A Tradition Flowering

Tradition in the midst of a flowering in Come West Along The Road, a DVD of traditional music from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

As a member of the English diaspora, by which I mean born in England of Irish parents, although often today I feel the other intepretation is more accurate, I have completely missed the original broadcasts that make up the source material for the RTÉ television series Come West Along the Road. Naturally, therefore, I am at the very least intrigued by productions such as this DVD compilation, especially as a misplaced, televisionless idealism (since knocked out of me by my children) has meant that I have had little chance to see the series. An earlier commercial video cassette from the same series has a very special place in my heart, especially the performance of Paddy Carty, Conor Tully and Frank Hoban, and personally is a lesson in how new technology can be used to reinforce the sense of connection that has to be at the heart of our tradition. I never had the pleasure to meet Carty, but that small piece of video introduced me to him in a way that his recordings, both called Traditional Music of Ireland, could never do.

When looking at this new DVD it is perhaps best to try and think of it as simply a production company (RTÉ) producing a ‘Best of…’ from its past catalogue; it should not be judged by how it represents tradition(s) but how it represents the best of what was recorded, a fine but important distinction. Certainly there is a good (or at least contemporary) balance between instrumental dance music, instrumental airs, and English- and Irish-language song. Dancers might complain, though with little justification, as the DVD is billed as ‘Irish Traditional Music Treasures’, but it still contains quite an exceptional amount of dance, and the inclusion of a more dramatic focus in the two Mummers excerpts and a performance by Siamsa Tíre definitely adds more spice. People from the traditions of north Connaught may complain that they are not represented, and the people of Clare could be excused for thinking that the Tulla Ceili Band must have had something on the Director of RTÉ to be on the telly so often. These are not criticisms as Nicholas Carolan has clearly presented some of the best recordings, artistically, historically and technically, that RTÉ has to offer in the context of what is now a series of releases. The academic in me would have liked to have had presented, in at least a small way, the criteria for selection of the material used, for instance, could the preponderance of material from Clare have something to do with the importance of Clare’s Tony MacMahon for traditional music television produced through much of this period?

The DVD does work most effectively in presenting a tradition in the midst of a flowering, the memory of which still overshadows us all. We see here a diverse group of musical practices, some old, some new, all very much still with us and then more. There’s music in pubs and on the streets in what is regarded perversely as the ‘natural’ environment for traditional music – the session; music in more mainstream performance contexts (concert halls, television studios); contrived television locations; music by professionals; by amateurs; music arranged; solo music; group music; music for dancing; for listening; music that indeed challenges such categorical structures that are implied here. I’m not overly fond of the metaphorical schema imposed regularly, of the tradition as a person, but in this context it works – the tradition is, through the period that this DVD represents, crossing barriers of class, culture and geography in ways that no other tradition on this island has, and in doing so recreates itself, not in a uniform matter, but mutating to suit and often subvert the various new contexts it has found itself in. Perhaps we had better metaphorically represent the tradition as some sort of smart virus!

Of course, the DVD will be emotive for different people according to their own personal experience. Many of the people here have passed on and for all of those this DVD only adds to their legacy for which Nicholas Carolan needs to be applauded. There are some rare combinations such as Julia Clifford, Dennis Murphy, Paddy Moloney and Des Mulkere, and some recordings that should be regarded as classics, such as Tommy Peoples’ and Paul Brady’s (whose manner in addressing the camera perhaps told a tale of his future direction as a pop/rock star).

Even those familiar with the musicians and dancers presented here will find nuggets of interest – hidden in the rows of musicans and audience – such as a very young Martin Hayes sitting at the back of the Tulla Ceili Band playing the fiddle rather than the banjo, his instrument of choice with the band in later years. As a flute player I learned more from the extended close-up of the hands of Matt Molloy than I would in any number of nights in that man’s public house. There is also a balance between what we are most familiar with and pieces which would be new to many of us in favour of the latter. I was delighted to see Luke Kelly not singing ‘Raglan Road’ or ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ but the lesser known ‘I Must Away Now’. However, my personal highlight is the whistle playing of Denis O’Brien, a man whose consummate musicianship could shine undimmed through such adversity as muscular dystrophy which led, tragically, to his untimely death.

If I have one problem with the DVD it is that there is no commentary to contextualise all of the material contained on it – even some of the text presented at the beginning of each section is intriguing (I would dearly love to know what a ‘presentation filler’ is). Nicholas Carolan could provide so much more information than is given here about the performers and the context of the performances. I find this omission particularly notable when the format provides such opportunities for the presentation of such information. However, perhaps I am wishing again for a more academic document, but the fact that in the context of the ongoing television series Carolan as presenter does provide such a commentary makes its non-inclusion here mystifying.

Despite this, what is here is a wonderful production, giving an idea, if not an account, of the diversity and excellence of traditional music practice through an important time in its history. Nicholas Carolan needs to be congratulated for the quality of the selection of his material and his presentation of it. He could have very easily produced a different DVD if his criteria were novelty and celebrity, but the aesthetic sensibility that has obviously led him has given us something that I would recommend with little reservation.

Come West Along the Road: Irish Traditional Music Treasures from RTÉ TV Archives 1960s–1980s (RTEDVD99)

 

Published on 1 March 2006

Niall Keegan is a traditional flute player and Associate Director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

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