that belongs and one that
does not, as both ‘sides’, or ‘halves’, must exist to create that one divided society.
One can also see the strong relation between O’Connell’s North and Heaney’s: they
both contain two parts based on the same general theme with O’Connell’s illustrated
through the manipulation of the same musical motifs throughout both parts. The
two perspectives offered on Heaney’s north-theme are represented by O’Connell’s
references to Heaney and Sibelius with the former bringing a Northern-Irish (or
Ulster) identity and the latter bringing a European one, but one that also stems from a
divided society similar to that in which O’Connell grew up.


The starting point of much of the analysis presented here is the importance of the
title of each work, hence supporting Ben Arnold when he states that a title is:

 Both of these ideas appear in bars 88–96 from the first section of North.
134 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

more than a label … it becomes part of the content – a variable in the whole
composition and a definite and distinct part of the work. The listener weaves
the idea conveyed by the title into the musical experience itself … The title of a
composition could be considered as important as the final cadence.41

North immediately insinuates O’Connell’s birthplace but with further study more
insight is brought to the work and with it contributions to the issues of identity
in a composer from Northern Ireland. From the Besieged City and O’Connell’s
strong engagement with the topic of the commission highlight several important
issues. O’Connell’s careful choice of text, combined with his reluctance to address
a specific siege shows a stance of neutrality, as if in writing this music he did
not want to take a political standpoint. The text introduces a non-Irish European
element through its original form being Polish. O’Connell’s success in maintaining
the general experience of siege as opposed to addressing that solely of Derry
contributes to this. As White notes:

O’Connell’s From the Besieged City … is a work which responds to the Northern
crisis in particular terms that are stringently unconnected with Ireland but which
nevertheless address Derry and its history by allusion to a Polish text which
O’Connell sets as the main focus of the piece. It is this indirection which at once
preserves O’Connell’s freedom from that fatal cul-de-sac of melodic citation
and yet draws the Siege itself into the socio-cultural metier of European history.42

O’Connell’s desire to refrain from any specific political statement may result from
growing up in such heated political times. This could reinforce the idea that the
music is his main concern but it also demonstrates the impact that the Troubles
have had on his work.
Returning to Bracefield’s idea that ‘the most abstract of all arts perhaps needs
time or distance to make its statements’,43 it is interesting to compare this with
O’Connell’s view of Ulster poets in an interview in Music Ireland from 1986 –
before the composition of From the Besieged City and North: ‘It rather interests
me that the present generation of Ulster poets, however obliquely, are tackling
political questions. Irish composers, Ulster composers, seem wary of doing it;
I know I’ve been wary, perhaps I’ve never properly thought about it.’44 O’Connell’s
statement was made ten years previous to Bracefield’s research. Is it that through
the use of words Ulster poets were able to address the Troubles earlier, perhaps

 Ben Arnold, ‘Music, Meaning and War’, p. 20.


 White, ‘The Divided Imagination’, p. 27.


 Bracefield, ‘Musical Perspectives, The Politics of Silence’, p. 92.
 Hilary Bracefield, ‘The Northern Composer: Irish or European?’, in Patrick Devine
and Harry White (eds), The Maynooth International Musicological Conference 1995.
Selected Proceedings Part One. Irish Musical Studies 4 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996)
p. 258.
‘From Inside my Head’ 135

without ‘taking sides’ while still approaching the issue? For example, a poem
from the GCSE syllabus45 entitled Northern Haiku by Tony Curtis mentions the
Troubles but without giving a direct personal opinion.46 Perhaps O’Connell had
not consciously thought about ‘tackling political questions’ in his music but from
this analysis it is very difficult to deny the subconscious influence that literature
and socio-political issues had on his thinking. A preference to avoid addressing
issues related to any area of social conflict is easily understood but it is impossible
to evade it entirely and by not addressing them openly the artists from Northern
Ireland confirm the impact of the Troubles dialectically.
Heaney has expressed that there was a sense in which the writers in Northern
Ireland were expected to respond to the conflict in their work: ‘a simple minded
pressure also to speak up for their own side’.47 This confirms the dilemma that
residents of Northern Ireland might feel the need to conform to a particular faction
of the divided society, supporting the aforementioned ‘siege number one, which
is the siege inside the head’48 and the identity issue experienced by people in
Northern Ireland. O’Connell’s offering of a title such as North may be his way
of acknowledging his birth place but without having to speak up for any side or
express any political opinion. Words from O’Connell himself summarize the many
factors in his music discussed in this chapter; the experiences of his home place,
Northern Ireland, literature, slow airs and borrowing. All of these bring the reader
one step closer to understanding the identity of a composer from Northern Ireland:

Frankly … Northern Ireland is a hybrid society which is a mixture of the

Irish and the British. In other words, we have something of British culture in
us … I’m a product of the British education system … I’ve never had an Irish
[language] lesson in my life, to my shame, but that’s the system I grew up in. But
the British educational system I feel did have great advantages … there was a
rigour in it, especially in a school like St Columb’s you could see this … we were
taught English poetry … there was a degree of order and rigour in it. That’s what
we bring … you see this in people like Heaney or Mahon, or Longley … their
poetry has a very Irish flavour, but when you read it there is sense of organisation
that for want of a better word I can only describe as very Ulster.49

 GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education and is the academic
qualification awarded through examination to students aged 14–16 in the UK and
Northern Ireland.
in-Northern-Ireland (accessed 9 May 11).
 O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, p. 21.
 Kevin O’Connell in interview with author, 26 March 2009.
 O’Connell, ‘The Art Music Composer’.
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 8
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence:
Issues of Irish Identity in the Music and
Writings of Raymond Deane
Adrian Smith

At first glance, the Irish composer Raymond Deane (b.1953) would not appear
to be a particularly obvious candidate for a study on Irish identity. Few Irish
composers have been more scathing in their criticism of the status accorded to
art music in Irish cultural debate than Deane, whose famous adage ‘the honour
of non-existence’1 has since come to encapsulate the marginalized position of
the Irish composer in society. In numerous articles over the years he has taken
aim at the media and academic publications for their failure to give anything
more than a cursory glance to the activities of Irish composers; at cultural bodies
for their adoption of an increasingly market-driven ethos; and at the education
system for its failure to kindle an environment where challenging new music
can be meaningfully appreciated. His criticisms also extend beyond the various
institutions. Irish composers who have attempted to forge a distinctly ‘Irish’ style
of art music with recourse to the folk tradition incur the charge of evincing a
‘Bord Fáilte’ aesthetic.2 In his own music, references to traditional Irish music
are rare and when they do occur, the context in which they are set suggests a
heavy coating of irony. It would appear on the surface then that Deane doesn’t
possess any of the essentialisms usually required to construct a conventional
notion of ‘Irishness’. His relationship with Ireland has always been a complex one,
however, which tends to resist easy classification. Many of his criticisms reflect
his own identification with certain conflicts, particularly those that characterize
the relationship between a composer of art music and Irish society at large.
Indeed as this chapter will argue, it is this recurring theme in his writings – the
marginalization of Irish composers in society – which offers the most illuminating
path towards gaining a sense of Deane’s own Irish identity. The discussion that
follows will therefore focus mainly on those writings where this theme has been

 See Raymond Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence – Classical Composers in Irish
Society’, in Gerard Gillen and Harry White (eds), Music and Irish Cultural History. Irish
Musical Studies 3 (Dublin, 1995), pp. 199–211.
 Bord Fáilte was the National Tourism Development Authority of the Republic of
Ireland. See Deane, ‘Tailpiece’, Soundpost, April–May 1983, p. 40.
138 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

most forcefully articulated. As it has continually evolved, it will be necessary

to take a chronological approach, charting the circumstances from his youth to
more recent times, which have prompted modifications of, and reversals from,
previously held views. The most significant of these was undoubtedly a revision
of his once firmly anti-Nationalist stance in relation to Northern Ireland and the
wider issue of international conflict, a development that greatly influenced his
writings on the reception of Irish art music. His more recent writings have also
revealed a largely positive assessment of past generations of Irish composers
that he may have previously overlooked. In particular his essay ‘Exploding the
Continuum – The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’ discusses a number of historical
Irish figures whose experimentation would seem to possess something in common
with his own distinctive strategies of formal estrangement.3 This aspect of his
writings raises further questions regarding the notion of ‘tradition’ and casts an
alternative perspective on the history of Irish art music.

* * *

Deane was brought up in a household where staunch pro-Nationalist sympathies

characterized the outlook of both his parents. According to the composer, his
mother’s republicanism could be described as a straightforward ‘Brits out!’ and
‘Up the IRA!’ mentality while his father’s views were of a more tempered sort,
functioning as a backstop against complacency on the part of successive Irish
governments in their dealings with Britain.4 As a child, he himself was not immune
to the veneration that events such as the 50th anniversary commemoration of
the 1916 Rising commanded amongst his parents; as a young composer, Seán
Ó Riada’s Mise Éire5 (1959) and Brian Boydell’s especially commissioned
commemorative cantata A Terrible Beauty is Born (1965) possessed a special
appeal for him.6 Complementing his parent’s nationalism was an equally
uncompromising adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Again, his
mother was the more zealous of his parents; at one stage Deane recalls the house
‘filled up with pamphlets discerning communist and Freemason conspiracies in

 Raymond Deane, ‘Exploding the Continuum – The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’,
The Republic: A Journal of Contemporary and Historical Debate (Special Issue: Culture in
the Republic: Part 2) 4/4 (2005): 100–15. Also available at http://www.theirelandinstitute.
com and http://www.raymonddeane.com (accessed December 2013).
 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, Graph: Irish Cultural Review 3/2 (1998): 6.
 Deane’s more recent views on Ó Riada’s achievement as an Irish composer were
articulated in the article ‘Ó Riada is Dead – Long Live Ó Riada!’, Journal of Music in
Ireland 1/2 (2001): 5–7. Although he concedes that Ó Riada’s output constituted a ‘real but
very minor achievement’, a more dubious aspect of his legacy has been ‘the twin illusions
that new music in Ireland expired with Ó Riada, and that today’s composers are somehow
languishing in his shadow’.
 Deane, ‘What the Proclamation Means to Me’ (2006), http://www.eirigi.org/
campaigns/wtpmtm/deane.htm (accessed 15 May 2011).
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 139

every corner’ and ‘tapes of perfervid US preachers berating the theory of evolution
and espousing the most primitive creationism’.7 His father was less enthused
by these developments but nevertheless acquiesced in the interests of keeping
the peace.8
As can be imagined, the rigidity of such an environment provided fertile
ground for adolescent uprisings that, for Deane, coincided with the outbreak of the
‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. By his own admission, he possessed a manifestly
stubborn streak from an early age, which was now directed against the principles
espoused by his parents.9 Along with his sister (one of his brothers became a priest)
he developed a firmly atheistic frame of mind while his interest in ‘the most outré
kind’ of avant-garde music no doubt played an important part in introducing him
to more radical thinking.10 Despite his contempt for the Liam Cosgrave-led Fine
Gael/Labour coalition of 1973–77 (‘the most authoritarian government I have
experienced’), he was a fervent admirer of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who held the
position of Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.11 Cruise O’Brien’s hostility towards
both Catholicism and militant republicanism seemed to represent the perfect
antidote to the views of Deane’s parents. While he would normally have been
opposed to any form of censorship, Deane even convinced himself to turn a blind
eye to the 1976 Broadcasting Amendment Act, introduced at Cruise O’Brien’s
behest amid a rising tide of militant republicanism to allow the government to
censure ‘anything that would tend to undermine the authority of the state’.12 By
this stage he had concluded that the particularly intolerant brands of Catholicism
and nationalism of his parents had coalesced into the single entity of fascism, the
constituent parts of which now became inseparable.13 Thus his attitudes towards
the North throughout the 1970s became increasingly ambivalent. Recalling the
Hunger Strike of 1981, for instance, he later wrote:

The Hunger Strikers were an embarrassment … of course I despised Margaret

Thatcher, but my mother’s little volume of Bobby Sands’s writings included
some doggerel of such woefulness that I was able to dismiss the challenge with
some distasteful crack about ‘one bad poet less’. My attitude towards the North
was, ‘Who wants it anyway?’ and ‘a plague on both their houses’.14

Although Deane’s devotion to the music of the post-war avant-garde was most
likely the primary motivation, the rebelliousness of his teenage years must have

 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, p. 6.
 Patrick Zuk, Raymond Deane, (Dublin, 2006), p. 3.
 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, p. 6.
 Deane, ‘What the Proclamation Means to Me’.
 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, p. 7.
140 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

suggested an additional impetus for him to forge an alignment with the ideals of
European modernism from the very beginning of his career. He deeply admired
the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti and Luciano
Berio, and attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt
during the summer of 1969. At the course he heard a performance of Berio’s
Sequenza VII for oboe (1969) given by its dedicatee Heinz Holliger, which
greatly influenced his early piano work Orphica (1969–70).15 On graduation from
University College Dublin (UCD) in 1974 he was awarded a scholarship to study
with the American composer Gerald Bennett in Basle before subsequently moving
to Cologne in 1976 to study with Stockhausen and to Berlin two years later to
study with Isang Yun.16 Although he never became a committed serial composer,
the music he wrote during the late 1970s and early 1980s is the most ostensibly
‘structural’ in conception. It is characterized by a more systematic application of
technique and a greater complexity than that which characterized his earlier period
of ‘free’ composition. In one of his ‘Tailpiece’ columns in the Irish music journal
Soundpost he names his piano piece Triarchia (1977–78) – perhaps the most
rigorously composed piece of the period – as the beginning of ‘whatever maturity
I may claim to have achieved as a composer’.17
This aesthetic orientation is very much reflected in his writings of the period.
The theme that ultimately comes to dominate, the marginalization of contemporary
art music in Irish society, begins to assert itself in a number of articles published
around this time. Although his theories would later undergo significant alterations,
at this point in Deane’s career the lack of opportunities to hear contemporary art
music in Ireland are attributed to a general climate of cultural conservatism and
insularity, while a recurring item of attack is the ubiquitous presence of ‘tonalism’,
which he defines as ‘the whole system of attitudes and prejudices shared by those
who attempt, in effect, to sacralise tonality’.18 Deane’s writings are imbued with
the unmistakable influence of Theodor Adorno, again perhaps due in part to a
continuing reaction against the perceived totalitarian tendencies of his parents.
In particular his crusade against ‘tonalism’ echoes Adorno’s admonition that any
recourse to ‘natural laws’ invariably has ideological implications, namely the
attempt to mask the subjugation of the individual in the face of totalitarianism.19

 Deane, ‘RTÉ’s First Festival of Living Music’, Journal of Music in Ireland 2/6
(2002): 30.
 Zuk, Raymond Deane, p. 3.
 More recently Deane has expressed reservations about the music of this period and
has since acknowledged it as a phase of stylistic immaturity. See ‘Contemporary Music
Centre Interview with Benjamin Dwyer’ (2003), http://www.raymonddeane.com/articles.
php (accessed 28 May 2011).
 Deane, ‘Diabolus in Natura: The “Nature” of New Music’, Maynooth Review 4/2
(1978): 22–30, at p. 22.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 31–2.
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 141

For example, in his inaugural ‘Tailpiece’ column for Soundpost in April 1983
he writes:

The task facing everyone who wishes to modify the world is the deconstruction
of Platonism. This means ridding ourselves of such suppurating mental
excrescences as dualism, puritanism, naturalism, above all the decadent category
of natural law … In musical terms nature has always been correctly identified
with the harmonic series. Unfortunately, this natural order was eventually
perverted into the tonal system, a hierarchical value system coeval with literary
realism and the rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century. In our own time,
tonalism has been the mandatory musical philosophy of those totalitarian states
in which patriarchal values still predominate – e.g., the Soviet Union and ‘Red’
China. And we all know how Nazi Germany treated those who transgressed the
tonal rule of thumb … 20

The rhetoric of Deane’s writings, evincing an uncompromisingly modernist

outlook, is particularly intolerant of composers who could be deemed reactionary
in any way, so much so that at times he risks sounding totalitarian himself. In
a review of an RTÉ Symphony Orchestra performance of Shostakovich’s 15th
Symphony for instance, he castigates a state of affairs in which so much care and
attention is afforded to this ‘redundant music’ whose composer’s ‘submission to
the vile diktats of Stalin and Zhdanov constituted such an abject renunciation of
artistic integrity’.21 Given this stance it comes as no surprise that the question of a
distinctly ‘Irish’ form of art music – namely one that draws on elements of the folk
tradition to resolve the longstanding quest for the ‘Irish Bartók’ – is emphatically
rejected by Deane, who regarded the entire enterprise as an inward-looking edifice
of cultural insularity:

Nationalism: ‘Why have we no Irish Bartók?’ Because of history and geography –

it so happened that Bartók discovered Eastern-European folk music at a time
when its ‘barbarism’ chimed in perfectly with the ethos of Western ‘classical’
music. Such circumstances don’t apply in contemporary Ireland, and attempts
to wed traditional Irish music to an ‘avant-garde’ idiom can lead only to a kind
of Bord Fáilte aesthetic.22

In refuting the need for an ‘Irish Bartók’, it is again Adorno to whom Deane turns.
Despite Bartók’s recourse to folk material, Adorno regarded his music as having ‘a
power of alienation that associates it with the avant-garde and not with nationalistic

 Deane, ‘Tailpiece’, April–May 1983. p. 40.
 Deane, ‘Shostakovich and Mahler’, Soundpost, December 1982–January 1983,
pp. 27–8.
 Deane, ‘Tailpiece’, p. 40.
142 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

reaction’.23 Thus for Adorno, as well as for Deane, Bartók’s use of folk material
was legitimate because it remained untouched by the dominant forces of western
industrialization, which therefore validated its use for progressive ends, a situation
not applicable in contemporary Ireland according to Deane.
Anxious to turn his anti-fascist inclinations into concrete action, Deane made
his first forays into activism during the 1980s by taking part in a support group
for Nicaragua.24 Although many of the causes he supported (such as Nicaragua
and South Africa) would appear to have shared a combined anti-colonialist/anti-
imperialist ethos, his teenage prejudices against the combined Catholicism and
nationalism of his parents continued to exert a powerful hold on his outlook and
created complications when it came to supporting certain groups over others. He
remained indifferent to the situation in Northern Ireland and even had problems
supporting the Palestinians, against whom he had developed a bias due to his
parents support for them (which was based on an exaggerated dismissal of what
they saw as British propaganda).25 However, the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990
profoundly changed his attitude in this regard.26 During the run up to the US-
led military coalition intervention he was living in Paris where he observed what
appeared to be an opposition to the war by the majority of French people. His
own opposition led him to take part in a series of anti-war protest marches. His
dismay at President Mitterrand’s decision to commit France to the war effort
forced him to rationalize the motivations of Britain and the USA. Both countries
had enthusiastically adhered to this particular series of UN resolutions while
simultaneously ignoring those that related to other conflicts such as Israel in
Palestine or Indonesia in East Timor:27

Oil was clearly one answer; others were the consolidation of Israel’s hegemony
in the region, the lust to test new weaponry on a people regarded as subhuman
(echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the heaven-sent opportunity to wrest
compliance from the Gulf states to a massive and permanent occupation of
their region by US military and naval forces. These motives, I realised, were
inherently imperialistic.28

Deane began to read the publications of academics and journalists who were notably
critical of Anglo/American foreign policy such as Noam Chomsky, Christopher
Hitchens, John Pilger, Edward Herman and Edward Said. The influence of these
writers prompted him to take a highly sceptical view of Britain’s post-colonial
influence in world affairs, one that identified it primarily as an adjunct to US

 Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, p. 176.
 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 8.
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 143

imperialism.29 As such he found it was no longer possible for him to separate the
Northern Ireland question from the wider issue of neo-colonial activity on the part
of Britain and the USA. On the issue of Palestine, he had, by now, changed his
stance and his travels through the Middle East in 1993 reinforced this position.
After an extended trip through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, his arrival in
Palestine coincided with the last months of the first intifada (1987–93) against
the Israeli occupation.30 The plight of the beleaguered Palestinians stirred in him
a deep sense of outrage directed at both the state of Israel and its international
supporters.31 This predicament of the Palestinian people informed the composition
of his Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (1993–94), which was begun on his return
from the Middle East.32 The work inverts the traditional heroic role of the soloist,
who instead is treated more like an exile surrounded by the overwhelming force of
a full orchestra with triple woodwind, an enlarged percussion section and organ.
Despite this the oboe manages to hold its own during the first two movements in
the face of violent incursions from both the orchestra and the soprano saxophone.
At the end of both movements it rises to a top E, a note that has symbolic
resonances throughout the work. In the third movement, the only movement that
Deane insists is ‘deliberately programmatic’, the oboe once again emphasizes the
top E. Almost simultaneously, however, the full force of the orchestra is unleashed
and, after feigning jubilation, its role turns to that of an oppressor before gradually
fading to silence amid a backdrop of thunderous rolls from the timpani and bass
drum. After emerging from the silence, the oboe’s final statement, a repetition of
the gesture that opened the work, is taken over by the soprano saxophone. This
outcome would appear to symbolically encapsulate the fractured narrative of the
Palestinian struggle, which in Deane’s words ‘seemed constantly fated to approach
liberation and then be thrust back into subjection’.33
These experiences added a new dimension to Deane’s critiques of attitudes
prevalent in Ireland towards contemporary art music. Previously, he had attributed
the marginalization of living composers almost solely to the market-oriented
strategies of bodies such as the Arts Council and the national broadcaster RTÉ
whose policies he perceived to be directly responsible for the cultivation of a
reactionary music scene. However, his writings throughout the 1990s take on a
greater sophistication and draw heavily on the post-colonial theories of Edward
Said to further develop his criticism. In Culture and Imperialism, Said writes
of the lingering spectre of colonialism, which remains a potent force within the
mindset of formerly subjugated peoples:

 Zuk, Raymond Deane, p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 88.
 See Deane’s program note for this work available at http://www.raymonddeane.
com/compositions.php (accessed December 2013).
 Zuk, Raymond Deane, p. 88.
144 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

To a very great degree the era of high nineteenth-century imperialism is

over … although that era clearly had an identity all its own, the meaning of
the imperial past is not totally contained within it, but has entered the reality
of hundreds of millions of people, where its existence as shared memory and
as a highly conflictual texture of culture, ideology, and policy still exercises
tremendous force.34

The legacy of imperialism in Ireland and its residual existence as a ‘shared

memory’ in the Irish psyche begins to feature strongly in Deane’s writings
from the mid 1990s. In perhaps his most cited essay ‘The Honour of Non-
Existence – Classical Composers in Irish Society’, Deane adopts Said’s thesis to
his own purposes. After stating the view that ‘any analysis of the Irish scene that
shirks analysis of its imperialist/colonialist dimension must be inadequate’, he
proceeds to examine the success of U2 as a reflection of Ireland’s new found modern
nationalism.35 The examination begins by citing an article by John Waters in the
Irish Times entitled ‘Let our brilliant music be the flow of Modern Nationalism’
where Waters asserts that the success of Irish musicians such as U2 prove that ‘far
from being a backward island, Ireland can lead the rest of the world in matters that
matter’.36 Earlier in the article Waters had naively suggested: ‘There are no great
modern Irish painters or composers’.37 Not surprisingly, Deane dismisses the entire
premise of the article as nonsense but in doing so suggests that the veneration
of U2’s commercial success is a symptom of current Irish national identity, one
that primarily consists of a ‘conformity with the total commodification of the
world that … is America’s supreme contribution to modern civilisation’.38 Thus
for Deane, the tendency to see Ireland’s success solely in mercantilist terms is a
sure sign of the ‘process of auto-colonisation that is steadily replacing the direct
colonialism that has for so long bedevilled us’.39 The role of Irish traditional music
in this process of ‘auto-colonisation’ is also addressed by Deane later in the same
article. Again he takes his cue from Said who warns:

In post-colonial national states, the liabilities of such essences as the Celtic

spirit … are clear: they have much to do not only with the native manipulators,
who also use them to cover up contemporary faults, corruptions, tyrannies, but
also with the embattled imperial contexts out of which they came and in which
they were felt to be necessary.40

 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London, 1993), p. 11.


 Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence’, pp. 205–6.


 John Waters, ‘Let our Brilliant Music be the Food of Modern Nationalism’, Irish
Times, 29 June 1993.
 Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence’, p. 207.
 Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 17.
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 145

Deane’s objections are not with traditional music per se but rather with its
conformity with commercial norms. He lists a number of composers including
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Shaun Davey, Bill Whelan and Patrick Cassidy who
have achieved considerable success internationally but whose ‘populist rhetoric’
and alleged belittlement by an ‘imaginary classical establishment’ suggest ‘a new
indoctrination and exclusiveness’:41

That these composers should have surgically implanted cosmetic versions of

Irish materials into the homogenous Anglo-American framework of World
Music – itself a cleverly disguised form of cultural imperialism … and that their
work should be seen by the media as a triumphant assertion of Irish identity, are
potent reflections of the new auto-colonialism.42

The third movement of Deane’s String Quartet No. 3 Inter Pares (2000) contains
a satirical take on the kind of air-brushed ‘Celticism’ that he believes has become
ubiquitous in recent years. Approximately mid-way through the movement,
fragments of a jig appear which proceed to be progressively mangled by the
surrounding material. In an interview with Benjamin Dwyer he describes the kind
of Irish music he intended to parody:

I was thinking more of the Celtic Tiger and certain ‘Lord of the Dance’-type
manifestations … and so in the middle of the Scherzo you get this ghastly
apparition of an Irish tune that goes mad for about forty seconds and then
disappears into thin air. That’s my comment on the Celtic Tiger.43

Although the topic of Northern Ireland is briefly alluded to in his two major
articles of the mid 1990s (‘The Honour of Non-Existence’ and ‘In Praise of
Begrudgery’) which deal with the issue of art music in Irish society, his article in
the Spring 1998 edition of Graph entitled ‘I Was a Teenage Unionist’ addresses
the issue of Northern Ireland directly in what was the composer’s first major
political essay.44 Significantly, the publication of this article coincided with the
signing of the Good Friday Agreement.45 Beginning with a frank account of the
family circumstances that led to his own rejection of nationalism, Deane returns
to the figure of Conor Cruise O’Brien, his teenage hero. While assuming the
guise of an outspoken liberal, Cruise O’Brien’s subsequent support for the state

 Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence’, p. 209.
 Ibid, pp. 209–10.
 Deane quoted in ‘Contemporary Music Centre Interview with Benjamin Dwyer’.
 See Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, pp. 6–9.
 The Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998 in Belfast and constituted
a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was the result of
multi-party negotiations between the major Northern Ireland political parties and the British
and Irish governments.
146 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

of Israel and his Unionist tendencies are held up by Deane as the most extreme
paradigm of the type of ‘knee-jerk anti-nationalism and anti-clericalism’46 that he
believes has led many Irish people (including himself) to allow their revulsion
towards the Catholic church to turn the institution into a ‘universal scapegoat’
while simultaneously absolving Britain of its responsibility towards the minority
in Northern Ireland.47 In concluding the article, Deane advocates a return to the
tradition of civic republicanism, an ideal that he believes could usefully function
as a healthy bulwark in keeping the forces of Anglo-American imperialism at bay.
Regarding the Good Friday Agreement he writes:

With the new agreement, the enshrinement of the principle of ‘consent’ in

the Republic’s constitution leaves intact the right to aspire to Irish unity (or
to decolonisation, as I would phrase it) but entails no obligation on any Irish
government to work towards that end. It therefore behoves rational republicans,
freed by peace from the facile accusation of being linked with paramilitary
violence, to exercise unremitting vigilance in discouraging our politicians from
ever again sweeping the republican ideal under the carpet. In such concealment
it can only fester – it certainly won’t die.48

Although arriving at a late hour, Deane’s espousal of civic republicanism naturally

has implications for any attempts to glean a sense of identity from his music and his
writings. Clearly he is no advocate of Celtic Tiger Ireland. A consistent argument
throughout his writings is that Ireland’s uncritical acceptance of a neo-liberal
capitalist ideology coinciding with a renunciation of civic republican values has
resulted in a sense of national identity that exhibits all the signs of a post-colonial
inferiority complex. This in turn has led to the active suppression of radically
new Irish art in the pursuit of more commercially acceptable forms, a situation
most acutely felt in the case of contemporary classical music. Thus in modern
Ireland’s attempt to rid itself of the colonial oppressor it comes perilously close to
emulating it. Implicated in this suppression is the role of Irish cultural historians
and musicologists. Along with other cultural bodies, Deane has been notably
persistent in his criticism of Irish academia for its failure to devote significant
attention to the work of Irish composers. In this regard, his 2005 essay, ‘Exploding
the Continuum – The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’ functions in many ways
as a summing up of his writings to date. It deals specifically with the issue of
critical neglect and in doing so draws together many of the evolving strands of his
previous writings:

Although there are a great many classical composers producing a great deal of
extraordinary music today, it remains by and large undisseminated whether in

 Deane, ‘What the Proclamation Means To Me’.
 Deane, ‘I was a Teenage Unionist’, p. 9.
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 147

published form or on CD. The inability of our historians and musicologists to

do justice to their work is inextricably linked with the unwillingness of such
authorities to give living presence to composers of the past who cannot be
subsumed with the parameters of continuity and majority.49

As implied by the title of the essay, Deane dismisses the notion that an ‘unbroken
tradition’ is an essential pre-requisite to a thriving musical culture and argues
that the tendency of Irish historians to exclude Irish composers on this basis is
profoundly misguided. As an alternative he looks to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses
on the Philosophy of History’. In this work, Benjamin criticizes historicism’s
universalist insistence on development and continuity in the service of an all-
embracing narrative liking it to ‘the triumphal procession in which the present
rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’.50 The triumphal procession in
Deane’s analysis is that of western ‘neo-liberal, developmental capitalism’, whose
ideology Ireland has recently embraced with wholehearted enthusiasm. In this
narrative, art music is accorded no place, supplanted in Irish cultural discourse by
the more internationally appealing contention that Ireland is primarily a literary
nation. According to Deane, however, such an assertion is not backed up by the
current state of Irish writing:

It is as if, once the messy business of Modernism had been put behind
us, Irish literature proper began with Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faolain and
culminated in Colm Toibín and Roddy Doyle, with an honourable niche reserved
for Seamus Heaney. With these writers Irish Literature at last grew up, merging
with the Great Tradition of English realism and becoming eligible for British
and Irish literary awards, and indeed the Nobel Prize itself. Such a perception
involves ignoring literature in Irish, and marginalising to the point of exclusion
both the 19th century figures (Mangan, Maturin, Edgeworth) and modernists like
Thomas Kinsella … As for prose, one gets the impression that ‘experimental’
fiction is either not being written or, more likely, not being published.51

A closer look at the history of Irish music on the other hand reveals a different
perspective on the present, but in order for it to be illuminated, Deane maintains
that a more interpretive form of historiography is required. Again he turns to
Benjamin who makes a distinction between historicism and historical materialism.
Historicism, for Benjamin, ‘contents itself with establishing causal connection
between various moments in history’,52 it is therefore teleological, bound up
in the narration of a smooth totalizing sequence. If the history of Irish music
is characterized by rupture and breakdown, tradition is called upon to impose

 Deane, ‘Exploding the Continuum’, p. 112.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London, 1999), p. 248.
 Deane, ‘Exploding the Continuum’, p. 112.
 Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 255.
148 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

order on this shattered narrative. However, for Deane, this assumption that an
unbroken tradition is an absolute necessity is both delusional and ideological; and
furthermore he claims that attempts to ‘mend’ this tradition by Irish musicologists
have paradoxically led to the exclusion of significant figures in Irish composition.
As an alternative form of historiography, Deane turns to Benjamin’s advocacy of
historical materialism conjoined with a ‘minor tradition’ that aims to ‘blast a specific
era out of the homogenous course of history’.53 This notion of a ‘minor tradition’,
which Deane derives from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on Kafka,
is somewhat similar to Jean-François Lyotard’s idea of the ‘little narrative’ that
is conventionally employed to deconstruct grand narratives of nation and culture
with the aim of achieving strategic objectives that had hitherto been suppressed.54
Rather than ‘selection’ being determined by a pre-ordained narrative, under this
approach it is in fact ‘selection’ that determines the narrative while at the same
time acknowledging the demands of the present that make this process necessary.
In ‘Exploding the Continuum – The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’ Deane
goes about fulfilling this task by drawing up a ‘constellation’ of composers that
he emphasizes is only one of a number of possible ‘minor’ traditions. However,
his invention of this particular tradition is extremely illuminating from the
perspective of Deane’s own music. Beginning with Turlough Carolan, he charts
a course through the history of Irish composition devoting considerable space to
such figures as Thomas Roseingrave (1688–1766), John Field (1782–1837) and
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), briefly mentioning twentieth-century
figures such as Frederick May (1911–85), Seán Ó Riada (1931–71) and Seóirse
Bodley (b. 1933) before culminating with a relatively detailed discussion of the
younger composers Roger Doyle (b.1949) and Gerald Barry (b.1952). For the
first four composers, Deane constructs his criteria for inclusion around issues of
formal subversion and discontinuity in their work. In the case of Carolan, he notes
the harpist’s blindness and lack of formal musical education and preference for
compact forms. Roseingrave’s inclusion is based on his iconoclastic approach to
form. Deane describes his Voluntary in G minor (1728) as a ‘vertiginous course
of modulation that is potentially endless’. A similar brand of formal subversion
is detected in Field who in Deane’s eyes was ‘a modernist, an innovator who
found forms to embody the absence of form’. Indeed Field’s experimentation
has been a recurring topic for Deane who, in ‘The Honour of Non-Existence’,
suggested that ‘Field’s Irishness … [resided] less in the appropriation of national
melodies (not a significant aspect of his work in any case) than in (comparative!)
formal subversiveness’.55 In this company, the inclusion of Stanford would appear
highly contentious. Deane, however, focuses on a Stanford miniature, the popular

 Ibid, p. 254.

 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans.


Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester, 1984), p. 60. See also Gilles Deleuze
and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minnesota, 1986).
 Deane, ‘The Honour of Non-Existence’, p. 209.
The Honourable Tradition of Non-existence 149

part song The Bluebird (1910), which he writes ‘is most notable for its ending:
it has none. The final supertonic E-flat hanging in suspension is perhaps the sole
concession to modernism in Stanford’s output.’ He then proceeds to survey the
‘honourable’ failures of May, Ó Riada and Bodley who were unable to establish an
independence for Irish music as they sought ‘to ally themselves with continuities
of one kind or another – whether those offered by the imperial neighbour or
by an idealised version of the Irish tradition itself’. The figures of Doyle and
Barry are then presented as having transcended these issues. In his work Under
the Green Time (1995) – where a live piper interacts with a pre-recorded tape
derived from uillean pipe music – Doyle evokes ‘an image of Ireland without the
sweet Celtic wrapping’,56 that is, without the use of quotation from the traditional
repertory. Similarly with Barry, Irish elements in works such as Ø (1979), Sur
les Pointes (1981), Sextet (1992–93), the Piano Quartet No. 1 (1992) are used
as source material but are rendered unrecognizable by the composer’s distinctive
composition strategies. The work of both composers in Deane eyes ‘renders
questions of congruity or incongruity redundant’.
The more important question, however, with regard to this ‘minor tradition’
is: what is the relationship of Deane’s music to this ‘tradition’? Is this tradition
intrinsically linked to his own sense of identity? The focus on the figures of
Carolan, Roseingrave, Field and Stanford in terms of formal experimentation
neatly ties in with Deane’s observations concerning the formal construction of
his own music, which he has succinctly referred to as ‘the productive friction of
contradictions’.57 This phrase describes a structural process in his music whereby
opposing sets of material are brought into a dialectical conflict. In most cases,
however, a synthesis of the disparate materials contained within a particular piece
is rejected in favour of non-resolution. The dialectic between opposing materials
is deconstructed or abandoned, often prompting the introduction of new material
that has hitherto not featured in the work.58 Given this tendency towards formal
subversiveness in his own music, the urge to identify with the often idiosyncratic
nature of various works by older generations of Irish composers should come as
no surprise. The music of Doyle and Barry, both of whom make use of formal
models characterized by a rambunctious approach to structure and a love of
the unpredictable, would also correspond to this tradition. On the whole it is a
formulation that brings together the insights of Adorno, Said and Benjamin: it
posits a minor tradition of Irish formal experimentation as a mediated reflection
of the fragmented narrative of Irish nationalism that, in turn, is mobilized to act
as a critique of the current narrative (or indeed current ideology) of Celtic Tiger

 Roger Doyle, liner notes for Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Under the Green Time,
CD, NBECD 001. Quoted by Deane.
 Taken from the composer’s profile on the Contemporary Music Centre website
http://cmc.ie/composers/composer.cfm?composerID=30 (accessed 18 May 2011).
 This strategy shares certain similarities with Adorno’s method of negative dialectics.
150 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Ireland. This ‘minor’ tradition, Deane argues, is a more productive way of viewing
the history of Irish art music:

Celtic tiger Ireland has become a developed country, as embarrassed by its

tradition of opposition to colonialism as by the poverty and eccentricity of a
Carolan or Mangan, exorbitantly proud of the wealth of a handful of millionaire
tax-dodgers, and eager to be represented abroad by commercially successful
authors and musicians. In this context, Ireland at last enters History, defined as
the history of western capitalism, and becomes part of ‘an unbroken tradition’
which breaks with the (anti-) tradition of Irish radicalism, which has always
courted fragmentation. In this context, music is commercial or it is sidelined.
Commercial music shuns discontinuity. In its appropriation of Irish elements it
often reverts to a Victorian or Edwardian mode of arrangement; in the absence
of such appropriation, it embraces the canons of Anglo-Americanism. As against
this, the best contemporary classical music seeks different ways of linking
disparate musical events, including their radical non-linkage.59

Many of Deane’s writings are constructed like a manifesto and are therefore prone to
the inevitable binary polemics that such a stance usually entails. His wholehearted
commitment to modernism can, at times, lead to wholesale dismissals, a trait that
for many readers might tend to weaken rather than strengthen his arguments.
Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly much truth in his conclusion that Ireland’s
cultural managers have been all too willing to embrace an internationally appealing
image at the expense of nurturing genuinely radical art. The fact that contemporary
art music continues to occupy an isolated position on the fringes of Irish cultural
discourse is surely one of the most potent reflections of this, despite the fact
that many Irish composers have since achieved international distinction. While
there have been improvements in this area, there is still clearly a large degree of
justified resentment directed towards Irish cultural institutions, a feeling no doubt
shared by other Irish composers. Although these judgements on modern Ireland’s
shortcomings would seem to be symptomatic of an avowed resistance on Deane’s
part towards the concept of ‘Irishness’, they are nevertheless counterbalanced by
an optimism for the quality of work currently being produced by certain Irish
artists. This is also complemented by Deane’s recent efforts to revise his views on
the merits of research into the work of previous generations of Irish composers.
While he rarely mentions his own work in any of his writings, it is clear that behind
his formulation of a tradition of Irish art music characterized by fragmentation and
discontinuity, there is a sense of affinity between his own artistic sensibilities and
the music of those figures that he has chosen to include. Thus the identification
with the more ‘modernist’ elements of Irish composition can be interpreted as an
attempt on Deane’s part to project an alternative Irish identity, one that resists the
commercialism and self-aggrandisement of the recent past.

 Deane, ‘Exploding the Continuum’, p. 112.

Chapter 9
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed:
Irish Traditional Musical Identity in
Changing Community Contexts
Kari K. Veblen

This chapter examines Irish traditional music (and musical identity) as it moves
from rural origins to commercialized Celtic fusions, paralleling changes in Irish
society. In the popular imagination, Irish music resonates with community, a circle
and a localized group of people where lines between performer and audience blur,
where the processes of teaching and learning meld with participation. But how
do these perceived notions balance with emerging global contexts? The chapter
explores Irish musical identity via two recorded musical moments – one from
rural Ireland of 60 years ago and one from the Celtic Tiger years of the mid-
1990s – through the lenses of narrative inquiry, the process of retrospective
meaning-making through storytelling.
Narrative research, or narrative inquiry, is a comparatively new interdisciplinary
methodology of particular value in disciplines such as the social sciences, medicine,
education, law, and other areas concerned with individual and collective identities.
Life stories, biographies, memoirs, and all manner of personal interpretations
may be mined for a deeper understanding of the human condition. Clandinin and
Connelly maintain that narrative inquiry – the process of researching through
storytelling – captures and investigates experiences as people live them through
time, relationships and cultural contexts.1
Narrative inquiry is both a qualitative research tool and a form of distinct
discourse.2 This piece draws upon audio and digital images, field recordings
and written accounts to generate information. The analysis employs qualitative
strategies of ethnography and narrative inquiry; findings are reported through
a dense collage of images, interpretations, and understandings. The author first
visited Ireland from North America in the late 1980s; she persists in a long-term
research project of teaching and learning practices in Irish traditional music,

 D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, Narrative Inquiry: Experience and
Story in Qualitative Research (San Francisco, 2000), pp. 48–62.
 Susan E. Chase, ‘Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices’, in
Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative
Research, 3rd edition (Thousand Oaks, CA, 2005), pp. 651–79.
152 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

with particular attention to the timeframe explored in this chapter – that of living
memory and changing tides.
Two particular cultural moments, recorded musical events from 1951 and
from 1996, are chosen to illuminate understandings of Irish identity in transition
from rural to global contexts. Both stories here are narrated and interpreted as
separate entities, and later contrasted. The second moment takes place in a modern
recording studio where several musical genres are combined to make a ‘world
music’ product. The first moment was an early field recording of an event that took
place in Connemara, in the rural west of Ireland. The author catalogues components
of the event as interpreted through the audio recording. The ideological framing of
political, social, and cultural forces, as well as factors such as the BBC recording
crew and the presence of Alan Lomax, who instigated this field recording, only hint
at broader factors that affect Irish music as well as the Irish nation and its people.

‘The Copper Plate’ in Connemara, 1951

A BBC Archival recording from 1951 captures a moment at an outdoor festival

in Connemara.3 The high-pitched gymnastics of a tin whistle are countered by
a dancer’s rhythmic stepping. The crowd cheers and encourages both player
and dancer, hoping for even fancier footwork, higher leaps, and more dazzling
melodic feats. More tellingly, this recording delineates the connections between
community, musician, and dancer at that time and place. ‘Come on, Stephen, come
on!’ – words of encouragement and exhortation to a young dancer, Stephen Folan,
on a special occasion in Connemara, in the far west of Ireland, nearly 60 years
ago.4 The occasion is a visit to the Irish-speaking village of Carna5 by the collector
and master musician Séamus Ennis,6 an old friend to the music community here

 A shortened audioclip may be downloaded from CD Universe: http://www.cduniverse.
Ireland.htm (accessed 12 December 2013). Alan Lomax and Séamus Ennis, ‘The Copper
Plate’, original BBC field recording, 1951, reissued on World Library of Folk and Primitive
Music: Ireland, ed. Nicholas Carolan (Rounder CD 1742, 1998).
 The dancer, Stiofáin Ó Cualáin or Stephen Folan, was a teenager at the time of
this recording. He went on to train as a schoolteacher, leading a productive life in the
community, teaching its children and performing occasionally as a dancer.
 Once ubiquitous throughout the nation, Ireland’s branch of Gaelic is now spoken
primarily in seven Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking enclaves). These are located in Munster (the
South – in parts of Kerry, Cork and Waterford), Connacht (the West – especially in the Aran
Islands and County Mayo) and in Ulster (the North – in County Donegal, the largest of all
Irish-speaking regions).
 Séamus Ennis was an important figure in the world of Irish traditional music. As a
collector, fluent in all of the dialects of Irish and in Scots Gaelic, he assembled the most
extensive manuscript collection of song in Irish in existence. As a broadcaster, he was
seminal to the post-war folk revival in Britain and Ireland. He was also a renowned uilleann
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 153

whose visits are significant events in this isolated area. On this occasion, Ennis is
acting as facilitator and guide to the American folklorist Alan Lomax, who is on
a collecting trip, taping music for an historic and seminal series of recordings.7
And now it is time for the young dancer to display his expertise. Folan’s
community surrounds him, proud of his prowess as the standard-bearer of their local
tradition and eager to show him off at his best. There is a keen air of expectation,
palpable in the atmosphere generated first by the calls of encouragement from the
assembled spectators and then by the introductory flourish on the tin whistle, played
by Ennis. Heir to a long, classic tradition of uilleann piping, Ennis is one of the great
figures of the twentieth century in traditional music; but here it is the dancing that is
the draw. The music, while essential and of absorbing interest in itself, is subordinate
to the dance. The tune begins, a familiar reel known as ‘The Copper Plate’, and
after one round of the first section (or ‘part’) of the tune flies by at a sparkling pace,
we hear the characteristic tapping of Irish solo footwork as the dance performance
begins. Heralded by a call from a spectator, ‘Faoi do chois é!’ [‘It’s under your
foot!’] (as if the caller is pointing out something the dancer needs to stamp out with
his tapping feet), the standard encouragement for a dancer in this part of Connemara,
we hear the staccato footwork of the dancer interacting with the frolic of fingers
on the tin whistle, the melody endlessly varied and embellished with a wealth of
flourishes, the phrasing and rhythm reshaped in a whirlwind of notes.
As Stephen dances, his interaction with the spectators persists as their verbal
interjections continue, swell, subside, and continue again. They call to him, he
responds with ever more embellishment, and they shout in appreciation in return.
‘Ah, grá mo chroí thú!’ [‘Ah, you are the love of my heart!’], declares one voice.
Another exclaims, ‘Dia leat, a Stiofáin!’ [‘God be with you, Stephen!’]. As the
dancer adds ever more intricate footwork and more flamboyant hand gestures
and body movements, the exhortations and calls of appreciation finally rise to
a climax at a high point in the dancing, with full-blooded roars of delight from
the spectators. Even after this peak in the performance, the calls still continue,
‘Dia go deo leat!’ [‘God be with you forever!’]. Of the dancer’s performance,
we only experience what is audible, what is ‘close to the floor’. In sean-nós, or
‘old-style’, dancing as traditionally performed in Connemara, there is little of the

piper, considered a repository of a style now regarded as lying within the classic tradition
of piping, in contrast to more popular styles now in vogue. Ennis can be considered to have
made a considerable contribution to the relevance and popularity of Irish traditional music
in the second half of the twentieth century. See Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, A Pocket History
of Irish Traditional Music (Dublin, 1998), pp. 115–34 for a discussion of Ennis and revival
of dance traditions.
 Lomax worked with Séamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy, among others, on field
recordings throughout Ireland and Britain during the 1940s and 1950s. These recordings
became known through popular weekly radio shows, concerts, song books, and television
broadcasts. See the liner notes to The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (Rounder
CD 1700, 1997).
154 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

rigidity that is stereotypically associated with the more regimented Irish dancing
taught for formal competitions.8 The dancer here has a free flow of bodily and
temporal expression: he can respond at will to the moment and to the atmosphere
with his shoulders loosely gesturing, lifting, and shrugging as he dances, his arms
and hands gesticulating, his hips swaying.
At the end of the tune, as the dance draws to a close, the tin whistle finds an
improvised final cadence in a high phrase. Happy, satisfied applause is accompanied
by more words, now of appreciation, from the spectators, the participating
community who themselves have been such an integral part of the performance.
The whole cycle of this performance has taken less than two minutes, beginning
with community expectation and exhortation, continuing through a collaborative
musical performance that provides community interaction in a dramatic setting
that includes a musical climax, leading to fulfilment and happiness in a successful
expression of the community’s soul in its music. Yet – as short as the performance
is – a world is expressed in this tiny happening; a listener 60 years after the sound
recording has the opportunity to experience, enjoy, and participate vicariously in
what was and still is a living tradition. This is a music that eagerly welcomes
‘outsiders’ and quickly makes them feel very much ‘at home’.
The contexts and the communities within which Irish traditional music lives
are ever changing, never more dramatically than now. The constituent parts of this
performance give suggestions of what the dance embodies as well as the ways that
the music and the community assert and perpetuate themselves. Folan is practising
sean nós, ‘old style’, dancing, his face intense as he improvises steps, lifting his
knee high, one arm gesturing, feet clogging out the rhythmic counterpoint to the
melody. The field recording catches echoes of a kind of dancing that exists outside
the institutionalized and codified dance that began as part of an Irish cultural
renaissance about a century ago. This dancing recalls a previous era before dancing
was organized by centralized organizations connected to the national movement
and linked to rigid Catholic moral ethos. There is a freedom of movement of hand
and arm gestures, of personal expression, of improvisation, and of response to
the moment that is absent from the hierarchical and strictly regimented regime
imposed by national dancing organizations. It is likely that other people in the
crowd would have danced before, after, or with the dancer being recorded and that
other musicians might have played along with the tin whistler. While some people
in an area might have been well-known for their playing or dancing (or for singing,
storytelling or other social graces), many, if not most, of the people enjoying this
day would have been musicians and dancers and singers, as well.
I would suggest that, as with other musical traditions, the social context that
encourages spontaneous performance of this music is furthered by other musical
expectations. Irish traditional music is an art form on a small scale; listeners enjoy

 See, for example, Helena Wulff, Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility
in Ireland (New York, 2007) and Frank Hall, Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty
(Madison, 2008). Currently sean nós dancing is enjoying a resurgence in Ireland.
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 155

the nuances of ornamentation and tune juxtaposition played by a solo instrument

as well as variations on familiar steps done by a solo dancer. Onlookers savour the
familiarity of a tune, the individuality of an interpretation, and the virtuosity of
a performance if it is present. As this listening example illustrates, a tune played
or sung by a lone musician is considered a complete performance in itself. While
additional instruments contributing harmonic accompaniment might be welcomed,
they are not necessary for music to happen. Any number or combination of
instruments may play together, but usually all the instruments play a tune in unison
with no intentional counterpoint. Such flexibility and, in the case of the tin whistle,
portability help to create and enhance the spontaneity and supportive community
context that ensures this genre’s popularity. On the occasion of this recording,
Dublin-born Séamus Ennis, the whistler, is not only a virtuoso (on uilleann pipes
as well as tin whistle), but a pioneering collector of traditional music as well as an
urbane raconteur beloved in rural areas.
The tune featured here, ‘The Copper Plate’,9 is a reel, by far the most popular
tune-type in the Irish tradition; the lively dance that accompanies it was originally
performed solo by both men and women and has long since been incorporated
into the quadrille sets that are currently so popular. High virtuosity in the playing
of reels has developed among players, and contemporary sessions often consist
almost entirely of reel-playing. The reel first came to Ireland when a resurgent
interest in Scotland, as part of the Romantic revival in the late eighteenth century,
brought a handful of examples across the Irish Sea. Immediately popular, this
dance form engaged all the exuberant creativity of nineteenth-century rural Irish
musicians who generated a total of at least 4,000 reels. Reels are still composed
today, recent examples often in styles influenced by popular music styles and by
the harmonic consciousness implicit in them, which is now beginning to be part of
the internal musical consciousness of younger traditional musicians.10

 For variants of this tune in notation and ABC tablature, a compilation of recordings
and comments visit The Session at http://www.thesession.org (accessed December 2013).
 Whereas all of the tune-types present in the Irish tradition represent some phase
of the Enlightenment (and all of these have separate relations to it), the reel is especially
fruitful in this regard. It is possible to see Irish dance music as an indicator – in the particular
conditions existing in Ireland – of modernity and of the ‘triumph’ of rationality in the early
seventeenth century. The reel became localized in Ireland during, and as a result of, its
fashionable vogue in Scotland, and it is of absorbing interest that it originally developed not
as a folk or traditional form but as a phenomenon of high fashion. The reel was the voice of
the contemporary zeitgeist, the height of intellectual and political chic. The newly composed
examples of the reel – the ‘genetic’ progenitors of the thousands in the Irish tradition today –
expressed the romantic interest in the ‘noble savage’ of Rousseau; as the musical equivalents
of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’, they represented a new (or newly reified) cultural genre in the
image of a dim and idealized past, a fashionable and politically aware genre formed by, and
forming, a new consciousness. It is hardly an accident that the arrival of new fashionable
genres – the hornpipe also arrived, via the English stage, about this time – coincided with the
first recorded efforts to collect the music of the older harpers in Ireland.
156 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

This event is entirely male-dominated. The dancer and the instrumentalist are
male, and if there are women among the spectators, we hear no verbal contributions
from them. Solo exhibitionist dancing in the Irish tradition, especially dances that
require heavy footwork, has been a traditionally male endeavour. Lighter dances,
performed noiselessly in soft shoes, were regarded as more suitable for women. In
the days of house-dances (which died out in the 1930s), it was often a feature to
have an exhibition solo dance between the quadrilles: sometimes a half-door would
be taken down to form a platform for the dancer. Solo dancers were predominantly
male: exhibitionism – and the horseplay that often went with this kind of male
showing-off – was regarded as unsuited to women.11
Traditional music and its associated social practices (including, stereotypically,
heavy alcohol consumption and extended frequenting of pubs) were considered
inimical to the family ethos that protected women in their primary function as
mothers in an overwhelmingly Catholic community. It was socially taboo for a
woman to appear in a pub; if she played or sang, she performed at home and only
on certain instruments. Only in recent years – since the 1960s – have women been
active in large numbers as performers in the Irish tradition, and this embracement
by significant numbers of women as a means of expression is one of the momentous
transformations in Irish tradition in recent times.12
This field recording documents a significant verbal component of the
performance. Calls, shouts, and whoops from the spectators signal their active
participation in the performance rather than simply passive attendance. The
performance takes place in what was then, and still generally is, a strongly Irish-
speaking area, and most of the interjections we hear on the recording are in Irish.
Although such remarks are formulaic, they are nonetheless deeply felt and hold
deep meaning. Well-tried formulas testify to the vivid presence of music and dance
among this Irish-speaking community. The largest remaining Gaeltacht [Irish-
speaking area] that remains is that in west County Galway, where this recording
was made: the area still has a rich singing tradition, known as amhránaíocht ar an
sean nós [singing in the old manner]. Cultural values implicit in the language and
of relevance to the music tradition in Ireland include the nurturing of ‘old ways’
of singing and dancing. The other Gaeltachtaí – principally those in counties
Donegal, Kerry, Cork and Waterford – also incorporate rich traditions of music,
dance and, particularly, song.

 For a discussion on male dominance in the history of Irish traditional music and
dance see Helen O’Shea, ‘“Good Man, Mary!” Women Musicians and the Fraternity of
Irish Traditional Music’, Journal of Gender Studies 17/1 (2008): 55–70.
 Rina Shiller discusses perceptions of gender and change in Irish traditional music
in ‘Gender and traditional Irish Music’, in Fintan Vallely, Hammy Hamilton, Eithne Vallely
and Liz Doherty (eds.), Crosbhealach an Cheol: Tradition and Change in Irish Traditional
Music (Dublin, 1999), pp. 200–205.
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 157

The details examined in this account of a recording of ‘The Copper Plate’,

show how history, culture, transmission, and context are encoded in one tiny,
happy musical performance that took place 60 years ago.

‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen To Me’, Afro-Celt Sound System, 199613

As ‘The Copper Plate’ illustrates, in Irish traditional music, a short performance

lasting only a minute or two can be a complete experiential entity. Broad
implications of culture and history are encoded in happenings that involve a very
small number of people – a musician, a dancer, and a few onlookers or a lone
singer and a listener or two. The contexts and the communities within which Irish
traditional music has its life are ever-changing, never more dramatically than now.
Some of the original participants in the Connemara event of 1951 may well be
flourishing, and if so, it would be interesting to get their take on the term ‘Celtic’.
Certainly this word when applied to music is contested,14 and yet, an enormous
audience of listeners consumes the newly constructed and marketed Celtic or
world music.
A seminal collaboration between Irish and West African musicians is Afro-
Celt Sound System’s Sound Magic, released in 1996.15 On this recording, an Irish
religious song ‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad’ [Listen to Me], is sung by a male sean-
nós singer. The melody unfolds against a background of strong drones, African
rhythms, Celtic harp, with some suggestions of Middle-Eastern scales in the
melodic interludes between verses. The entire performance partakes of the nature
of religious chant, with an ascetic Irish monk-like atmosphere interacting with
modalities suggesting the world of Islam, a haunting and imaginative hybrid of
great intensity.

Céad glóire leis an Athair,

N’ar mhór le rá A ’ainm,
Tá go cumhachtach ins na Flaithis,
Le trácht ag an saol.
Do chúm ’s do chló na haingil,
Go lonnrach, soillseach, lasmhar,
Gan smúit, gan cheo, gan pheaca,
Gan teimheal, mar an ngréin:
Do riaraigh spéartha ’s scamaill,

 ‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad’, Afro-Celt sound System, Volume 1: Sound Magic (Virgin/
Real World Records, CDRW61, 1996). See http://www.afrocelts.org/default.html (accessed
December 2013) for related articles, recent recordings and blog.
 As explored in John O’Flynn’s chapter in this volume.
 The Afro-Celt Sound System has continued to evolve over the past dozen years and
has gained a wide following.
158 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Chuir solas árd sa ghealaigh,

Na réiltín’ chugainn ag taithneamh
Gach oíche ar an spéir,
Do líon gach abha is caise,
Le slaodaibh tiubha len’ fheartaibh,
’S an mhór-mhuir bhrúchtach fhairsing,
Lán dá chuid éisc.

[A hundred glories to the Father, / Whose name is greatly revered, / Who is

powerful in the Heavens, / And greatly spoken of in the world. / Who created
and fashioned angels, / Resplendent, luminous, shining, / Spotless, stainless,
sinless, / Without tarnish, like the sun: / Who made skies and clouds, / And set
the high lamp of the moon, / The stars to us shining / Each night in the sky, /
Who filled each river and torrent, / Miraculously with thick waves, / And the
expansive, tidal ocean / Full of its fishes.]

An eighteenth-century hymn to God the Father, ‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad’ is

ascribed to the Munster poet Merriman. The melody used is that of a popular
song ‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’, named after an Irish rebel. That earlier song
is a lament for Gaelic losses of life and property in battles with the English. The
singer Iarla Ó Lionáird hails from Cúil Aodha in West Cork, a place noted for its
singing traditions:

My mother, grandmother and grandfather all sang sean-nós.16 My grand-aunt

Elizabeth Cronin was also a noted singer, better known to the archivists than
anyone else17 … From my childhood it became apparent I could sing like her
and without the slightest prompting. But I want to say something to you about
sean-nós. It is somewhat a continuum. If you look at the way traditional music
has become, we are at the tail end of the meaning of continuum because it’s the
way music is made today and the way in which it’s handed down.18

Although it may seem a contradiction to feature a genre of vocal music that has
previously been the province of a specific and linguistically bound community as

 The term sean-nós (‘old style’ or ‘in the old way’) refers to a particular type of
unaccompanied traditional singing performed exclusively in the Irish language. Sean
Williams writes, ‘Sean-nós singing is … often characterized by unaccompanied performance
in Irish or in English, free rhythm, relative lack of vibrato or dynamic change, and especially
by the use of rapid, melismatic ornamentation.’ See ‘Irish Singing’, http://academic.
evergreen.edu/ w/williams/seannos.htm (accessed December 2013). For further discussion,
see Anthony McCann, ‘Sean-nós Singing: A Bluffer’s Guide, The Living Tradition 24
(1998), http://www.folkmusic.net/htmfiles/inart378.htm (accessed December 2013).
 Elizabeth Cronin was, in fact, recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1940s.
 See http://www.iarla-o-lionaird.net (accessed December 2013).
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 159

well as the researchable domain of connoisseurs as the melodic arch soaring over
a world-music rhythmic foundation, Ó Lionáird feels that he has something to say
in modern music:

Emotion and performance is everything … Nowadays my music is injected into

other musical landscapes – Ambient, New Age, Techno, Dance and Traditional.
God knows what I’ll be working on next, but let me tell you this, I’m looking
forward to it.19

Iarla began performing at the age of five, his first radio broadcast was at age
seven, and he recorded ‘Aisling Gheal’ at age 12 for the Gael Linn label.20 As of
this writing, there are 27 YouTube recordings of Iarla Ó Lionáird, and some 75
YouTube videos (as well as numerous articles and interviews) of the Afro-Celt
Sound System. He was named the TG4 Gradam Ceoil21 Traditional Singer of the
Year in 2008.22
This recording embodies numerous paradoxes. There is a marked contrast
here between the studied, arranged and meditative feeling of this music and the
‘live’ immediacy captured in the ‘Copper Plate’ moment. As well, the intention
of each event is quite different: the ‘Copper Plate’ was a moment of performance
in a community context, likely never intended for future consumption. ‘Éistigh
Liomsa Sealad’, in contrast, arrives from deliberate collaboration and is a work
of art. How do we interpret this – as a blurring of traditions or as a refining of
individual expression? Even as ‘freeze-dried’ music becomes readily available
through global commodification, an individual musician will continue to assert
their personal style and musical ideas. As in the case of The Afro-Celt Sound
System, the musicians do not always feel that they need to adopt the old context or
even, in some cases, be of Irish heritage.
London-born tin whistle player James McNally, of the Afro-Celt Sound
System, describes his vision of the music as ‘predominantly dance with a two-
dimensional offshoot: Irish music and African rhythms’. He reminisces about the
band’s beginnings:

 D. Caren, ‘Old style for a New Age’, Irish Music 3/3 (1997b): 6–7.
 See http://www.allmusic.com/artist/iarla-lionird-p276373/biography (accessed
December 2013). A YouTube recording of ‘Aising Gheal’ recorded by Ó Lionáird at
age 14 can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3hkNdZ0Ns (accessed
December 2013).
 TG4 is a state-funded television channel, with the majority of its programming
in the Irish language. It has promoted and televised an annual Gradam Ceoil [Music
Awards] event since 1998.
 He continues to find new soundscapes. One of Ó Lionáird’s recent projects is the
solo project ‘Sound Fields’ where ‘his haunting voice is offset against the sort of electronic
abstraction favoured by Iceland’s Sigur Rós. Many of the songs are centuries-old laments.’
See http://www.myspace.com/iarlamusic (2008) (accessed December 2013).
160 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

It was a surreal situation with musicians adding pieces here and there, the blend
and mix was phenomenal … It took six to seven months to get the band right, the
correct balance; although the Irish musicians were fairly constant, the African
guys were always fluctuating. It’s been quite an effort to get this band to happen,
lots of hassles with visas and red tape especially for African band members.
Rehearsing was a sheer financial nightmare, we had to fly musicians in from
Brussels, Paris, Senegal and Dublin.23

Publicity for record label RealWorld waxes eloquent on the meeting of

these cultures:

The musics of Africa and the Celts display remarkably similar genes – the harp
and the kora, the bodhrán and the talking drum. Is this a simple coincidence?
Ancient historians talk of ‘Black Celts’: were the first inhabitants of western
Europe originally African?

Sound Magic is no ungainly trawl through tradition, trying to weld different

heritages together. The instruments may belong to history, but the music sits
proudly at the forefront of modern dance. The beats and rhythms belong to
today’s club culture: jungle nestles next to jigs and reels; African jazz flows into
Gaelic eulogies.24

What does this enticing copy signify? Although designed to educate the reader,
these liner notes also reify ‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen to Me’ for its value and
meaning as a cultural commodity. Consumers of this product are reassured that
they are getting the real thing: ‘no ungainly trawl through tradition’. When Irish
traditional music is reshaped and marketed to the global village, it is imperative
that these experiences be authentic so that they will be accepted. At the same time,
the creators, intermediaries, and producers must select those elements that may
be unique and special, while adding other components. The new labels of World
music and Celtic music are linked to the times in what we might think of as a kind
of colonization. But who is colonizing whom? This musical commodity is both
merchandise and expression of individual musicians.25 As Morgan notes:

Ethnocentrism and appropriation are key elements of the discussion on world

music, both because of the inequality inherent in the term itself, which separates

 D. Caren, ‘From Deepest, Darkest McNally’, Irish Music 3/2 (1997): 10–11.

 See http://www.realworldrecords.com/catalogue/volume-1-sound-magic (accessed 21


January 2012).
 This point applies to other artists and genres also, for example, much as Janis
Joplin was and is both herself, a culling of Bessie Smith and many other vocal influences;
a construct of her times and a continuing heritage is available widely on commercial visual
and audio recordings.
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 161

music from North America and West Europe from the rest of the world, and
the imbalanced power relationships within the genre, between non-Western
musicians and both pop music stars and recording labels.26

And that is the intriguing aspect – the near impossibility of familiarity. When
one listens to crossover music, such as the Afro-Celt System, only a small part
of the music’s cultural framework may be understood in a geographically bound
context. Upon listening, a number of questions arise: How Irish is this music?
How African? What kind(s) of Irish? What kind(s) of African? Is Irish/African
music – as heard in global contexts – now no more than a faintly exotic, faintly
familiar flavour in a pop-music broth? How may the lyrics be interpreted if the
listener does not know them or speak Irish? Finally, when an essentially non-
harmonic music, such as Irish traditional music, allies itself with a music born of
a cross-pollination with western music that retains and culls instrumentation and
rhythms and is dominated by a simple harmonic paradigm, like afro-pop, does the
Irish part of the music linger on only in the timbre?


Continuing emigrations, diasporic identities, and border crossings are all a part
of contemporary Irish traditional music. The significance and appeal of Irish
traditional music recontextualised as world music for many consumers arises from
its carefully selected presentations of cultural merging in emerging global contexts,
along with new interpretations of the Irish musical self. As Rapuano observed:

Within the past two decades, Irish traditional music has arisen from its humble
niche to occupy a unique position among other cultural music genres … Today,
selling culture has become an asset for sustaining economic development …
In this world, the direct producers of cultural products, those who disseminate
ideologies that uphold the practice, as well as consumers who authenticate it, are
all players in the construction and perpetuation of cultural identity.27

One can only assume that as one relatively bounded community expands to
commingle with other communities, some aspects of that community may remain
intact. Does music mean the same if the listener does not understand the embedded
sonic codes? The contexts and social expectations that encapsulate the performers
and the performance are still there – the singers have embodied the expectations

 Melanie J. Morgan, ‘World Music and International Development: Ethnography of
Globalization’, master’s dissertation, (University of Maryland, College Park, 2006), p. 26.
 Deborah L. Rapuano, ‘Every Drop Hollows the Stone: An Ethnographic Study of
Traditional Irish Music Pub Sessions’, PhD dissertation (Loyola University Chicago, 2005),
at p. 1.
162 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

of their peers and their mentors, and the instrumentalists have been indoctrinated
into their musical practice. However, there are other expectations and other kinds
of expectations in the music that are met and that remain unmet.
While the musicians have their unique cultural reference points, they most
likely share pan-musical reference points such as top-ten pop music (Beatles,
Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga) from the mainstream of Anglo-American and
African-American popular music. Each advance in communications and
technology (recordings, cassettes, CDs, iPods, radio, television, cyberspace,
cell phones, YouTube) allows greater and wider access to music, promoting
uniformity, individualization and appropriation. The force of this access should
not be underestimated. Consider that within living memory in Ireland beginners
who wanted to learn a particular tune often needed to seek out a musician to whom
they had access and who knew the tune. Kathleen Nesbitt, a fiddler from County
Tipperary, relates how Paddy Kenny, a very good player and neighbour, would
visit her home when she was a child:

I’d be dying to ask him to play a certain tune … but I wouldn’t feel that I could
ask him … because [the older fiddlers] they didn’t repeat themselves. They
could play all night … and they wouldn’t dream of playing the same tune a
second time.28

Kathleen would wait for Paddy Kenny to return so that she could hear the tune
again. In contrast, today’s players may now select from an array of tunes, styles
and techniques that have been recorded and disseminated in a variety of formats.
Recordings let the individual hear a given tune repeatedly, allowing the musician
to learn it note for note. Because there is a fixed version to refer to, older and more
eccentric conventions of individual ornamentation and phrasing become more
obscure and rare.
With the increasing urbanization of Ireland, as elsewhere, old contexts for
playing have increasingly moved from private homes and private venues to public
houses and public places. Standards of playing, technique and even virtuosity
are noticeably improving with greater access to exemplars. Furthermore,
detached from the older dancing contexts where dancers necessarily dictated the
tempo, modern sessions can clip along at what older players would consider as
unreasonable speeds.
Likewise, modernization and changes in society have influenced the musician’s
role. There is an expanding market for Irish musicians; a network of performers
and teachers regularly traverse a circuit of festivals and venues in Europe and
North America. The musicians involved in the Afro-Celt recording, as a case
in point, are no longer simply playing for their own amusement or for a small

 This interview was recorded in 1989 by Kari K. Veblen as fieldwork for ‘Perceptions
of Change and Stability in the Transmission of Irish Traditional Music: A Study of the
Music Teacher’s Role’, PhD dissertation (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1991).
Dancing at the Crossroads Remixed 163

gathering. These are professional musicians, reaching out to what they hope will
be a receptive international market. Musicians, in this instance, are consciously
combining and shaping their music. Iarla Ó Lionáird notes that he interprets his
traditions in fluid, non-fixed ways:

You go into your own space and you emotionalise, using the song, text, and
music, and you give yourself up to that. The traditional sean nós edict would say
you should probably adhere to the story and then emotionalise that message. I’m
worried sometimes that people perhaps don’t experiment enough.29

What was previously accessible only to a local community or to a privileged few

is becoming more available to increasing numbers of people. Tradition-bearers
now may shape their own music by themselves or combine it with others’ visions.
‘The Copper Plate’ and ‘Éistigh Liomsa Sealad’ are not equivalent events
as related in this chapter. However, they are useful as rich stories for narrative
inquiry; as a pair, they reveal the persistence of traditions as well the ways in
which Irish traditional music may be enacted and shaped into mass-marketed
artefact. Musical identity is constantly manifest and re-made as shown in these
two musical moments, separated in time but unified with the creative spark. Each
song that is performed vibrates with cultural significance that echoes from other
times and with other voices but that adds timbre, incorporating the influences the
singers and players, and dancers bring to it. Music is a living tradition, and in
choosing the musical moments we touch with our songs, we choose a moment in
time that was significant to us and to others.


Afro-Celt Sound System, Afro-Celt Sound System: Volume 1 Sound Magic (Virgin/
Real World Records, CDRW61, 1996).
Lomax, Alan and Ennis, Séamus, ‘The Copper Plate’, on World Library of Folk
and Primitive Music: Ireland, ed. Nicholas Carolan (Rounder, CD1742, 1998).
Various Artists, The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (Rounder CD 1700, 1997).

 See http://www.folkworld.de/4/iarla.html (accessed December 2013).

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Chapter 10
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland
Isabella van Elferen


Steven Patrick Morrissey was born in Manchester on 22 May 1959 to Irish parents
who moved to England shortly before his birth allowing him to claim himself as
being ‘ten parts Crumlin and ten parts Old Trafford’.1 After what he describes as
a happy childhood and a depressing adolescence, he founded the new wave band
The Smiths with John Maher in 1982; he chose his Irish surname as his artist’s
name, whereas Maher changed his name to Johnny Marr to avoid confusion with
Buzzcocks drummer John Maher. With Morrissey as lead singer, Marr as guitarist,
drummer Mike Joyce and bass guitarist Andy Rourke, The Smiths were an all
Anglo-Irish band.2 The Smiths were one of the most influential new wave bands
of the 1980s, and soon after the band was founded Morrissey was elevated to the
level of superstar. The Smiths’ sound is characterized by Marr’s thickly layered,
melodic guitar performance over a post-punk bass and drum basis, and the
melancholy, poignant lyrics written and sung by Morrissey. After the band split up
in 1987, Morrissey brought out seven solo albums between 1988 and 1997. These
solo albums explore similar themes to the work of The Smiths. Heavily politically
engaged, Morrissey does not cease to criticize the superficiality, hedonism and
ennui of consumerist societies. This critical stance goes hand-in-hand with feelings
of torment and misery (‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’), isolation (‘I will live
my life as I will undoubtedly die – alone’), hauntedness (‘Last night I dreamt that
somebody loved me’) and self-hate (‘Me without clothes? A nation turns its back
and gags’), expressed in imagery of death and graveyards, death wish and suicide.3
Morrissey’s public self-presentation underlines his elusiveness. His high,
almost effeminate voice, dandyish clothing and his flowing dance style establish
him as an androgynous dandy, simultaneously a self-confident pop star throwing

 Morrissey, before performing ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, Manchester, 22 May, 2005.
 The term ‘Anglo-Irish’ will be used in the context of this chapter as denoting ‘of
Irish descent but living in England’.
 Quotes taken from ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’ (Smiths, Hatful of Hollow
(Rough Trade, ROUGH 76, 1984)), ‘Will never marry’ (Morrissey, Bona Drag (His Master’s
Voice, CDCLP 3788, 1990)), ‘Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me’ (Smiths:
Strangeways, Here We Come (Rough Trade, ROUGH 106, 1987)), and ‘Late night, Maudlin
Street’ (Morrissey: Viva Hate (His Master’s Voice, CSD 3787, 1988)) respectively.
166 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

his sweaty shirts into the concert audience and a shy, misanthrope figure in
interviews.4 Due to the fact that Morrissey’s texts often address love and sexual
desire but remain vague as regards the identity of the addressees, there has been
much speculation as regards his sexual preference(s). Journalists and other cultural
commentators have described him as hetero-, homo-, bi- as well as asexual; his
evasive assertions regarding this theme – for a long time he claimed to be celibate –
have only increased the enigmas surrounding his personality. Another symbol of
Morrissey’s intangibility is his ambiguous relationship with England, the country
where he grew up feeling like an outsider because of his background as a second
generation Anglo-Irish immigrant; although his texts never cease to criticize UK
society, he consistently plays the role of a perfect British gentleman. The man, in
short, is the epitome of ambiguity, and seems to revel in that image.
Morrissey bought a house in Dublin in 1996, but moved to Los Angeles
in 1997 – allegedly to escape the British press who remained (and remain) obsessed
with him – and found a remarkably large fan base as well as a personal attachment
to the local Latino community. He didn’t receive much publicity between that year
and 2004, when he brought out the album You Are the Quarry. This CD received
better reviews than his solo albums in the late nineties, and the single ‘Irish Blood,
English Heart’, which was brought out before the album was released, reached
number three in its first week in the UK singles chart – the highest chart position in
Morrissey’s entire career. You Are The Quarry was followed in the spring of 2006
by Ringleader of the Tormentors, which was even more successful. The singer
moved to Rome in 2005; Ringleader was written and recorded there, with Tony
Visconti responsible for the production. The single release ‘You Have Killed
Me’ debuted at number three in its first week in the charts; Ringleader meanwhile
entered the album charts at number one and sold over a million copies.
What, then, makes these two albums stand out? You are the Quarry and
Ringleader of the Tormentors show a remarkable shift in relation to Morrissey’s
earlier work. Besides the fact that these albums appeared after a radio silence
of several years around the singer (a fact that was largely due to Morrissey’s
troubles in getting a new record deal), these albums show unexpected sides of ‘the
Mozfather’,5 sides that Smiths fans did not know of until that moment. In You are
the Quarry Morrissey for the first time explicitly describes the double bind of his
Anglo-Irish roots in the song ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’. In addition, on the same
album he addresses his Roman Catholic background in ‘I have forgiven Jesus’.
The appearance of these two themes in one album is unusual to say the least, as
Irish identity and Catholicism had – along with the singer’s sexuality – up until
that point always been the subject of probing journalists’ questions and of scornful
evasion on the part of the interviewee.
It is therefore all the more surprising that on Morrissey’s next album,
Ringleader of the Tormentors, not only does the theme of Catholicism return, but

 Johnny Rogan, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance (London, 1992), p. 199.
 A Morrissey nickname derived from the phrase ‘the Godfather.’
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 167

in ‘Dear God please help me’ we moreover encounter his last longstanding taboo,
sexuality, in an erotically charged religious setting that is as discomforting as it
is intriguing. This CD is musically and textually richer than any of Morrissey’s
previous albums. Emotional isolation, hauntedness and Catholicism are now
intertwined, and combined with sexual references. Interestingly, while You Are
The Quarry still contains occasional societal criticism, Ringleader almost lacks
any political referentiality.6 The main theme of this album is the singer’s mindset,
which is simultaneously more elaborately and more abstractly expressed than on
previous albums. Morrissey seems to wallow in his being torn between opposites:
past and present, physical and spiritual worlds, sin and forgiveness, Irish, English
and cosmopolitan identities. His statement that he is ‘the best loser in the world’
during a concert at Marley Park in Dublin in August 2006 is exemplary.
You Are the Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors stand out in Morrissey’s
oeuvre because they intensify the singer’s image as a solitary, gloomy character
by the introduction of three new, if unusual and seemingly paradoxical, themes:
Irishness, Catholicism and explicit sexuality. This chapter investigates the
significance and functions of these themes, and the interrelations between them;
by adopting a Gothic critical perspective it sheds new light on Morrissey’s work
and the themes emerging from these two albums.

The Stillness and Irony of Liminality: The Gothic Rear-View Mirror

The links between Morrissey’s universe and the Gothic world are quite evident
at first sight. Although Morrissey never dressed or looked like a Goth, the themes
that he sings of – hauntedness, isolation, death and graveyard imagery, and
eroticized spirituality – are traditional Gothic topoi and have been picked up by
Goth milieus from the early Smiths days on. The duet ‘Interlude’ that Morrissey
recorded in 1994 with Goth icon Siouxsie Sioux (Susan Janet Ballion) of the post-
punk new wave band Siouxsie & the Banshees confirms his natural affiliation
with the scene. More importantly, Morrissey’s self-presentation has a classically
Gothic reverberation. He has, for instance, elaborately informed journalists about
the times that he as a teenager used to roam West Didsbury’s Southern Cemetery.7
At a 1988 press conference at the Hyde Park Hotel in London he indulged in a
macabre sketch of his self-loathing:

I often pass a mirror, and when I glance into it slightly I don’t recognise myself at
all. You can look into a mirror and wonder, ‘Where have I seen that person before?’
Then you remember – it was at a neighbour’s funeral, and it was the corpse.8

 The only instance is the phrase ‘If your god bestows protection upon you /And if the
USA doesn’t bomb you /I believe I will see you somewhere safe’.
 David Bret, Morrissey: Landscapes of the Mind (London,1994), p. 16.
 Ibid., p. 79.
168 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The mirror, the distorted self-reflection, death and self-hate, the irony: it all adds
up to a carefully constructed picture of Gothic desolation.
Besides (or, more accurately perhaps, beneath) these superficial Gothic
stylistics, however, the Gothic genre also represents a deeper reflection on the
truths and rules that everyday life presents to us and that critics like Morrissey
feel appalled by. From the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth-century to present-
day vampire films as well as neoromantic subcultures, the Gothic genre has
highlighted the liminal spaces of history, locality and identity. The Gothic works
like an uncanny rear-view mirror showing the fragmentation, distortion and hidden
dimensions of the Self and of the Real. The Gothic rear-view mirror unveils the
absent presence of the past, of the Other, of desire, of fear within the here and now;
thereby it forces the one who looks into that mirror to discern the spectres that
roam the spaces in between opposites. From an Irish perspective, Bram Stoker’s
Dracula is not alive nor dead, but undead; the androgynous Oscar Wilde moves
between masculinity and femininity; the picture of Dorian Grey reflects both Self
and Other; William Butler Yeats positions himself in between Catholic and Celtic/
Pagan traditions. While moving to and fro between opposites, the Gothic reaches
for the borderland beyond dialectic: that is to say that the Gothic eternalizes the
principle of dialectic in its paradoxical quest for the end of dialectic. The result
is twofold. The inner core of the Gothic is characterized by the uncanny stillness
of liminal spaces,9 whereas the outward face of the Gothic – the destabilized
Self10 – shows sweeping, disruptive irony:11 the person who has experienced the
other side of the world and of themselves will refrain from choosing sides, but
will, rather, laugh at the very thought of categorization. The Gothic is located
in an eternal in-between, beyond binary opposites; simultaneously dialectic and
motionless, it signals and negotiates cultural crises through a radical incorporation
of ambivalence.
These critical aspects of the Gothic offer an interesting analytical angle through
which to look at Morrissey’s albums You Are The Quarry and Ringleader of the
Tormentors. Apart from the stylistic and thematic gloominess that has always
characterized his work as well as the Gothic, Morrissey’s cultural criticism has
increasingly focussed on the uncanny in-between spaces that I have described
above. One can draw a direct line from ‘I am the son and heir of nothing in
particular’ in the Smiths song ‘How soon is now?’ to ‘I entered nothing and nothing
entered me’ in ‘You have killed me’ from Ringleader. These are expressions of the

 The stillness, that is, of the ‘absolute decontextualization’ that the Gothic endorses.

See Joost de Bloois, ‘A Postscript to Transgression: The Gothic in Georges Bataille’s

Dissident Avant-Gardism’, in Isabella van Elferen (ed.), Nostalgia or Perversion? Gothic
Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century until the Present Day (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 47ff.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York, 1986),
pp. 12–27.
 On Gothic irony see Avril Horne and Sue Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn
(Hampshire New York, 2004).
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 169

stillness of Gothic liminality: what is expressed is the hollow mental space of

having looked beyond. Moreover, the themes noted above – Morrissey’s turn to
his Irish roots, to Catholicism, and to sexuality – can partly be understood as an
intensification of exactly this, essentially Gothic, aspect of his artistry. These will
be discussed one by one.

Between Ireland and England: Liminal but Untied

Steven Morrissey grew up in Stretford, Manchester. He always felt like an

outsider: while not fitting English ideals for being Anglo-Irish, he also did not
fit in with the stereotypical working-class masculinity of pub-going builders
among the first-generation Irish community in Manchester.12 Morrissey has often
described how he would rather sit at home and read than join the masses – and so
he grew up in relative isolation, a position that he enjoyed as much as he suffered
from it: ‘There’s a perverse and bitter joy in feeling unique, but you pay dearly.’13
Nevertheless, in his song lyrics Morrissey expresses a paradoxical affection for
the very surroundings he grew up in. England was the definition of what he did
not want to be, so he needed to stay close to it as a vivid reminder ex negativo of
his own identity:

The rebel is often adamantly attached to the very things that oppressed and
suffocated him and turned him into a dissident and sent him into internal exile:
Manchester; flat, grey days; pitiless rain; numbing boredom; narrow minds;
petty jealousies; warm beer; dole queues; every day being like Sunday; class
despair; pub fights. England was the Other for Morrissey, which he needed to
tell him who he wasn’t and thus who he wanted to be.14

It seems, then, that ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ serves exactly that function: it
describes England as the externalized Gothic Other, that which he is not, and
defines himself against.
If Morrissey’s Other is Gothic, his biological home country Ireland is considered
a Gothic country for many reasons. A vast part of the canon of Gothic literature
and film originates from Ireland. I already mentioned Stoker, Wilde and Yeats;
modern authors of the oeuvre include Kealan Patrick Burke, Patrick McCabe and
Glenn Patterson. It is perhaps no coincidence that Stoker, Wilde and Yeats all lived
in exile in England for longer or shorter periods, as the dialectic between Ireland
and England is an essential part of the Irish Gothic. Ireland’s history has been
reflected in terms of Gothic isolation and hauntedness since the eighteenth-century
works of such authors as Charles Robert Maturin and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

 Rogan, The Severed Alliance, p. 69.
 Ibid., p. 73. See also Mark Simpson, Saint Morrissey (London, 2004), p. 38.
 Simpson, Saint Morrissey, 166.
170 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Ireland, of course, is an island and is therefore naturally isolated; more importantly

in this context, the political, religious and social pressure from Britain has resulted
in literature reflecting on Ireland as a Gothic haunted body and on the Irish as
distinctively Other.15 Indeed, the English presence in Ireland has contributed to
the birth of the Irish Gothic, of which especially the genre of the Big House novel
is distinctly Irish.16 Furthermore, Ireland’s rich religious history has often been
taken as a vehicle for Gothic tales, featuring dark convents and gloomy ritualistic
gatherings endorsing the transgression of the borders between body and spirit.17
The mixture of Catholic and Celtic traditions in Ireland enhances this type of
spiritual liminality and, its imagery breathing black romance, offers a source of
inspiration for Gothic artists and subcultures alike.
Morrissey’s early work with The Smiths already fitted seamlessly into precisely
these aspects of Irish culture. John Waters wrote in the Irish Times that:

The Smiths needed no translation in Ireland. Their dark introspection, tragic

narcissism, ironic world-view and swirling tunefulness fashioned a profound,
existential connection with those of us born into the era of the First Programme
for Economic Expansion, a connection which it is impossible to explain in other
than mystical terms. The Smiths, more than most of the native-grown rock-
bands, can claim citizenship of that elusive territory so beloved of the President
Mrs Robinson and Richard Kearney – the Fifth Province.18

The ‘mystical terms’ that Waters mentions here can be understood as essentially
Gothic terms: it is the ironic and yet proud expression of social Otherness and
desolation that facilitated The Smiths’ reception in Ireland. The band members’
Irish blood was never explicitly mentioned, although their criticism of Britain and
of English identity was often interpreted as the result of their Anglo-Irish non-
belonging.19 Even in 2004, in ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, Morrissey deploys his
Irish background as a proof that he is not English, not that he is Irish: ‘and I
will die with both of my hands untied’.20 Again, it is important to look beyond

 See Bridget Matthews-Kane on the Gothic othering of Irishness and the
Gothicization of the Act of Union of 1800 in Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl in ‘Gothic
Excess and Political Anxiety’, in Gothic Studies 5/2 (2003): 7–19.
 W.J. Mc Cormack, ‘Irish Gothic and After (1820–1945)’, in Seamus Deane (ed.),
The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, Vol. 2. (Derry, 1991), 831–54; Vera Kreilkamp,
‘The Novel of the Big House’, in John Wilson Foster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to
the Irish Novel (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 67–9.
 See Siobhán Kilfeather, ‘The Gothic Novel’, in Foster (ed.), The Cambridge
Companion to the Irish Novel, pp. 78–96.
 Quoted in Johnny Rogan, Morrissey: The Albums (London, 2006), pp. 273–4.
 See Lillis Ó Laoire, ‘Irish Music 1800–2000’, in Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly
(ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture, (Cambridge, 2005), p. 281.
 ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ from Morrissey, You Are the Quarry (Attack Records,
ATKCD001, 2004).
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 171

the superficial; besides the Gothic gloominess that John Waters describes as a
natural connection between The Smiths and Ireland, Morrissey’s Irish blood
offers him the elusiveness of Gothic liminality. Having Irish blood and an English
heart, he belongs to neither Ireland nor England and thus ‘no regime can buy or
sell him’. Morrissey here emphatically presents himself as having a ‘hyphenated
identity’;21 but in contrast to what is often assumed with regards to Anglo-Irish
or other hybrid identities, he stresses the fact that not really belonging to either
culture is an advantage rather than a frustration. His ‘neither-nor identity’ allows
him to refrain from the mundane contextualization that he despises. The fact that
he presents himself as a typical Englishman but chose his Irish family name as
his pseudonym is telling in this context. In line with Mark Simpson’s above-
mentioned argument that ‘England was the Other for Morrissey’, I would contend
that the singer externalizes the Gothic dialectic between Self and Other through
the interplay between his Irish and his English rootedness – an interplay that must
remain without a winner: it is the motionless dialectic in between identities that is
the real issue. In this sense the phrase ‘Irish blood, English heart’ is an icon of in-
betweenness, carried proudly in the shape of tattoos by some fans.
Morrissey’s move from England and Ireland to Los Angeles and Rome seems
similarly motivated: in a television documentary he explains that he wanted
freedom, but felt restricted in LA and finally liberated in Rome, where neither
country’s culture is dominant.22 This documentary was called ‘The Importance
of Being Morrissey’, thereby directly linking the singer to his great Irish model
Oscar Wilde, a liminal figure if there ever was one. Morrissey has often stated that
Oscar Wilde is one of his personal heroes: ‘[My mother] insisted I read him and I
immediately became obsessed. Every single line affected me in some way’, even if
that meant an even greater isolation from his peers: ‘It’s a total disadvantage to care
about Oscar Wilde, certainly when you come from a working-class background.
It’s total self-destruction, almost.’23 In his Smiths days, Morrissey would always
carry flowers with him as a dedication to Wilde, and his lyrics contain numerous
allusions to this author’s works. Wilde was a married homosexual, and a dandy
who challenged gender boundaries in a manner similar to Morrissey; Oscar
Wilde and Bram Stoker, moreover, were Irish immigrants in England, and used
the internal turmoils of their own Anglo-Irishness as a vehicle for their Gothic
criticism and liminality.24

 Sean Campbell, ‘Beyond the “Plastic Paddy”: A Re-examination of the Second-
Generation Irish in England’, in Immigrants and Minorities 18/2–3 (1999): 273–6.
 French TV interview, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcvmURYyI1k (accessed
December 2013).
 John Robertson (ed.), Morrissey in His Own Words (London, 1988), p. 77. Quoted
from the 21 June–4 July 1984 issue of Smash Hits.
 Andrew Smith, ‘Demonising the Americans: Bram Stoker’s Postcolonial Gothic’,
in Gothic Studies 5/2 (2003): 20–31.
172 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Finally, when asked how his Irishness colours his artistic expression on the
fansite True to You, Morrissey replied ‘Ireland has always been a very credible and
very poetic place, with no one under any illusions about themselves – we all end
up in the same bucket, etc.’25 The combination of profoundness, beauty and self-
mockery that he describes as typical for Ireland corresponds with the Gothic irony
resulting from the dwelling in between fixed categories and truths.

Gothic Catholicism: Between Spirit and Flesh

The second remarkable aspect of You Are The Quarry and Ringleader is Morrissey’s
sudden turn towards Catholic religiosity. As Morrissey explains in many interviews,
Catholicism was a decreasingly important aspect of his upbringing in the Irish
community of Manchester, and was overtly left out of any of the Smiths’ or of
Morrissey’s solo work. The fact that he dedicates an entire song with the curious
title ‘I have forgiven Jesus’ to Catholic religion in You Are the Quarry may have
been inspired by the Latino community that the singer became acquainted with in
Los Angeles, but should moreover be read as another reference to his Irish origins.26
The song correspondingly starts out describing the singer’s innocent childhood.
The opening of the text, describing how he was a good kid who ‘would do you no
harm’ is set at a calm pace, in a middle-height vocal range, with a 1960s-sounding,
almost Beatle-esque keyboard accompaniment. As the drama unfolds in the shape
of the child’s doubts regarding the truths and values that have guided him before,
naiveté is replaced with despair as a repetitive motif sets in and the singer’s voice
raises to high-pitched exclamations. The safety provided by uncontested religious
truths expressed in the andante tempo, the harmonic consonance and the nostalgic
connotations of the first part of the song are replaced here with the despair of
being deserted by those same truths, expressed in anxious high melodies that are
repeated over and over.
In the video to this song Morrissey appeared in a priest’s cloak, thereby shedding
the well-known Morrissean light of ambiguity upon this unambivalent reference to
Catholicism.27 This tormented priest expressing the pain of the ascetic spirit being
caught in ‘self-deprecating bones and skin’ was perhaps the most controversial
role Morrissey ever played, and can only be explained as Gothic reversal. The
persona emerging here is haunted by his own flesh and bone, painfully aware of
the contradictions between prescribed Catholic dealings with issues of sexuality

 http://true-to-you.net/questions_with_answers_from_morrissey, entry dated
November 2005 (accessed 30 October 2007).
 Margot Gayle Backus even argues within the context of the Anglo-Irish Gothic that
Catholicism is often ‘regarded as a sign of “true Irishness”’. Margot Gayle Backus, The
Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice and the Anglo-Irish Colonial
Order (Durham, NC and London, 1999), pp. 226–8.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxYe8gn3Gwo (accessed December 2013).
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 173

and his own feelings. By literally clothing himself in his faith while expressing
these doubts, Morrissey enacts the Gothic rear-view mirror image: he presents
himself as his own spectre, the haunting Other of Catholicism.
This is entirely in keeping with the Gothic genre’s own historical relationship
with Roman Catholicism. Gothic literature originated as a reflection on (and
criticism of) cultural tensions between rationality and irrationality in Enlightenment
society. Stronger even than the sentimentalism of that age, the Gothic novel sought
to unravel ‘what the Enlightenment left unexplained … to reconstruct the divine
mysteries that reason had begun to dismantle, to recuperate pasts and histories
that offered a permanence and unity in excess of the limits of rational and moral
order’.28 The Gothic signifies the transgression of such limits, a crossing of borders
between seemingly opposed cultural forces; the irrationalities of Catholicism, which
were radically removed from rationalist Enlightenment society, proved popular
vehicles for the testing of these boundaries.29 Morrissey’s transgressive mirroring of
Catholicism can be read as a similar Gothic comment on the tensions between the
rational and the irrational, the worldly and the spiritual, revealing a deep personal
investment in these themes cloaked in perpetual doubt: what remains when the
comfort of religious truth disappears is its shadow, returning like the uncanny of the
Freudian repressed, haunting one with relentless questionings. The musical setting
of the third verse is interesting from this viewpoint. A despairing litany of the days of
the week from Monday to Friday appears as repetitive, low-pitched sequences that
do not lead anywhere musically or lyrically: clearly what is expressed here is the
dull drone of emptied-out daily life without love, or God. The motifs modulate via
a series of minor-coloured questions underlined by a melancholy cello melody that
signify the transition from the worldly to the divine level of reflection as much as
they express the development from a calm to a very agitated tone when he asks why
he has been given ‘so much love in a loveless world’. Within a gradually thickening
texture, the questions end in the stubborn repetition of a despairing call to Jesus
(‘Do you hate me?’) that is accompanied by a strong on-beat drum but punctuated
by subtle syncopated keyboard motifs. The singer personifies his spectres in Jesus
and finally looks his own insecurities and disappointments in the eye – but without
solution, as the questions, in good Gothic tradition, never end. After this, the beat
stops rather abruptly and the song fades out, almost seeming to dissolve.
‘I have forgiven Jesus’ can thus be regarded as a religious counterpart to
‘Irish Blood, English Heart’: both songs refer back to Morrissey’s Anglo-Irish
upbringing, but both put its truths into doubt and, instead, use its double bind to
reaffirm the singer’s thoroughly ambiguous relation to his own background.30

 Fred Botting, Gothic (London, 1996), p. 23.
 See Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (New York, 1988),
Chapter 2.
 Of course the lyrics of ‘I have forgiven Jesus’ appear all the more interesting in
view of the singer’s repeated refusal to speak about any sex-related matter and his self-
avowed celibacy.
174 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Gothic Sexuality: Mystical Eroticism

‘Dear God, please help me’ from Ringleader of the Tormentors was composed
in collaboration with Ennio Morricone and has the lyrical and musical design
of a prayer. The first three verses describe loneliness and longing – the classical
psychological paradox of the simultaneous desire for, and fear of, intimacy31 –
expressed musically through the minimal accompaniment of a bass guitar and the
extended chords of a Hammond organ; the use of echo in the recording technique
lends the song a church acoustic that matches its religious layout. ‘Dear God,
please help me’ goes further than ‘I have forgiven Jesus’ in its exploration of the
relationship between hauntedness and religion, as it not only questions God’s
judgement, but also makes him share in the singer’s anxiety, asking ‘Dear God,
did this kind of thing happen to you?’32 The text thus crosses a religious border by
implying that God, too, is lonely and desperate and longs for love. By offering God
his help (‘If I could I would help you’), the protagonist of the song emotionalizes
and thereby humanizes God. In the second part of the song, the text transgresses
the borders between Self and Other in unambiguously erotic language: ‘Now
I’m spreading your legs/With mine in between’. Interestingly, however, it is left
unclear who the ‘he’ and ‘you’ in the text are: is it a man, a woman, or God himself
that the ‘I’ becomes intimate with? Although this song marks the first time that
Morrissey explicitly describes sexuality, the enigmas thus remain.
This extraordinary clustering of religiosity, eroticism and utter spiritual
loneliness, to my knowledge, is only met in the works of the Dutch Gothic novelist
and poet Gerard Reve.33 A brief outline of the similarities between both works can
throw some light on ‘Dear God’. Reve (1923–2006) was one of the leading Dutch
novelists of the twentieth century. His work caused much controversy in the 1960s,
as he not only described homo-erotics in very explicit terms, but also expressed
unusual views on religion. In 1966, the year Reve converted to Catholicism, he
was sued for blasphemy in what was called the ‘donkey process’, based on the
following passage from his book Nader tot U [Closer to Thee]:

And God Himself would come to visit me in the shape of a one-year-old mouse-
grey Donkey and stand at the door and say: ‘Gerard, that book of yours – do you
know I cried over certain passages?’ ‘My Lord and my God! Hallowed be Thy
Name to all Eternity! I love you so terribly much’, I would try to say, but as soon
as I was halfway through those words, I would break into tears, and start to kiss
Him and pull Him inside, and after some considerable scrambling to get up the

 See Simpson, Saint Morrissey, Chapter 9.


 ‘Dear God please help me’ from Morrissey, Ringleader of the Tormentors (Attack

Records, ATKCD016, 2006).

 On the Gothic dimensions of Reve’s work see Agnes Andeweg, ‘Een verhaal moet
niet te vroeg klaarkomen. Een parodie van heteroseksuele mannelijkheid in De vierde man’,
Armada 48 (2007): 32–41.
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 175

stairs to the little bedroom, I would thrice protractedly possess Him in His Secret
Opening, and afterwards give Him a complimentary copy, not in paperback, but
hardcover – no frugality or stuffiness – with the dedication: ‘For the Endless
One. Without Words’.34

Although Morrissey is much less explicit than Reve, the themes and operative
principles in ‘Dear God’ are closely related to the ones in Closer to Thee. The
reader/listener is drawn almost uncomfortably close to the loneliness and desolation
of the protagonist, and, in the devastating insight that real contact with another
Being is impossible, sexuality serves as the ultimate fashion of reaching out over
the abyss between Self and God – the immaterial and eternal Other. Although both
artists employ Gothic irony to create a critical distance to their own person, the
despair in Reve’s poem is tangible:

I think that Thou art Love, and lonely,

and that, in same despair, Thou lookst for me
as I look for Thee.35

The operative factor in both artists’ bridging of the abyss, that festering wound of
loneliness, is eroticism, a concept studied and practised by philosopher Georges
Bataille.36 Bataille contends that the insistent, repeated indulging in the frantic
dialectic of sexual experience offers a way to eventually suspend dialectic; precisely
the continual affirmation of a limit leads eventually to limitlessness in excess,
in the spilling over of boundaries.37 By ultimately, if temporarily, transgressing
the boundaries between Beings, eroticism endorses what Bataille calls ‘sovereign
communication’, communication without dialectic.38 The Gothic overtones of
this far-reaching liminality endorsed by transgression and excess are striking.
The religious setting that Reve and Morrissey choose for their respective eroticist
explorations is not coincidental: in eroticism, there is no gap between religious and
sexual experience, as they are each one way to engender this type of transgression.
In Morrissey’s song, the temporary relief offered by eroticist transgression leads to
comfort and relief: the song ends with the words ‘the heart feels free’. On this text,
the strophic form of the song changes into an extended bridge ending in a fadeout,
in which the increased echoes have a surreal and uncanny effect – the freedom that
has been obtained is located beyond the here and now. The expressed relationship

 Dutch original in Gerard Reve, Nader tot U, 20th edition (Utrecht, 1990), 117–8.
Translation Kristine Steenbergh.
 Dutch original in ibid., p. 158, ‘Dagsluiting’. Translation Isabella van Elferen.
 Georges Bataille, Eroticism (London, 2006).
 Nidesh Lawtoo, ‘Bataille and the Suspension of Being’, Lingua Romana 4/1 (2005),
http://linguaromana.byu.edu/Lawtoo4.html (accessed December 2013).
 Bataille, Eroticism, pp. 12–13. See also Lawtoo, ‘Bataille and the Suspension
of Being’.
176 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

to Jesus has developed from the dialectic explorations of the boundaries between
Self and Other (‘do you hate me?’) in ‘I have forgiven Jesus’ to the liminalized self-
forgetfulness resulting from the transgression of those boundaries in ‘Dear God’.
As mentioned above it is especially the transgressive elements in Catholicism
that allow Gothic readings of this religion, and that have often been the theme
of the Irish Gothic.39 Catholic mysticism, a transgressive force closely related to
eroticism,40 is built for a large part on mystical ecstasy (raptus mysticus), in which
the human and the divine, but also the sensual and the sacred (Bernini’s Ecstasy
of St. Teresa is a salient example) converge seamlessly. Such transgressions are
impossible in Protestant theology and practice, which strictly maintains the binary
opposites of human/divine and sensual/sacred.41 Furthermore, Catholicism allows
a space in between sin and forgiveness: purgatory, the ultimate twilight zone,
equally unknown in Protestantism.42 In these elements of Catholic religiosity, Self
and Other meet and are allowed a dialogue – and this dialogue is the liminal space
where the Gothic is located.
Analysed from a Gothic angle, then, the personalized and eroticized religiosity
in ‘Dear God please help me’ acquires a function beyond the literal. Morrissey’s
turn toward Catholicism enables him to explore a further layer of Gothic
liminality besides the socio-political in-betweenness of his Anglo-Irish identity;
the integration of personal and erotic elements into Catholic religiosity opens the
borderlands between the divine and the human, the saintly and the sinful, the spirit
and the flesh. These liminal spaces feel slightly uncanny, but offer a liberation
for the heart of the singer, as is expressed in the last, echoing lines of the song.
Rome is thus not only a socio-political but, ironically, also spiritual free zone for
Morrissey: he can live his Anglo-Irish identity by simultaneously being explicitly
Catholic, thoroughly English – and neither one.


This chapter has attempted to shed a broader light on the shift that has occurred
with Morrissey’s two comeback CDs. There is a connection between the singer’s
references to Irishness, Catholicism and sexuality, the themes of which make these

 Victor Sage, Le Fanu’s Gothic: The Rhetoric of Darkness (Basingstoke
Hampshire, 2004), pp. 32–7.
 Bataille, Eroticism, Chapter II.5.
 Isabella van Elferen, Mystical Love in the German Baroque: Theology, Poetry,
Music (Lanham MD, 2008), Chapter 5.
 Luther famously dismissed purgatory as ‘the third place’ that is not in the Bible.
See Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Aldershot, 1990), p. 1. Gülden Hatipoğlu
describes the inscription of purgatorial characteristics onto Ireland’s body in ‘Purgatorial
Narratives of the Haunted Land: Ireland as a Grotesque Body in Melmoth the Wanderer’, in
van Elferen, Nostalgia or Perversion, 224–6.
Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland 177

albums differ from his earlier work. Although there were always evidently Gothic
topoi in his earlier work, You Are The Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors
take Morrissey’s Gothic side a few steps further by actively adopting the critical
paradigm of this genre: the dwelling in hollow spaces beyond fixed categories
through radicalized ambiguity. His Irish roots are markers of his socio-political
‘in-betweenness’: not belonging to either culture, he takes the position of critical
observer – ‘with both his hands untied’. Immediately linked to these Irish roots is
Morrissey’s Catholicism. His Gothic religiosity has a function similar to that of his
Anglo-Irishness: it roams in between the wordly and spiritual, sin and forgiveness,
and the freedom of not having to choose sets the heart free in an unprecedented
way. Although Morrissey’s sexuality may be phrased more explicitly now, its
nature remains ambivalent. During the entire Ringleader of the Tormentors tour
(2006), a huge picture of Oscar Wilde was projected behind the stage, as a lively
reminder of his thorough elusiveness as well as the freedom that results from
that attitude. Morrissey’s being Gothic is not manifested in his participation in
Goth subcultures, but in his embodiment of its critical stance. Morrissey’s Gothic
Ireland, by analogy, is not physical – he sold his house in Dublin – but spectral:
it is a borderland of belonging and selfhood that is simultaneously uncanny
and comforting.


Morrissey, Viva Hate (His Master’s Voice, CSD 3787, 1988).

Morrissey, Bona Drag (His Master’s Voice, CDCLP 3788, 1990).
Morrissey, You Are the Quarry (Attack Records, ATKCD001, 2004).
Morrissey, Ringleader Of The Tormentors (Attack Records, ATKCD016, 2006).
The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow (Rough Trade, ROUGH 76, 1984).
The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come (Rough Trade, ROUGH 106, 1987).
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 11
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera?
The Ambivalent and Disruptive Hybridity of
Early 1990s’ U2
Noel McLaughlin

On a cold Wednesday, 18 January 2009, two days before the inauguration of

America’s 44th president, U2, Ireland’s ‘best known export in any field’,1 took
to the stage in front of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. The band was in the US
capital to play at a party to commemorate the historic inauguration of the first
African-American president. In a bill that included Bruce Springsteen, Usher and
Beyoncé, U2 played a short set that included the Barack Obama favourite ‘City of
Blinding Lights’ as well as the earlier anthem ‘Pride: in the Name of Love’, a song
deemed particularly fitting for the moment, as the event was also promoted as a
celebration of the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King. In the context of the line-up on
the day, it is tempting to read U2 as representatives of Ireland and Irish-America,
just as Springsteen could be regarded as representative of the blue-collar white
working class, and Beyoncé and Usher as African-America’s delegates. As such,
the concert sought to represent one cluster of the USA’s main ethnic groupings.
The event was yet another prominent chapter in the intertwined histories, part of
the ‘intimate connectedness’, of Ireland and America; or to echo Hazel Carby,
another high profile symptom of the cross-cultural traffic of the Irish-American
Atlantic.2 Perhaps even more significantly, though, it opened up questions about
the musical and political relationship between Ireland and Black America. In
celebrating this historic and progressive political turn, U2’s affirmative, anthemic
and uplifting sound appeared a fitting soundtrack to the upward drives of American
political narratives: whatever the problem ‘you (too) can do something about it’.
U2 was clearly on the side of progressive liberal forces and few would dispute the
enthusiasm for the band’s performance evident in the rapturous response of the
sizeable African-American audience on that day.
The year, if not the day, was significant for another reason: it marked the
anniversary of a 30-year recording career for the band, one encompassing 12 studio

 Sean Campbell and Gerry Smyth, Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock
(Cork, 2005), p. 152.
 Hazel Carby, ‘What is this Black in Irish Popular Culture?’, European Journal of
Cultural Studies 4/3 (2001): 325–49.
180 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

albums and several globe-straddling sell-out tours.3 But, in particular, the last
two decades had also witnessed the growth of a substantial secondary publishing
industry, comprising various U2 ‘readers’, biographies of both band and lead
singer, as well as a range of academic and semi-academic writing.4 While this
secondary material provides a useful resource, much of it borders on hagiography,
privileging the band’s ‘intentions’ and assigning rhetorical ownership of meaning
to the four individuals. In addition to an extensive recording and gigging career,
this considerable discourse on U2, and its sheer volume alone, creates difficulties
for critical exploration. This problem is further exacerbated because in popular
music, the text, for analytical purposes, is not as clear as in other cultural forms.
If one is hoping to explore the U2 ‘text’, what precisely, is one referring to: what
aspect of text, what media, which period?5
This chapter attempts to circumvent these problems by focusing more
narrowly on a key moment in the group’s career: the overt and much discussed
transformation that occurred as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, between the
sixth and seventh studio albums. As has been widely acknowledged, this period
marked a decisive break in the group’s oeuvre and gave rise to a whole series
of stylistic and contextual tensions that had interesting consequences for Irish
popular music and Irish identity.

When Authenticity Becomes a Prison

While there was little critical ‘noise’ thrown up by the Obama concert,
U2’s relationship to African-American culture has not always been so

 In 2011, U2’s 360 tour (with its adventurous playing ‘in the round’ configuration)
broke box-office records as the biggest grossing tour in popular music history. This is
particularly surprising, and for two reasons. First, the album No Line on the Horizon, unlike
previous albums, did not usher forth a hit single; and, second, the tour coincided with
the global economic downturn. See Roy Waddell, ‘U2’s 360 Tour Gross: $736,137,344!’,
Billboard.biz, 29 July 2011.
 This could be a long list. See, for example, Michka Assayas, Bono on Bono:
Conversations with Michka Assayas (London, 2006); Mark Chatterton, U2: The Complete
Encyclopedia (London, 2001); Visnja Cogan, U2: An Irish Phenomenon (Cork, 2006);
Bill Flanagan, U2: At the End of the World (London, 1995); Neil McCormick, U2 By
U2 (London, 2006); Niall Stokes, U2: Into the Heart – The Stories Behind Every Song
(London, 2005); John Waters, Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 (Belfast, 1994);
Mark Wrathall (ed.), U2 and Philosophy: How to Dismantle an Atomic Band (Chicago, 2006).
 Clearly popular music is listened to, and viewed, across a number of different sites,
altering the listening/viewing experience and arguably making text–subject generalizations
difficult to sustain. This is not to cast popular music beyond analysis, merely to note that
popular music’s slippery and mobile textuality – its paramusicality – presents interpretative
difficulties. Consequently, academic approaches to popular music have been, necessarily,
interdisciplinary in focus.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 181

straightforward.6 1988’s Rattle and Hum, despite impressive sales, attracted

popular critical dismissal. As Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, one of the band’s
champions in Ireland complained, the album was ‘hammered in the press’, in large
part due to its perceived hijacking of African-American music and its plundering
of the blues in particular (leaving it vying with 1997’s Pop as the group’s critical
nadir). This is ironic as the album, from Bono’s perspective, sprung from a desire
to achieve the opposite, to respond musically to accusations that the band attracted
a predominantly WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) audience (a criticism that
apparently ‘really stung’ the singer) and to reach out to potential African-American
fans.7 In addition to this, the band had been criticized for its apparent lack of
knowledge and respect for musical ‘tradition’, its naivety about (Irish) rock’s
‘roots’, an observation that emerged from such authoritative luminaries of the folk
authenticity paradigm as Bob Dylan, and consequently carried considerable critical
weight.8 Rattle and Hum could thus be regarded as a problematic and flawed attempt
by the band to ‘un-whiten’ its sound and to intertwine the two authenticities of
blackness and Irishness. This had considerable political consequences. As Lauren
Onkey has argued, ‘declarations of black identity by the Irish or Irish-Americans
usually depend on essentialized notions of both blackness and Irishness; the point
of making the alliance is to suggest that both groups share access to an authentic
identity distinct from a dominant culture’.9
Indeed the turn of the 1980s into the 1990s offered up a series of such intertwined
yet strained and essentialized ‘necessary connections’ between black and Irish.
The other most prominent example was found in Alan Parker’s hit 1991 film The
Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s original novel, with its famous ‘don’t
you know the Irish are the blacks of Europe, so repeat after me I’m black and I’m
proud’ epithet. Much less discussed but just as relevant here, however, is the famous
comedic section of the film where the young soul-obsessed impresario, Jimmy
Rabbitte, invites auditions from all-comers for his authentic soul band; he ends up
actually, and symbolically, slamming the door shut on a range of musical styles and
related subcultures deemed inauthentic. Thus English pop subcultures – post-punk,
synth-pop and performative androgyny – act as the negative ‘Other’ to the positive
authenticity of black-Irish soul music and they all bear the butt of the ‘joke’.10

 This is not strictly true. Bono’s mid-song utterances during ‘Pride’ had his liberal,
‘one-world utopianism’ straining at the edges, describing Martin Luther King’s dream as
‘not just an American dream’ but ‘also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream,
an Israeli dream’ and after a pause of realization ‘ … and also a Palestinian dream’. See
Shane Hegarty, ‘The Sad Ballad of Bono and Bruce’, The Irish Times, 24 January 2009.
 Niall Stokes, U2: Into the Heart – The Stories Behind Every Song (London, 2005), p. 84.
 Ibid, p. 86.
 Lauren Onkey, ‘Ray Charles on Hyndford Street’, in Diane Negra (ed.) The Irish
in Us: Irishness, Performativity and Popular Culture (London/Durham, NC, 2006), p. 162.
 The film offers more evidence of this position with lines such as ‘art school wankers’
and musicians ‘dicking around with synths’, although it is important to stress that Doyle’s
novel is somewhat wry and ironic in its treatment of the Irish as the blacks of Europe.
182 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Onkey goes on to argue that in Rattle and Hum (as in The Commitments),
‘blackness is evoked to access primal expression of authentic emotion, to legitimize
the Irish as Celtic soul brothers. This forges a purportedly unproblematic link with
African-Americans: the Irish have been oppressed, and therefore soul and rhythm
and blues are appropriate vehicles for Irish musicians’.11 After raising the attendant
problem of primitivism, Onkey goes on to claim that:

the Irish can use African-Americans as a tool to become authentically Irish, to get
in touch with their authentic suffering, or their precolonial ethnic authenticity;
but the definition of Irishness that emerges is as retrograde and limiting as
depicting blacks as noble savages.12

While this is unquestionably the case, Rattle and Hum is perhaps more complex
than is often acknowledged, and for two reasons. First, the album (and film) may
be regarded not as a work of singular blues-derived authenticity but as a musical
hybrid of U2’s distinctive post-punk sound. This itself draws on a myriad of
influences from Television to Joy Division, which exists in uneasy synthesis with
the roots-searching, blues-based rock counter-cultural canon (Hendrix, B.B. King
and Dylan).13 Second, the album and film does not just appropriate the blues –
surely an act of creative and symbolic borrowing with a much longer history, and
one that marks the work of a host of critically revered artists and bands such as The
Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and many others – but they deploy a broader repertoire
of influences including The Beatles, Billie Holiday and early Elvis Presley. If the
album can be justifiably critiqued it is for its apparent hubris. In terms of the musical
traditions invoked, the blues has to stand in line with the others involved. In many
respects, what jars about the album is the sound of a post-punk band, born of a
moment when the roots narrative was wilfully abandoned, now attempting to attach
itself to what, for it, must be a form of ‘prosthetic memory’14 – the legacy of the
folk/blues world. This possibly helps explain why the covers of Dylan/Hendrix’s
‘All Along the Watchtower’ and The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ fail to convince and
have rarely been regarded fondly, even by many fans. By analogy, it represents a
less extreme version of The Sex Pistols doing a u-turn to embrace the music of
The Rolling Stones. The dismissal of Rattle and Hum, then, is ultimately rooted
in popular musical fashion. The blues ‘moment’ was over, an earlier generation of
Anglo-American white rock groups in the 1960s had successfully appropriated its
register, leaving U2 in the late 1980s looking pious and ‘out of touch’.

 Onkey, ‘Ray Charles’, p. 162.


 Ibid, p. 163.

 For a more detailed discussion of the relationship between authenticity, hybridity
and Irish rock, see Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, ‘Hybridity and National
Musics: The Case of Irish Rock’, Popular Music 19/2 (Cambridge, 2000): 181–99.
 Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American
Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York, 2004), p. 2.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 183

Critically, it was not, therefore, the album’s flawed attempt at authenticity that
was the problem; rather, it was its hybridity that made it fit uncomfortably into
the authenticity paradigm. This was most glaringly apparent on ‘Silver and Gold’
when, on concluding a rant about the injustices of apartheid, Bono extolled the
Edge to ‘play the blues’ with the guitarist obliging by doing anything but and
resorting to his trademark echoed, and decidedly post-punk, ethereal sonic swirl.15
However, Rattle and Hum, in keeping with the rest of the band’s output
throughout the decade, left a lasting aesthetic template in Ireland, one that
influenced musical and clothing styles, performance modes and song structures.
And for ideological reasons – the maintenance of the intertwined discourses of rock
and Irish authenticity – the band was to help the rock revival of the mid-to-late-
1980s survive longer in Ireland than in neighbouring Britain. With its emphasis
on authenticity, seriousness and self-expression, it was ‘rock’ in its folk mode
that had been central to Irish popular music and rock that had become intimately
connected to national cultural identity in this period. Indeed, prior to 1990 Dublin
was known internationally as a ‘rock city’, with live music a ubiquitous presence,
and dominated by a rock-as-folk ideology. (In fact, the well-worn adage of the
time – Dublin as the ‘city of a thousand bands’ – may have grossly under-estimated
the actual number.)
In early 1980s Irish rock discourse, U2 was the oft-regarded elemental, organic
and sincere antidote to the artificial ‘Other’ of British/English Thatcherite new
pop (although several ironies are overlooked in this crude correspondence of
musical meaning, politics and nationhood). In addition to this, Ireland was marked
by the relative absence of synth-based post-punk bands in the Human League,
Depeche Mode or Soft Cell vein, locking Irish rock in the organic paradigm.16 In
the decade’s latter half, Bono fittingly became a rock star in the pre-electric Dylan
mould and U2 a band that was increasingly regarded as a vessel taken to express,
or read as emblematic of, national concerns. The U2 sound of the 1980s could,
therefore, be construed as caught in a dialectic between a post-punk register and
the more roots-based sonics of the rock revival (with the latter dominating the
former as the decade progressed).

 As Gerry Smyth has argued, ‘U2 was one of the most interesting rock bands of
the 1980s in terms of its regard for texture and the spatial connotations afforded by specific
manipulations of sound’. This sense of musical space is very different to the blues and even
here, at the height of the band’s fascination with Americana, this register was maintained
to greater or lesser degrees depending on the track in question. While ‘Love Rescue Me’,
‘Angel of Harlem’ and ‘When Love Comes to Town’ may conform to clearly defined musical
traditions (with ‘Hawkmoon 269’ even echoing the alliteration of Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright
Ma, I’m only Bleeding’), ‘God Part 2’ and the bridge of ‘All I Want Is You’ draw from a
different well, with the former track frequently taken as a precursor for the Achtung Baby
sound. See Gerry Smyth, Space and the Irish Cultural Imagination (Basingstoke, 2001),
p. 163.
 Rock-as-folk suggests both a pure, unbroken tradition and a notion of unified
expressive community.
184 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

An Inorganic, ‘Chemical’ Ireland?

The emergence of dance music, acid house and the much mythologized ‘second
summer of love’ of 1988/89 in Britain were to change patterns of production,
pleasure and textuality in Irish popular music and culture. In fact, dance culture
was to be as influential a catalyst for U2 to ponder its legacy as the backlash
against Rattle and Hum. By the late 1980s British rock and pop music had
absorbed aspects of dance music’s sonic, rhythmic and iconographic features,
visible in a number of significant rock/pop/dance hybrids, such as Primal Scream,
The Happy Mondays and 808 State. Here, a rock/pop performance mode and
conventionalized song structure was frequently retained, but married with dance
grooves gleaned from selected areas of house, techno, dub and hip hop.17 The
combination of aspects of contemporary ‘underground’ dance grooves with rock
‘swagger’ and pop ‘style’ was in marked contrast to the optimistic, anthemic rock,
liberal sincerity and expressive authenticity associated with U2 up to this period.
Indeed U2 would have been construed as either ‘the enemy’, figures of ridicule,
or simply irrelevant to many of dance culture’s ‘tribes’. As these rock/dance styles
filtered into Ireland, changes of fashion led to ‘the city of oh-so-many bands’ myth
no longer dominating Dublin and, like many other European capitals, Dublin was
recast as a dance city with a vibrant scene covering the spectrum of drum and
bass, house, techno and break-beat. This radically altered musico-cultural context
generated a challenge to U2’s legacy, its sonic hegemony and artistic relevance.
This also presented difficulties for the ongoing discourse of Irish rock and, in
particular, for U2’s main narrators and interpreters. Hot Press18 initially struggled
to make sense of the emerging dance culture, uncertain as to whether it was
worthy of detailed coverage, perhaps expecting dance music to be a transient
phenomenon. It was also wary of dance culture’s perceived nihilistic hedonism and
conservatism. When dance began to be covered, perhaps included due to rock’s
ongoing fetish for ‘youth’ and the realization that dance was more than a passing
fad, the magazine struggled to find a mode of reportage, giving rise to certain
difficulties in analysis and interpretation. Dance genres were generally marked by
an absence of performer-as-star, conventionalized lyric-based song structures, and
by an ideology that was non-rock and, indeed, frequently and explicitly anti-rock.

 Jon Savage, Time Travel: From The Sex Pistols to Nirvana (London, 1996),
pp. 266–7. Savage has described how the groups of the ‘Madchester’ scene fused rock and
dance, borrowing from dance’s eclectic strands and forging these into song formats.
 Formed in 1977, Hot Press is Ireland’s longstanding (and still running) rock
magazine. It has remained for over 30 years left-liberal in ideology, and is something of an
unusual hybrid of Britain’s ‘inkies’ (Melody Maker, NME and Sounds) and Rolling Stone
in the USA. Throughout its history the magazine has been an important cultural force in
both challenging residual socio-political conservatism and in opening up and constructing
a national rock culture. At the time of its formation rock and popular music were largely
ignored in the mainstream press such as the Irish Times.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 185

It was as late as the summer of 1994 before Hot Press added a specialist section
devoted to reviewing dance events and recordings. The somewhat awkwardly
titled ‘Rave On’ began as a small column, becoming the ‘Digital Beat’ pages a
year later, signalling the realization that perhaps dance culture was not reducible to
the tabloid term ‘rave’ (indeed, only in Ireland could a column devoted to modern
dance music appropriate a Buddy Holly or Van Morrison song title).19 These
pages were added much later than in its UK counterparts (the NME covered dance
culture as early as 1989). This was an indicator of how much slower Hot Press was
to throw off the legacy of the 1980s’ rock revival and the folk-rock ideology that
had been a cornerstone of musical production, interpretation and evaluation in the
Irish context (although this is not altogether surprising as the majority of its staff
writers had been in residence from the magazine’s formation in 1977 and were
musical products of the late 1960s).20
The aesthetics of dance music and the structure of dance culture, its apparent
anonymity and the relative absence of conventional visible performance modes,
also meant problems for the articulation of (and to) Irish identity(ies). Rock was
frequently articulated to the national (and the national to rock) and a group, or
a star’s ‘characteristics’ could become bearers of national identity or expressive
meaning (irrespective of the tensions involved). The aesthetics and ideology of
rock could be seen to correspond to national imaginings. Dance music, by contrast,
created problems for evaluation centred on performance, and imagining musicians
performing from records and value markers, such as ‘expression’, ‘soul’, lyrical
meaning, ‘message’ and performative ‘originality’. Moreover, dance music tended
to articulate very different images of place – cyberspace, the dance floor, the
urban, the inner-city – ‘placeless’, and predominantly metropolitan, images that
did not neatly fit into broader Irish cultural imaginings, and indeed the Irish rock
lexicon. If, as Gerry Smyth has put it, rock had ‘solved’ the problems thrown up by
the showband, it had now to deal with the problems thrown up by dance culture.21
It was therefore difficult for Hot Press to find continuity with the national rock
tradition, as its concern had been, in part, to construct a canon of Irish rock artists
(with U2 at the top of the hierarchy).

 Buddy Holly’s single, ‘Rave On’ from 1958 and Van Morrison’s ‘Rave on John
Donne’ from the 1983 album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital
(Cambridge, 1995). Thornton has described how the new dance genres and their apparent
absence of stars as performers was to present similar problems for record companies. Also,
for a more detailed discussion of dance music in Ireland, see Noel McLaughlin, ‘Bodies
Swayed to Music: Dance Music in Ireland’, Irish Studies Review 12/1 (London, 2004): 77–85;
and Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before
and After U2 (Dublin, 2012), Chapter 11, ‘Non-stop Ecstatic Irish Dancing: Rave and Its
Legacies’, pp. 277–304.
 Gerry Smyth (2005) Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music
(Cork, 2005), pp. 26–7.
186 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

By contrast, emerging Irish dance producers appeared to actively ‘play down’,

or even avoid altogether, their national identity. Irishness could be regarded as a
distinct cultural and aesthetic disadvantage as it tended to anchor music and style
to a restricted, even disabling, set of cultural signifiers. To this metropolitan dance
milieu, the aesthetic vocabulary of ‘Irishness’ was now bordering on cliché, as
it signified certain rock and folk modes, and an imaginary that was largely rural
in focus (and ‘rural’ has yet to join ‘urban’ as a major dance genre). Therefore,
from the perspective of the notional hip subculturalist, the dominant signifiers
of Irishness had moved from ‘cool’ to ‘uncool’ at the turn of the decade.22 While
Hot Press steadily increased dance coverage, a higher proportion of rock writing
was increasingly devoted to nostalgia and Irish rock’s ‘golden age’, comprising
reprints of classic interviews and retrospective features on significant moments in
the narrative of Irish rock.23 Hot Press was now increasingly using the past tense.
This altered musico-cultural landscape – the new emerging, ‘placeless’ urban
dance culture (and related rock/dance hybrids), the centrality of ecstasy, the rise
of the ‘lad’, Irish rock’s recourse to nostalgia, the perceived slump in value of the
(Irish) pastoral aesthetic in popular musical currency – created problems for U2
(and for the dominant Irish rock aesthetic/sensibility). These factors pushed the
band into taking a risk, and out of the organic paradigm, to embrace an altogether
more radical form of musical and cultural hybridity. Significantly on the seventh
studio album, 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2 appeared to be listening to its own
sounds with greater self-consciousness. The band exchanged much of its folk-
rock aesthetic for a sound and iconography that was more markedly urban, pop
and playful, executing a campaign of ‘semiological guerrilla warfare’24 against
itself (and with it the dominant signifiers of Irishness that it had a pivotal role in
articulating). Reynolds and Press provide a sense of the prevailing mood:

On 1991’s Achtung Baby U2 demolished their [sic] persona, their distinctive

sound, and their reputation as chaste and pompously pious. They went out of
their way to absorb ideas from underground rock, defacing their sound with
industrial clangour and funking up the previously inert rhythm section. Their
Zoo TV tour attempted to replicate the chaos of media overload; in one fell
swoop, U2 went from pre-modern missionaries to late C20th postmodernists.
Videos were doused in sleaze; Bono changed his image from the rugged pioneer/
Inca mountain guide look circa The Joshua Tree, to a wasted, pallid leather-clad,

 There are, of course, significant exceptions here: Irishness was registered in local

hip hop (in Marxman, for example) and ethnic signifiers were a conspicuous feature of
world-dance fusion (such as Afro-Celt Soundsystem).
 Interviews here would include Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, The Pogues and,
of course, U2; and significant moments in the narrative of Irish rock, such as Horslips’ first
tour of the USA.
 Umberto Eco, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’, in Travels in Hyper-
reality, trans. William Weaver (London, 1986), pp. 135–44.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 187

chain smoking rock reptile sporting sun glasses after dark … U2 reinvented
themselves with a fervour that rivalled the chameleonic metamorphoses of
Bowie or Siouxsie Sioux.25

‘Zoo Station (-to-Station)’: Or, from the Desert to Decadence

In his detailed eyewitness account of the Achtung Baby/Zoo TV period, Bill

Flanagan describes the band’s attempts to incorporate the sounds and rhythms of
‘Madchester’.26 In these early recording sessions, the band was divided: should
it remain faithful to its epic rock sound and ‘natural’ iconographies, or embrace
the rock-dance synthesis?27 U2 had, of course, been accused of ‘ripping-off’
Manchester bands before, as evidenced by the pronouncements of the late Tony
Wilson of Factory Records28 and Peter Hook of New Order29 and their somewhat
caustic accusation that U2 had mimicked the post-punk sound of Joy Division
and taken it onto the global stage. However, Simon Reynolds, perhaps the most
authoritative analyst of post-punk and hardly a straightforward supporter of the
band, has argued that U2 – while a definitive post-punk band – differed in vital
respects from the peers it allegedly pilfered from. Significantly for Reynolds:

U2 go against much of the grain of the original post-punk sound, although there
was a mystical strain in post-punk too. It was there in Joy Division, which is
spiritual music, about existence and the human condition. But with Joy Division
it is a religion of the void, whereas with U2 there is faith, grace and redemption.
And there wasn’t much of that going around in post-punk!30

Reynolds goes on to note how U2’s ambition, its openness to America, set the
band apart from other groups of the period. Indeed the two divergent positions of
their respective lead singers symbolized the two bands’ attitudes to global success,
as well as their attitudes to America; while Bono openly embraced America, Ian
Curtis like many British icons of the period was sceptical about stateside success
(and committed suicide – an act that is often read symbolically – just prior to

 Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock
’n’ Roll (London, 1995), pp. 82–3.
 Bill Flanagan, U2: At the End, pp. 8–20.
 As many commentators have observed, ‘the hats’, Bono and the Edge, were
pushing for a more experimental reworking of the band’s sound, with ‘the haircuts’, Adam
and Larry, more committed to the conventional U2 sound and orthodox song structures. See
Flanagan, U2: At the End, Stokes, Into the Heart and McCormick, U2 by U2.
 Simon Reynolds, Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews
(London, 2009), pp. 70–71.
 ‘Interview with Peter Hook’, in Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary, Joy Division
(‘DVD Extras’).
 Simon Reynolds, ‘Interview with the author’ (unpublished, 2009).
188 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Joy Division’s first scheduled tour there).31 The early post-punk U2 of Boy, while
indebted to Joy Division, was clearly more than a mere facsimile of the seminal
Manchester band’s sound. Similarly, Achtung Baby was no simple ‘Madchester’ or
indie-dance derivative, with only the conspicuously post-modern anthem, ‘Even
Better than the Real Thing’, conforming to the The Happy Mondays’ swagger.
In fact, U2’s borrowing was to be more extensive than is often acknowledged.
The incorporation of aspects of the so-called dance underground (and rock/
dance synthesis) not only intermingled with, and worked against, the previous
U2 sound, but Achtung Baby also absorbed European ‘art rock’, specifically the
so-called ‘Kraut-rock’ associated with Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, DAF, and David
Bowie and Brian Eno’s trio of Berlin albums of the 1970s (which were, in turn,
heavily influenced by Kraut-rock).32 Many of these groups had recorded in Hansa
Studios in Berlin, home of ‘auteur’ producer Conny Plank, which was renowned
as a centre in the production of electronic and ‘industrial’ sounds. Significantly, the
first section of the production of Achtung Baby was recorded here, an aspect of the
album that was foregrounded in the rock press. U2 was now articulating a place in
Europe and it was immediate post-unification Berlin and the former East Germany,
not Manchester, Ireland or the USA, that was to dominate the album’s mood and
the band’s iconography.33 The title, which yoked together the American rock
counter-culture and urban Germany in a camp and playful fashion, signposted the
new aesthetic and broke with the tradition of sombre and naturalistic album names
(and one could imagine a louche Keith Richards using it to greet friends in a Berlin
nightclub). Indeed, the title economically announced the type of hybridization
offered and evoked in spatial terms U2’s geographical base in Ireland. In Gerry

 Bono’s position is encapsulated in his declaration of February 1981 to James
Henke: ‘It is my ambition to travel to America and give it what it wants and needs.’ James
Henke, ‘U2: Here Comes the “Next Big Thing”’, in U2: The Rolling Stone Files (New
York, 1994), p. 2. For a more detailed exploration of the relationship between U2 and Joy
Division, see Noel McLaughlin, ‘Rattling Out of Control: A Comparison of U2 and Joy
Division on Film’, Film, Fashion and Consumption 1/1 (2012): 101–20.
 U2 could be described as going on a different kind of ‘roots’ quest: a journey into
the origins of its post-punk sound, in tandem with an interest in contemporary electronic
and ‘industrial’ music. Moreover, to argue that Rattle and Hum is ‘authentic’ and Achtung
Baby postmodern and hence ‘inauthentic’ is clearly inaccurate and problematic. The former
album is as much driven by reference, intertextuality and pastiche as its more conspicuously
postmodern successor. Therefore, in discussing this period of U2’s output, the critical terms
of postmodernism appear largely unhelpful.
 Indeed, the tensions and contradictions of identity and ethnicity were foregrounded
with difference itself actively explored rather than glossed over by the one-world address of
yore. The Berlin of the period suggested uneasy co-existence, with a myriad of unresolved
national and ethnic tensions. The band apparently took the title from a line in Mel
Brooks’ 1968 satirical comedy, The Producers, an intertext that maintains, even amplifies,
the ironic and playful mood.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 189

Smyth’s words, the band exploited ‘the island’s location between the two main
centres of western cultural history: the United States and Europe’.34
Achtung Baby was, therefore, a more conspicuous stylistic hybrid (a hybridity
overtly registered as a pleasure) than any previous U2 album and was taken to
represent an aesthetic and sonic departure from previous releases. The band
was going out of its way to sound ‘experimental’, emphasizing unusual ‘dirty’
timbres and grainy textures, encapsulated in Bono’s notorious description of the
album as ‘the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree’.35 The sense
conveyed was disjointed and uneasy, musical ‘space’ giving way to sonic density.
The all-important opening track, ‘Zoo Station’, was most representative of the
‘new’ musical aesthetic with a higher proportion of synthesized sound than
previously and industrial drum sounds and sequenced pulses to the front of the
mix. Taken together, these rewrote to shock effect prior expectations of the U2
sound, establishing the band within the pantheon of rock’s European avant-garde
experimentalists (and hence pulling the band back into the post-punk/non-rock/
anti-rock register). Not only did ‘Zoo Station’ sound industrial, it also conveyed
a different sense of ‘space’ and movement, musically invoking urban city space
and train travel and, in particular, of a train bursting from darkened tunnels into
the light (especially as the verse gives way to the chorus). This stylistic ensemble:
European iconography, industrial noise, dance rhythms, indie-rock ‘swagger’,
together with the past U2 legacy, was perhaps an attempt to appeal to a broader
constituency of listeners and a (non-instrumental) reaction to the increased
fragmentation of the rock audience into discrete, yet overlapping taste-clusters
and dispersed age groupings. The embrace of the ‘plastic’ and the ‘synthetic’ was
particularly important here and offered a challenge to those fans expecting the
customary catharsis, ‘spirit’ and ‘sincerity’. As Richard Middleton has argued, the
association of particular musical sounds – guitars signifying warmth, passion and
emotion – synthesizers, carrying ‘connotations of “modernity” and the “future”,
“space-exploration”’ have particular ideological associations attached to them that
once consolidated, become very difficult to dislodge.36
However, it is important to stress that this was not a simple set of reversals –
a shift from the organic to the plastic and so forth – but an attempt to forge a
bespoke soundscape and a complex hybrid of organic and synthetic elements. In
fact, it was the novel and challenging hybridity and the range of influences on the
album, as well as how it straddled the dialectic between confirmation/affirmation

 Smyth, Space and the Irish Cultural Imagination, p. 169. In this way the title
succinctly evoked the complex trajectories of musical space, style and genre involved, or
as Smyth (ibid., p. 170) has put it: ‘the band exploited Ireland’s traditional imaginative
location – marginal from Europe, residual to America – to produce deeply compelling
engagements with both those large cultural entities’; even though here the ‘balance’ is
pulled in the direction of a highly selective ‘European’ aesthetic.
 Stokes, Into the Heart, p. 102.
 Richard Middleton, Studying Popular Music (Milton Keynes, 1990), p. 90.
190 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

and challenge, between past and present U2, that made it interesting. Brian Eno,
reflecting on producing his third U2 album, spoke of the record in similar terms,
arguing that when the material succeeded, ‘a hybrid’ emerged:

there is a synergy of feelings and nuances that nobody ever foresaw. If that
happens, it’s news. There’s a lot of that kind of news on this record … To find a
single adjective for any song proves difficult: It’s an album of musical oxymorons,
of feelings that shouldn’t exist together but that are somehow credible.37

Indeed, Eno has described ‘Zoo Station’s’ disruptive hybridity as ‘industrially

jovial’.38 After the subversion of the song’s opening, the introduction of the Edge’s
signature ‘chiming’ guitar offered a sense of melody and the familiar U2, and acted
as a form of anchorage and reassurance. Bono’s voice was given different treatment
on this track and on the first single release, ‘The Fly’. Normally centre-stage and
to the forefront of the mix, it was here uncharacteristically recessed, occasionally
obscured and treated with distortion effects or overlapped with itself. On the chorus
of the latter track the singer duetted with himself in a fractured call-and-response
manner. The first, a newly deployed falsetto, his so-called ‘fat lady’ voice, was
redolent of 1960s’ black soul music; the second – a deep and close-miked, distorted
growl – contrasted sharply with the first. Most importantly, both voices were not
immediately recognizable as the star.39 If the voice, ‘words being spoken or sung in
human tones’, is a sign of ‘personality’, as Simon Frith has argued, then together
the two unfamiliar voices offered here could be regarded as the musical expression
of a split personality – an articulation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Victorian cliché of the
divided self’ – and a move away from the ‘grounded’ Bono of before.40
The sense of dislocation and the unfamiliar conveyed by the voice was echoed in
the design of the cover, which abandoned the ‘serious’ black and white rock realist
photography of both The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum for a playful collage of
images of European decadence (such as Bono wearing make-up, a naked Adam

 Brian Eno, ‘Bringing Up Baby’, in U2: The Rolling Stone Files, p. 171.

 Ibid., p. 170. Eno’s oxymorons do indeed predominate when seeking to describe


the album: sincerely ironic, deeply superficial, and authentically inauthentic, and so forth.
 The ‘fat-lady’ voice was arguably Bono’s most performative moment and (s)he was
to resurface more prominently on the Euro-disco influenced ‘Lemon’ from 1993’s follow-
up album Zooropa.
 Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford, 1996),
p. 159. Susan Fast in the most complete musicological analysis of Achtung Baby has
argued that Bono’s ‘utilisation of a lower range than previously’ is the sound of a more
mature man and reinforces the sense of irony and cynicism that pervades the album. See
Fast, ‘Music, Context and Meaning in U2’, in Walter Everett (ed.) Expression in Rock-
Pop Music: Critical and Analytical Essays, 2nd edition (New York, 2008), p. 187. The
reference to Wilde is from Lynn Ramert, ‘A Century Apart: The Personality Performances
of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and U2’s Bono in the 1990s’, Popular Music and Society 32/4
(2009): 447–60, at p. 450.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 191

Clayton, the band colourfully attired and driving around Berlin in a graffiti-smattered
Trabant). What is superficially (if importantly) apparent is the rejection of the former
rock ’n’ roll ‘roots’ narrative and its accompanying concern with a specific version of
rock authenticity in favour of a more pluralistic, even ambiguous, aesthetic; one that
had connotations of a future of fragmentation/dislocation, industry and the (post)
modern as opposed to the pre-modern discourse of ‘authenticity’, ‘roots’ and unity.
The ‘big’ universalist address, characteristic of past output, was more subdued,
and a much more ambiguous, shifting and unsettling use of the pronouns ‘I’,
‘you’, and ‘we’, was in evidence.41 Achtung Baby lyrically was more intimate – the
emphasis on imperfect relationships, the tensions and contradictions of sexuality
and sexual identity, and an avoidance of ‘wide-screen’ political ‘issues’, such as
apartheid in South Africa or political upheaval in El Salvador, for which the band
has been criticized in the past. Also, broadly speaking, the lyrics moved away from
naturalized imagery and the elements – the constant references to ‘earth, desert,
sky, sea, rain, snow, sleet, fire’ and so forth – were replaced by a repertoire of
urban and sexualized images. Indeed, the album was praised for its traditional rock
virtues: lyrical complexity, emotional maturity, poetic insight and ‘relevance’.
While Bono still reverted to his ‘big voice’, his trademark ‘uplifting’ high register,
this mode was less frequent. In fact, when it was deployed, the new associations
of the music often served to offset the affirmative drives that the voice conveyed
hitherto. This was particularly evident in the album’s sixth track, ‘So Cruel’. The
song is essentially a ballad, based around a sparse down-tempo hip hop (or trip
hop) rhythm, but it does not conform to expectations of the band or the ballad
form. While Bono’s voice climbs skyward, instead of offering emotional uplift,
security and catharsis – the musical equivalent of ‘climax-oriented narrative’42 –
the song builds uneasily, struggling to climax. In many ways, ‘So Cruel’ could be
regarded as the sound of guilty, or unsatisfactory, orgasm (rather than the ecstatic
release, the upward drive of before) and the song shudders to a halt, offering no
tidy resolution. The words corresponded to the sonic mood – ‘I’m only hanging
on /To watch you go down’ … ‘Head of heaven /Fingers in the mire’43 – which

 The ‘exclusivistic’ address of Bono’s lyrics in the early 1980s has been most
comprehensively analysed by Bradby and Torode in their discussion of ‘Sunday, Bloody
Sunday’. As Bradby has argued in a later article, the song pre-empts the controversial,
exclusivistic ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ of USA for Africa’s ‘We are the World’ and Band Aid’s
‘Do they know it’s Christmas time?’ famously analysed by Greil Marcus. See Barbara
Bradby and Brian Torode, ‘To Whom do U2 Appeal?’, Crane Bag 8/1(1984): 73–8 and
Barbara Bradby, ‘God’s Gift to the Suburbs?: A Review of Unforgettable Fire: The Story of
U2 by Eamon Dunphy’, Popular Music 8/1 (1989): 109–16, at p. 114.
 Richard Dyer offers a useful discussion of the climax-oriented thrust of much rock
music. See Richard Dyer, ‘In Defence of Disco’, in Richard Dyer (ed.) Only Entertainment
(London, 2002), pp. 149–58.
 Lyrics quoted from Eno et al., U2: The Achtung Baby Songbook (London, 1992),
p. 42. The last line, with its ‘vertically organised’ imagery, is perhaps an apt riposte to
Reynolds and Press’s similarly organized description of the ‘old’ U2 sound as ‘inviting a
192 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

significantly mixed the biblical and the profane. Indeed, this aspect was maintained
throughout the album – ‘Surrounding me /Going down on me /Spilling over the
brim’44 – and signalled a move away from the righteous, lofty abstractions of the
past in favour of a more ambivalent, unsettling, and sexualized, lyrical frame.
On the single, ‘One’, the shifting pronouns were particularly marked. The prior
emphasis on unity, togetherness – on ‘being as one’ – was subjected to bittersweet
contradiction (albeit in a moving fashion). In short, Bono had abandoned
his pedestal for crawling around in the dirt.45 Ironically, if taking the words in
isolation, Achtung Baby is a much more convincing blues-country album than its
more roots-based predecessors (The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum), evident in
the recurring motifs of earthly temptation, failed redemption and partial healing.
This novel hybrid of modernized (and re-contextualized) blues-country
narratives, electronica and experimental ‘European’ rock – of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’,
‘organic’ and ‘plastic’ – was maintained lyrically. Sitting uneasily alongside
the ‘authored’ mode of ‘sincerity’ and ‘depth’ was a more ‘straightforward’
postmodern appropriation of aphorisms, slogans and clichés (such as ‘a liar won’t
believe anyone else’) drawn from New York conceptual artists Barbara Kruger
and Jenny Holzer.46 Achtung Baby, then, not only worked against, and in tension
with, U2’s past work, but also was internally contradictory. It was precisely the
musical and associated visual contradictions between past and present U2, vocal
style and musical aesthetic, ‘American’ and ‘European’, authentic and inauthentic,
the ‘complex’ and the ‘throwaway’, and coherence and uncertainty that made the
album disruptive and engaging. Moreover, one of the other ways that Achtung
Baby fanned its address out further was in the appeal to dance subcultures through
the practice of including remixes by ‘underground’ producers.47 This served to
attract the dance music press – Mixmag, the now defunct Muzik and Wax – which
could not have been targeted previously, as well as drawing on the ‘subcultural
capital’ of dance music ‘credibility’.48

loft gaze upwards but paralysing you from the waist down’. See Reynolds and Press, The
Sex Revolts, p. 83.
 Lines from ‘Until the End of the World’, Eno et al. Achtung Baby Songbook, p. 31.
In fact, Bill Flanagan has suggested to Bono that this mix of the biblical and the profane,
of, in his words, ‘sacrament/sin, temple/vagina metaphor’, is indebted to W.B. Yeats,
particularly the line from ‘Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop’: ‘Love has pitched its mansion in
the place of excrement’. Bill Flanagan, U2: At the End, p. 77.
 See the lyrics to ‘The Fly’, Eno et al., Achtung Baby Songbook, p. 49.
 Bill Flanagan, U2: At the End, p. 36. As well as Kruger and Holzer’s work, Bono
had been inspired by William Burroughs ‘cut-ups’, just as Bowie had been in the mid 1970s.
 Nonetheless U2 tended to aim for producers who still had sufficient popular, even
‘mainstream’ appeal, such as Paul Oakenfold and Apollo 440.
 Sarah Thornton introduces the concept of subcultural capital in her analysis of dance
music, Club Culture, p. 115. Building on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Thornton argues that
dance subcultures are often based on ideologies of exclusivity and elitism, distinguishing
themselves from other (inferior) taste/identity groupings.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 193

Any radicalism evident on the album, though, was to become much more
overt in the band’s new iconography and performance; and this is one of the most
interesting aspects of the hybrid pop ‘text’, the possibilities for setting up tensions
among its various levels. The promotional video for the first single release, ‘The
Fly’, the first public glimpse of the band’s new sound and iconography, offered a
mise-en-scène that reinforced this sense of estrangement: a sexualized, as opposed
to chaste Bono – premiering his Fly character – in shiny, black PVC, located in
a grainy, low-key, neon-lit urban nether world surrounded, as with Bowie in The
Man Who Fell to Earth, by banks of televisions (as opposed to the consistent
stream of pastoral locations that dominated previous video releases).49
The adoption of the Fly was a significant shift in star text and departure from
the authenticity of his earlier persona. What was less clear was how to read these
images, as they appeared to have a variability of status. As Andrew Goodwin has
pointed out in his discussion of stars playing characters, any postmodern ‘role-
playing’ is anchored by the knowledge, that it is, of course, still the star.50 While
the creation of the Fly did indeed serve to reinforce, promote and extend Bono’s
star text, it had different implications from the former persona. In one sense, the
Fly was a partial critique of Bono (encapsulated in his pronouncement on the
televised Zoo TV: Outside Broadcast – ‘you didn’t like me when I was me, so I
found somebody new’), in tandem with parody/homage of other rock stars, such
as Jim Morrison, Elvis in the ’68 Comeback Special, the stars of ‘Glam rock’ or
Lou Reed circa Transformer.
However, what was especially significant was not any role-playing per se, as
chameleonic reinvention has been a staple part of the iconography of many rock
and pop stars, most famously David Bowie, Madonna and Kylie Minogue,
but the force of the reinvention in this context. Bono had offered up a fairly
consistent star persona from the band’s inception to 1991. What the Fly offered
was an abrupt volte-face of over a decade of rock star authenticity, particularly
the iconography of the rural dispossessed of the two preceding albums. What is
of most importance here is that this reinvention was unexpected, which meant
that any iconographic alteration was all the more powerfully felt, and potentially
subversive, particularly to the band’s long-term fans.51 In fact, pop’s most critically

 U2 had used urban locations for videos prior to Achtung Baby, most notably for
‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ from The Joshua Tree (1987). Set in Las
Vegas, the video may be read as turning the gospel-tinged track’s chorus into an anti-
materialist critique of the urban world of gambling and ‘glamour’, thus confirming the
longstanding support for the pastoral described here. Use of an urban location is, of course,
by no means equivalent to celebrating the (post)modern city. Indeed, video work from the
Achtung period went some way towards subverting previous iconographies.
 Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and
Popular Culture (London, 1993), pp. 101–14.
 I am particularly indebted here to the unpublished work of the late Marlies
Luetkenhues who carried out extensive and detailed audience surveys at the vast majority
of the Zoo TV and Zooropa concerts in 1992 and 1993. Her work provided valuable
194 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

revered and celebrated chameleon offers an interesting point of comparison. With

Bowie, identity transformation eventually became a routine expectation, which,
of course, lessened the possibility of shock. Moreover, Bowie’s role-playing has
been firmly located in the inauthenticity paradigm,52 whereas Bono’s reinvention
was precisely significant because it constituted a wholesale paradigm shift: a move
from the organic to the synthetic, from authenticity to artifice, fair-trade clothing
to industrial PVC, long lank natural hair to dye and hairspray, the ‘natural’ to the
conspicuously manufactured. Transformation is much more difficult to achieve if
the basis of your persona has been sincerity and authenticity.53
There was, however, a note of fatalism and futility in the Fly. First, it drew on
the literal, an insect pest ‘living on shit’, actively feeding off human waste, but
also one impossible to get rid of. Second, it also invoked the more metaphorical
idea of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ (as in documentary), with connotations of omniscience,
and tied in with the lyrics from the chorus of the track, ‘The Fly’. Therefore,
while the character of the Fly might be ‘all-seeing’, having the vantage point
to observe from odd angles and from a distance, he has little power to effect
change, apart from being able to make an ineffectual ‘bite’, alluding to both the
insect’s, and the pop star’s, brief life span (a move from ‘U can do it 2’, to ‘U2 can
be squashed’).54 In this respect, the icon and its meaning was a critical engagement
in performance terms with issues of pop celebrity, rock stereotypes, stardom, and
expectations about rock, politics and power. However, while this adopted alter-
ego was parodying existing rock tropes via exaggeration and meta-critique, he
was still a rock star, playing a rock star in a rock concert. This had contradictory
consequences. On one hand, there were conservative implications: it attached U2
to a ‘great’ rock past – one replete with canonical figures and celebrated moments –
and hence promoted a pop nostalgic dominated by the pleasures of reference. On
the other, through the use of parody and de-familiarization, some of the meanings
that rock, and U2, had accrued (authenticity, sincerity, honesty, organic Irishness,
and so forth) were unsettled. So the terms of critical reference of postmodernism,

evidence of the contradictory responses that this period of U2’s work elicited. This chapter
is dedicated to her memory.
 Bowie was something of an uber-text for U2 during this period and he is referenced
in the album, the concerts and promotional videos in a variety of ways.
 According to Bill Flanagan, Bono was fond of quoting Oscar Wilde in his
preparation for the Fly character: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,
give him a mask and he will tell you the truth’. See Flanagan, U2: At the End, p. 6. For a
more detailed discussion of Bono and the Fly persona, see Noel McLaughlin, ‘Bono! Do
You Ever Take those Wretched Sunglasses Off? U2 and the Performance of Irishness’,
Popular Music History 4/3 (2009): 309–31.
 Gerry Smyth has fittingly described the ‘Fly’ as ‘louche’ and ‘slightly camp’ … ‘a
figure further from the various heroic, “grounded” Bono personae of the 1980s (it) is hard
to imagine’. Certainly the role-playing of the period was, for many, a thankful respite from
Bono’s liberal crusading. See Smyth, Noisy Island, p. 98.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 195

whether it is parody, pastiche or homage, seem strangely unhelpful, merely setting

up circular arguments.
U2 toured Achtung Baby as Zoo TV in 1992 in the USA. The title is derived
from the opening track, ‘Zoo Station’, which in turn references Zoo Bahnhof
in Berlin, the train station at the centre of the Uli Edel’s cult ‘heroin chic’ film,
Christiane F/Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo)
of 1981. (The film featured David Bowie in concert performing a superb version
of ‘Station to Station’.) It also referred to the ‘mobile TV station’, or ‘media zoo’,
at the centre of the live event. This enabled live satellite link-up and the capacity
to record received images for playback on a series of giant, individually controlled
video screens or ‘vidiwalls’ suspended above the stage and smaller video cubes
that peppered the stage-floor. Specially commissioned film treatments were
also incorporated. Zoo TV was being announced as something new in the much
maligned stadium rock genre, using these onstage screens in an active and playful
manner, to incorporate images from television – often from the hosting national
context, to establish critical positions on television and of rock culture itself. The
concert was filmed from a number of angles, in much the same way as an orthodox
rock concert is filmed for video or television release, except these images were
assigned ‘live’ to the various screens and cubes, allowing the band and particularly
Bono to interact with the on-screen images, permitting the physical (and symbolic)
insertion of rock star performance into the televisual frame (literally a fly inside
a television screen). These images of the star, in turn, were ‘vision mixed’ with
the commissioned material, animations and other film treatments, as well as other
images apparently ‘grabbed’ from satellite both recorded and ‘live’.
Zoo TV was thus both an extension of live performance possibilities and an
integration of pop video visuals brought to the live arena. It also represented a
similar approach to pop visuals as the mixing desk and multi-track recorder have
been to pop sound, that is a dub or cut ’n’ paste sensibility brought to images,
with each vidiwall and cube analogous to the individual tracks of tape on multi-
track and so on. This allowed visual discourses to be bricolaged and brought into
juxtaposition with one another much in the same way that sounds are made to
correspond (or jar) on multi-track. The musical and visual could then be brought
into obtuse correspondences, playing on the meeting of different associations
anchored within the on-stage performance. However, it is important to add that
the visuals do not have autonomy from the music, and, as with the pop video,
the images were ‘cut’ rhythmically to reinforce, and heighten, the tempo and
dynamics of the songs.

Hip Hopping the Apocalypse! Or from Ballykissangel to Bladerunner

The stage-set resembled a Blade Runner-style cityscape with its suspended

vidiwalls, Trabants-as-lights, scaffolding towers and smokestacks. The neon Zoo
TV logo at the uppermost point of the stage consolidated the science-fiction aspect
196 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

offering a pastiche and critique of corporate identities and branded merchandizing.

This set was clearly designed to impress, with its intricate network of different sized
screens, varied sight lines and stage-levels, but also had dystopian connotations –
a future where ‘image’ swamps ‘meaning’.
The concert opened in suitably dramatic fashion with the then US president,
George Bush Senior, appearing on the screens, accompanied by a hip hop-style
drum break. In a direct address to the audience, characteristic of newsreaders and
television authority figures, Bush rapped the chorus of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock
You’ repeatedly in sync to the rhythm. Juxtaposing the Republican president,
Queen and hip hop was a contradictory mix, one that offered up interesting stylistic
and semantic tensions; an uneasy, yet playful, transatlantic hybrid of conservative
America, the urban black inner-city, and queer-inflected British rock. The agit-
prop possibilities of bricolage, the divergent associations of the musical and
visual, were being used for political purposes. It was also funny. Bush was being
made to rap, and to rap a Queen song, his mass-mediated authority undermined,
turned into ‘pop’ spectacle.
This section of the concert thus offered a number of interpretations. It can be
read within the terms of reference of rock romanticism, where the incorporation of
the president into the opening sequence is simply ‘bizarre’ and ‘very rock ’n’ roll’.
However, an aspect of ‘double-coding’ intrudes here, as ‘rock’ is sometimes
offered/read in rock culture as a synonym for ‘fuck’ (as in, say, Def Leppard’s
‘Let’s Get Rocked’). This added a critical subtext to the opening address, with
Bush repeatedly inferring, ‘we will, we will fuck you’, and moving on to rap the
subtext, ‘I instructed our military commanders to totally rock (fuck) Baghdad’. It
was certainly rare for any rock group to open a stadium concert in the USA with a
barbed critique of the Republican administration’s first Gulf War policy.55
Significantly, the Rhode Island-based ‘guerrilla’ video production collective,
Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN), was responsible for the Bush rapping
clip and its ‘underground’ connotations had been appropriated by U2 in this
context (with EBN, reciprocally, reaching a much wider audience). One thing
was certain, however, U2 was decentring itself by incorporating such work while
simultaneously extending its performance lexicon and revitalizing the stadium
rock format.
These images of the president were intercut with atomic explosions in time
with the accented bass drum, establishing a musical/visual juxtaposition that
invited the audience to dance in time to apocalyptic explosions. Here, rock
culture and its utopian thrust were subject to critique in the formal combination

 Decoding the latter references of course raises the issue of the audience’s (sub)
cultural capital, but Zoo TV does not operate off a simple ‘either/or’ binary of parody or
pastiche, critique or homage, as all areas can be argued for. The opening is also funny
precisely because Bush was a prominent supporter of the conservative Parent’s Music
Resource Centre (PMRC), which was explicitly anti-rap. It is also difficult to imagine that
Bush was a fan of the highly camp British rock group.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 197

of the cerebral and the hedonistic, the rhythmic and the visual and their
conventionalized associations. The PMRC-endorsing Bush was being made to
rap, and hip hop’s ‘black underground’ urban credentials were attached to the U2
authorial text in a novel and adventurous fashion (just as the EBN text had been
similarly appropriated).
The ‘Mysterious Ways’ segment extended this strategy of generating interesting
tensions among the different areas of textuality – vidiwalls, performance and
music – playing with cinematic, televisual and rock conventions, via an onstage
belly dancer. The dancer performed ‘in-person’ on the B-stage, mid-way into the
arena, and images of her were relayed onto the vidiwalls above the stage. As before,
this could be read in romantic terms, valued for its apparent ‘craziness’ in the
‘infantile’ rock cultural fetish for the unexpected. By gyrating in time to the music
her movements interpreted the meaning of the song, becoming a visual index of
the ‘dirty’ wah-wah guitar riff and the ‘funk’ of the rhythm section. Again this
presented a mix of conservative and progressive elements. On the one hand, the
dancer was a stereotyped ‘orientalist’ image of sexual desire: the trope of the east
as an erotic woman. This clearly had objectifying problems, as the heterosexual
and orientalist gaze was maintained for voyeuristic display. On the other, the video
screens were used to establish a series of interesting juxtapositions between Bono
and the belly dancer. By performing against the screens, Bono interacted with the
giant images of the dancer, becoming a little phallus/penis strategically placed
in front of her crotch and breasts, hence activating a popular Freudian discourse.
While these images were certainly exoticist, orientalist, and indeed objectifying,
the visual style and levels of coding offset the thrust of this. This tied in with,
foregrounded and visualized fragments of lyric – ‘You’ve been running away from
what you don’t understand’ – and also maintained the orientalist visual style of the
track’s accompanying promotional video. In this sense, Zoo TV was something of
a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, inviting the audience to look and
listen across its various discourses, and was very different from the spartan stage-
sets of the past.
In the same way that Achtung Baby straddled the conventional and the
disruptive, the sincere and the ironic, Zoo TV, despite its popular modernist
(or critical postmodernist) devices retained many aspects of a folk address and
ideology. Just in case the audience became too alienated mid-way through the
set, Bono abandoned the Fly iconography and the band regrouped to the smaller
B-stage to play in the round, in a more stripped-down, ‘unplugged-style’ set.
This more orthodox ‘good ol’ sweaty sing-along’ of past hits, helped to return the
audience to the anchoring pleasures of the familiar.
Ultimately, formal innovation had to give way to maintaining the orthodox –
and long-established – conventions and pleasures of the rock concert. The initial
brief given to Kevin Godley, the director/editor of the television special, Zoo
TV: Outside Broadcast, was to self-consciously deconstruct, undermine and hence
radically subvert the orthodox structure of the rock concert by cutting into the
songs themselves throughout and hence interrupting their flow. However, during
198 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

post-production there appears to have been disagreement with regard to how

far this deconstruction of the song form could be taken. According to Flanagan,
Godley, having edited the text in the appropriate fragmentary manner, came into
conflict with Bono who was anxious that the result broke the music’s ‘spell’ and
‘made him look a fool’.56 While interruption of song-flow does feature in Zoo
TV: Outside Broadcast, and significantly with the opening track ‘Zoo Station’, it
is a strategy that was deployed infrequently. This is evidence that the preservation
of the authority of the rock star text, and maintaining the conventional power of
musical performance, is of the utmost importance and took precedence over any
modernist critique and/or incorporation of avant-garde devices.57
It would be easy to conclude, therefore, that the appropriation of modernist
devices was tied to a desire on the part of the band to display its own cleverness.
Indeed, one might be tempted towards Adornian conclusions: this was a concert
with a few stylistic novelties to (falsely) mark its difference from others of
the same standard master template and, as such, a paradigm case of pseudo-
While Zoo TV may fall short of ‘heroic’ avant-garde critique, this is to judge it
by criteria it can never meet. It is still an important concert in the history of rock
performances and much of its significance lies in its innovative and disruptive
use of hybridity. It was certainly not reducible to U2’s apparent discovery of
postmodernism, or a simple critique of media overload and ‘image culture’.
The concert defies such reductionist explanations and is marked throughout by
its ambivalence. Thus, the critique of spectacle and the spectacle of the rock
concert supported each other; the critique of television, similarly, depended
on the appropriation of television and televisual strategies to revitalize the
stadium concert format. The specific tensions established – between music and
performance, between, ‘old’ and ‘new’ U2, along with the uneasy synthesis of
the ‘traditional’ (‘authenticity’, affirmative uplift, emotional ‘sincerity’, passion,
spirit) and the modernist (distance, self-reflexivity, critique, parody) – were clearly
of critical importance, especially to discourses of Irishness and Irish popular
music. Zoo TV, then, was a paradigm case of Bakhtinian polyvocality – of an
Irishness opened up to, and articulating, competing, contradictory and overlapping
cultural discourses.

 Flanagan, U2: At the End, pp. 104–5. Godley apparently retorted to Bono:
‘Fine, I understand. But if you keep taking all these bits out you’ll end up with a straight
concert film.’
 More prosaically, it was also a long tour and any ‘shock effect’ was potentially
neutered through repetition and familiarity. One superficial symptom of this was Bono,
who towards the tour’s conclusion, had put on weight and looked less like the ‘wasted drug
survivor’ of the early concerts.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 199

‘A Sort of Homecoming’?

Zoo TV was generally hailed critically as a new phenomenon across the music
press. It even reintroduced the group to the ‘serious’ arts pages of the ‘quality’
papers: a vindication of just how Achtung Baby and Zoo TV did constitute a
radical rupture with U2’s past and the dominant discourse of Irish rock. However,
Hot Press, which had been instrumental in building up the original U2 identity,
was less convinced by this new incarnation. While the magazine emphasized the
concert as spectacle – as ‘bizarre’, ‘carnivalesque’ and ‘crazy’ – it clearly missed
the ‘old U2’ and frequently criticized the concert as lacking in the folk-inflected
‘real’ rock values of ‘intimacy’ and ‘passion’. For example, Helena Mulkearns
wrote in an early review:

The Zoo TV stadium tour has become a huge, terrible rock ’n’ roll beast, a high
tech cyber creature which has long ago overshadowed the four human beings …
What happens if a band gains the whole world and loses its soul? … Never
have (U2) been so distanced, so controlled, so inaccessible … don’t expect
any emotional spontaneity … it seems something has been lost along the way,
that human dimension that comes with feeling first and foremost, that there are
four guys up on stage, playing their hearts out. It’s that old stadium trap – and
the trouble is that the technological extravaganza amplifies rather than defeats
it. (original emphasis)58

Zoo TV may be said then to have precipitated a crisis in reading, value and
judgment for the journalists at Hot Press. Bill Graham, U2’s most authoritative
domestic commentator, reviewed the Zoo TV/Zooropa concerts several times,
consistently noting his unease at the spectacle. Initially he appeared to defer
judgment on the performance and elected to extend U2’s place in the ongoing
master national narrative. As he had done at the beginning of the band’s career on
its first tour outside Ireland, Graham relied on metaphors of conquest, re-invoking
the ‘war’ of the stadium bands, utilizing the trope of insidership, and engaging
in a whole set of military and sporting metaphors to display how the Irish were
winning the ‘battle of media sales’ – ‘round one to U2’, and so on. When he finally
proceeded to discuss the concert itself, Ireland’s most respected rock critic was
evidently worried about the lack of core rock (or is it folk?) values: ‘so much for
any notion of authenticity … U2 are killing naturalism’.59 However, most revealing
is Graham’s review of the all-important ‘homecoming’ Ireland concerts:

What is Zoo TV? Perhaps the final white heat supernova, death of stadium rock
spectacle … ? Or a strangely flexible and inclusive validation of a new and only
partially formed Irish identity … ? Or a unique effort to take the avant-garde

 Helena Mulkearns, Hot Press 16/17 (1992).


 Bill Graham, ‘Achtung Station!’, Hot Press 16/11 (1992).

200 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

to all those who never attend an art gallery installation … ? At times Zoo TV
does become less interactive, a far more reliably scheduled affair than any Irish
Rail timetable.

After this set of questions, he goes on to offer judgement:

U2 do really look as if they’re [sic] going to be snowed under … the audience

seems to be gorging themselves on the hail of imagery and their own collective
idea of U2 – which may not necessarily be that of the four small figures on
stage who almost seem to be surrendering to all the million contradictory images
of themselves. It’s almost Kraftwerkian. U2, you momentarily think, could put
four robots or impersonators on stage and watch ‘themselves’ from the sound-
desk. Is the spectacle so overloaded and saturated as to be ultimately devoid of
meaning? Are we watching faith being sucked into the black hole of nihilism?60

Faith to nihilism, hope vanquished, the human figures dwarfed by technology

and ‘spectacle’. What was significant about Zoo TV, then, was that it subverted
existing expectations of U2 by favouring alienation, uncertainty and confusion
above coherence and (national) celebration.61 Therefore, both the national and
rock discourses of authenticity were to some degree problematized. It is not as if
Graham or Hot Press thought badly of band or album; this would be to overturn 15
years of critical writing on U2.62 However, there was a difficulty in both finding
traditional rock values and in claiming the usual rhetorical ownership of U2.

 Bill Graham, ‘Zooropa: The Greatest Show on Earth?’, Hot Press 17/18 (1993).

 An important point with regard to the dialectic between place and placelessness

arises here. Simon Reynolds organizes his seminal account of post-punk largely in terms
of cities and takes an assumed correspondence between musical style and the specificities
of place as its central organizing framework (hence the sounds and scenes of London,
Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, New York and Cleveland are explored in some
detail). What is ideologically interesting, though, is the blatant lack of critical consideration
of Dublin in relation to U2. This is especially significant, given the author’s description
of the band as the most successful in the pantheon. Indeed, the Anglo-American-centrism
and the lack of engagement with the historical particularities of post-punk Dublin leaves
the Irish capital as something of an ‘unknown city’; this contributes to further mystifying
the context of U2’s emergence, and downplays the band’s importance in the history of the
movement. Reynolds hops from the city to the national in discussing U2 and in so doing
deploys some rather vague, but well-worn, tropes of Irish ethereality. Simon Reynolds,
Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–1984 (London, 2005). Bill Graham and Hot
Press, in a sense, represent the opposite end of the continuum with the local/national over-
valorized at the expense of the global. An example of this is the central place afforded to
Lypton Village and The Virgin Prunes in inspiring the Achtung Baby period. While valid,
the range of influences involved is demonstrably much broader.
 Although Bill Graham was less impressed by Achtung Baby and stubbornly
championed Rattle and Hum in the face of general critical hostility.
Post-punk Industrial Cyber Opera? 201

Consequently, the magazine had to work hard to find an area where the traditional
discourse was applicable, where the readership could be reassured: ‘if you only
knew them [sic] … make no mistake about it, in person and in private, the members
of U2 are very human. They may be shrewd and careful about their money and
their merchandising, but they are also very likable.’63 As has often been the case,
U2 were characterized here as just four ordinary boys from Dublin, Ireland, a
beacon of sanity in a world of media madness and image overload.64 It was also
a sign that any formal radicalism could be eclipsed, pushed outside the frame of
reference, and thus deemed irrelevant, by the powerful discourses of musical and
national authenticity.

Conclusion or ‘Get on Your (Re)Boots’

As with dance culture, Hot Press found it hard to articulate U2 to the same
discourses of the national in musical and performance terms, as these had shifted
beyond the former folk roots narrative and outside of the identity frame associated
with imaginings of Ireland and the expectations of Irish rock. This was the first
time that an existing set of ideological accretions were thrown out and replaced
with an alternative set of associations (and to such a wide audience). It had the side-
effect of challenging, and (albeit momentarily) replacing, existing representations
of Ireland and the Irish internationally. This is not to suggest that Achtung Baby
or Zoo TV is reducible to overturning sedimented representations and national
stereotypes, merely to argue that this was a vital consequence of the aesthetic.
In one vital sense, Achtung-period U2 allowed the musical styles symbolically
‘shut out’ in The Commitments back in through the front door and acknowledged
the modern, and indeed modernist, music-making and performance that has been
consistently marginalized in the Irish popular musical canon.65 The album and
its accompanying Zoo TV tour remain one of the most disruptive assaults on the
paradigm of Irish sounds and images of the 1990s with the possible exception of
the famous literal detonation of Irish pastoralism in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy,
when a young Francie Brady imagines an atomic explosion in the Irish landscape.66

 Helena Mulkearns, Hot Press 17/18 (1993).
 For a more detailed discussion of the sanity trope in descriptions of U2’s Irishness
see Bradby, ‘God’s Gift to the Suburbs’.
 In fact, many of U2’s marginalized post-punk contemporaries, such as Operating
Theatre and Major Thinkers, have been pulled together in the Finders Keepers’ compilation,
Strange Passion: Explorations in Irish Post Punk DIY and Electronic Music 1980–83 (2012).
 Martin McLoone, Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema
(London, 2000), pp. 212–13. It is important to note that the image appears in Pat
McCabe’s 1992 source novel. Its status, however, is markedly different in the novel. As
a result of McCabe’s claustrophobic and interiorized first-person narration, the atomic
explosion image is much more explicitly anchored to Francie’s subjectivity and less an
explicit ‘denotation’ of the pastoral.
202 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

But that was, of course, several years later in 1998, perhaps revealing, much in
the manner of Jacques Attali,67 how music has the capacity to presage other areas
of the social order. However, the U2 of 2009 glimpsed at the start of this chapter
is comparatively orthodox, having retreated back at the start of that decade to
the anthemic sincerity of its earlier incarnation (perhaps as a consequence of
the commercial and critical problems of Pop and PopMart), leaving the period
explored as a surprising and exciting challenge to the intertwined, powerful and
entrenched, authenticities of rock and Irishness.68


U2, The Joshua Tree (Island Records, CID U2 6, 1987).

U2, Rattle and Hum (Island Records, 303 400, 1988).
U2, Achtung Baby (Island Records, 212 110, 1991).
U2, Zooropa (Island Records, CID U2 9, 1993).
U2, No Line on the Horizon (Mercury Music Group/ Island Records, 1796037, 2009).


Edel, Uli (dir.), Christiane F/Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Neue Constantin
Film, 1981).
Gee, Grant (dir.), Joy Division (The Works, 2007).
Godley, Kevin (dir.), Zoo TV: Outside Broadcast (Philips DCC, 1992).
Jordan, Neil (dir.), The Butcher Boy (Warner Bros, 1997).
Mallet, David (dir.), U2: Zoo TV Live from Sydney (MTV Networks, 1994).
Parker, Alan (dir.), The Commitments (Twentieth Century Fox Film
Corporation, 1991).

 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis, 1985).


 Overall, the U2 story can be regarded as a ‘prodigal son’ narrative: a journey from

‘innocence’ and righteousness to ‘worldliness’/decadence and back again. As has been

noted in review material, No Line on the Horizon does represent a hybrid of the band’s
early phase (particularly October and Unforgettable Fire) and the sonic experimentation of
the Achtung Baby/Zooropa periods and is certainly more aesthetically adventurous than the
two albums preceding it.
Part III
Cultural Explorations
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Chapter 12
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in
Early 1970s Cape Clear Island
Thérèse Smith

Gael or Gall, the two terms in the title of this chapter, have for centuries been used
in Ireland as designations of cultural identity: Gael designating the native Irish
(initially also Gaelic speakers, of course) and Gall the stranger (historically the
English, and non-Gaelic speakers). As such, these terms resonate with what are
now fairly longstanding debates on identity in ethnomusicology, often posited as
series of oppositions: insider–outsider, emic–etic, and self–other. Ethnomusicology
has, of course, from its very outset, been concerned with issues of identity, most
particularly with identity as articulated through music. As Simon Frith has
remarked, ‘music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experience
it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place
ourselves in imaginative cultural narratives’.1 Where those cultural narratives are
contested, and particularly where our two auditory means of communication –
speech and music – intersect; that is, in song, there develops a fulcrum where
musical identity is uniquely and critically articulated. If, moreover, the vernacular
language of the song is perceived as being under threat (as it is in the context I will
be discussing), articulation of identity is yet more crucial and potentially fraught.
The largest collection of English-language traditional song ever collected
by an individual in Ireland was amassed by the late folklorist and collector Tom
Munnelly (1944–2007), working first (from 1971) under the auspices of Breandán
Breathnach and the Department of Education, and subsequently (from 1974), with
Roinn Bhéaloideas Éireann at University College Dublin. In June 1972, under the
auspices of the newly established Archive of Folk Music (March 1972), Munnelly
visited Cape Clear Island (Oileán Chléire) with a view to collecting songs.2 Close
examination of the materials collected by Munnelly on this field trip, integrating

 Simon Frith, ‘Music and Identity’, in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions
of Cultural Identity (London, 1996), pp. 108–27, at p. 124.
 For further discussion of Tom Munnelly’s unique collection of song see, for
example, the following publications by Thérèse Smith, ‘Borders and Boundaries: Discord
in Irish Traditional Song’, in Anne Clune (ed.), Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour
of Tom Munnelly (Clare, 2007), pp. 295–315; ‘The Beautiful, the Broken Down and the
Half-forgotten’: Songs for Singers. Ó Riada Memorial Lecture 17, (University College
Cork, 2007); ‘Untranscribed Voices from the Past’, Béaloideas 71 (2003): 55–74.
206 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

primary documents – the recordings – with Munnelly’s descriptions, elicited from

his field diaries, offer a fascinating snapshot of Cape Clear in 1972, and of the
islanders’ sense of musical identity.3
It is noteworthy that, while the other islands of the western seaboard – Tory,
the Aran islands, and the Blasket – received extensive scholarly attention from
the beginning of the Irish Revival in 1893, Cape Clear did not. This may perhaps
have been because it was not as far west as those others, not quite ‘on the edge of
Europe’, or perhaps because its location at the entrance to Roaring Water Bay (as
opposed to being cast adrift on the wild Atlantic) made it seem less remote than
the other islands. This small island, three miles long by about one mile wide, is
located eight miles off the west Cork coast, and is the most southerly inhabited
place in Ireland
Undoubtedly, the island’s importance for telecommunications in the 1860s
must have made Cape Clear seem a far cry from the romanticized vision of
the other islands as primitive, innocent and untouched by the modern world.
On 24 October 1863, the Magnetic Telegraph Company completed the Cape
Clear–Baltimore (Co. Cork) line and, thanks to the telegraph station at South
Harbour, the island was linked directly to London, thereby ‘providing the
American news headlines six hours earlier than being done by any other route
then in existence’.4 America was at the time, of course, not only becoming an
increasingly important and powerful player in the world economy, but was also
in the throes of the Civil War (1861–65). News of the most recent developments
at the earliest possible time was, and is, an important influence on big business;
then, as now, information was power.5 Whatever the reason, apart from some
comparatively recent studies,6 and of course Conchur Ó Síocháin’s 1940 Seanchas
Chléire,7 there is a dearth of published material on the subject of Cape Clear.

 I wish to acknowledge the support of staff at the National Folklore Archive,
University College Dublin (UCD), who facilitated my research.
 Éamon Lankford, Cape Clear Island: Its People and Landscape, (Cape Clear
Museum, 1999), p. 98.
 Cape Clear’s importance as a telecommunications centre was, however, to be
shortlived. As Lankford remarks ‘once the [transatlantic] cable came ashore at Valencia
Island in Co. Kerry and the link-up was completed in 1866, the importance of the Telegraph
Station at South Harbour, Cape Clear declined rapidly. By 1870, the telegraph line from Fail
Chua to the mainland was silent and the old telegraph station or Tigh Teileagrafa had been
abandoned altogether. In 1879, during a measles epidemic on the island, the station, which
had fallen into disuse, served as a temporary hospital. It became the home of Dan Cadogan
around 1900 and was converted in the 1970s to its present use as a hostel accommodating
students attending Irish language courses in the summertime’. Ibid., p. 101.
 See, for example, Marie Daly, ‘Cape Clear Island: A Working and Living
Community’, master’s thesis (University College Dublin,1991); Marion Gunn (ed), Céad
Fáilte go Cléire (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990); Breandán Ó Buachalla, An Teanga Bheo:
Gaeilge Chléire (Baile Átha Cliath, 2003).
 Conchur Ó Síocháin, Seanchas Chléire, (Dublin, 1940).
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 207

Munnelly’s account, given in his field diary, of his first field trip to Cape Clear,
is worth quoting here.

Diary 6
Thurs. 8 June 1972

Drove the entire distance from Dublin, about 250 miles, without a break … Got
the boat over to Cape Clear and found lodging for the time being. Having had
something to eat I went down to the pub and met Sean Caddogan who promised
to call in tomorrow and give me a few songs. Electricity has come to the island
and it is impossible to record with the blare of television in the background.

Absolutely exhausted went to bed at midnight.8

This was hardly a promising start. Part of Munnelly’s disenchantment with the
island from the outset relates to the advent of modern technology – ‘it is impossible
to record with the blare of television in the background’ – a perceived modernity
that, as I suggested earlier may, even in the 1890s, have somehow disqualified
Cape Clear from the romanticized vision of the isolated island community. In
fact, had Munnelly come to the island but a few months earlier, there may have
been no television, as electricity had been introduced to the island only in 1971.9
It is noteworthy that this is the only instance of any reference to television in
Munnnelly’s field diaries from his first entry on 12 September 1971 in Gowna,
Co. Cavan, to his first entry for Cape Clear on 8 June of the following year, apart
from a single disparaging reference on his second day on the job that reads, ‘a dead
end. X’s chief recreation is watching television!’10 Clearly the novelty of television
on Cape Clear at the time of Munnelly’s field trip resulted in its being much more
in evidence there than in any other part of the country that Munnelly had visited
in the preceding ten months.
Additionally in the above diary extract, we get a glimpse of the two voices
that emerge from a close reading of the materials gathered by Munnelly on this
trip. There is, of course, Tom Munnelly’s voice, clear, lively and frank, telling it

 This and subsequent diary entries (unless otherwise indicated), are from Diary 6,
the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection, UCD.
 The scheme was administered jointly by Comharchumann Chléire Teo (founded
in 1969) and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB). It would appear, however, that television
on Cape Clear pre-dated electricity as, reminiscing about the advent of television to Cape
Clear in a more recent interview that I conducted with him, Munnelly added the following
detail: ‘Cotter’s pub had television, and I remember that it was run by a petrol generator.
And I remember when the All-Ireland was on, to go in there, you had to pay 6d towards
the petrol, to watch the television, to watch the match at the time.’ Interview by the author,
School of Music, UCD, 16 November, 2006.
 Diary 1, the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection UCD.
208 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

(sometimes disparagingly) as he sees it, but there is also the voice (or the voices) of
the islanders whom he encounters and these can, not only literally be heard on the
tapes that he recorded of them, but also almost as a second layer beneath the primary
voice of the diaries penned in Munnelly’s hand. And so in this brief dissatisfied
comment, we get an intimation of the tensions that characterize the materials
from Munnelly’s trip to Cape Clear. There is the outsider’s voice – Munnelly, the
collector, coming to Cape Clear, with a particular interest and vision – but also the
insider’s voice(s) – the islanders’ vision of themselves. Munnelly may have been
interested in collecting song but, in the social space of the pub that was almost
invariably his first port of call in a new locale, the islanders were interested not
in unmediated oral transmission, but in the newly acquired medium of television.
At the epicentre of the encounters that Munnelly describes sits the critical issue
of the relationship between the researcher and tradition bearer, fieldworker and
informant, pupil and teacher, in whatever myriad ways ethnomusicologists have
conceptualized these respective roles.11 How this relationship is negotiated is one
of ethnomusicology’s informing methodological dilemmas, as it is, indeed, for
any discipline where people study people.12 Thus, the brief encounters examined
here, may offer but a snapshot of one week on Cape Clear, but they raise many of
the methodological and interpretive issues with which ethnomusicologists (and
others) still grapple today.
Munnelly was by now in his tenth month of professional collecting, and had
collected song successfully in about half of the country’s counties, and from a wide
variety of singers. While he could be extraordinarily charming, Munnelly was also
possessed of a dogged resolution that made it difficult for even the most reluctant of
singers to elude him.13 Evident also, throughout this initial period especially, is his
transparent love of songs and singing, which cannot have been without influence
on those he encountered. The next diary entry is slightly more promising:

 For an interesting consideration of some of the disciplinary developments in


this regard see, for example, Line Grenier and Jocelyne Guilbault, ‘Authority Revisited:
The “Other” in Anthropology and Popular Music Studies’, Ethnomusicology 34/3
(1990): 381–97, or, for a more self-reflexive and specific examination, Susan J. Rasmussen,
‘Joking in Researcher–Resident Dialogue: The Ethnography of Hierarchy among the
Tuareg’, Anthropological Quarterly 66/4 (1993): 211–20, or Ruth Hellier-Tinoco,
‘Experiencing People: Relationships, Responsibility and Reciprocity’, British Journal of
Ethnomusicology 12/1 (2003): 19–34.
 Robert A. Georges and Michael O. Jones, People Studying People: The Human
Element in Fieldwork (California, 1980).
 In an earlier encounter with the Byrnes of Bunclody, Co. Wexford, on Thursday 16
December 1971 Munnelly illustrated his dogged persistence with the following diary entry:
‘Martin [Byrne] was a tough nut to crack and at first refused completely to sing on the
grounds that he had not sung in ten years and was not going to start now. His wife told me
she never sang. Eventually I was able to wear them down and convince them that it’s easier
to sing than to argue about it all day.’ Diary 4, Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore
Collection, UCD.
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 209

Friday 9 June 1972

First thing I called on the house of an tAthair Ó Murchú14 but got no reply to
my knocking so I assumed he would be over at the church on the far side of the
island so I walked over there but he was not there, asked a couple of people
where I might find him, but they didn’t know.

Came back to the south side of the island and there found that he is on the
mainland inspecting schools and was due back on the 7 p.m. ferry.

Another potential source of song I was told was a Donnacha Ó Droisceóil a man
who lived on the most remote tip of the island. I did not go back in that direction
as I was pretty footsore and it was time for my evening meal after which Sean
Caddogan was to come down to Burke’s pub.

After dinner there was a bit of excitement. Eamon Kelly the actor and storyteller
was staying over in the same house as I. He has two sons with him and one of
them, aged about 12 got lost. As this is an extremely dangerous island for a child
to wander around in, he was worried stiff. A party went out looking for the boy
and eventually found him ‘exploring’ one of the cliffs completely oblivious to
all the fuss he had caused.

Fr. Murphy did not arrive on the ferry. Sean Caddogan did not come to the pub.
But I did meet Donnacha Ó Droisceóil but got no songs from him. He refused
to speak a word of English to me, this I did not mind as it meant that Donnacha
had to put up with my abysmal Irish. He tells me he does not know any songs,
which statement is a direct contradiction to what I’ve been told by a couple
of islanders.

This somewhat lengthy excerpt sets the tone of and for Munnelly’s field trip,
and raises just about every issue that is to characterize his week-long visit. The
problem of people not being home when one calls, an occupational hazard of
fieldwork, is exacerbated on this occasion because Munnelly had left his car on
the mainland in order to save the £5 fee to bring it across. His wages at the time
amounted to about £11 per week and all expenses were severely scrutinized back
in Dublin.15 Munnelly decided, therefore, not to bring the car across assuming
(a) that the island was sufficiently small that he would be able to walk everywhere;

 An tAthair Tomás Ó Murchú was appointed curate on the island in 1965 and proved
in subsequent years to be a strong force for leadership. From the outset he conducted all
affairs of the Catholic Church and all dealings with the young through the medium of
Irish. In June of the year of his appointment, for example, he established Club Chiaráin to
promote Irish cultural activity among young islanders.
 Interview with the author, 11 November 2006.
210 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

and (b) that, given that it was the middle of June, the weather would be favourable.
It is clear from this entry that walking is proving more of a trial than anticipated –
‘I was pretty footsore’ – and also took a considerable amount of time (so that it
dictated whom he could call on and when). As will be seen the weather was also
to have a considerable impact on Munnelly’s field trip.
The central paragraph of this diary entry provides a nice sketch of the outsider
(in this case in the figure of Eamon Kelly’s 12-year-old son, but providing a nice
allegory for Munnelly), behaving in a manner that betrays a lack of understanding
of his surroundings, in Munnelly’s own words ‘completely oblivious’. Munnelly’s
obvious frustration is evident in the following paragraph as the islanders again assert
themselves by their very absence. The underlined ‘did not’s stress the autonomy
of the islanders. Munnelly is vindicated in not having tramped over to the far end
of the island to see Donnacha Ó Droisceóil as, given that he later appears in the
pub, it is unlikely that he would have been home. But we immediately learn that
Donnacha is, from Munnelly’s perspective, not just unreliable, he is downright
uncooperative: he refuses to speak a word of English and, additionally, insists that
he does not know any songs. For Donnacha Ó Droisceóil, language and music are
so inextricably intertwined, apparently, that he denies any knowledge of songs to
a non-Irish speaker.
And here we come to the crux of the matter: Munnelly was not an Irish speaker
and the scheme on which he was working was focused on English-language song.16
It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of how closely this language
distinction between Irish and English, already alluded to in the title of this chapter,
is intertwined with issues of identity. The politicized nature of the Irish language
and its intimate intersection with Irish identity was, at the time (and still is, if the
recent Irish General Election in 2011 is to be taken as evidence), a central bone
of contention in the construction of Irish identity. To complicate matters further,
in this instance, Munnelly collected generally from older informants, who, in this
case, might be more likely to speak Irish. While there are considerable difficulties
in trying to accurately assess the number of Irish speakers in a given area, based,

 Munnelly re-visited this focus with me in an interview just months before his death.
‘[As regards English-language traditional song] nobody paid any attention to it, at the time.
And that’s the value, I think greatly of that collection, that people – there was myself, and
Hugh Shields, and John Moulden – otherwise the English material was considered of no
particular value. And even with the Folklore Commission you had people like Michael
J. Murphy, who collected quite a lot of songs, but it was by no means his first interest.
And as regards the amount of stuff that was recorded, let’s see, Séamus Ennis concentrated
mainly in the various gaeltachts as well, and it’s perfectly understandable the firebrigade
mentality to saving the material in Irish, as you know there’s quite a bit of Irish from
Oriel, there’s Irish from Tipperary, and from all around the place [in the Irish Folklore
Collection] … Even Jim Delaney recorded some great singers, like Tom Moran, but he
recorded only lore from Tom, he never recorded songs from him. Because as far as he was
concerned the BBC had done it already, or Séamus Ennis had done it for the BBC already.’
Interview with the author, School of Music, UCD, 16 November, 2006.
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 211

for example, on census records,17 it is clear that, in the early 1970s on Cape Clear,
Munnelly’s informants are reluctant either to speak English with this outsider,
or to admit to knowing English-language songs. Part of the islander’s projected
identity, their view of themselves and of how they wish to be seen, is as Irish
speakers who cherish their language. As Eliasoph and Lichterman assert, ‘speech
norms put into practice a group’s assumptions about what appropriate speech is in
the group context’,18 and Munnelly’s speech norms are not those of the islanders.
For Munnelly, in this instance, this discrepancy is even more crucial because he is
operating in the arena of public discourse (as the songs are being recorded or laid
down for posterity), where actors commonly invoke a shared code19 that identifies
them. The islanders’ language of public discourse is Irish and this is, of course,
entirely at odds with what Munnelly is trying to achieve.
It is worth noting also, of course, that particularly after the establishment of
Roinn na Gaeltachta in 1957 (which was preceded by Coimisiún na Gaeltachta), a
variety of incentives were offered to speakers of Irish resident in gaeltacht areas.20
These continue today in the form of grants designed to improve quality of life in
the Gaeltacht, and range from housing grants to larger community grants. Cape
Clear (or Oileán Chléire) was (and still is) classed as a gaeltacht island,21 and the
islanders may have been reluctant to potentially jeopardize that status by engaging
with a young Dubliner, carrying a tape recorder, and speaking English.
Adding to Munnelly’s troubles, it is not long before the Cape Clear weather
begins to assert itself. From Sunday on, in diary entry after entry Munnelly
describes torrential downpours. The following is typical:

Sun. 11 June 1972

Sunday 7 p.m.

… After dinner I left the house but had scarcely gone a mile when the heavens
opened and the rain came down in bucketfuls and drove me back. Spent the
afternoon in Burke’s pub looking out the window and waiting for the downpour
to stop.

 On this topic in relation to Cape Clear in the early 1900s, see Máire Ní Chiosáin,
‘Meath na Gaeilge I gCléire’, in A. Doyle and S. Ní Laoire, (eds), Aistí ar an Nue-Ghaeilge:
in omós do Bhreandán Ó Buachalla. (Baile Átha Cliath, 2006), pp. 85–94.
 Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman, ‘Culture in Interaction’, American Journal of
Sociology 108/4 (2003): 735–94, at p. 739.
 Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, ‘The Discourse of American Civil Society: A
New Proposal for Cultural Studies’, Theory and Society 22 (1993): 151–207.
 For a brief overview of these developments, see Gearóid Denvir, An Ghaeilge, an
Ghaeltacht agus 1992 (Galway, 1989).
 For some detail on this matter see, Reg Hindley, The Death of the Irish Language,
(London and New York, 1990), especially pp. 122–4.
212 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

The inclement weather, moreover, is more than an inconvenience, as Munnelly

gets repeatedly soaked to the skin: it apparently prevents the islanders from
coming out to social gatherings at which Munnelly had hoped to record singing.
Time and again we come across the comment ‘there was no singing’. Additionally,
as the bad weather persists, Munnelly begins to have problems with his recording
equipment. Consider the following:

Mon. June 12

The rain had eased off somewhat this morning but by the time I got half way
across the island it was raining cats and dogs again … Sheltering under one of
the island’s few trees I played back the recording of Tadhg Ó Siocáin’s song.
Noticed a great deal of static on the recording. Made a few more test recordings,
same result. Had to tramp the whole bloody length of the island again to get my
Sony machine … Returned to the guest-house. Took the back off the Uher tape-
recorder. There is a lot of dampness inside. Perhaps the condensation is causing
the static. Will have to let it dry gradually as there is no heat of any description.
(And the only running water comes from the sky.)


An unheard of complication has arisen. After dinner I went to Cummer to see a

Paddy Walsh … On playing back the first song to Paddy I noticed that the static
on the Sony recording was just as bad as that which had made its appearance on
the Uher earlier. Switched over to the internal mike, same result. Tried automatic
level, still very distorted, even changing the tape made no difference at all. The
static, I hope, is caused by the storm. All I could do was get Paddy to give me a
list of all the songs he knew, and I have marked off the ones which I will record
to-morrow if things clear up.

As luck would have it Sean Caddigan was singing his head off later to-night.

But if the weather eventually clears up enough so that Munnelly can get some
decent recordings, what the islanders choose to project as their identity, what they
choose to remember and articulate as meaningful, continue to be at odds with
Munnelly’s mission to collect English-language song. One endearing illustration
of this is in Munnelly’s encounter with Máire (‘Babe’) Breathnach, aged 80, on
Tuesday 13 June.22 ‘Babe’ had initially refused to sing at all until she learned that it
was an tAthair Ó Murchú who had recommended her to Munnelly, and even when
he secures her agreement to sing, she asserts her identity by deciding what she will

 Marion Gunn is of the opinion that the correct nickname may have been ‘Mame’,
and misheard by Munnelly. Interview with the author, Humanities Institute of Ireland,
UCD, 2 June, 2006.
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 213

and will not sing, with an amusing disregard for what Munnelly wants. Thus we
have the following exchange on the tape at the beginning of the session:

Babe: Why don’t I give the Irish song anyway?

Munnelly: OK [with considerable lack of enthusiasm]
Babe: Because ‘tis Irish I want, ‘tis Irish I have. Are you ready now?
Munnelly: I’m ready
Babe: God … I am hoarse.23

This issue of language – ‘It’s Irish I want. It’s Irish I have’ – has, of course,
long been recognized by scholars as being of far more than merely political or
cosmetic significance. C.S. Lewis puts is succinctly in relation to literature, and
his comments equally apply to song lyrics, for it is the language of the lyrics, and
not the music, that is the central issue here:

Nothing about a literature can be more essential than the language it uses. A
language has its own personality; implies an outlook, reveals a mental activity,
and has a resonance, not quite the same as those of any other. Not only the
vocabulary … but the very shape of the syntax is sui generis.24

Thus language is uniquely crucial to articulation of identity in song (in all of its
many manifestations), for, as Benedict Anderson remarked almost two decades
ago, people imagine themselves as connected through language, especially
through their experience and understanding of shared texts, most notably
poetry and song which produce, he argued ‘a special kind of contemporaneous
community’.25 And Munnelly’s lack of (or to be generous, poor command of) Irish,
marks him as manifestly not part of this community. Given, moreover, that it is
a well-established psychological premise, that a large part of our identity is built
paradoxically on who we are not,26 or, as Mikhail Bakhtin put it, that ‘we get
ourselves from others’,27 the binary opposition between the Irish and English
languages here (and indeed their associations and cultural contexts), is critical
for many of the islanders, and remains today stubbornly central to debates on
Irish identity. It is, of course, also worth stressing that the intersection of identity
with language has also received attention outside of the literary sphere: it is

 TM 56/A/4, the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection, UCD.
 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge University Press, 1964), p. 6.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread
of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).
 See, for example, James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth, (Oxford and New
York, 1992); Michael R. Jackson, Self-Esteem and Meaning, (Albany, NY, 1984); Anthony
Marsell, George de Vos, and Francis Hsu, (eds), Culture and Self, (New York, 1985);
Elizabeth Moberly, The Psychology of Self and Other (New York, 1985).
 In Katarina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge MA, 1984).
214 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

fundamental, for example, to philosophy, and to much subaltern and postcolonial

theory.28 Scholars of postcoloniality have recognized three characteristic responses
of the colonized to postcolonial contexts (and Irish history has, of course, been
forged by 800 years of colonialism, as much of the twentieth century has been
a response to the postcolonial state): silencing (of the postcolonial voice by the
imperial centre), abrogation (rejection of the metropolitan power and refusal
of it categories), and appropriation (adaptation of the metropolitan language to
describe alternative cultural experiences and expectations).29 If the latter response –
appropriation – is the most characteristic Irish response to English colonization,
the second response – abrogation, that is, rejection of the metropolitan power and
refusal of it categories, is the one that Tom Munnelly encounters from the islanders
on Cape Clear. Social identity theory has also long recognized that groups draw
boundaries as much through exclusion as inclusion.30 For ‘Babe’ part of the core of
her identity is Irish song, song, that is, that is not in English. In the union of music
and language in song, we have a graphic illustration of how identity is encoded in
this particular cultural narrative. For, as Gerry Smyth has observed, ‘music (like
all culture) is caught up in both economic and interpersonal discourses, played
out in the space that emerges between structure and agency … neither structure
nor agency should prevail as categories for the analysis of cultural phenomena,
and [that] the musical meanings to which analysts address themselves are in fact
produced by the friction that results when structural and affective discourses are
brought into contact with each other’.31 ‘Babe’ may, on the recommendation of an
tAthair Ó Murchú have conceded to conduct a brief interview with Munnelly in
English, but her language of affective discourse is Irish, and to Irish she insists on
returning once left to her own mode of expression.
After this slight altercation with Munnelly, Babe proceeds to sing what might
be regarded as Cape Clear’s anthem, ‘Oileán is ea Cléire’, a song in praise of the
island and its ways, composed by Seán Mac Coitir (John K.Cotter), of An Gleann,
Cape Clear, and one of about 50 songs attributed to him.32 In both her choice of

 In this regard, see for example Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
(London, 1994) and Gilles Deleuze and Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and
Consequences (London and New York, 2004).
 Quoted in Jane E. Goodman, ‘Writing Empire, Underwriting Nation: Discursive
Histories of Kabyle Berber Oral Texts’, American Ethnologist 29/1 (2002): 86–112, at p. 87.
 An early study in this regard is Fredrik Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries:
The Social Organization of Culture Difference (Boston, 1969). More recent studies include
Bethany Bryson ‘Anything but Heavy Metal: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes’,
American Sociological Review 60 (1996): 884–99; Richard Jenkins, Social Identity (New
York, 1996); and Michèle Lamont Money, Morals, and Manners (Chicago, 1992).
 Gerry Smyth, Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music (Cork, 2005),
p. 5.
 Quoted in Lankford, Cape Clear Island, p. 128. ‘John Cotter of Cape Clear and
Blackwater Bridge, Kenmare, Co. Kerry. Seán Mac Coitir, died in Kenmare Hospital I believe
aged 92 years around 1968. He lived at Blackwater Bridge, Post Office where his son Gabriel
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 215

language and of song, Babe is asserting an identity that is unique and of which
she is clearly proud. The melody that she sings is a fairly simple major pentatonic
one with a range of a major sixth: it is syllabic throughout in her rendition. I have
transcribed it at its most basic in Example 1, from Tom Munnelly’s tape recording,
and this amount of melody covers a full couplet of text: it should be borne in
mind, however, that ‘Babe’ varies both rhythm and melody to suit the length and
articulation, as well as accentuation of the text.

Example 1 Oileán Cléire, Máire ‘Babe’ Breathnach

As with many traditional singers, she does not sing the full text of the song,
but fashions, rather, a personalized version drawn from all of the available text.33 It
is instructive to note both what she includes and what she omits.34 Babe dispenses
entirely with the introductory first verse of the original:

Táimse ó Chléire más maith libh éisteacht,

[I am from Cape Clear, if you would like to listen,]
Agus ba mhaith liomsa cúpla focal do rá
[And I would like to say a few words]
Mar gheall ar an oileán so gur saolaíobh Ciarán ann,
[About this island where Ciarán was born,]
Agus a thug an creideamh ann thar sáile fadó.
[And where he brought this faith from abroad long ago.]

She apparently feels no need to introduce herself to her audience. She instead
takes the second verse of the original, with minor modifications, for her first verse:

Oileán is ea Cléire i gceann thiar theas na hÉireann,

[Cape Clear is an island in the south west of Ireland,]

still lives although the PO is now no longer in the old house. I spoke with Gabriel about three
years ago when he was about 80 years of age and I am assuming that he is still to the good.’
E-mail communication from Eamon Lankford, 31 May 2006. An interesting aside about Cotter
is that it was he who organized the unloading of arms from the ‘Asgard’ a yacht belonging to
Erskine Childers (1870–1922), author of The Riddle of the Sands, at the Howth gunrunning
in 1914, when Cotter skippered his boat ‘The Gabriel’ into Howth. Lankford, ibid., p. 118.
 For the complete text, see ibid., p. 128.
 The lines in square brackets are my translation from the Irish and, while they
certainly lack the poetic rhyme and alliteration of the original, their purpose here is to
clearly deliver the meaning of the Irish lyrics.
216 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Agus iascaire is ea gach aon fhear a mhaireann ann beo,

[And every man who lives there is a fisherman,]
Tá sé chéad déag bliain ó saolaíobh Ciarán ann,
[It is eleven hundred years since Ciarán was born there,]
Agus níor fhág an creideamh riamh Cléire,
[And the (true) faith never left Cape Clear,]
Is ní fhágfaidh go deo.
[And never will.]

She joins the opening couplets of the third and fifth verses to generate her
second verse.

Chuirfeadh sí áthas ar éinne a mbeadh sa lá gréine,

[It would bring joy to anyone who would be there on a sunny day,]
Ag féachaint mór timpeall ó Chnoc a’ tSíocháin,
[Looking around from Chnoc a’ tSíocháin,]
Dá mbéifeá sa Samhradh, séasúr an iascaigh,
[If you were there in the summer, the season of fishing,]
Bheadh na báid ag seoladh ó chuanta Chiaráin.
[The boats would be sailing from Ciarán’s harbours.]

She then inserts verse seven as her third verse, and adds the concluding couplet
from verse five to complete her version:

Gan rath ar na Sasanaigh do mhilleadair Éire

[May the English have no prosperity for they ruined Ireland]
Is do loiteadar ár dteanga san aimsir fadó,
[And they destroyed our language long ago,]
Buíochas le hÍosa tá an spiorad fós ‘nár ndaoine,
[Thanks be to Jesus our people still have spirit,]
Beidh Gaeilge i gCléire faid a bheidh Sasanach beo.
[And Irish will be spoken in Cape Clear as long as Englishmen are alive.]
Thíos ar a’ dtráigh úd bhuail gasúr fear óg ann,
[Down on that strand a boy ran into a young man,]
Ag rince is ag spóirt leis a’ gcailín deas fionn.35
[Dancing and playing with his lovely fair girl.]

Babe’s choices in sum stress the primary occupation of the islanders, fishing, and
the long history and steadfastness of the islanders in their Catholic faith. She then
evokes a delightful visual portrait of the island, drawing on the strong alliterative
and rhyming character of ‘ó Chnoc a’ tSíocháin’ and of ‘ó Chuanta Chiaráin’
(particularly marked here, as Munster Irish typically stresses the final elongated

 TM 56/A/4, the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection, UCD.
Gael or Gall? Musical Identity in Early 1970s Cape Clear Island 217

syllables of words, in this case tSíocháin and Chiaráin), and continues the image
of fishing as central to island life. Her third verse asserts the primacy of the Irish
language (and the implied identification of it with Irishness and as a badge of
distinction from Englishness. It is also true, of course, that Sasanach in Munster
Irish sometimes refers to Protestant rather than English, thus further reinforcing
her Catholic identity.) To further complicate the issue of language and identity in
this instance, it is worth mentioning, that a song in English ‘The Island of Cape
Clear,’ also by the same John Cotter, and collected by Tom Munnelly from Denis
Curtin (83), a retired fisherman, in Glen East, Cape Clear, on 9 June 1972, contains
the following couplet, which would seem to reinforce the interpretation of the
term Sasanach as Englishman: ‘We natives of this island are of the true-bred Irish
race /No mixture of the Sasanach flows through our Irish race.’36 This sense of
identity through opposition is particularly telling given her earlier altercation with
Munnelly (and indeed those of other islanders). And she strengthens the language
of the lyrics here by substituting the uncompromising ‘do loiteadar ár dteanga’
(they destroyed our language) for the less forceful ‘do scaipeadar ár dteanga’ (they
scattered our language) of the original. However, rather than finishing the song
with a battle cry, she softens her tone and concludes with a light-hearted couplet
borrowed from earlier in the song. As a gesture of conciliation, also to Munnelly
perhaps, she comments after singing the song –‘That’s all I have now. I don’t know
is it good or bad’ – generously leaving open the possibility that her interpretation
is not the only one. This statement also resonates with the now generally accepted
premise that while performance is a practice for constructing identity, it is also an
ethnomusicological truism that no performance stands alone, but is tied to other
performances and speech events that both precede and succeed it. Or, as Bauman
and Briggs put it, ‘performances are decentered and recentered both within and
across speech events – referred to, cited, evaluated, reported, looked back upon,
replayed, and otherwise transformed in the production and reproduction of social
life’.37 Even in this artificial context, and in the absence of an audience (in any real
sense), Babe is evaluating her own performance.
Notwithstanding that music and language cannot be separated in song, the
above does raise the question as to whether this is primarily a question of language,
and whether the music is subsidiary. I would argue that it is not, because while
Munnelly does elicit spoken performances from the islanders – failing to come up
with English-language songs, they sometimes offer him recitations in English –
music and text are usually so inextricably bound together for the islanders that
they resort to either of two strategies when Munnelly requests English-language
songs. They either assert, despite all evidence to the contrary (as did Donnacha Ó
Droisceóil whom we encountered earlier) that they know no songs; or alternately,

 TM 55/A/1, the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection, UCD.
 Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, ‘Poetics and Performance as Critical
Perspectives on Language and Social Life’, Annual Review of Anthropology 19
(1990): 59–86, at p. 80.
218 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

they insist on providing Munnelly with songs in Irish, despite his audible lack
of enthusiasm for them, still clear on these more than 40-year-old recordings. In
fact, of those islanders whom Munnelly does persuade to sing (that is, those who
adopt the second strategy), all insist on singing songs in Irish and all but one sing
more Irish-language songs than English. Máire Breathnach in her encounter with
Munnelly, offers a fragment of one song in English – ‘A Jacket and Blue Trousers’
(sometimes known as ‘Short Jacket and White Trousers’) – before reverting
inevitably to a song in Irish – ‘Máire’, at the conclusion of which she adds ‘Máire,
‘sea mé fhéin’ (Máire is myself), further asserting her identity in and as Irish.38
In conclusion then, the results of Munnelly’s trip to Cape Clear are mixed:
some of the recordings are indeed badly affected by static, and there can be no
doubt that the weather detrimentally affected both his results and his view of the
island. But of course, literally thousands of pages of folklore from Cape Clear
from the 1920s to the 1950s and indeed on into the 1990s, are housed in a variety
of archives, much of it at UCD. It has been possible in this chapter to consider
only a tiny fraction of what exists. This engaging encounter of the 80-year-old
Irish-speaking woman from Cape Clear with the 28-year-old English-speaking
man from the metropolis is but one snapshot of Cape Clear in the early 1970s. But
it is one that richly illustrates the sense of identity, place, and meaning carefully
and deliberately articulated by the islanders. The embodiment of sound in the
performances that the islanders provide for Tom Munnelly – the very physicality
of the voice, especially in their sung performances – ‘objectifies the experience
of sociality in a way that can be perceived by the senses’, to quote Thomas
Solomon.39 Availing of a classic performance strategy, Babe uses her performance
as an opportunity ‘to call into being the social body and landscape’40 of her own
community in front of a representative (and presumed future representatives, when
the recordings are deposited by Munnelly in the Folklore Archive back in Dublin)
of other communities. If one accepts Eliasoph’s and Lichterman’s assertion that
‘the meaning of culture depends in part on what it means to participate in a group
setting that filters that culture’,41 Munnelly’s difficulties result in part from the fact
that, despite being Irish, he is outside of the islanders’ cultural group: he is, in fact,
the Gall to their Gael.

 TM 56/A/6, the Irish Folk Music Section, National Folklore Collection, UCD.

 Thomas Solomon, ‘Dueling Landscapes: Singing Places and Identities in Highland


Bolivia’, Ethnomusicology 44/2 (2000): 257–80, at p. 276.

 Eliasoph and Lichterman, ‘Culture in Interaction’, p. 784.
Chapter 13
Positive Vibrations: Musical Communities
in African Dublin
Matteo Cullen


In this chapter I report on research investigating musical culture among three

African social groups in Dublin during the early 2000s. The project was motivated
by a number of factors, primarily the substantial increase in the number of Africans
living in the city during that period.1 I wanted to investigate the dynamics, practices
and implications of music consumption among Dublin’s African community, and
establish whether these aligned with patterns noted by previous authors exploring
music in other continental and diasporic communities.2 Data gathering involved
participation at a reggae club, an African Pentecostal church and a themed ‘African
Night’ at a city-centre nightclub. The chapter sets out to explore how music is used
by Africans to create communities and accumulate ‘social capital’ for participants,
and to detail the central role played by music in Africans’ social lives in Dublin.
Theories of community are applied to the analysis in order to interpret the ‘social
networks’ that comprise the city’s African musical communities. The study also
considers various expressions of ‘Africanness’ that were encountered during the
ethnographic research.
The catch-all term ‘African’ describes a highly diverse population, in terms
of ethnic and national allegiance, socio-economic status, and cultural heritage:
according to research by Ugba,3 at the beginning of the twenty-first century
persons from 18 sub-Saharan African countries were residing in Dublin city.
While families formed a key component of Dublin’s African communities, Ugba

 Abel Ugba, Africans in 21st Century Dublin: Who They are and What They Want.
Report of a Survey on the Profile and Needs of Africans living in Dublin (Dublin, 2002).
 Simon Broughton, World Music: The Rough Guide (London, 1999); Ingrid T. Monson,
The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (New York, 2000); Desire Kazadi Wa Kabwe,
and Aurelia Segatti, ‘Paradoxical Expressions of the Homeland: Music and Literature among
the Congolese Diaspora’, in Khalid Koser (ed.), New African Diasporas (London, 2003);
Ruth Stone, The Garland Handbook of African Music (New York and London, 2008); Isidore
Okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu (eds), The New African Diaspora (Bloomington, 2009).
 Abel Ugba, Africans in 21st Century Dublin; A Quantitative Profile Analysis of
African Immigrants in 21st Century Dublin (Dublin, 2004).
220 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

found that two thirds of respondents were single; therefore, Dublin’s African
communities mirrored established groups in the UK and Paris in that they were
composed primarily of single, younger migrants. The breadth of cultural traditions
practised and maintained by Africans in Dublin is impressive, and includes an
expansive mixing of African and diasporic cultures. One traditional viewpoint
emanating from the homeland but maintained in the diaspora is the primacy of
kinship groups: Smith and Mutwarasibo’s qualitative study found that kinship ties
were of importance to a majority of Africans living in Dublin.4 Kinship groups
were essential to acquiring jobs, money and commodities; they were used to help
with child rearing and minding, and for emotional and financial support. A more
recent development has been the growth of Christian churches among African
communities, with approximately 40 per cent belonging to religious groups.5 The
growth of new churches in inner city areas, including Smithfield, Prussia Street
and Moore Street indicates that religious affiliation plays important associational
roles for a number of Africans in Dublin.
Smith and Mutwarasibo meanwhile found that a high level of linguistic
ability among Dublin’s African population was influential in cultural adaptation.6
A majority of Africans participating in their interviews and focus groups were
professionals who were open to the idea of inter-ethnic group contact.7 Activities
such as storytelling, singing, dancing, debating and visiting friends or family are
examples of impromptu events organized and conducted in kinship-style groups
by Africans living in Ireland. Geographical dispersal, language and cultural
differences between Africans and differences in income and legal status were
some of the observed barriers to community development here.8
The centrality of music in the African diaspora has been referenced by several
commentators.9 Wa Kabwe and Segatti illustrate the value of music in France’s
Congolese diaspora. The largest African community in that country, one of its
most prominent cultural features is music:

Music pervades both the public and private spheres … at concerts [and] also in
ngandas [taverns], at football grounds, at the hairdresser, at mourning gatherings,
in church and in markets where pirate CDs, videos and audio cassettes are sold.10

 Suzanne Smith and Fidele Mutwarasibo, Africans in Ireland: Developing


Communities (Dublin, 2000)

 Ugba, Africans in 21st Century Dublin.
 Smith and Mutwarasibo, Africans in Ireland.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Chris Stapleton, ‘African Connections: London’s Hidden Music Scene’, in
P. Oliver (ed.), Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular
Music (Milton Keynes, 1990); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in
Contemporary America (Middletown, CT, 1994); Broughton, World Music, 1999; Monson,
The African Diaspora; Okpewho and Nzegwu, The New African Diaspora.
 Wa Kabwe and Segatti, ‘Paradoxical Expressions of the Homeland’, p. 125.
Positive Vibrations 221

Following concentrated migration to Paris from Zaire during the 1980s, music
has assisted in the creation and sustenance of myths describing Europe as a place
of wealth and plenty. Music provides a common point of reference for diasporic
Africans, creating links with the homeland and reducing the distance between
home and abroad. Popular songs often refer to people who have paid singers to
mention their names during concerts or even in recordings, adding to their status
on their return to Africa, and to that of friends and relatives back home. Music,
therefore, maintains a central role as a means of social expression, of acquiring
status in the diaspora, and of articulating immigrants’ aspiration to return to
the homeland.
In my research I wanted primarily to explore the ways in which musical events
are used by immigrant Africans as a means of social networking, and generating
what Putnam terms social capital11– visibility and status in the diaspora. I am
connected to Nigeria by a paternal link, which while largely unexplored, has
stimulated a long-held interest in African societies and cultures. In a sense this
peaked when, having researched African(-American) blues, jazz, hip-hop and
Jamaican reggae, I began to explore the music of Nigerian Fela Kuti. Kuti, a
band leader and self-styled critic of the Nigerian political establishment is a noted
musical innovator whose Afro-beat combines African drumming, American funk
and West-African highlife.12 If a personal interest in music was instrumental in
research topic selection, I was also motivated by portrayals of Africans in Ireland’s
tabloid and broadsheet media during the late 1990s that struck me as abusive and
inaccurate. They included references to Africans as a threatening, homogenous
social group with alien beliefs and customs, such as the importation of seahorses
and monkeys to eat. These portrayals mixed with longstanding images in the Irish
popular psyche of Africa as the place where ‘black babies’ live13 contributed to
a highly publicized moral panic around immigration. This largely focused on
African in-migration, and was exacerbated by the actions of conservative interest
groups such as the Immigration Control Platform (ICP). A number of liberal critics
and pressure groups were sceptical of the governmental response to this crisis,
which led to meetings in Dublin city centre, protests at Dáil Éireann (the Irish
parliament), and angry correspondence with the then Minister for Justice. The
issue called into question Ireland’s ability to embrace interculturalism at political

 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community (London, 2000).
 ‘Fela’, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-
9114692 (accessed 26 March 2008).
 ‘Black babies’ denoting embedded perceptions about the ongoing need for
missionary aid in what were assumed as universally ‘underdeveloped’ African societies:
Smith and Mutwarasibo, Africans in Ireland; Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh, Racism
and Anti-Racism in Ireland (Belfast, 2002); Philomena Lynott and Jackie Hayden, My Boy:
The Full Story of Philip Lynott (Dublin, 2011).
222 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

and social levels.14 Against this background, I hoped to use my ‘insider knowledge’
of African music and culture to present a positive image of ‘African Dublin’.

Subcultural and Social Capital

Sarah Thornton’s investigation of British club cultures advances the notion that
allegiance to a subculture produces subcultural capital.15 Developing the premise of
‘cultural capital’ expounded by Pierre Bourdieu, Thornton proposes that members
of a subculture gather primarily because of a partiality towards those with similar
musical tastes. This predilection is amplified by similarities in terms of other
associational characteristics, including age, gender and race. Broadcast and print
media, along with academic research (quantitative and qualitative analysis) play
a key role in constructing subcultures, describing their internal dynamics, shaping
public perceptions of them and defining members’ attitudes to participation,
exclusion and inclusion.16
Thornton’s theoretical approach is relevant to the study of Dublin’s African
communities; as the current chapter demonstrates, musical taste determines the
kind of subcultural allegiances African persons in Dublin develop, and is crucial
in establishing the hierarchies operating within them. As noted earlier, the study
also draws on the writings of Robert Putnam, whose analysis of American social
life popularized the theory of social capital. In Putnam’s work, the functioning
of communities is explained in terms of networks. Physically, interactions are
represented by networks of association that include cultural frameworks and
a ‘reciprocal web of obligations and expectations’.17 Developing the ideas of
James Coleman, Putnam stresses the benefits of subcultural association, which
create social capital. Social capital itself describes the benefits generated for the
individual, based on the presence of networks; it translates into tangible resources,
cultural knowledge and the ability to further develop relationships. Theoretically,
it accounts for the co-existence of the contradictory American values of
individuality and social consensus. Putnam’s propositions regarding social capital
are wide-ranging, and two key dimensions of his theory are of relevance to the

 I recall clearly, for example, two elderly Irish people on a bus openly describing me
as ‘smelly’ since they considered me ‘African’! See also Lentin and McVeigh, Racism and
Anti-Racism in Ireland.
 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital
(Cambridge, 1995).
 Thornton, Club Cultures, 1995; Matthew B. Smith-Lahrman, ‘Selling-Out:
Constructing Authenticity and Success in Chicago’s Indie Rock Scene’, doctoral
dissertation (Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago, 1996); Rehan Hyder, Brimful of
Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the British Music Scene (Aldershot, 2004).
 Stanley Allen Renshon and John Duckitt (eds), Political Psychology: Cultural and
Crosscultural Foundations (Basingstoke, 2000), p. 200.
Positive Vibrations 223

current study. First, I develop the idea of social capital to examine whether what I
term performative capital – the participation in a musical subculture through song,
dance and the playing of instruments – is a key dimension of subcultural belonging
among Dublin’s Africans. Second, I investigate whether Putnam’s distinction
between bridging and bonding capital is a useful starting point for analysing the
diverse social networks arising through participation in musical culture. As I
demonstrate, the subcultures studied were highly dissimilar in terms of national/
ethnic affiliation, class composition, linguistic patterns and performance practice.

Researching ‘African Dublin’

Similar to Thornton’s study, the current research triangulates methodological

approaches. The focal ethnography was undertaken through participant
observation; it involved attending a number of cultural events, and taking
extensive field notes in order to provide a primary source of qualitative data.
The ethnography was preceded by a quantitative survey comprising African
respondents, and complemented by examination of commissioned reports on
Africans in Ireland. Additionally, interviews were conducted with members of the
three communities studied, and textual analysis of related media (flyers, posters
and other advertising) was completed. Awareness of the orientation of myself
as researcher being shaped by socio-historical location and by my values and
interests is acknowledged as significant in generating the reflexive perspectives
that characterized the ethnographic study.18 Thus, in keeping with contemporary
ethnography the research draws on available insider knowledge and familiarity
with local surroundings; this ‘native wit’ provided assistance in ‘knowing which
roles to play once access has been achieved’.19
A questionnaire-based pilot study (administered at universities, African
businesses and support networks) elicited that the most popular musical genres
among the sample were reggae, soukous, gospel, rap/hip-hop and R&B. This
indicates the popularity of American (mostly African-American) music among the
African listenership. In fact, a majority named an R&B artist as their favourite
musician or performer. Other popular musicians were the gospel singer Cece Winans,
Michael Jackson and reggae artists Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy. Respondents
also mentioned ‘Arabic music’, ‘traditional music’, (Angolan) kizomba, makossa,
‘retro’ (1950s, 1960s and 1970s) and salsa among their preferences. This data
confirmed that popular tastes among Africans were wide-ranging, and shaped by
both African and international cultural trends. I had anticipated a greater interest
in African-produced music among respondents; the data gathered through the
quantitative study suggested that such an assumption was erroneous.

 Following Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 2000).
 Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 2nd
edition (London, 1995), p. 20.
224 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

A significant majority of questionnaire respondents indicated that music was

important in creating a sense of community for African people in Dublin. A majority
cited the personal or emotional benefits of music as reasons for this: ‘When you’re
sad, it helps to build up yourself’, ‘It relaxes your mind’ and ‘It stands for the heart
and soul of human nature and lessens depression’. Another respondent indicated
‘learning and entertainment’ as two important benefits of music in creating a sense of
community. Other responses included: ‘Africans can meet and share ideas through
music’; ‘[It] brings Africans together at gigs’; ‘Music brings people from the same
place together’; ‘[Music] is a part of Africans’ culture’; ‘Music keeps them in touch
with their roots’. One respondent stated that ‘Music is part of Africans’ culture.
Everything is done with music – crying, dancing, studying, mourning. It is part of
daily life.’ Another asserted that ‘music is a necessity of the same worth as marriage’.
Based on the findings of the questionnaire, I began networking in the Dublin 1
and 7 areas: the Moore Street and Parnell Street axis had been identified by Ugba
as a site of concentrated activity for Africans by the turn of the 20th and 21st
centuries. A central zone of business and social activity, there are several shops
and supermarkets here that sell African produce, along with hairdressing salons
and call-centres operated and visited by African patrons. There is at least one
Church in the area with a majority African congregation.
From this point in the research process, events, findings and observations
were catalogued as field notes. These chronologically organized entries recorded
key cultural and social events and detailed my responses to them.20 Flyers and
other relevant documentation were also preserved. In addition I found it useful
to create a ‘cultural map’ of Dublin21 that detailed events and locations relevant
to a music-oriented study of Dublin’s African population. These included: pubs
and clubs attended by African people (and/or featuring ‘African’ music), shops
and businesses trading music, Church services, concerts organized by support
networks and music lessons. Significant events that I attended included the Lá
Fela Kuti22 celebration at the Project Arts Theatre, East Essex Street hosted by
Afronova, a Dublin-based promotion company. Also of interest was an intercultural
evening at Mother Redcap’s Bar in the Christchurch area organized by the African
Refugee Network and attended by asylum seekers and refugees. This featured an
African DJ playing Congolese soukous and rhumba, hip-hop and R&B. These and
other events provided some insights into the kinds of music that would be popular
among Africans at the time.

 See David Sanjek, ‘Urban Anthroplogy in the 1980s: A World View’, Annual

Review of Anthropology, 19 (1990): 151–86; Darren Newbury, ‘Diaries and Field Notes
in the Research Process’, Research Issues in Art Design and Media 1 (2011), http://www.
biad.bcu.ac.uk/research/rti/riadm/issue1/research_diaries.htm (accessed 24 October 2011).
 Similar to the ‘aerial photograph’ approach adopted in Chapter 4 of John O’Flynn’s
The Irishness of Irish Music (Farnham, 2009).
 This Irish (Gaelic) phrase translates as ‘Fela Kuti’s Day’, referencing ‘Lá Fhéile
Padraig’ [St. Patrick’s Day].
Positive Vibrations 225

In observing a group gathering socially in the backroom of a call shop on

Parnell Street, I ‘hung around’ by expressing interest in the musical tastes of
visitors to the venue, and joined in conversations about topics such as football
and relationships. I also brought down music CDs to listen to on a member of
that network’s portable stereo while observing. This aided the establishment of
rapport with group members; it also drew out opinions and preferences. Through
networking in the Dublin 1 and 7 areas I identified and negotiated access to three
sites where a more systematic ethnographic study of African musical communities
could be undertaken. These were the Firehouse Skank reggae club, the weekly
‘African Night’ at Shooter’s Bar, Parnell Street, and the Mountain of Fire and
Miracles Ministries Church in Prussia St.

Firehouse Skank Reggae Club

As Dick Hebdige observed in his seminal work on subculture, African-Jamaican

connection is one of the defining features of certain styles of reggae.23 In a
study of the interplay of African and Caribbean cultures that culminated in the
development of reggae Hebdige noted that as Rastafarians became more interested
in their African roots they incorporated burru music, which was based on ‘the
old insult and praise song traditions of West Africa’.24 Modelled on Jamaican and
Anglo-Caribbean sound-systems, Firehouse Skank reggae club reproduced the
sonic effects of the reggae and dub traditions: rafter-shaking basslines, echoes and
loops over musical hooks and omnipresent MC freestyling improvised melodies.
DJs played a mix of ska, reggae, dub, dancehall and Jamaican hip-hop and tongue-
in-cheek remixes of 1980s pop songs (such as Michael Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean’).
African attendees at this club were mostly male – during my visits, I saw
only two ‘African’ women at the club, one who had grown up in Germany, and
another who was African-American. I thought this strange because the (roots)
reggae movement often deifies women figures such as Marcia Griffiths and
Rita Marley.25 On the other hand, this absence may have been accounted for by
religious practices that prohibit the use of alcohol, and/or other restrictive cultural
values.26 The variety of cultural identities to which Africans adhere was evident
through clothing styles: some patrons wore American sportswear (baseball and
basketball shirts, sneakers) combined with gold jewellery; others wore open-
necked floral shirts, trousers and pointed shoes. Hairstyles included dreadlocks of

 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London, 1979).
 Ibid., p. 56.
 See Lindsey Herbert, ‘Historical Memory and Female Reggae Artistic Expression’,
in Dionne Bennett (ed.), Revolutions of the Mind; Cultural Studies in the African Diaspora
Project, 1996–2002, (Los Angeles, 2003).
 Smith and Mutwarasibo, Africans in Ireland, p. 28.
226 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

various lengths, plaits and ‘cornrows’. As alcohol and collie (marijuana) began to
take effect, the majority drifted onto the dance floor:

Some Africans break out of their ‘subgroups’ in order to dance in the ‘communal’
space at the centre of the floor … interaction slowly begins … a variety of
dance styles are evident, as bodies move to the reggae beat … some of the
dancers engage the ‘ladies’ on the floor, bump and grind provocatively in styles
reminiscent of R&B videos … others dance alone, eyes closed, focused on the
lyrics of Garnett Silk, Morgan Heritage, Bob Marley … still others remain in
the corners of the club, dancing ‘skank-style’, arms swinging back and forth,
stepping forwards into rhythm, alone or in twos and threes, flashing smiles when
greeted. (Field Notes: 76)

Many positive signifiers of ‘Africanness’ are evident at Firehouse Skank. Dreadlocks

and smoking allude to the (often romanticized) anti-establishment focus of much
reggae music, and also to the religious element of the Rastafarian movement. The
bump-and-grind interactions on the floor references both the dancehall tradition,
and the image of the sexualized male accorded to the African man.27 These are
essentially ‘cool’ identities that Africans use to foreground a sense of self-worth
at the club. Through interaction at Firehouse Skank, I learned that West Africans
maintain a strong reggae culture. One such fan suggested I listen to Alpha Blondy
and Ismaël Isaac (Côte d’Ivoire), as well as the South African artist Lucky Dube.
At Firehouse Skank there was a strong emphasis on ‘widened’ identities; the
club is used by Africans as a place for meeting others from outside their ethno-
national group. This out-group networking that Africans undertook at the club
corresponds to ‘bridging capital’ – the fostering of out-group, inclusive relations.28
Those with musical talents could acquire musical contacts among those attendees
active on the Dublin scene. Others could meet students and professionals from
an unusually wide demographic group, resulting in the creation of trans-ethnic
social (and possibly romantic) bonds, and helping with the acquisition of goods
and services. Networking of this kind also provided immigrants with information
on aspects of Irish culture and social life, employment and legal issues such
as citizenship.
Lori, the MC at Firehouse Skank, presented a typical example of the ways
in which bridging and subcultural capital can be accumulated.29 During the three
years in which he had been MC at Firehouse Skank he built up a network of music
contacts, including producers, musicians and performers. In addition to the small
posse of ardent fans that accosted him every night during performance (subcultural

 Hebdige, Subculture, p. 124. See also ‘Land of Africa’ in Chris Morrow, Stir it

Up: Reggae Album Cover Art (London, 1999).

 Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 22.
 Key participants’ names in this and subsequent sections have been changed, in
keeping with the standard ethnographic practice of protecting individuals’ identities.
Positive Vibrations 227

capital, achieved as ‘status’), his network generated economic benefits: he told

me about recent performances at a drum ’n’ bass club, and an additional job
where he fronted an ‘Africa Dance Party’. His network also granted him access
to studio recording equipment through which he engages in more creative work.
The associational nature of Lori’s interactions at the club and further afield acts to
deconstruct prejudiced representations of Africans or other immigrant groups as
‘threatening to society’.30

Club Lousso at Shooter’s Bar

Club Lousso, an ‘African Night’ at Shooter’s Bar on Parnell Street, is a meeting

place for many Africans. Entering the club for the first time I encountered a jovial
atmosphere. A high level of mother-tongue usage, the presence of contemporary
Congolese traditions in music and video, and a prevalence of ‘American’ dress
styles were evident.31 The on-screen presence of the Congolese musician-star
Koffi Olomide who embodies the ‘successful’ mikiliste (European migrant), is in
keeping with the up-market ambience of the club. Because of the relatively high
price of entry at that time (10 euros) and the cost of drinks, the club was attended
by more affluent Africans, including entrepreneurs, business people and those
students subsisting on private finances.
The music played at Club Lousso was mostly African in origin: Congolese
soukous and rhumba, South African and Zimbabwean kwaito, and Ivorian mapuka;
Cuban salsa was also occasionally played.32 Muri, one of the organizers, told me
that ‘we like to play to the audience’s tastes. What you are hearing, we like to call
Afro-pop. It is a combination of different styles.’ On my first visit to the weekly
event, a Congolese group performed a live set, celebrating Congo’s Independence
Day (30 June). Speaking and singing in French, the band performed to the sizeable
crowd. The celebration of a national holiday at Club Lousso supports the claim that
aspects of ‘old world’ culture may persist and expand in the new world setting.33

 Sarah Collinson, Europe and International Migration (London, 1993), p. 32.
 ‘The guests greet each other ostentatiously with physical gestures … There are
many bright and heterodox clothing styles … I see one man in an orange baseball outfit,
another dressed in leather from head to foot, short spiked dreads and dark glasses … at
the bar, businessmen, their spouses and associates relax with drinks. American cultural
influence includes street fashions – sneakers; 2Pac T-shirts, gold jewellery; I hear French,
Yoruba, pidgin; almost no English … around the dancefloor, television screens show
footage of Koffi Olomide, in full-length leather jacket, with expensive cars, a ‘pet’ cheetah
and African dancers … ’ (Field Notes: 98).
 Genres listed on the club flyer are ‘soukous, rhumba, zouk, mapuka, zouglou, kwaito
and ndombolo’; see http://www.notz.com/africa_lec/sld011.htm (accessed December 2013)
for an enlightening discussion of musical genres such as these.
 Ewa Morawska, ‘The Sociology and Historiography of Immigration’, in Virginia Yans-
McLaughlin (ed.), Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology and Politics (New York, 1994).
228 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

After the live performance, the regular DJ played an eclectic set that began with
house and continued with contemporary soukous, hip-hop, and dancehall. Each
style in turn influenced the crowd’s energetic dancing.
A tendency to limit contact among guests to very small groups of individuals
was common to both female and male attendees: I noticed only a few non-
Africans in the crowd. A focus on in-group communication was evident as almost
no-one spoke directly to me. My field notes recorded that while it was a ‘fun
night from a musical point of view’, there ‘wasn’t much integration going on’ as
far as I could see. At Club Lousso the musical and social space was essentially
a private one where signifiers of ‘homeland’ – language, music, and in-group
association – provided immigrants with important social and psychological
support. Gemeinschaft relations, evident in the preservation of African cultural
traditions, were mediated in a space that referenced ‘the homeland’ through popular
music, video, mother tongue, dancing and performance rites. The predominant
emphasis on community associations at Club Lousso was intra-ethnic; this was
emphasized through the exclusion of what or, perhaps more accurately, who are
‘not’ African, as I discovered in attempting to establish networks of my own at
the club. Attended by wealthy Africans, Club Lousso assisted the development of
‘ethnic economy’ within the community, in contrast to Firehouse Skank, which
was run by Irish organizers and was characterized by inter-ethnic associations.
The focus on in-group identity at Club Lousso was arguably a vital resource in the
effort to promote Africans’ interests in the diaspora. African popular musicians –
among them Koffi Olomide – who embody the myth of immigrant success and
the possibility of triumphant return to the homeland, were the main musical
feature of the night. The potential of ‘bonding’ capital to mobilize solidarity was
evident in the celebration of the national holiday and was ‘authenticated’ by the
performance of a band from the Congolese capital itself. Roneo, who attended
the Club, told me:

If I want to hear African, I go to the African Night. If my friends don’t want

to go, I’ll go by myself. Music is very important in creating community. With
music, you still remember who you are. It keeps your identity. You should be
proud of who you are, and you should also help others. .[I]ntegrating doesn’t
mean just losing who you are. So music is very important in bringing us together.
(Field Notes, 133)

Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Church

The Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Church, which is described as a ‘do
it yourself gospel ministry’, had, at the time of writing, nine branches in Ireland. I
was truly unprepared for the intensity of the service that I encountered on my first
visit to the branch at Prussia Street:
Positive Vibrations 229

I arrive to find the service underway; intense shouting can be heard coming
from the main hall. Preachers’ voices boom out in a mix of English and
African languages … people are ‘speaking in tongues’ – praying very quickly
to themselves, gesticulating, saying and singing their own prayers, calling to
the preacher … chaotic! … some dress styles mirror those of the American
South – women in floral jackets, dresses and hats – while others wear traditional
African dress … babies cry, ’phones ring, a flow of people from hall to annexe
and back … food piled high in the kitchen … like no ‘Mass’ I’ve seen. (Field
Notes: 157)

A choir of nine members led the singing, which was accompanied by a keyboardist
and trumpeter. The synthesis of ‘African’ voices, invocation of American religious
ideology, and electric keyboard sounds showed a humorous and energetic aspect
of this particular culture of worship. Following the choirmaster’s instructions,
I made an application to the pastor to join the choir, and attended one practice
session. This proved informative in witnessing the group dynamics at work in
discussion of an upcoming musical event.
The Church community seems to reflect both bridging and bonding social
capital. Participation in church services provided a network through which newly
arrived immigrants could acquire bridging social capital. The comments of one
participant indicate that music can be one such source:

When I came to Ireland, I met a[n African] family and stayed in their house. I
attended Church with them, and I was able to see that my ability could be used
in that place. So, soon after this, I began to sing with the choir. (Field Notes, 175)

Among this African community, music played an active role in facilitating

communal expression and in legitimizing structures of power and authority.
The upcoming concert provided a focus to which communal energies could be
turned, as it was the ‘community’ itself that organized the event. Associations
between members were made through a shared interest in singing, and in devotion
to a religious group. I was able to see first-hand how Church and choir were
important social foci for many Africans: the choir provided a forum where social
and cultural issues were discussed, and where a sense of individual belonging
was nurtured. The choral group incorporated the dense social networking of
‘organic’ social relations, and shared interests typical of ‘interest communities’34
and ‘civic engagements’.35 Participation in the choir also engendered ‘generalized
reciprocity’. Civic engagement (in this case through singing), which Putnam
shows to be a central aspect of active community life, encouraged others to join

 Graham Crow and Graham Allan, Community Life: An Introduction to Local Social
Relations (London, 1994); Putnam, Bowling Alone, at p. 24.
 Putnam, Bowling Alone, at p. 24.
230 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

the Church. Benefits accruing to membership included spiritual uplift, and the
opportunity for people to show their musical abilities.

Conclusion: Reflecting on ‘African’ Identities

The research reveals that in the early years of the twenty-first century, Africans
from many nations, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds were residing in
Dublin. Such diversity is typical of contemporary African diasporas.36 African
settlement in Dublin has attracted professional people, students, refugees and
asylum seekers from diverse African countries, organizing into a variety of
associations and clubs. For many Africans, identity may be understood in terms
of ethnicity, clan, tribe, race, religion, geographical affiliation or a combination of
these features. Consequently, many groups or subgroups in Dublin adopt different
‘versions’ of African identity as their economic, social and personal needs dictate.
In the establishment of vibrant musical cultures here, ‘African Dublin’
corresponds to the experience of other cities of African immigrant settlement.37
Music is a principal agent in the shaping of Africans’ social lives in Dublin: at
church services, informal celebrations, cultural events and national holidays. In
some cases, it bridges socio-economic, ethno-national and linguistic divides,
while in others, it fosters in-group identity and provides cultural and psychological
support for members.38 Thus, musically focused convergences such as those at
Firehouse Skank, Club Lousso and Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries are
sites of social interaction, cultural exchange and economic potential.
This research into musical communities encouraged ongoing reflexive
consideration of how my own identity was perceived as an ‘African’, as ‘Irish’
and as ‘researcher’. I was encouraged to contemplate whether and how my own
‘African’ identity developed through musical interests and aptitudes (jazz, reggae,
Afro-beat, hip-hop). Among themselves, African people used local identities – for
example, Yorubans and Igbos spoke to each other in their particular languages.
Respondents occasionally asked if I spoke Yoruba. When they found that I
didn’t, some took advantage of my ‘outsider’ status to give me a good ‘slagging’39
through linguistic code-switching. When I revealed my academic motivations, I
discovered Africans’ perception of education as a powerful resource for achieving
economic and symbolic status in the diaspora. Somi, a shop owner and worker in a

 Michael Conniff and Thomas Davis, Africans in the Americas: A History of the

Black Diaspora (New York, 1994); Gertrude Kamya Othieno, African Social and Cultural
Structures: An Invaluable Resource for Professional and Voluntary Organisations
(London, 1998).
 Stapleton, ‘African Connections’; Monson, The African Diaspora.
 Khalid, Koser (ed.), New African Diasporas (New York, 2003).
 A colloquial Hiberno-English term that roughly equates with teasing or poking fun
at someone.
Positive Vibrations 231

computer factory, told me that education was essential for his children. Following
Nigerian practice, his children would be made to go to school until their education
was complete. Somi also criticized the racist mail he received through his store as
the work of ‘uneducated people’.
Referencing continental African identity is a re-assertive strategy for some
Africans following their arrival in Ireland. The term is adopted by support
networks for immigrants, such as the African Solidarity Centre (ASC) and the
African Refugee Network (ARN), who provide support and organize cultural
events. References to Fela Kuti as an influence in identity-creation were not as
common as I envisaged in conducting this research. At the Mountain of Fire and
Miracles choir practice, I referred to Kuti when one of the members asked me if
I was familiar with African music. None of the choir members gave an indication
that they saw this as a positive association. This may be because Kuti’s widely
disseminated anti-clerical views and engagement in social practices such as
polygamy were at odds with their own spiritual beliefs or those of their church.
My conceptualization of ‘Africa’ as a construct of a musical tradition that included
African-Americans such as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis did not
resonate with many Africans, although some of the older men to whom I spoke
declared an interest in James Brown’s music, along with ‘original’ R&B artists
such as Otis Redding.
Attending Club Lousso, I was surprised to hear a number of house remixes
during the DJ sets, as I didn’t think that Africans would have an interest in house
music; the enthusiastic reception that the house sets received stands in seeming
opposition to the exclusive ‘Africanness’ that the music and ambience of the club
generate. Pondering the inclusion of a house remix of ‘The Final Countdown’ (by
Swedish rock group Europe) at Club Lousso:

I wondered whether ‘Europeanness’ could represent the aspiration to financial

prosperity for Africans; in ideological terms, ‘dancing to the European beat’
might reference a willingness to comply with the norms of that continent as the
host society. (Field Notes: 122)

While I was unable to account satisfactorily for the presence of house music at
Club Lousso in terms of ‘bonding’ capital, I submit that it capably demonstrates
the multi-faceted nature of African identities in Dublin. I conclude that ‘African’
identity is not static or fixed; in different contexts, it can mean different things.
In fact, the ‘African’ identities I encountered, which draw on continental African,
pan-African, national and tribal signifiers consistently challenge perceptions of
Africa as socially and culturally homogenous.
Ewa Morawska’s historical and sociological survey shows how immigrant
communities unite ‘old-world’ and ‘new-world’ cultural traits that advance
immigrants’ status into the host society.40 Music communities provide Africans

 Morawska, ‘The Sociology and Historiography of Immigration’, p. 181.
232 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

in Dublin with the means by which they express a traditionally vital aspect of
‘old-world’ culture – social expression and identity assertion through music –
within the new world setting. In each of the communities studied, we see aspects
of the ‘old-world’ culture (African language and rhythms, performance styles
and popular musical forms) incorporated into the ‘new-world’ settings, which
influence perceptions of self, community and host society for immigrant Africans
in the city of Dublin.
Chapter 14
Kalfou Danjere?
Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music
John O’Flynn


Borrowing its subtitle from George Lipsitz’s influential text of 1994,1 this chapter
examines recent phenomena of Irish-Celtic music2 and a range of associated
identities and latent ideologies with which these may be associated in contexts of
late modernity and globalization. It explores the extent to which various aspects
of Irish-Celtic music production and consumption are continuous with, or diverge
from, assumed and/or contested identities on the island of Ireland, as well as in the
wider ‘Celtic connection’. In particular, the chapter interrogates representations and
constructions of gender and race that are promoted in contemporary Irish-Celtic
music production, whether consciously, subliminally or otherwise. In tackling
issues of music and race, I concur with Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman’s
observation that such issues tend to be obliterated in the ‘new, deracinated racial
discourses of today’s postcolonial soundworld’.3 But equally I acknowledge the
potentially ‘treacherous bind’ in employing ‘race’ to any critical analysis,4 and
accordingly adopt a strategic use of that term.
On the surface, it would appear that the Celtic label comes to be employed
tactically in post-national and multicultural articulations of much recent music
production,5 with acts/shows such as the Afro-Celt Sound System and Riverdance

 George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the
Poetics of Place (London, 1994). Kalfou Danjere [Dangerous Crossroads] is the Haitian
creole title given to the 1992 album of the group Boukman Eksperyans and subsequently
adopted by Lipsitz.
 I use this term throughout the chapter to describe contemporary forms and practices
of Irish music that are marketed, or otherwise considered as Celtic.
 Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman (eds), Music and the Racial Imagination
(Chicago, 2000), p. 9.
 Yasmin Gunaratnam, Researching ‘Race’ and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and
Power (London, 2003).
 Comparable patterns can be interpreted with regard to other types of world music
(which for the purposes of this chapter I define as comprising ethnic-specific or ethnic-
hybrid popular music productions that are distinguishable from the mainstream of western
popular music). See Ian Biddle and Vannessa Knights (eds), Music, National Identity and
234 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

presenting some well-known examples. Yet, while these and similar enterprises
might suggest a more sophisticated and critical global consciousness on the part of
musicians and other producers, albeit within an economic framework,6 the same
acts can also be considered as limited in this regard, insofar as the hybridities
proposed by contemporary Irish-Celtic music now occupy a core position in
western musical culture, not only in respect of their production and distribution
components, but also in relation to aspects of representation and reception.7
The crossroads image is well established in much everyday and scholarly
discourse pertaining to music cultures. While clearly not unique to any national
entity, society or musical style, it is an image that has particular historical
associations and connotations in the contexts of Irish traditional music and dance.8
The idea that musical crossroads might be dangerous, especially when conceived
in terms of the contesting claims of ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’, has also been at
the fore of debates about Irish traditional music, and no more so than at the end of
the twentieth century.9 To a lesser extent but in a similar vein, critical perspectives
in Irish musicology interpret a bifurcation in possible directions for original art
music along the lines of ethnic/modernist options10 but in this discourse, the Irish-
Celtic association tends not to be viewed as progressive, but rather as a static and
inhibiting factor. Most contentious of all perhaps, are those consciously hybrid
commercial enterprises that are labelled as, or are in some way associated with the
Celtic category, and that combine, on the one hand, stylistic elements from Irish
traditional music and/or Irish art music and, on the other hand, stylistic elements and
production practices from contemporary popular styles (from the dominant Anglo-
American core as well as from various types of world music). Such contestations
between and among various groupings within the general field of Irish music
resonate with similar debates that obtain in many music cultures, industries and
traditions across the globe. Side by side with intensified and accelerated patterns
of commodification, hybridity and globalization have been increased levels of

the Politics of Location (Hampshire, 2007); and Ignacio Corona and Alejandro L. Madrid
(eds), Postnational Musical Identities: Cultural Production, Distribution, and Consumption
in a Globalized Scenario (Lanham, MD, 2008).
 Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads; see also Timothy Taylor, Global Pop: World Music,
World Markets (London and New York, 1997).
 On this point see Gerry Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural History, (Dublin and
Portland, OR, 2009), pp. 96–7.
 Most notably, Crosbhealach an Cheoil / The Crossroads Conference that was
convened in 1996 and again in 2003; the image of the crossroads is also employed in Kari
Veblen’s chapter in this volume.
 See Fintan Vallely, Hammy Hamilton, Eithne Vallely and Liz Doherty (eds),
Crosbhealach an Cheoil – The Crossroads Conference 1996: Tradition and Change in Irish
Traditional Music (Dublin, 1999).
 Harry White, ‘The Divided Imagination: Music in Ireland after Ó Riada’, in Gareth
Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Music in the Twentieth Century. Irish Musical Studies 7
(Dublin, 2003), pp. 11–28.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 235

consciousness and reflexivity on matters pertaining to identity and authenticity on

the part of producers and consumers alike.11 Elsewhere, I have broached some of
these issues in relation to Irish musical identities, suggesting an irony wherein the
commercial imperative in some quarters to exploit and export the ‘uniqueness’ of
Irish traditional music and its contemporary derivatives can lead perilously towards
patterns of ‘sameness’ not altogether unlike that found in the global distribution
of Irish themed pubs.12 Having mentioned this, a perceived loss of authenticity or
‘selloutism’13 does not constitute the primary concern of the chapter;14 for the most
part, it sets out to interrogate essentialized constructions and readings of identity,
ethnicity, race and gender that come to be afforded by Irish-Celtic music production
and distribution, whether these are generated consciously or otherwise.
Lipsitz’s idea of a crossroads for possible musical directions in postmodern
and transnational contexts simultaneously presents utopian and dystopian
possibilities: ‘The crossroads we confront contain both residual and emergent
elements: they encompass both dangers and opportunities’.15 Applied to the broad
category of Celtic music, the criss-crossing of routes and the resultant journeys
might be even more difficult to interpret insofar as its various expressions
represent a complex web of music histories, ideologies, traditions, movements,
activities and productions that can be said to lie both within and without the core
of western musical development and consciousness. Thus, as Martin Stokes and
Philip Bohlman argue in their introduction to Celtic Modern, a collection of essays
addressing various manifestations of Celticity and music in Europe, Australia
and North America: ‘The hopes expressed by Lipsitz and other subculturalists
that globalized black expressive forms can translate into progressive critical
consciousness require substantial nuancing on the Celtic fringe.’16
This chapter proposes some tentative steps towards such a nuanced reading
of Irish-Celtic music phenomena. In the next section I explore definitions (and
deconstructions) of the Celtic category with reference to a range of historical,
political and ideological trajectories, as they relate to specific cultural and musical
movements. All of these lines – visible and not so visible – take us to our imaginary
crossroads, namely, a description of the range of Irish-produced music that falls
under the Celtic category in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.

 Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads; Taylor, Global Pop.
 John O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music (Surrey, 2009), pp. 131–4.
 Taylor, Global Pop, p. 23.
 The issues are to some extent explored in Martin Stokes and Philip V. Bohlman
(eds), Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, MD, 2003). See especially the
chapters by Scott Reiss and Fintan Vallely.
 Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads, p. 19.
 Stokes and Bohlman, ‘Introduction’, in Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe,
pp. 1–26, at p. 12. For a further consideration of the potential relevance of Lipsitz’s ideas
to Celtic contexts see Meic Llewellyn, ‘Popular music in the Welsh Language and the
Affirmation of Youth Identities’, Popular Music 19/3 (2000): 319–39.
236 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

This is a loose idea that can extend from local festivals to international mega-
productions, but nonetheless can be conceived by way of perceived common
threads of Irishness/Celticity. The ensuing discussion then sets out to establish
where the combination of residual and emergent elements in Irish-Celtic music
production appear to be leading or led, focussing on issues of identity, gender and
race. Finally, the chapter contemplates whether various expressions of Irish-Celtic
music can contribute to a more critical global consciousness on the part of its
producers and consumers or, conversely, whether the same music assumes the role
of synecdoche in the perpetuation of essentialized, embodied identities.

Celtic Culture: Definitions and Deconstructions

As I shall explore briefly below, the idea of Ireland as a Celtic nation emerged as a
social construct long after its purported existence in the ancient and early medieval
periods. Indeed, the popular view of the Irish as inherently Celtic can justly be
questioned on the grounds that the number of (Celtic) Iron Age settlers in the first
millennium bc was proportionally small in relation to the number of established
Bronze Age peoples; the latter were not displaced in any substantial way but rather
became assimilated within a common Celtic culture that included the earliest forms
of an Irish/Gaelic language.17 This process of cultural assimilation would continue
with the arrival of Christianity and later, with the onset of Viking invasions and
settlements. So, while the country’s population prior to the period of Anglo-Norman
invasions cannot be viewed in terms of racial essence, ‘early medieval Ireland
presents a paradoxical picture of considerable cultural unity, vested in kinship
and religious structures, coexisting with political fragmentation’.18 In a sense we
can choose to regard this historical moment as representing a recognizable Irish
cultural landscape, preceding ideas of Irish national identity or nationalism, and
prior to the island’s troubled and complex history with the English crown that
would last over the following eight centuries. Not without its real set of social and
cultural conditions, this is the point at which an ‘ideal type’ for a unique Irish-
Celtic culture tends to be constructed. As I shall discuss in the next section, part of
the problem with imagining Irish-Celtic or Gaelic music of this time is that very
little is known on the subject, and this contrasts with what historical research has

 Definitions of Celticity are conventionally associated with regions/nations that


retain minority languages sharing a common ‘Celtic’ linguistic root. The same languages
can come to be appropriated by ‘defining centres’ of national and cultural movements.
See Moya Kneafsey, ‘Tourism Images and the Construction of Celticity in Ireland and
Brittany’, in David C. Harvey, Rhys Jones, Neil McInroy and Christine Milligan (eds),
Celtic Geographies: Old Cultures, New Times (London and New York, 2002), pp. 123–38,
at p. 136.
 William J. Smyth, ‘A Plurality of Irelands: Regions, Societies, Mentalities’, in
Brian Graham (ed.) In Search of Ireland, (London, 1997), pp. 19–42, at p. 25.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 237

revealed thus far in respect of other aspects of that contemporaneous society and
culture, in such areas as language, religion, legal systems and social organization.19
From Anglo-Norman times onwards, Ireland, Scotland and Wales would come
to be viewed as peripheral to a dominant English centre. It’s worth noting at this
point though that while the etymology of ‘Celt’ as a reference to an ethnic group
can be traced as far back as ancient Greek sources, the term was not applied
systematically or with any consistency throughout antiquity and was never applied
in medieval times.20 Nonetheless, we can regard the Anglo-Norman construction of
the related ideas of centre and periphery, achieved largely through the enactment
of divisive policy and legislation, as significant in laying the groundwork for
modern conceptions of what were later to be conceived as Celtic regions or
nations in the joint British and Irish sphere.21 Since these areas were perceived as
‘other’ to the English core, the various (and by no means ethnically homogenous)
groups occupying these territories presented a threat to political stability. As early
as the year 1187 we have evidence of how the Anglo-Norman observer Giraldus
Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, regarded the inhabitants of Ireland, first, as having
shared (Irish) characteristics and, second, as being ‘other’ to the ‘civilized’ world
of Norman Europe. Cambrensis found little to note of merit in various aspects of
Irish culture – ‘a barbarous people in most respects’ – with the notable exception
of its music.22 This traveller’s tale has become legend in Irish musicology and Irish
studies generally, and has also been interpreted as an early form of ethnography,
albeit with the cultural and political prejudices of a colonizing society.23
By the early nineteenth century, a largely negative view of pre-modern
western European ethnicities came to be re-appraised in the light of romantic
ideology, as evidenced for example, by Herder’s and, later, Mendelssohn’s
fascination with McPherson’s Ossianic myth cycle or more generally through
the extensive collections of songs and of other folklore in idealized peripheral
regions, including Ireland.24 (At the same time, openly racist depictions of the
Irish continued to be constructed with reference to assumed ‘Celtic’ characteristics
well into the nineteenth century.25) This romanticized, anti-industrial image of the

 Keith D. Lilley ‘Imagined Geographies of the “Celtic Fringe” and the Cultural
Construction of the “Other” in Medieval Wales and Ireland’, in Celtic Geographies: Old
Cultures, New Times, pp. 21–36.
 Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], The History and Topography of Ireland,
trans. John J. O’Meara, revised edition (Portlaoise, 1982).
 John D. Brewer, Ethnography, (Buckingham, 2000), pp. 11–12.
 Christopher Smith, ‘Ossian in Music’, in Howard Gaskill (ed.) The Reception of
Ossian in Europe (London and New York, 2004), pp. 375–92.
 David C. Harvey, Rhys Jones, Neil McInroy and Christine Milligan, ‘Timing
and Spacing Celtic Geographies’, in Celtic Geographies: Old Cultures, New Times,
pp. 1–17, at pp. 5–6; Luke Gibbons, Gaelic Gothic: Race, Colonization, and Irish Culture
(Galway, 2004), at pp. 43–50.
238 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Celt would later be adapted to politically conceived movements in France and

Britain, in part arising from intra-national assimilationist strategies, but also in
response to the perceived dominance and threat of Germanic culture from the
mid-nineteenth century onwards. In Matthew Arnold’s cultural-political project,
the centre/periphery dialectic of national and/or ethnic groups within the greater
nation state (which in Arnold’s writing and at that point concerned the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) had shifted from the crude racism of earlier
polity to a theory of compatible opposition. Arnold proposed a mutuality of British
nationalism that was nonetheless still based on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon
over the Celt, the former partially identifying with the latter as their romanticized
internal ‘Other’.26 As Malcolm Chapman and others have interpreted, this was an
ideology that lent itself to identity construction premised on the assumed binary
oppositions of central/peripheral, self/other, rational/natural, scientific/artistic
and masculine/feminine.27 Unsurprisingly perhaps, Celtic romanticism and its
associated colonial-nationalist political agenda was collectively rejected by radical
elements within the (separatist) Irish nationalist movement, which reacted by way
of ‘hypermasculine’ self-representations of an isolationist Gaelic-Irish identity.28
Indeed, the distinction between ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Celtic’ terminology has a history
in the rhetoric of Irish cultural nationalism that merits some comment here. In
contemporary contexts, the use of the term ‘Gaelic’ (as a whole way of life) might
still connote an adherence to conservative and isolationist Irish values and may
also signal an essentialist conception of Irish culture.29 ‘Celtic’, on the other hand,
might be appraised as a less ideologically loaded or politically explosive term given
the change in Ireland’s status from colony to independent nation state since 1922.
Seemingly disengaged from its previous colonial-nationalist associations, we
might then consider that the Celtic apposition in contemporary contexts has more
to do with matters of cultural identity, an idea that offers possibilities for post-
national and/or multicultural ways of negotiating identity through music and other

 See Chapter 3 in Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and
Race (London, 1995).
 Malcolm Chapman, The Celts: The Construction of a Myth (Basingstoke, 1992);
see also Chapman’s chapter ‘Thoughts on Celtic Music’, in Martin Stokes (ed.), Ethnicity,
Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place (Oxford, 1994), pp. 29–44.
 Angela Martin, ‘The Practice of Identity and an Irish Sense of Place’, Gender,
Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 4/1 (1997): 89–114; Catherine Nash,
‘Embodied Irishness: Gender, Sexuality and Irish Identities’, in Brian Graham (ed.), In
Search of Ireland: A Cultural Geography, (London and New York, 1997); Bronwen Walter,
‘Irishness, Gender, and Place’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13/1
(1995): 35–50.
 See Timothy Taylor, ‘Afterword: Gaelicer Than Thou’, in Martin Stokes and
Philip V. Bohlman (eds), Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, MD and
Oxford, 2003), pp. 275–84, at pp. 275–6.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 239

cultural enterprises.30 However, as I shall argue presently, the continued use of this
term is anything but ideology free.
The by-now conventional deconstruction of Western European Celticity
by Chapman and other writers bears some further thought.31 While revisionist
appraisals can be usefully and strategically adapted in interpreting residual
ideological and political elements, the discussion needs to move on, so to speak,
to take into account the emergence and/or the resurgence of neo-Celtic cultural
movements, which at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can be
said to be as much about imaginary or virtual space as they are about actual places
conventionally associated with Celtic culture.32 In the case of Irish traditional
music and its contemporary derivatives, we might first think of Ireland itself, next
imagine a wider ‘Celtic Connection’ (Northern and Western European fringes,
as well as [relatively] ethnically homogenous groups in Newfoundland, Nova
Scotia and other parts of North America), extend this then to wider Irish and
Celtic diasporas worldwide and, ultimately, consider all individuals who share
an ‘affinity interculture’33 with the same music, whether as producers, cultural
mediators or consumers.
There are further potential layers to contemporary Celtic identities. First, we
can distinguish between Celticity and Celticism,34 the former initially based on
traditional conceptions of Celtic lands and peoples (whether constructed with
reference to real or imagined elements), the latter representing a set of shared
values and concomitant beliefs and behaviours that are often associated with
romanticism and/or contemporary ideas around spirituality.35 But the relation
between the two can be interpreted as more of a dialectical interplay since, as
Moya Kneafsey argues, the ‘diverse narratives’ of various New Age movements

 An interruption to what might be described as the predominantly apolitical
employment of the Celtic label in contemporary contexts was posed by the song ‘Celtic
Symphony’, which was penned by Derek Warfield as part of the centenary celebrations for
Glasgow Celtic Football Club in 1987. Warfield was a member of Irish Republican ballad
group The Wolfe Tones until 2001.
 Chapman, The Celts: The Construction of a Myth; Simon James, The Atlantic Celts:
Ancient People or Modern Invention? (Madison, WI, 1999).
 Kneafsey, ‘Tourism Images and the Construction of Celticity in Ireland and
Brittany’, p. 133.
 In his book Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West, (Hanover, NH, 1993)
Mark Slobin proposes three types of global music ‘intercultures’, namely, the industrial,
the diasporic and the affinity.
 Harvey, Jones, McInroy and Milligan, ‘Timing and Spacing Celtic Geographies’,
p. 5.
 A distinction between ‘blood’ and ‘spirit’ Celts is made by John G. Robb, ‘A
Geography of Celtic Appropriations’, in Celtic Geographies: Old Cultures, New Times,
pp. 229–42, at p. 242. See also Catherine M. Matheson, ‘Music, Emotion and Authenticity:
A Study of Celtic Music Festival Consumers’, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 6/1
(2008): 57–74.
240 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

‘contribute to the construction of hybrid Celtic identities, whereby Celticity is

often elided with other “alternative” discourses … ’.36 This in some way parallels
the mutual influences of the producers and consumers of Celtic music; take for
example the evolving style of the group Clannad as they gradually negotiated
wider levels of global exposure from the 1970s through to the 1990s.37 We can also
interpret shifting conceptions of centre and periphery in contemporary contexts
of Celticity–Celticism, with Ireland clearly constituting the ‘dominant fraction’38
of Celtic imagining and production. All in all, the contemporary Celtic sphere
continues to comprise a matrix of real and imagined elements, and it is this very
ambiguity that allows it to retain its perceived liminal status while at the same
time located in the centre of western cultural production and consumption.39 Gerry
Smyth meanwhile argues against the limitations of a spatial approach, whereby
‘Celtic’ or any category of cultural activity is thought (and analysed) in terms
of centre/periphery and other related binary oppositions. Drawing on Deleuze
and Guattari’s theorizations concerning rhizomatic thought,40 Smyth suggests a
more open, interpretive approach to the reading of Celtic music phenomena that
acknowledges the active agency of those involved in its production, mediation
and reception:

It may be … that Celtic music is best approached as a discourse that functions

along a continuum between rootedness (on the part of musicians and consumers)
and rootlessness (on the part of those attempting to understand how it works).41

While accepting the argument here that musicians, listeners and others are directly
involved in defining their own individual and social webs of cultural experience and
meaning, and that, moreover, the same individuals and groups may be aware and
even critical of the use they make of Celtic or other markers of cultural production
and consumption, I would nonetheless argue that a critical focus on the sum of
all such agency in respect of systemic engagement and latent ideology is worth
retaining. I acknowledge that my approach here may come close to what Smyth
elsewhere describes as ‘the dominant triumvirate of institutional research in the

 Kneafsey, ‘Tourism Images and the Construction of Celticity in Ireland and


Brittany’, p. 133.
 John O’Flynn, ‘National Identity and Music in Transition: Issues of Authenticity
in a Global Setting’, in Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location, pp. 19–38,
at p. 32.
 Richard Middleton, ‘Afterword’, in Music, National Identity and the Politics of
Location, pp. 191–203, at p. 198.
 See Kneafsey, ‘Tourism Images and the Construction of Celticity in Ireland and
Brittany’, pp. 134–5.
 Smyth describes rhizomatic thought as ‘anti-systemic, contingent and
improvisatory’. Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural History, p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 101; see also Taylor, ‘Afterword: Gaelicer Than Thou’, pp. 281–2.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 241

humanities: class, gender and race’,42 but if categories such as these emerge in this
and other research, it is because they arise as much from observable phenomena
as they do from wider academic frameworks.

Contemporary Irish-Celtic music

Celtic Genres

The following definition of contemporary Celtic music is offered by Peter Symon:

Celtic music has formed a popular niche in the growing world music market.
With origins in the traditional and folk music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales,
Brittany, Galicia and other parts of the Celtic fringe of Europe, it is a hybrid,
permeable and commoditised musical category, borrowing from and contributing
to mainstream rock and pop forms.43

Notwithstanding its delimitation to the periphery of Western Europe, this is a

useful working definition of the Celtic category in its specific relation to world
music and mainstream popular music. However, a definition such as this tells us
little about the continuities implied by the term with regard to the ethnological
similarities and differences of music from the nominally Celtic nations/regions, as
well as to the historical links, if any, between contemporary forms and what is now
known concerning ‘pre-modern’ musical systems in the same geographical areas.
While there is a substantial scholarly basis to histories and geographies of Celtic
ideas, the same cannot be said about any corresponding Celtic musicologies.44
The 2001 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians includes
a solitary reference to ‘Celtic chant’, which is broadly defined as the indigenous
liturgical music practised in Ireland and parts of Scotland before the adoption
of the orthodox Roman rite (conventionally associated with the twelfth-century
Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland);45 even here, the extent to which practices

 Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural History, p. 90.
 Peter Symon, ‘From Blas to Bothy Culture: The Musical Re-making of Celtic
Culture in a Hebridean Festival’, in Celtic Geographies: Old Cultures, New Times,
pp. 192–207, at p. 192.
 The question is given serious consideration in Frank Harrison’s essay, ‘Celtic
Musics: Characteristics and Chronology’, in Karl Horst Schmidt with Rolf Ködderitzsch
(eds), Geschichte und Kultur Kelten, (Heidelberg, 1986), pp. 252–63. James Porter,
meanwhile, surveys a range of musicological and anthropological approaches to the
definition of Celtic music. James Porter, ‘Introduction: Locating Celtic Music (and Song)’,
Western Folklore 57/4: (1998) 205–24.
 Ann Buckley, ‘Celtic Chant’, in Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (eds), The New
Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (London, 2001), Vol. 5, pp. 341–9.
242 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

in ‘domestic’ chant were discontinuous with the mainstream of European chant

are contested.46
From the above historical example we can perhaps begin to formulate a
general strategy for negotiating music produced on the island of Ireland that
comes to be retrospectively labelled as Celtic. First, we are referring to specific
sets of practices in historical contexts (constituting ‘real’ repertoire and activity,
but of which little or nothing is known), which are subsequently constructed as
Celtic (‘imagined’). We can also speculate that much domestic music activity
through various historical periods involved aspects of style that could be regarded
as indigenous (‘unique’) as well as aspects that were continuous with traditions
and developments in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Taking an interpretive
view, then, I would argue that the idea of Irish-Celtic music, however fanciful it
might appear, merits serious consideration as music inasmuch as a belief in this
category has resulted in specific genres and practices across a range of music styles
produced in Ireland.47 Thus, in contemporary contexts, we can say that irrespective
of the moment and arbitrariness of its ‘invention’, there are instances where the
Celtic label describes relatively distinct sets of musical elements and practices
that nonetheless have continuities with, or in large part are based on, international
styles. For example, Irish-produced ‘Celtic rock’, as a regional articulation of folk
(progressive) rock, is more sound specific than the overall category of Irish rock,
while local adaptations of ‘Celtic guitar’ suggest particular forms of string tuning,
modality and accompaniment practices.48 These and other elements would lead to
a recognizable Celtic aesthetic that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s through
a variety of bands including Loudest Whisper, Horslips and Tír na nÓg, in what
was arguably the most innovative period for this popular sub-style.
Central to the analysis in this chapter are those practices and products
collectively categorized as New Age/Celtic and that typically involve some form
of ‘minimalist’ arrangement. Articulations of the genre can include combinations
of materials and performance practices drawn from vocal styles in English- and
Irish-language song traditions, modal harmonies in a cappella settings (adapting
various compositional techniques including those of late medieval polyphony
and Scottish Gaelic psalmody) and synthesized or ‘techno-acoustic’ instrumental
resources. The group Clannad (who had embraced a Celtic aesthetic from the
early 1970s) and one-time member Enya were among the earliest pioneers of

 See Frank Lawrence, ‘What did they sing at Cashel in 1172?: Winchester, Sarum

and Romano-Frankish Chant in Ireland’, Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland 3
(2007–08): 111–25.
 As James Porter puts it: ‘Whatever “Celtic music” means to different people, it
cannot simply be thrown overboard because the term “Celtic” is perceived to be intellectually
problematic.’ Porter, ‘Introduction: Locating Celtic Music (and Song)’, p. 212.
 Christopher J. Smith, ‘The Celtic Guitar: Crossing Cultural Boundaries in the
Twentieth Century’, in Victor Coelho, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar,
(Cambridge, 2003), pp. 33–43.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 243

this sound throughout the 1980s that has since come to be adapted (and at times
replicated) by a considerable number of artists.
A related but different subcategory of Irish-Celtic music can be grouped under
what I term ‘intentionally hybrid genres’, and this would include the Afro-Celt
Sound System and the various productions and recordings of Riverdance. While
this represents a diversity of (sub-)genres, they each involve a fusion of Irish
traditional music with one or more other musical styles. Among the many possible
variants we have witnessed acts like Fir na Keol (light classical/traditional),
Melanie O’Reilly (jazz/traditional), Metisse (West African/Irish traditional/
European electronica), Puck Fair (jazz/traditional), Hyper-Borea (urban dance/
traditional) and Anuna (contemporary choral/traditional), all of which have been
described, promoted or otherwise mediated in terms of contemporary Celticity.
In addition to the New Age and intentionally hybrid genres, two further
tendencies involving the Celtic category can be observed. First, there is the blatant
use of the Celtic label with little or no stylistic referents along the lines described
immediately above. This calls to mind acts like the Celtic Tenors (whose only
claim to anything Celtic, other than the nationality of the singers, rests on the
inclusion of highly stylized folk-classical ballads)49 or occasional recordings in
which the Celtic apposition is applied for no apparent musical reason, for example
the CD Celtic Connections produced by the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin
in 1997. It seems fair to conclude that, in all such cases, ‘Celtic’ is used as a strategy
for marketing purposes, and in particular for export markets. Of course, this is a
pattern that also applies to acts that include actual ‘Celtic’ elements (leaving aside
the distinction between what is real and imagined for the moment). Moreover,
Irish traditional music itself – that is to say, the traditional music that is generally
practised in amateur and professional ‘sessions’ around the country – often
translates as Celtic music when promoted for external audiences. I encountered the
thinking behind this process first hand when carrying out ethnographic research
with young traditional musicians in 2009.50 During one interview with two male
musicians in Galway both participants mentioned their involvement in regular
paid gig activity through initial recruitment by a professional company. As we can
see from the excerpt below, the crossroads image was consciously employed in
that company’s marketing strategy:

 On the other hand, Gerry Smyth argues that Thomas Moore (1779–1852), whose
liberal reworking of Irish folksongs led to a new repertoire of parlour songs and to the
Irish concert ballad genre, can in some ways be regarded ‘ … as the progenitor of the
contemporary form of “Celtic music” … ’ insofar as his arrangements re-presented
traditional materials for consumption in the British market. Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural
History, p. 93.
 John O’Flynn, ‘Performance, Transmission and Identity among Ireland’s New
Generation of Traditional Musicians’, in Lucy Green (ed.), Learning, Teaching, and
Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures (Bloomington, ID, 2011), pp. 252–66.
244 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

JOF: How did the two of you get connected musically?

First musician: Well originally we both joined a group that became a traveling
music show, based on an audition process …

Second musician: About four years ago. ‘Music at the Crossroads’ was the title,
based solely in Galway as a kind of seven or eight week stint in the summer, in
Galway for tourists, and over the last two or three years that has developed into
a touring show, to tour America …

Later on in same the interview they explained why the show’s name had changed
when touring in the North-Eastern United States:

Second musician: ‘Celtic Crossroads’ is what that show came to be called when
it went over to tour America, because ‘Music at the Crossroads’ for Americans
didn’t work. It wasn’t obvious that it was an Irish music show.

JOF: And what do you think about that?

Second musician: It brings cheesy connotations to mind, but at the same time I
can see why it’s necessary over there, to get it across …

First musician: Yeah, I don’t dislike the idea. I don’t mind. It doesn’t exactly …
it’s not negative, maybe it could be viewed as that but it’s OK … I’m OK with
classing myself as a Celtic musician.

Having observed and listened to these musicians perform, I was impressed by their
musicality and genuine affinity for traditional music. Both were clearly aware of
the advantages of rebranding with the Celtic label for the purpose of promoting
music they played to external audiences. At the same time, we can infer that they
also had mixed feelings about finding themselves at a particular crossroads in
their performing careers, and this gave them cause to reflect on their identities
as musicians.

From Festivals to Mega-productions

As is the case with other music styles and ‘scenes’, festivals play a pivotal
role in constructing and maintaining contemporary ideas of Celtic music.51 A
substantial number of music festivals in Ireland employ the Celtic banner,

 See, for example, Dessie Wilkinson, ‘“Celtitude”, Professionalism, and the Fest

Noz in Traditional Music in Brittany’, in M. Stokes and P.V. Bohlman (eds), Celtic Modern:
Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, MD and Oxford, 2003), pp. 219–56; Catherine
Matheson, ‘Music, Emotion and Authenticity: A Study of Celtic Music Festival Consumers’,
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 245

representing a variety of imaginings, levels and uses of the category. Since its
inception in Killarney in 1971, an annual Pan-Celtic festival has taken place
in Ireland, with the principal objective of bringing together and celebrating the
diverse cultural heritage of what are identified as six Celtic nations/regions/
traditions.52 While this provides further evidence of Ireland’s assumed dominance
within the contemporary ‘Celtic connection’, the festival might be regarded as
a relatively fixed and conservative expression of Celticity in that it promotes a
sense of heritage linked to discrete places and cultures, a gathering and coalition
of localities or peripheries as it were. More recently established festivals appear
to accommodate old and new conceptions of Celticity, not only in respect of the
inclusion of both conventional and innovative/fusion traditional music acts, but
also with regard to the multi-layering of essentialist, commercial and ‘alternative’
discourses in the marketing of those events. One such event has been the annual
ESB Beo Celtic Music Festival, which was initiated in 2000 and which comprises
a series of early autumn performances at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The
following extracts from promotional material for the 2006 festival illustrate the
scope of what comes to be embraced under the Celtic umbrella:

the festival opens … with the Irish fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes and American
guitarist Dennis Cahill who posses a rare musical kinship … This concert also
features well-known vocalist Iarla Ó Lionaird, co-founder of the Afro-Celt
Sound System who won two Grammy awards and sold over a million albums.

… Originating over 13 years ago on the streets of Dublin, Kíla have developed
from a buskers collective to become one of Ireland’s most innovative and
creative bands.

… On Saturday … Peádar Ó Riada, vocalist Seán Ó Sé and members of Ceoltoirí

Chualann pay tribute to Seán Ó Riada, reflecting on the impact of his legacy and
the major contribution he made to the development of Irish music

… On Wednesday … Irish group, Puck Fair combine the excitement of jazz with
the driving rhythms of celtic music in the first of the lunchtime concerts

… Irish harpist Tríona Marshall performs with brother Thomas Charles Marshall
who plays the Satsumabiwa, a Japanese Lute … in a performance entitled ‘East
Meets West’.

Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 6/1 (January 2008): 57–74; Peter Symon, ‘From
blas to bothy culture: the musical re-making of Celtic culture in a Hebridean festival’.
 The six nations/regions/traditions in question are Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle
of Man, Scotland and Wales. See http://panceltic.ie/info.asp (accessed 17 August 2011).
246 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

… Six-time Grammy winners The Chieftains are one of the most enduring and
influential creative forces in establishing the appeal of Celtic music. Performing
on Sunday … they are joined by the Orchestra of the National Concert Hall
and the Dublin Gospel Choir for a concert that is sure to bring the house down
bringing the festival to a fitting end.53

As irritating as some of the marketing hyperbole reproduced above might

be, this was undisputedly an impressive line-up of musical acts, suggesting several
layers of potential Celtic meanings. We first have an homage to Seán Ó Riada
(1931–71) whose cultural entrepreneurship can be credited with reconstructing
and recontextualizing traditional music performance in the early to mid 1960s.54
Ó Riada’s ‘legacy’ in the context of this festival extends from a replication of the
sound produced by his ensemble Ceoltoirí Chualann to a grand finale involving
The Chieftains. While this latter group have maintained (and in some respects
‘inherited’) a close stylistic connection to the Ó Riada-inspired genre, they have
also enjoyed success in the Billboard World Music Charts from the early 1990s, the
same period during which a number of high-profile Irish traditional ‘supergroups’
were labelled under the Celtic regional subcategory of world music.55
Another layer of ‘new Celticity’ suggested by the ESB Beo web advertisement
is that of innovation/fusion. While it is arguable that aspects of Ó Riada’s original
enterprise also involved a considerable degree of reshaping and reimagining, its
prevailing ideology advanced an isolationist conception of Irish traditional style.56
Half a century later it is clear how the discourse of innovation and fusion is now
celebrated within the overarching category of Irish-Celtic music, and this reflects
two interrelated developments in performance/composition and other aspects of
Irish music production. The first of these involves Irish traditional music ‘crossing
over’ with practices and techniques drawn from generic forms of popular, classical,
jazz or combinations of these. The type of interface here will vary depending on
the particular influences involved, but all such innovative elements relate to a
common syntax of western music styles and on a western conception of music
(for example, Martin Hayes in combination with Denis Cahill, or The Chieftains
performing with a classical orchestra and a gospel choir). The second development
has been somewhat more spectacular in that the innovations and hybridities are
readily perceived as intercultural and inter-musical exchanges (for example, Afro-
Celt Sound System, and the ‘East Meets West’ performance involving the neo-
traditional Irish harp and Japanese satsuma-biwa). The question of how these and

 http://www.nch.ie (accessed 21 August 2006).


 See O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, pp. 27–8.


 See Taylor, Global Pop, pp. 209–23. Other high-profile Irish acts in this regard have
included Clannad, Enya, Altan and, more recently, Celtic Woman.
 See Harry White, The Keeper’s Recital: Music and Cultural History in
Ireland, 1770–1970, (Cork, 1998), pp. 140–41; Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone,
Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2 (Dublin, 2012), pp. 30–34, 36–8.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 247

other ostensibly intercultural projects are mediated and potentially read is an issue
that I return to in the next section.
The ESB Beo Celtic Music Festival of 2006 was itself a kind of cross between
music festival and mega-production, especially if we consider the breadth and the
scale of its finale which combined the resources of a traditional ‘supergroup’, a
concert orchestra and a gospel choir, along with the actual space and marketing
capacity of a premier concert venue. Of course, a precedent for spectacular
productions of Irish-Celtic music had been set twelve years earlier with the
phenomenal success of Riverdance, which was originally created as an interval
act for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest staged in Dublin.57 The ensuing two
decades have witnessed a plethora of similarly conceived music and/or dance
shows,58 and while not all of these have obvious Celtic associations by their
titles alone, they hold several elements in common, including popular narratives
of Irishness and Celticity, the interface of Irish, Diasporic, ‘Celtic Connection’
and wider intercultural layers, and the juxtaposition of traditional and innovative
stylistic features. Large-scale productions of Irish-Celtic music reached a peak by
the mid 2000s, and it seems reasonable to suggest that this rise was not unrelated
to Ireland’s recent ‘Celtic Tiger’ era (by the same token, anecdotal evidence would
suggest a downscaling of such activity in the past few years,59 though nowhere
approximating the scale of contraction in the wider economy following the ‘crash’
of 2007). Of particular note in this respect was the appropriation of the imagery
of Hibernian economic entrepreneurship through the staging of Celtic Tiger by
Irish-American dancer/producer Michael Flatley in 2005. A seemingly softer side
to contemporary Celticity was suggested by the show Song of the Celtic Soul,
which took place one year later. This would feature Liam Lawton as co-composer
and performer, and its proposed ‘spiritual journey through music’ was perhaps not
surprising given Lawton’s background as a Roman Catholic priest. However, Song
of the Celtic Soul did not take place in some idyllic Irish landscape or among the
ruins of a Gothic cathedral; rather, it was held as an open-air event at the Dublin
Financial Services/Docklands Plaza, arguably in what was then and remains
today the capital city’s monument to global capitalism. We can also see from
the marketing material below that like Flatley’s productions and so many other

 Recent scholarly appraisals of Riverdance have included: Anthony McCann,
‘Riverdance et A River of Sound ou les ambiguïtés de la “tradition”’, Ethnologie
française 41/2 (2011): 323–31; Adrian Scahill, ‘Riverdance: Representing Irish Traditional
Music’, New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua 13/2 (2009): 70–76; Harry White,
‘Riverdance: Irish Identity and the Musical Artwork’, New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach
Nua 13/2 (2009): 63–9.
 See O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, p. 43.
 For example, a revival of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance that was due to be
staged in September 2011 at the dramatic and ‘peripheral’ location of the Cliffs of Moher,
Co. Clare under the marketing banner of ‘the edge of the world’, was cancelled due to
insufficient ticket sales. See http://www.examiner.ie/ireland/lord-of-the-dance-shows-
cancelled-at-cliffs-of-moher-165053.html (accessed 22 August 2011).
248 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

shows utilizing the Celtic label, the live event was conceived as a platform for the
international sale of audio and video products:

Water Extravaganza Captured in HD

Liam Lawton’s extravagant Dublin concert, set in a purpose-build auditorium

surrounded by water and with a live audience of 6,000 over two nights, was
dubbed one of the music events of the summer. The Irish-priest-turned-singer
has become a mainstream phenomenon in the last two years, after signing to
EMI Music and having his album, Another World, go double platinum. His Song
of the Celtic Soul concert ran across two nights in August, in a unique arena
in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands … Lawton was joined by a full orchestra
and choir with traditional Irish instruments, as well as supporting artists Roisin
O’Reilly and boy soprano Joseph McManners. The orchestral arrangements
were by the world-renowned composer and arranger, Nick Ingman.60

Once again we can see the eclectic nature proposed by the show’s genres and
ensembles as well as the various strands of production activity that range from the
local to the global. Although elements from ‘old Celticity’ have been strategically
retained by the inclusion of ‘traditional Irish instruments’, the show and its ensuing
products clearly propose a contemporary and international idea of Celticism
(literally, ‘another world’). Paradoxically, the discourse of Celtic spirituality
suggested by this show and by similar enterprises allows for the disembodiment
of ‘located’ Celtic experience. This in turn facilitates the flow of ‘Celtic cultural
capital’, to suggest yet another adaptation of Bourdieu’s sociological concept. As
the headline to the above publicity boasts, the song of the Celtic soul has been
‘captured in HD’.

Race, Gender, Identity

Irish-Celtic Music: A New Imperial Project?

Some recent Irish-based musical initiatives and productions appear to emphasize

connectivity to, or even centrality within, global music culture. This is implied, for
example, by the very title of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance based
at the University of Limerick, and since 2006 the staging of an annual ‘World
Fleadh/Festival of Irish and Celtic Music’. Of course, ‘world’ in these instances
could refer to the widespread popularity of Irish traditional music in different parts
of the globe, which ironically gives that music some parallel with the transnational
character of western classical and popular musics, insofar as music associated

 See http://www.pro.sony.eu/biz/lang/en/eu/content/id/1165410395090/section/
broadcast-case-studies-live-production (accessed 4 June 2009).
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 249

with these styles is no longer necessarily tied to particular regions, nationalities

or their diasporas. More readily identifiable under the world music category (in a
global rather than a region-specific sense) would be the aforementioned Afro-Celt
Sound System, which by its very title proposes an intercultural conception. But
questions can be asked of this and similar projects in regard to how the music
production is conceived and managed.61 There is always the possibility with
consciously conceived hybridities that one of the partners effectively assumes a
more ‘senior’ role, appropriating or even subsuming what are perceived as ‘exotic’
elements from the other(s). As Martin Stokes commented in regard to musicians
encountering other musics/ethnicities in an increasingly globalized world:

Even now, when musicians are overwhelmed by a consciousness of other

musics, they struggle to make sense of them, incorporate them, relegate them
to lower rungs on ladders of complexity, difficulty, interest and so on, in terms
dictated by their own musics and views of the world.62

At another level again, we can consider all of the musicians constituting the Afro-
Celt Sound System and similarly conceived ‘intercultural’ acts as managed by
upper layers of world music production and distribution.63
The show Riverdance is probably the best-known example of an inclusive
tendency in Irish-Celtic production with the setting, amongst other genres, of
African-American and Flamenco music/dance acts. Indeed this inclusive-but-Irish
cultural assertion seemed to have captured the makers of an episode for the 2005
series of the TV show The Simpsons, in which Catholic Heaven is portrayed as an
Irish-Latino-Italian rowdy party, culminating in a dance finale to Bill Whelan’s
original Riverdance score64 (not so far removed from the uncivilized-but-musical
characterization of the Irish in twelfth-century Anglo-Norman chronicles). This
is presented in stark contrast to the stereotyping of Protestant Heaven in the same
episode, which is populated by unambiguously ‘white’ WASPish types playing
croquet and generally behaving in a civilized fashion against an audio background
of a classical chamber orchestra.65

 Fintan Vallely rather scathingly de-authenticates the Afro-Celt Sound System on
a number of grounds, including the purported ethnicity/nationality of its producers: ‘the
body of music they produce is generated neither by Celts nor Africans – it is produced
electronically by two mere Englishmen … ’. Fintan Vallely, ‘The Apollos of Shamrockery:
Traditional Musics in the Modern Age’, in Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe,
pp. 201–18, at p. 206.
 Martin Stokes, ‘Introduction’, in M. Stokes (ed.), Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The
Musical Construction of Place, (Oxford and New York, 1994), p. 16.
 See John Connell and Chris Gibson, ‘World Music: Deterritorializing Place and
Identity’, Progress in Human Geography 28/3 (2004): 342–61.
 See http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=266_1193536860 (last accessed 20 August 2011).
 While reductionist portrayals of race and ethnicity might be understandable in
a cartoon comedy series, I should emphasize that the idea of Celticity is not necessarily
250 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

As the above-cited excerpt of The Simpsons episode might imply, the idea that
Irish-Celtic global production somehow interrupts the Anglo-American dominant
centre by creating a coalescing framework for and with other ethnicities (however
stereotypical the representations of those ethnicities might be) is a pervasive one.
However, as I shall come to discuss shortly, the actual range of representations and
imaginings of racialized Irish-Celtic musical identity, whether these come to be
expressed overtly or communicated subliminally, suggests a more complex field
that includes contesting claims to ideas of blackness and whiteness. Furthermore,
the very idea of an intercultural Irish-Celtic connection can be critically linked
to notions of an ‘Irish Empire’, insofar as the putative connectivity of both
conceptions are premised on a dual status vis-à-vis the Anglo-American political
and economic core: on the one hand, as previously positioned subaltern and as
peripheral to colonial-imperial projects and, on the other hand, as an insider to and
active agent within the same world order in respect of migration, labour, cultural
influence and more recently, economic development. In her analysis of the 1999
TV documentary series The Irish Empire,66 Brenda Gray construes how that series’
overarching narrative leads viewers from a critique of essentialist readings of Irish
history to (unquestioned) imaginings of a present-day, multicultural Irish diaspora
distributed across the globe.67 Similar constructions in relation to Irish music have
also featured in media productions, beginning in 1991 with the Bringing it All Back
Home TV series.68 Here, a seemingly pluralistic appraisal of the criss-crossing
of Irish, Celtic and American musical histories is tempered by a homogenizing
discourse whereby all extraneous genres are subsumed within the idea and ‘spirit’
of a continuous Irish musical culture.69 But that tendency also extends to some
of the more recent and ostensibly multicultural mega-productions themselves,
most notably perhaps through the sequence of hybridities and overall storyline
that is presented in the Riverdance show. Helen O’Shea goes as far as to suggest
that Riverdance presents a case wherein ‘in much of the cultural production
now emerging about the Irish experience, “diaspora” may as well be a synonym
for “empire”’.70

confined to Catholic (or for that matter, Christian) cultures. Scotland presents one example
of where Celticity may be articulated differently according to religious denomination. See
for example, Peter Symon, ‘From Blas to Bothy Culture: The Musical Re-making of Celtic
Culture in a Hebridean Festival’, pp. 198, 202.
 Alan Gilsenan, Dearbhla Walsh and David Roberts (dirs), The Irish Empire (1999).
 Brenda Gray, ‘Global Modernities and the Gendered Epic of “The Irish Empire”’,
in Sara Ahmed (ed.) Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration (Oxford
and New York, 2003), pp. 157–78.
 Philip King (dir.), Bringing it All Back Home (1991).
 Noel McLaughlin’s doctoral thesis presents an in-depth account and analysis of
the prevailing nationalist discourse in both rock and traditional music journalism in Ireland
at the end of the twentieth century. Noel McLaughlin, ‘Pop and Periphery: Nationality,
Culture and Irish Popular Music’, DPhil thesis (University of Ulster, 1999).
 Helen O’Shea, The Making of Irish Traditional Music, (Cork, 2008), p. 146.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 251

Race and Gender

As we have seen, cultures, ethnicities and races that are deemed ‘Other’ to the
Anglo-American mainstream are often imbricated in representations of Irish-
Celtic music, with ideas of blackness (which can include notions of race and/or a
more general alignment with the assumed values of a shared black consciousness
or ‘soul’) very much to the fore in the discourse of some musicians and journalists.71
Assumed associations between blackness and Irish popular music have been
usefully deconstructed in some recent scholarship,72 but for this discussion I
would like to focus on the potential relationships between Irish-Celtic music and
representations or suggestions of whiteness, a quality which in dialectical terms
can be said to be constructed with reference to the perceived otherness of non-
white peoples and cultures.73 Indeed, on closer inspection, a more covert alignment
with white, and in particular with white American identities can be interpreted in
modern day articulations and readings of Celticity. Stokes and Bohlman assess
the situation thus: ‘Away from thinking-class negritude, it is white America,
undoubtedly, which has played the more significant role in articulating musical life
on the Celtic fringe’.74 Arguably, that role has assumed even greater significance in
the decade following the ‘9/11’ bombing attacks of September 2001 with a revival
of interest among US audiences in ostensibly Celtic acts, including Enya and the
Celtic Woman ensemble.75
Throughout the past two centuries or so, evolving racialized categorizations
of the Irish and the wider ‘Celtic connection’ have gradually acted to assimilate
the same groups into radicalized ideas of whiteness,76 although that assimilation
has arguably been an ambiguous one, involving as it does elements of both
sameness and difference. We get a sense of this way of thinking in the first
volume of Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Here, the inhabitants of
the village of Bree are regarded as somewhat special by comparison with other
peoples of Western Middle-Earth, and are described in equal measure with regard

 John O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, pp. 106–8.
 Lauren Onkey, Blackness and Transatlantic Irish Identity: Celtic Soul Brothers
(London and New York, 2009). See also Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, ‘Hybridity
and National Musics: The Case of Irish Rock Music’, Popular Music 19/2 (2000): 181–99,
and McLaughlin’s chapter in this volume.
 My approach here briefly looks at images/sounds alongside cultural constructions
of whiteness, following Dyer’s substantial monograph on the topic: Richard Dyer, White
(London and New York, 1997).
 Stokes and Bohlman, ‘Introduction’, in Celtic Modern, p. 13.
 Diane Negra highlights ‘the politicised nature of the fantasies of nostalgia and
innocence in which Irishness is so often embedded in the US’. Diane Negra, ‘Irishness,
Innocence and American Identity: Politics Before and After September 11’, in Ruth Barton
and Harvey O’Brien (eds), Keeping it Real: Irish Film and Television (London, 2004),
pp. 54–68.
 Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995).
252 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

and suspicion. After a somewhat lengthy discussion on their collective character,

Tolkien summates the general queerness of these people with an arcane quality
he portrays as ‘Celtic’.77 This resonates with a widespread view in the popular
imagination that might be represented thus: Celtic people are somehow outside
the Anglo-American mainstream of white ethnicity and culture; at the same time
the presumed naturalness and antiquity (and in extreme views, the racial purity)
of Celtic people bestows on them a degree of authenticity that has been lost by
‘mainstream’ white ethnicities. The invocation of such beliefs can be manifested
by way of subtle and reflexive forms of engagement with Celtic spirituality, music
and art through to outright appropriations of Celtic imagery in the construction of
isolationist identities that can sometimes border on racism.78 Catherine Matheson’s
empirical study involving audience members at the 2001 ‘Celtic Connections’
festival in Glasgow reveals how consumers’ emotional responses and perceptions
of musical authenticity can become entangled with cultural essentialisms, even
among those who might regard themselves more as ‘spirit’ than as ‘blood’ Celts.79
Notwithstanding the distinct unease expressed by some of her respondents in
relation to the potentially distasteful associations that the Celtic apposition might
attract, Matheson’s research presents us with a concrete example of what she
describes as ‘the dubious relationship of Celtic identity to white racial identities’.80
At this point, it is clear that the discussion has drifted into matters of music
reception or, more precisely, into matters pertaining to the consumption of
commodified musical products. If we accept that world music can effectively act
to deterritorialize music traditions, place and even identity,81 it follows that we
are witnessing not only ‘the commodification of music, but the commodification
of ethnicity as well’.82 This by itself does not necessarily imply a politicized
and/or essentialist mindset on the part of the consumer or producer of Irish-
Celtic music, and on this point I concur with similar arguments expressed by
both Smyth and Taylor in regard to individual agency and identity construction.83
I would nonetheless maintain that the symbolisms with which mediations of Irish-
Celtic music are often imbued do harbour potential dangers, as already outlined
above in relation to some aspects of consumption. There are occasions, moreover,

 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, 1999).

 See for example, James McCarthy and Euan Hague, ‘Race, Nation and Nature: The

Cultural Politics of “Celtic” Identification in the American West’, Annals of the Association
of American Geographers 94/2 (June 2004): 387–408. This resonates with readings of
a racist subtext in Tolkien’s fantasies. See amongst others: Christopher Kraus, ‘More
White Supremacy? The Lord of the Rings as Pro-American Imperialism’, Multicultural
Perspectives 7/4 (2005): 54–8.
 Matheson, ‘Music, Emotion and Authenticity: A Study of Celtic Music Festival
Consumers’, p. 69
 Ibid., p. 66.
 Connell and Gibson, ‘World music: Deterritorializing Place and Identity’.
 Taylor, ‘Afterword: Gaelicer Than Thou’, p. 282.
 Ibid.; Gerry Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural History, p. 100–01.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 253

when the producers of Irish-Celtic music are themselves involved in perpetuating

associations between whiteness and Celticity/Celticism, from the subliminal
(Enya’s music epitomizing all that is pre-modern and elven in the film adaptation
of The Lord of the Rings) through to the blatant (the rather surprisingly high
proportion of blonde and red-haired females constituting the main dancing and
singing troupes of Riverdance84).
The above examples illustrate how representations of whiteness are very
often linked to the presentation of the female performer in much Irish-Celtic
music production, and this brings us directly to issues of gender.85 Earlier in the
chapter, allusions were made to a continuous history of feminized representations
of Ireland and Celticity, and as numerous commentators have observed, a residual
tendency towards such ideologically loaded constructs continues to hold sway
in contemporary contexts.86 While this thread of imagining has always been
subject to contestation, negotiation and re-interpretation, its re-emergence in the
context of globalized music markets acts to reinforce essentialist associations, as
evidenced by the plethora of feminized Celtic imagery advanced in print, broadcast
and online media.87 One observable pattern in the marketing of some female
‘Celtic’ musicians (including composers) is how they can come to be collectively
represented as a gendered category, in a manner that would be rarely, if ever, be
applied to male musicians. Among the most self-evident cases are the series of
compilation albums featuring Irish singers and songwriters entitled A Woman’s
Heart 88 and the Celtic Woman ensemble.89 Before embarking on an interpretation

 Anecdotal evidence volunteered by a number of former performers on the various
Riverdance productions suggests that female dancers and singers were often required to
wear blonde or red-haired wigs.
 The interface of performer identity (including delineations of gender) and ‘identity
politics’ is extensively explored in Stan Hawkins, Settling the Pop Score: Pop Texts and
Identity Politics (Aldershot, 2002). For a discussion on representations of female performers
in Irish traditional music see Helen O’Shea, ‘“Good Man, Mary!” Women Musicians and
the Fraternity of Irish Traditional Music’, Journal of Gender Studies 17/1 (2008): 55–70.
 David Cairns and Shaun Richards (1987): ‘“Woman” in the Discourse of Celticism:
A reading of The Shadow of the Glen’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 13/1
(1987): 43–60; Colin Graham, ‘Subalternity and Gender: Problems of postcolonial Irishness’,
Journal of Gender Studies 5/3 (Special Issue, 1996): 363–73; Mary J. Hickman and Bronwen
Walter (1995) ‘Deconstructing Whiteness: Irish women in Britain’, Feminist Review 50
(1995): 5–19; Angela Martin, ‘The Practice of Identity and an Irish Sense of Place’; Catherine
Nash, ‘Embodied Irishness: Gender, Sexuality and Irish Identities’; David Alderson and
Fiona Becket, (1999), ‘Introduction to Part II: Gender’, in Scott Brewster, Virginia Crossman
et al. (eds), Ireland in Proximity: History, Gender, Space (London, 1999), pp. 61–3.
 To give but one example: Martin Melhuish and Mairéid Sullivan, Celtic Women in
Music: A Celebration of Beauty and Sovereignty (Kingston, ON, 1999).
 A Woman’s Heart Volume 1 (1993); A Woman’s Heart Volume 2 (1994).
 A more subtle form of gendered collectivity is suggested by the CD Celtic Connections
(1997), featuring the art music compositions of Nicola Lefanu, Jane O’Leary and Hilary Tann.
254 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

of some of the proffered meanings of the latter group’s overall presentation, I

should state that, along with all of the musicians and groups referred to in this
chapter, I regard the production values of this act quite highly and would also
appraise the musicality of its individual performers in similar terms. The critical
issues for consideration here are the group’s nomenclature and presentation mode,
along with its musical selection and overall expressive character.
The branding and staging of Celtic Woman, an ensemble of Irish musicians
whose success is most spectacular among US and other international audiences,
appears to capitalize on symbols of old Celticity that are in turn repackaged
(Celticism) with the express purpose of maximizing access to global markets.
Bland and unimaginative, the title hits its mark. Indeed, the anonymity suggested
by this nomenclature resonates with similar tendencies in the marketing of
‘manufactured’ pop groups such as The Pussycat Dolls. However, in contrast to
the presentation mode of the latter where anonymity and objectification combine
with ‘exotic’ elements to suggest a modern-day harem, Celtic Woman appears
to promise its audience a very different form of entertainment that is at once de-
sexualized and spiritual, beautiful yet otherworldly.
So what of the music itself? Much of the vocal material performed and
recorded by Celtic Woman refers to the overall sub-style developed by the earlier
New Age/Celtic artists as well as to the by-now familiar choral arrangements from
Riverdance and similar productions. ‘Tradition’ is represented by the inclusion of
Irish- and English-language song material as well as through the fiddle playing of
Máiréad Nesbitt, whose rather acrobatic (and often mimed) mode of performance is
at stark variance with the largely static presence of the vocalists.90 All in all, the act/
show combines traditional forms with established New Age/Celtic arrangements
and production techniques (including ‘a kind of vulgar sean-nós element’91), and
recontextualizes these within a feminized narrative of Irishness/Celticity.
The expressive mode most associated with feminized Irish-Celtic music
production clearly leans towards the melancholy side of the mad/sad Janus face
that epitomizes contradictory and predominant stereotypes of Irishness in music.92
There are, of course, countertendencies in real practice – including those musicians,
both male and female, that appear to challenge or otherwise negotiate such

 The website for Celtic Woman introduces its primary performers under a link

entitled ‘Meet the girls’. Anonymity is further underlined insofar as the performers are
initially listed by first name only alongside their photographic image. A further distinction
is made between ‘present’ and ‘past’ members. At the time of writing Celtic Woman’s
‘membership’ comprised Lisa Kelly, Chloë Agnew, Lisa Lambe and Máiréad Nesbitt. See
http://www.celticwoman.com (last accessed 24 July 2011).
 A term coined by Gerry Smyth to describe the use of studio techniques to simulate
the ‘emotionality and intimacy’ of traditional sean-nós song performance. Smyth, Music in
Cultural History, p. 135.
 John O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music, pp. 147–52; Helen O’Shea, The
Making of Irish Traditional Music, pp. 5–7; Gerry Smyth, Music in Irish Cultural History,
pp. 51–64.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 255

clichés – but nonetheless the overall discourse of Irish-Celtic music production

(by which I mean the choice of personnel, musical and technological resources,
performances modes and marketing paraphernalia) reinforces an essentialist,
gendered conception of the genre.
To illustrate the above argument I now briefly consider a video-recorded
performance of a Celtic Woman concert featuring the song ‘May it be’,93 which
was originally composed and performed by Enya94 for the soundtrack to the film
adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.95 In this video soloist Lisa Kelly delivers
a convincing performance of the song’s plaintive neo-traditional melody that
alternates between pentatonic and hexatonic phrases, occasionally decorated
with simple ornaments. The arrangements communicate a pre-modern modality,
with subtle chordal shifts patterned through a largely plagal (lack of) harmonic
direction. These sound referents to ‘ancient’ Irish-Celtic song, whether real or
imagined, are augmented by the vocative mode of the lyrics, which act to translate
and adapt traditional forms of Gaelic Christian blessings to a more generic and
contemporary spiritual message. While Kelly’s singing could not be described as
being in sean-nós or in another recognizable traditional style, an air of authenticity
is communicated through the pitch-pure and ‘straight’ vocal technique (with
minimal vibrato and an absence of dramatic dynamic change) that particularly
comes to the fore during the higher-register refrain sections. In spite of the
performance’s overall theatrical context, she communicates and maintains intimacy
through her static posture and by a seemingly effortless breathing technique. The
orchestration, which comprises a full string section, choral group, concert harp,
guitar and ‘atmospheric’ percussion, acts to support the floating character of the
melody. There is little outward sense of pulse although the performance is skilfully
conducted to a very relaxed adagio; related to this there is an almost complete
absence of any rhythmic layer to the melodic or orchestral texture.
This staged and video-recorded performance of ‘May it be’, which in many
respects remains true to Enya’s original version, presents us with a paradox.
It proposes an overall meaning that is embodied within ‘a’ Celtic woman, yet
through the employment of conventional sonic signifiers (the foregrounding of
melody, the seemingly effortless breathing, the imperceptibility of the pulse, a
lack of rhythmic drive, and so on) the song performance can simultaneously be
apprehended as somehow disembodied, leading to perceptions of the music as
possessing a ‘haunting’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘other-worldly’ character. Imbued with
nostalgia for times past, we might be reminded of the ultimate tragedy of Tolkien’s
elves as they grow weary of their corporeal selves in a changing Middle Earth, and
choose instead to depart to their other, more spiritual world.

 See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RugSclNY4y8&feature=grec_index (last
accessed 25 August 2011)
 Enya, A Day without Rain (2001).
 Peter Jackson (dir.), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).
256 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

In a way, the most striking impression to emerge from this reading of a

‘prototype’ of contemporary Irish-Celtic performance lies in what it is not, in
terms of both images/sounds and cultural construction. Indeed, without wishing
to capitulate to essentialist notions about blackness or, for that matter, masculinity
in music,96 I would argue that the considerable international reception and success
of much Irish-Celtic music production – and nowhere is this more evident than
in North America – locates it in a wider discourse that affords the construction
of identities premised on perceptions of antithetical cultural and racial qualities.
Subliminally or otherwise, feminized representations within the sphere of Irish-
Celtic music may contribute to the (re-) construction of white identities, which
in turn can be interpreted as a form of nostalgia or ‘defence’ in the face of an
increasingly globalized and multicultural social order.


This chapter has explored a range of contemporary genres that to varying degrees
and in differing contexts/times are designated within the general category of
Irish-Celtic music, from acts that strategically employ the Celtic apposition (or
on which that label is imposed) solely for marketing purposes, to hybrid musical
productions that additionally employ musical repertoire, forms, techniques and
practices that are promoted as or are believed to be Irish and Celtic. The past
two decades have witnessed a dominant projection of Irish-Celtic music in which
ideas of heterogeneity and hybridity become fused with old essentialisms, albeit
sanitized and apparently inoffensive. Against this background, and prompted by
Lipsitz’s influential text, I set out to ascertain the dangers posed by this particular
intersection of ‘residual’ and ‘emergent’ elements in the context of an ever
increasing flow of global culture and capital.
The deterritorialization and rebranding of Irish (Celtic) music products
for global markets has led to a situation where increasingly the identity of the
music’s original production base comes to be reshaped from outside. This may
seem to go against what in many cases can be described as the manipulation
of Celtic imagery by Irish-based performers/producers and promoters of the
same music. But the danger lies in the very success of those enterprises, insofar
as intensified patterns in the commodification and global consumption of the
same music (and its associated ethnicity/ies) means that the music’s ‘identity’ is
open to appropriation by forces outside its place of origin, leading to outcomes
that are unintended and even undesirable from the perspectives of performers,
composers and others. Of course, Irish-based producers and mediators of the same
music are often themselves involved in assuming a dominant position within the
wider Celtic connection or within an Irish-Celtic diaspora, and inadvertently or

 See Peter Wade, Music, Race and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia (Chicago
and London, 2000), at pp. 16–23.
Kalfou Danjere? Interpreting Irish-Celtic Music 257

otherwise contribute to a discourse of cultural colonization. Ostensibly inclusive,

ideas of diaspora and ethnic connectivity may be subtly manoeuvered to re-assert
essentialist views vis-à-vis Irish music within a more globalized and intercultural
world. Thomas Turino observes:

To understand the roles of artistic forms in relation to identity it is important to

recognize both the signs that emerge from deep socialization and that remain
largely outside of focal awareness, and those that are consciously manipulated
as emblems of identity. Typically, if artists are of the identity position being
represented, both types will be involved simultaneously.97

The category of Irish-Celtic music has certainly made much of the commercial
opportunities presented by the globalization of world music markets to the degree
that many artists, along with the brand itself, have enjoyed sustained success. But
what of other opportunities? There is little or no evidence to suggest that its most
prominent representatives have contributed to a ‘critical consciousness’ in respect
of global issues, and here I allude to compositional and performative aspects of
consciousness, to what might be expressed through acts of music-making, as much
as to more overt political engagement. Romanticized assumptions of homologous
links between Irishness/Celticity and blackness remain at the level of ideas, whereas
the reality of much Irish-Celtic music production and mediation suggests closer
links with constructions of whiteness. Furthermore, the predominantly gendered
representation and projection of many, though by no means all, contemporary
Celtic music acts serves to perpetuate reductionist ideas about Irishness and music;
it also presents a double exploitation of the female performer in that the music’s
proffered symbolic meanings demand her objectification as a woman while
simultaneously conveying disembodiment to the audience. This apparent denial of
the female performer’s visceral engagement facilitates the reading of ‘spiritual’,
and ‘ethereal’ qualities in the musical experience. And, while such performances
and recordings might genuinely transport audiences into a relaxing and healing
place, albeit momentarily, this promise of other-worldliness is in reality sustained
by the global flow of ‘Celtic cultural capital’.
On a more positive note, the Celtic category has afforded, for some at least,
an accommodation between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ tendencies in Irish
traditional music practice, as well as opening up a discourse for Irish-based
musicians in all genres wishing to explore other musical systems and traditions. In
contemporary, international terms however, Irish-Celtic music can be represented
as a largely conservative entity that sits on a fence at the world music crossroads:
wearing its distinct robe that aligns it to similar ‘ethnic others’, but with its feet
firmly grounded in the mainstream of western consciousness.

 Thomas Turino, ‘Introduction: Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communites’,
in Thomas Turino and James Lea (eds), Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communities
(Warren, MI, 2004), pp. 3–20, at p. 10.
258 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond


A Woman’s Heart Volume 1 (Dara 3158, 1993).

A Woman’s Heart Volume 2 (DA 063, 1994).
Afro-Celt Sound System, Afro-Celt Sound System Volume 2: Release
(Realworld, 76, 1999).
Anúna, Essential Anúna (Universal, 0647722, 2003).
Celtic Woman, A New Journey (Angel, 75109, 2007).
Chieftains, The, The Very Best of the Claddagh Years (Claddagh Records, 66, 1999).
Clannad, Clannad, The Ultimate Collection (RCA, 74321, 1997).
Enya, A Day without Rain (WEA International, 85986, 2001).
O’Leary, Jane, Tann, Hilary and LeFanu, Nicola/Concorde Ensemble, Celtic
Connections (Capstone, 8640, 1997).
Ó Riada, Seán and Ceoltóirí Chualann, Ó Riada sa Gaiety (Gael Linn, 01, 2005).
Whelan, Bill, Riverdance: Music from the Show (Celtic Heartbeat 38002, 1995).


King, Philip (dir.), Bringing it All Back Home (BBC in association with RTÉ, 1991).
Gilsenan, Alan, Walsh, Dearbhla and Roberts, David (dirs), The Irish Empire
(BBC Northern Ireland/RTÉ/SBS Australia, 1999).
Jackson, Peter (dir.), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line
Cinema, 2001).
Chapter 15
Music in Ireland: Youth Cultures and
Youth Identity
Eileen Hogan


Youth culture as an object of study has a long history, yet the social significance of
young people’s music-centred activities is largely neglected in academic research
on music in Ireland. This chapter seeks to open up discussion on Irish youth
participation in popular and traditional music contexts, using a secondary research
approach to offer a series of snapshots on the place of music within Irish youth
experiences from socio-historical, socio-cultural and socio-political perspectives.
Following a brief overview of the sociological study of youth cultures and Irish
youth cultures, I focus on key moments within Irish cultural history in extrapolating
the significance of music in young people’s lives and in their development of social
and cultural identities. First, the chapter focuses on Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s,
examining the ways in which young people’s music- and dance-oriented activities
in the so-called ‘Ballrooms of Romance’ were important in forging a break with
the socially conservative climate of preceding decades. Second, this research
explores the meanings of punk music in the context of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern
Ireland. Finally, the discussion considers young people’s position within the field
of Irish traditional music in relation to individual and collective identities.

Youth Cultures

The post-Second World War period, characterized by the social, economic and
cultural shifts that produced an increasingly market-oriented, consumer-based
society, is often taken as the starting point for sociological discussions of style- and
music-based youth cultures in the USA and the UK. In Ireland, economic stagnation
and cultural conservatism in the 1940s and 1950s meant that young people were
denied access to training, education and leisure activities associated with modern

 This chapter is developed from a previously published work: Eileen Hogan,
‘Youth Cultures, Identity and Popular Music’, in Paul Burgess and Peter Herrmann (eds),
Highways, Crossroads and Cul de Sacs: Journeys into Irish Youth and Community Work
(Bremen, 2010). Reproduced in parts with permission of the publisher.
260 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

life.2 In other western societies, however, increasing employment opportunities

for young people in the post-war era conferred economic independence through
relatively well-paid industrial jobs. This new cultural category of ‘youth’ had, for
the first time, the means and personal resources to invest in popular music-related
commodities in this period of post-war prosperity. Advances in technological mass
market production also meant that such commodities were more cheaply produced
and priced. The academic innovation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies (CCCS) contributed enormously to the establishment of ‘youth’ as
a legitimate focus of inquiry. The sociological approach advocated by the CCCS,
influenced by Antonio Gramsci, aimed to demonstrate how youth subcultures
reflected prevailing socio-economic circumstances and structural changes, with
particular reference to Marxist interpretations of class conflict, where ‘young
people were thus seen to be seeking a collective cultural solution to a socio-
economic problem’.3 Youth cultures, theorists argued, enabled young people to
develop a sense of identity through cultural membership.
Youth culture research has ‘come of age’, in the sense that it has been now
accepted as a discipline; as argued by Fornäs, ‘the very youthful field of youth
culture is no longer an infant, but retains an almost adolescent character: flexible,
mobile, widely divergent, shifting in different directions’.4 Though youth culture
research has been marginalized at various points and under various pressures, its
influence has been widespread – in a sense the discipline itself, along with the youth
cultures it investigates, is ‘rhizomatic’5 in the way in which it has embedded itself in
disparate fields of sociology, social geography, studies of race, ethnicity, gender etc.6

Youth Culture and Music in Ireland

It is difficult to review the relationship between music and Irish youth culture(s),
given the dearth of sociological scholarship in this area. Ethnographic approaches to
the study of fans’ and audiences’ consumption of music, which have allowed for close

 See Tom Garvin, Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland So Poor for So Long?
(Dublin, 2004).
 Hilary Pilkington, Russia’s Youth and its Culture: A Nation’s Constructors and
Constructed (London, 1994), p. 16.
 Johan Fornäs, ‘Youth, Culture and Modernity’, in Johan Fornäs and Göran Bolin,
(eds) Youth Culture in Late Modernity (London, 1995), p. 1.
 ‘Rhizomatic’ is a term used by Deleuze and Guattari to present a model of
knowledge that describes constantly changing, non-hierarchical networks and acentred
connections between objects, functions, aims and effects. This model looks at continuities
and discontinuities, fragmentations and multiplicities within structures and meanings.
Understanding youth cultures and youth cultural studies as ‘rhizomatic’ recognizes the
importance of inter- and trans-discplinarity in approach and method. See Gilles Deleuze and
Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, 1987).
 Rupa Huq, Beyond Subculture Pop, Youth and Identity in a Postcolonial World
(London, 2006), p. 38.
Youth Cultures and Youth Identity 261

investigations of the way in which music shapes youth identity, are more common in the
American, British and wider European literatures. Such approaches to cultural studies
remain scarce in Ireland.7 The discipline is therefore, in a sense, a ‘late developer’.
This is not to detract from the notable contributions of Irish theorists, whose recently
emerging work has enhanced socio-historical, socio-musical and policy-oriented
understandings of popular music in Ireland, including explorations of ‘Irishness’ and
identity in popular music.8 Discussions of Irish popular music do, however, tend to
neglect the theoretical dimension of youth. Where ‘youth’ is discussed, it focuses
more on popular music-making – ‘young musicians’ and specific artists – rather
than popular music involvement more broadly (consumers, fans, audiences, scenes,
subcultures and so on). Academic literature on Irish traditional music from a cultural
studies or socio-historical perspective is (at least up to quite recently) scant,9 and
within existing studies, ‘youth’ as an explicit category is rarely addressed, or even
given mention. Given that subcultural studies of music and youth cultures are focused
largely on urban contexts, this is to an extent understandable in that the historical shape
of Irish society has been relatively rural and parochial by comparison with US, British
and European contexts. Indeed, many Irish musicians from the showbands to present
times have struggled within the strictures of a relatively impoverished and poorly
supported domestic cultural industry and have pursued success through emigration
to Britain or the USA. The belief that you can’t ‘break a band’ from Ireland, which
neglects to promote its popular music at a national policy level, is persistent. Ó
Cinnéide and Henry, for example, argue that the Irish record industry requires greater
efforts towards indigenization; as they point out, successful international Irish acts are
largely signed to British or US divisions of global record corporations.10

 Though audience studies is relatively under-represented in music studies, notable
contributions from the field of media and communications studies that have relevance for
popular music studies include Mary Kelly and Barbara O’Connor (eds), Media Audiences
in Ireland (Dublin, 1997) and John Horgan, Barbara O’Connor and Helena Sheehan (eds),
Mapping Irish Media: Critical Explorations (Dublin, 2007).
 See for example, John O’Flynn, ‘National Identity and Music in Transition:
Issues of Authenticity in a Global Setting’, in Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights (eds),
Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Local and the Global
(Aldershot, 2007), pp. 19–38; John O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music (Farnham, 2009);
Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, ‘Hybridity and National Musics: The Case of Irish
Rock Music’, Popular Music, 19/2, (April 2000): 181–200; Gerry Smyth, Noisy Island:
A Short History of Irish Rock (Cork, 2005); Rob Strachan and Marion Leonard, ‘A Musical
Nation: Protection, Investment and Branding in the Irish Music Industry’, Irish Studies
Review: Special Issue—Music in Contemporary Ireland 12/1 (2004): 39–50.
 Two notable recent contributions are Marie McCarthy, Passing It On: The
Transmission of Music in Irish Culture (Cork, 1999); Helen O’Shea, The Making of Irish
Traditional Music (Cork, 2008).
 Barra Ó Cinnéide and Colette Henry, ‘Entrepreneurship Features of Creative
Industries: The Irish Music and Dance Sector’, in Colette Henry (ed.) Entrepreneurship in
the Creative Industries: An International Perspective (Cheltenham, 2007), p. 83.
262 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

This analysis will document some of those aspects of music-centred youth

experiences in Ireland that offer an insight into Irish youth experiences of
changing cultural contexts, focusing on youth identities and their formation with
reference to prevailing sociopolitical tensions. In this endeavour, I have chosen
to limit my analysis to three case studies within Irish cultural history. I will begin
the discussion by exploring the modernizing project of the 1960s when the so-
called ‘showband era’ marked a challenge to social mores associated with music
and dance.

‘Ballrooms of Romance’: Youth Cultures in a Modernizing Ireland

American popular culture was instrumental in modernizing Irish society, and

youth participation in music-centred activities in 1960s Ireland played a key part
‘in prising open the cultural sterility of an overly essentialist national culture’.11
With Seán Lemass’s induction in 1959 as Taoiseach12 and his introduction of a
new liberalizing socio-political agenda, most Irish political leaders would come to
welcome the emerging musical and cultural revolution that took place within this
context of economic reform in the 1960s. The pursuit of a modernizing project
resulted in relatively increased economic prosperity in 1960s Ireland and, as
Smyth argues, the advent of ‘a new atmosphere, youth-oriented and at odds with
received notions of national identity’.13 These changes were evidenced in Ireland
in the cultural reshaping of popular music activity – ‘the key emblem of modern
international youth during the post-war period’.14 Early rock ’n’ roll in the USA
was considered a moral danger related to youth autonomy and youth rebellion,15
whereas in Ireland the burgeoning popular music forms were vilified as corrupting
forces by protectionist politicians, social commentators and the Catholic clergy.
With the advent of the showbands’ musical style, described as the ‘soundtrack to
the Lemass era’,16 a new possibility for modern Irish cultural activity – one that
drew from international and particularly American trends – was established.
The showbands emerged in the 1950s and rapidly increased in popularity and
number in the 1960s.17 These usually comprised seven to nine musicians, whose

 McLaughlin and McLoone, ‘Hybridity and National Musics’, p. 183.


 Title given to the Prime Minister of Ireland, from the Gaelic word ‘Leader’.

 Smyth, Noisy Island, p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 11, original emphasis.
 George Lipsitz in Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular
Culture (Minneapolis, 2001), for example, argues that 1950s white middle-class youth
sought to rebel by rejecting the standardized homogeneity of suburban life and by appealing
to urban minority and working-class cultures as expressed though rock ’n’ roll.
 Ibid., p. 16.
 The website http://www.irish-showband.com, which archives material relating to
the showbands, enumerates 890 performing showbands in total during the 1950s and 1960s
(accessed May 2011).
Youth Cultures and Youth Identity 263

musical set-lists typically included covers of current popular music ‘hits’, from
rock ’n’ roll to Dixieland jazz to the Beatles, while others also incorporated ‘country
and western’ (or ‘country and Irish’) styles and/or Irish traditional and céilí music.
As Smyth argues, the Irish context is unusual in that the showbands’ audiences
were less age-delineated (not constituted primarily by ‘adolescents’/‘teenagers’)
and tended to appeal to a broader age-range than that of the youth-oriented
rock ’n’ roll US market.18 Yet, for young people especially, it is suggested that
the showbands, though denigrated as inauthentic and unoriginal, ‘brought to the
youth of rural and provincial Ireland the same kind of liberating hedonism that
was associated with other imported forms of popular culture’.19 In Power’s (1990)
reflection on changing cultural norms, he makes reference to the shifting Irish
youth identities mediated through engagement in popular music activities. Young
people rebelled to a certain degree against the Catholic hierarchy, which was
suspicious of the new popular musical forms that were emerging in a changing
Ireland. The showbands were not allowed to perform during Lent for fear that
entertainment would distract young Catholics from their religious priorities.20 That
young people largely ignored the warnings from the pulpit of the ‘moral hazards’
of dancing indicates a gradual shift away from the repressive conservatism of
the Catholic Church. Vincent Power documents the critical role of advances in
communications technology in shaping young people’s lives in the 1960s, when
‘youngsters listened to Radio Luxembourg under the bedcovers and tuned into
rock ’n’ roll’.21 As well as transforming the urban and rural landscape, with the
construction of around 450 large ballrooms countrywide (many of which were
built to house several thousand attendees), young people’s opportunities for
socializing were also dramatically altered:

The showband craze changed Irish courting habits forever. In rural areas, the
ballrooms created the opportunity to meet others away from the narrow confines
of the parochial hall. Youngsters cycled to local dances in the ’50s, and drove
to ballrooms miles away in the ’60s. Boys and girls could be more anonymous
at a dance fifty miles from home – away from the prying eyes of neighbours.22

The showband era declined from the late 1970s, undermined by the drift of young
people from the large purpose-built ‘dry’ ballrooms (selling only soft beverages)
to pub venues and hotels, which began to build their own, more comfortable,
function rooms to house dancers, in which alcohol was served. Musicians, tired of

 Smyth, Noisy Island, pp. 11–17.
 McLoughlin and McLoone, ‘Hybridity and National Musics’, p. 18.
 Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter Sunday in western Christianity,
traditionally devoted to abstinence and penitence.
 Vincent Power, Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’: The showbands’ story (Dublin, 1990),
p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 15.
264 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

playing covers in front of waning audiences, left the showbands to play original
pop/rock or country music or packed up their instruments and retired. Though
often criticized for their lack of originality, the showbands signified an important
era in Ireland’s cultural history and laid the foundations for future developments
in Irish popular music. Influential artists including Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher
and Henry McCullough began their professional careers in the showband scene.
The visual artist Robert Ballagh, formerly a showband musician, makes an
interesting observation regarding the place of the showbands in Ireland’s musical
development and identity:

Showbands were not seen as purveyors of originality. They were purveyors of

entertainment. In fact, the public didn’t like to hear original music. I believe
that every developing musical culture has to go through that phase … You
have to find your own voice and identity. You can’t force it … It is a phase
that has to be gone through before a society finds its own voice. And then the
originality comes.23

Regardless of the perceived value of their musical contributions, the extramusical

social effects of the showband era on Ireland’s youth population should
be recognized.

Punk and ‘The Troubles’: Youth, Identity and Popular Music in

Northern Ireland

The relationship between popular music and youth identity is an interesting one in
the context of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, since it was ‘a place in which politics
(rather than taste, age, gender or any other cultural category) dominated questions
of identity’.24 From the late 1960s, the conflict was shaped along sectarian divides.
As Smyth argues, the ‘binary stand-offs’ – Catholic/Protestant, nationalist/loyalist,
and republican/unionist – were ones to which young people were particularly
vulnerable and ‘it was difficult for a youth-oriented popular music to flourish in
such a society’.25
The Northern Irish punk scene claims to have been non-sectarian. Terri Hooley, a
prominent music promoter and producer at the time argues that ‘the punk thing was
the first time in over 10 years that all the kids came from all the ghettoes and it didn’t
matter whether you were a Protestant or a Catholic as long as you were a punk’.26
In a similar vein, O’Neill and Trelford (dramatically) aver that in Belfast of 1977:

 Ibid., p. 399

 Smyth, Noisy Island, p. 58.


 Cited in Tony Clayton-Lea and Richie Taylor, Irish Rock: Where It’s Come From,
Where It’s At, Where It’s Going (Dublin, 1992), p. 92. Similar claims have been made with
Youth Cultures and Youth Identity 265

hidden away in dingy backstreet clubs and packed sweaty bars, a fledgling
teenage rebellion was being hatched. Disenchanted youths from all across the
city brought up on a diet of violence, bigotry, sectarianism, paramilitary and
police oppression, bad housing and the highest unemployment in the UK, had
had enough. These angry young men (and women) had found a common bond in
the new youth phenomenon, PUNK ROCK, and they would soon unleash their
venom on an unsuspecting N. Irish society.27

While it is not within the remit of this chapter to engage more thoroughly with the
various articulations of anti-sectarianism in the music of the era, some examples
are useful in demonstrating how punk was a positive vehicle of expression for
Northern Ireland’s punk-youth population. The utopianism of a non-sectarian
possibility for the future of Northern Ireland and an expression of the ultimate
futility of sectarianism was memorably epitomized in a track by Belfast band Stiff
Little Fingers called ‘Alternative Ulster’ (1978), which ‘served to register the
sentiments of disenfranchised youth in both communities’.28 Some theorists have
castigated Stiff Little Fingers as ‘charlatans’ who instrumentalized and exploited
the conflict in their music for commercial gain at the behest of the journalist and
their eventual manager and co-writer, Gordon Ogilvie.29 Yet, whatever the band’s
motivation, the song retains its affective power in that it remains, as McLoone
puts it, symbolic of ‘the attempt to forge an alternative politics by the province’s
severely bored, annoyed and disaffected youth’.30
In a different way, another group’s adamant refusal to reflect on sectarian
politics through their music offered an altogether different apolitical utopia to
Northern youth. The Undertones – whose music was described by the music
journalist Jon Savage as ‘incandescent pop/Punk flash’31 – are most famously
remembered for their track ‘Teenage Kicks’ (1977), a ‘paean to youthful thrills’.
The typical themes of The Undertones’ music were explorations of love and

regard to dance culture in Northern Ireland: ‘While dance music offers no guarantee
of how people will behave once the party is over, it has been instrumental in extending
non-sectarian spaces in Northern Ireland and in offering an alternative imaginary.’ Noel
McLaughlin, ‘Bodies Swayed to Music: Dance Music in Ireland’, Irish Studies Review 12/1
(2004): 77–85, at p. 82.
 Sean O’Neill and Guy Trelford, It Makes You Want to Spit! The Definitive Guide to
Punk in Northern Ireland (Dublin, 2003), p. 3 (original emphasis).
 Sean Campbell,‘“Pack Up Your Troubles”: Politics & Popular Music in Pre- & Post-
Ceasefire Ulster’, Popular Musicology Online (4) (2007), http://www.popular-musicology-
online.com/issues/04/campbell-01.html (accessed May 2011).
 Bill Rolston, ‘“This is Not a Rebel Song”: The Irish Conflict and Popular Music’,
Race and Class 42/3 (2001): 49–67; Smyth, Noisy Island, 2005; Campbell, ‘Pack Up Your
Troubles’, 2007.
 Martin McLoone, ‘Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The Political Power of “What
Might Have Been”’, Irish Studies Review 12/1 (2004): 29–38.
 Ibid., p. 37.
266 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

lust, ‘light-hearted meditations on male adolescence’.32 The Undertones were

criticized for choosing not to engage with themes of violence in their music, and
were positioned at the other end of the spectrum from Stiff Little Fingers in the
debate about music and political statement. However, it is argued that the ‘frothy’
teenage subjects to which they referred can also be considered as oppositional in
that the band determinedly avoided addressing politics in its music and as such
‘revolted against anger’ itself through a music predicated upon ‘utter escapism’
(as the group’s singer, Fergal Sharkey describes it).33 The ‘silly love songs’ that
were so denigrated by Adorno, may then have a greater impact than their alleged
triviality might initially suggest.34 Rolston criticizes the high expectations placed
on punk music and the ‘premature’ belief that bands such as Stiff Little Fingers
were ‘harbingers of a new cross-community youth culture that would lead to
an end of the conflict’.35 But at least the range of ‘imaginings’ of the future of
Northern Ireland articulated by and to young people through popular music, from
the rage of Stiff Little Fingers to the youthful exuberance of The Undertones,
offered alternative visions (and hope?) to their youth audiences.
In common with other European contexts, the island of Ireland has also
experienced the oppositional potential of popular music both within the context
of the showband era and in the late 1970s/1980s context of a deeply divided
Northern Ireland. Class, race, gender, ethnic and religious stratifications clearly
demonstrate differential oppositional capacities of young people to engage in
popular music as resistance. In the Irish experience, expressions of resistance were
possible even in the conservative climate of the Irish and Northern Irish socio-
political contexts. In the showband era, youth involvement in music-oriented
social activities represented a challenge in some way to religious conservatism
and rigid class and gender divisions in rural Irish society. Likewise, in the punk
scene of 1970s/1980s Northern Ireland, the subversive potential of popular music
was evident in Northern Irish musicians’ articulations of identity in both political
and apolitical expressions.

Youth, Identity and Irish Traditional Music

Numerous authors have expressed concern at the historical paucity of academic

research on traditional Irish music, though the publication of more recent texts
has contributed towards redressing this issue.36 Irish traditional music represents

 Campbell, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’.



 Rolston, ‘This is Not a Rebel Song’, p. 50.
 Ibid., p. 59.
 Notably, in chronological order of publication: Fintan Vallely and Charlie Piggot,
Blooming Meadows: The World of Irish Traditional Musicians, (Dublin, 1998); McCarthy,
Passing It On; Fintan Vallely (ed.), The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Cork and
Youth Cultures and Youth Identity 267

a range of repertories, practices and stylistic conventions that depend on inter-

generational transmission; it is music that ‘is handed down from one generation
to the next’.37 Given this implicit recognition of distinct age cohorts and inter-
generational transmission, it is surprising that to date very little research has
focused on specific age groups and the interface between them, and on the musical,
pedagogical and social dynamics involved in traditional music transmission.
The final section of this chapter briefly explores Irish traditional music in youth
contexts, drawing on existing primary research data on young musicians, offering
snapshots into the place of young people in Irish traditional music contexts and
privileging those sources that refer specifically to youth encounters within the
realm of traditional Irish music. The following vignettes offer insight into young
people’s experiences of Irish traditional music with particular reference to social
and cultural identity formation.

Young People’s Social Activities and Irish Traditional Music in Post-

independence Ireland

With the formation of the 26-county (Irish Free) state in 1922, the increasing
dominance of the political elite and the Catholic hierarchy in shaping the new
nation had ramifications for the valuing of traditional music in Ireland. Existing
practices in traditional music were fundamentally altered at this time by the state’s
aims to construct a morally ordered citizenry. O’Shea documents some interesting
observations on the place of young people in Ireland in ‘house dances’ of the 1920s,
giving insights into the role of traditional music in shaping the social activities of
young people in rural Ireland:

[A]s soon as the musicians come in, they start playing and all the young people
start dancing. The older people are in the back room, talking about different
things, about the weather and politics and whatever, and all the local gossip. And
all the younger ones, the young teenagers, they’d be all out dancing the sets and
waltzes and all the different dances they could handle.38

Such informal house parties were successfully banned in response to Catholic

conservative demands in 1935 with the passing of the Public Dance Hall Act,
which made it illegal to hold unlicensed dances and pushed music- and dance-

New York, 1999); Dorothea Hast and Stanley Scott, Music in Ireland: Experiencing Music,
Expressing Culture (Oxford, 2004); O’Shea, The Making of Irish Traditional Music; Fintan
Vallely, Tuned Out: Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland (Cork, 2008);
O’Flynn, The Irishness of Irish Music.
 Vallely, The Companion, p. 402.
 Jennifer Gall (1991), Interview with Jack Canny, Canberra, Australia. National
Library of Australia, Oral History archive TRC 2734/1, cited in O’Shea, The Making of
Irish Traditional Music, p. 32.
268 Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

oriented social activities into the local parochial halls, in which interaction between
young men and women was closely monitored by the local parish priests. Music
education was simultaneously shifted from the organic learning environment of
the home to the formal strictures of an institutionally imposed national school
music curriculum where children were educated into the narrowly standardized
repertoire of the national ‘canon’.