Letters: The Trip to Cashel

Dear Editor, Towards the end of August I went to Cashel to visit the Brú Ború centre to see the show there and visit the newly opened 'Sounds of History' permanent exhibition. The show was no less, and certainly no more, than that which...

Dear Editor,

Towards the end of August I went to Cashel to visit the Brú Ború centre to see the show there and visit the newly opened ‘Sounds of History’ permanent exhibition. The show was no less, and certainly no more, than that which I had expected – Bunratty Castle meets Riverdance. There were, of course, some fine performers, some of whom I recognised. I had that advantage, but as there was no printed programme, and no one said any word of explanation as to what was going on on the stage, most of the audience went away no wiser about what they had witnessed than when they came in. I suppose it is one way of overcoming the difficulties arising from the possibility of having a multi-lingual audience; tell them nothing in any language!

However, my main puzzlement came with my experience of the ‘Sounds of History’ exhibition. Because of its title and because of its association with Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, I thought the main focus would be on Irish music. I was even encouraged by the fact that they were using the logo of the Irish Traditional Music Archive (the Loughnashade trumpet) on its banners and advertising. The exhibition is set up in a couple of small circular rooms, a larger one, an audio visual auditorium and an exit passage. They are named in the following order: ‘Our Rich Cultural Heritage’, ‘Ancient Sounds’, ‘Achievement, Conflict and Renewal’, ‘The Living Tradition’ and finally, ‘Comhaltas Worldwide’. Outside of a few copies of bronze instruments and a harp there are no artifacts on show. About seven touch-screen monitors give interactive question and answer displays, and a large horizontal screen in the centre of the larger room gives a continious display. The photography and film in these presentations is up to a very high standard as one would expect from Louis Marcus. The graphics are on a par with those in Treoir magazine. Although there are units concerned with mythology, the old poetic tradition and brief referrals to the likes of Bunting and O’Neill, very little relates to music or traditional song. They are far more concerned with history, and that from an extremely nationalistic stance.

In order to be sure I was missing nothing I went through all the displays at least twice. As nothing was to be learned about music in the recent past and the present thus far in the displays, I assumed that the audio-visual show in the auditorium, ‘The Living Tradition’, would cover this ground. It does not. This well-shot three-screen film, lasting some twenty minutes, covers only a single event, the Fleadh Cheoil in Enniscorthy in 2000. As in the Brú Ború show it is entirely lacking in any context pertaining to everyday tradition and has no relevant commentary. Typically the centre screen shows a singer/dancer/musician with the side screens showing admiring individuals in the audience, mainly CCÉ head honchos. The final credits lists the main performers. Once again I was fortunate enough to know many of them, but there is no way an outsider could even begin to guess who was whom.

Maybe, I thought, the final exhibition, ‘Comhaltas Worldwide’, will give me some information about the actuality of our musical tradition today. I could not have been more wrong. If there is an international award going for the most uninspired exhibit this will win it hands down. It consists of nothing more than a list of CCE branches printed on the wall of the corridor!

The ‘Ceol’ exhibition in Smithfield is not without its faults, but in relation to dispensing information about our musical traditions it is so many light years ahead of the display in Cashel as to make comparison irrelevant. This makes the imminent closure of ‘Ceol’ all the more unfortunate. And if the reason for its closure is lack of business, one cannot hold out much hope for the Cashel venture. On the day I was there, at the height of the holiday season, I had the entire exhibition to myself

Admission to the Brú Ború show is £9 and ‘Sounds of History’ £4.

If the above seems confused it is probably because the writer is also confused. Maybe the exhibition is valid within its own terms of reference, but I cannot figure out what these terms are. I found much of the historical information to be of little relevance to the music, and the musical content to be devoid of context. Should any reader of JMI who has visited the exhibition had a more positive experience, and can explain to me what I am missing, I would be glad to hear from them.

Tom Munnelly
Co. Clare

Published on 1 September 2001

Tom Munnelly (1944-2007), born in Dublin but resident in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, since 1978, made the largest field-collection of Irish traditional song ever compiled by any individual. After recording privately in the 1960s, and collecting especially from Traveller singers, he became a professional folklore collector and archivist with the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin (now the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore and the National Folklore Collection), from 1974 to date, with a concentration on English-language song. He lectured and taught widely, was a leading activist in many folk music organisations and festivals, including the Folk Music Society of Ireland, the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing, and he served on national bodies such as the Arts Council. He was the founding Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive from 1987 to 1993. Recently he was presented with the festschrift Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, and was made an honorary Doctor of Literature by the National University of Ireland Galway.

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