The Price of Happiness?

Has too much been sacrificed by Irish traditional music in embracing the values of modern Ireland? Barra Ó Séaghdha takes some snapshots of a country with 'societal amnesia' and wonders where all the slow airs have gone...

Over the last fifty years, Ireland’s relationship with the past has shifted again and again – and with it, traditional music and our attitudes to it. The very term traditional music suggests at first sight an unchanging cultural form, but we know that – like our politics, our landscape, our practice of religion – the instrumentation, the social function and the dissemination of traditional music were always evolving, at greater or lesser speed.

In the opinion of many, a great deal has been achieved in recent decades and prospects are bright: the market for the music is international, and not at all confined to Ireland and its emigrant communities; there is a high level of professionalism; institutional and educational structures are being developed; the music – and not just the semi-classicised version – has moved into the concert halls; it is presented with respect, and sometimes with imagination, on television and in other media. In a fascinating and almost imperial dual movement, the Irish have claimed and brought back home swathes of music from elsewhere, while sending their own cargoes down the river of sound to the sea of world music. Is all well with the world and has a way been found of marrying the tempo and values of Celtic Tiger and post-Celtic Tiger Ireland with the values and historical memory of core areas of traditional music?

As this article was getting underway, prompted by a feeling that the traditional music world is becoming less receptive to the deep, unshowy engagement demanded by the slow air (not to mention sean-nós, with its base in a small language community), the celebration of fifty years of Gael Linn was featured in the Irish Times weekend supplement. Among the musicians interviewed by Siobhán Long (whose fountain of metaphor regularly feeds a river of euphoric prose), cautious optimism was general; the only dark note was sounded by Tony MacMahon (who also spoke of his passion for music from many other cultures):

When I was growing up in Clare, it was my good fortune to meet quite a number of very important traditional musicians, like Séamus Ennis and Joe Heaney. All those people have passed on and their places have not been taken by anyone who can even remotely approach them, in terms of a heart for the music, the soul for it, the spirit for it.

While in his irritation with aspects of the traditional scene today, MacMahon has probably gone off on a few wild solo runs, while he could be dismissed as an old-fashioned nostalgist, there is a challenge here that needs answering. How much of the music played and, even more so, recorded today goes beyond the decorative? How much of it has been lived with more than the finger-tips and the tapping foot? How much bears living with? Setting disagreements about vocabulary to one side, it should be possible, if MacMahon is wrong, to put forward examples of music and musicians that rival the masters he invokes. If he is right, are we to conclude that too much has been sacrificed by the traditional partner in embracing the values of contemporary Ireland?

Before deciding too rashly that there is more of value in the trunk in the attic than in the audio-room downstairs, we need to see how forms of social memory other than music have been faring. First, a few snapshots.

A young critic on The View welcomes Keith Ridgway’s most recent novel – set in affluent young Dublin – as a break from the bicycles and rosary-clips of normal Irish fiction. It doesn’t occur to anyone to point out that the Ireland of O’Connor and O’Faolain – of which, let it be added, O’Connor and O’Faolain were critics rather than celebrants – had not actually held sway until the fireworks whooshed over the Liffey to celebrate the new millennium and city-centre outlets scrapped those machines on which jugs of something dark and vaguely coffeeish used to simmer and began to offer the real thing instead.

The question of political violence is raised during a radio discussion, causing the representatives of our major political parties some discomfort as they wrestle with their roots in the War of Independence and the Civil War. One of Ireland’s better-known economists declares himself entirely free of difficulty on this score, as he is happy to describe himself as a Redmondite. Nobody points out that, in a blood sacrifice greater by far than that of militant nationalism, Redmond encouraged tens of thousands of young Irishmen to their deaths in the First World War in order to prove to the British ruling classes that nationalist Ireland was responsible enough to be allowed limited autonomy within the United Kingdom.

At the Labour Party’s annual conference, the leader addresses the membership. There is no attempt to push into Fianna Fáil’s increasingly neglected national heartland by evoking and connecting Labour with movements for social and political justice in the past. By speaking from an abstract position outside history, Labour is implicitly leaving the enfeebled national narrative in the hands of Fianna Fáil.

Societal amnesia
These are instances, not arguments. Is there real reason to believe that we have entered a period of societal amnesia, one with important consequences for our culture in general and for traditional music in particular? Our society has gone through multiple transformations over recent decades and will undergo more. The systems of transmission through which knowledge, memory, authority, family and social patterns, political values, spirituality, and so on, have been put to the test. Where older forms are useless, inappropriate or frankly oppressive, it is normal to discard them. In other areas, creative reworking and adaptation would make more sense. What is worrying at the moment is that we seem neither to want to release the creative potentialities in what we have inherited nor to articulate or debate the ways in which we must adapt to the challenges of a changing world.

An idiotic city/country debate does nothing to prepare rural Ireland for the re-negotiation of the social contract which it must face. Satisfaction, even glee, at the sapping of the authority of the Catholic Church is normal. But the Church’s inept failure to criticise itself and learn a humbler form of leadership means that a major transmission system – a narrative that connected past, present and future, both personal and social – is breaking down. Only because other parties have repeatedly failed to connect with the language and basic aspirations of the people has the hollowed-out shell of Fianna Fáil kept its place in public life. The attempt to glide the Nice 1 referendum past the voters showed a political class without the courage to discuss the future it sees for the country.

The extraordinarily high vote in favour of the Belfast Agreement spoke more of a wish to put no obstacle in the way of a solution to the Northern conflict than of a fully thought-out change in the way we defined the state and the nation. The legacy of history is received with boredom or irritation; it interferes with the business of making money. Our official political class is united by a common inability to use historical experience to articulate a sense of the future. This is where culture – including sport and music – enters the picture again. It may be possible for a time to create a feeling of national satisfaction by repeating a few simple statements: Our rate of growth is twice that of other European countries, or We are Europe’s leading exporter of computer software, or We have had two female presidents in a row, or We are better Europeans than the British. But these affirmations are of limited use when it comes to enhancing the quality of life of shareholders in the economy (formerly thought of as citizens of the state), to deciding what values and ways of thinking the education system should seek to transmit, to understanding why people are strung out on heroin down a lane from the latest designer bar, or to adjusting our thinking and language to a world of immigration and mobile capital.

Music and the national image
Where we could have re-thought the language and symbols that have been transmitted to us, we are choosing to jettison them – leaving us with little other than a few economic mantras around which to galvanise ourselves. Culture can give a certain sheen to this rather impoverished public language. Our national image is all the more impressive if we can laud ourselves, on the one hand, on our software industry and IT specialists and, on the other hand, intone with pride the names of our Nobel Prize-winners in literature, evoke the continuity of Gaelic culture from the sagas through to Nuala and Cathal, or wax lyrical about our sporting prowess or our special gift for music.

But what music? In most West European countries, classical music would be the form of choice when it comes to exemplifying or displaying the national culture. For a variety of reasons, this is not the case with Ireland. It first belonged to the Ascendancy, who were little concerned to spread its charms among the populace in general. The period when it began to implant itself in the cities and towns was a low point for creativity in Britain, so that both composers and musicians had to be imported. An impoverished peasantry did not have access to the music, nor could they have afforded to pursue an interest in the music. The gradual evangelisation that took place in industrial Britain was slower to take place in Ireland, retarded by a (semi-)colonial power structure, famine, emigration, language-shift, political and sectarian division, class prejudice and resentment, and an imported utilitarian education system that could find no use for the music of Ireland itself.

However these and other factors are weighed, the result was that Irish musical culture in the towns and cities retained many of the characteristics and tastes of the early nineteenth century: celebrity concerts, adaptations (or massacrings) of the composer’s intentions, light opera, parlour songs and sentimental ballads, a Garvey calling himself Garbois because a foreign name was more prestigious, a weak critical culture, much activity but little durable creativity, and so on. The prolonged failure to grant Home Rule led to cultural polarisation and further narrowed the base on which classical culture could be built in the new state. Orchestrations and adaptations of traditional dance and melody would provide a kind of pre-Aosdána support-system for composers, but it was a nineteenth-century solution to a twentieth-century creative dilemma, with musically trite results.

It is only in this context that the excitement over Ó Riada’s film music in the 1960s makes sense. Previous orchestral adaptations of traditional melody had been sweet or airy or even condescending: the music for Mise Éire was felt to be respectful of the source on which it drew; it seemed to project pride as well as pain. But that was as much of an Irish Finlandia as Ó Riada would provide in the classical idiom. Ó Riada’s Irish persona would be articulated through Ceoltóiri Chualann. If no Irish Sibelius had emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, the complication of national feeling caused by the Troubles in the North would ensure that none would now emerge.

The creative composers who have emerged since the 1960s have simply left that question behind; the intelligent strategy for them is to interpret the absence of a continuous tradition or history as an invitation to freedom, but it has left them with the need to create an audience as well as a music – and with little organic connection to society. They cannot therefore be easily appropriated for the purpose of enhancing the image of the country. From the point of view of many in the classical world, this is a tale of almost unrelieved woe. The tendency is to assign all blame to external factors, and to nationalism or traditional music in particular.

There is often a lack of respect for the creative resources, the social function and the satisfactions of traditional music. There is also a mis-reading of the historical place of that music even in nationalist culture. It is forgotten how imbued with class and cultural prejudice many of those involved in promoting traditional music a century ago were: the raw material provided by untutored peasants had to be handled with care; it had to be refined, regularised, arranged and besuited before it could be seen in polite company. The great traditional musicians of the thirties and forties were not held in high regard and honoured within Irish society. And yet, none of the other forms of music that have faded, briefly sprouted or flourished – encompassing Dana and the Virgin Prunes, showbands and boybands, Van Morrison and the Undertones, U2 and Repetitive Strain Industries – could play the same showcase role that Irish traditional music does today, though some individuals can do so when they graduate to the elder statesperson role or prove themselves safe. It is the traditional musicians and groups who can be projected as musical ambassadors for their country; they have almost exclusive claim to the musician’s seat at cultural festivals and conferences abroad, as Raymond Deane has gently pointed out in these pages; they are heard around the world and in contexts and combinations undreamt of forty or fifty years ago; and they are gradually taking their place in our educational institutions. Is all well with the world then? From kitchen to parlour to reception-room – is this the happy note on which a long journey through Irish society ends? Without calling a halt to the party, it may be time to return to the question asked earlier in this article. How is it that music so rooted in an earlier society has become an unavoidable part of the sound-track to the new globalising Irish world?

A life or a life-style?
In other words, how has this particular transmission system managed to survive and adapt where others have gone crashing or are hollow forms without substance? Is it only the perception of the music that has changed or has the music itself changed radically?

Traditional music is not a living relic of the past. In Cúil Aodha, Sliabh Luachra and even in Dublin, it provides a channel for pleasure in the company of others, for individual expression within an inherited language. Like the GAA and the amateur drama movement, it also brings the generations together.

This is the kind of sociability – and the musical value-system – overheard rather than flaunted in, for example, the music of Hammy Hamilton, Séamus Creagh and Con Ó Drisceoil on the recording It’s No Secret. But it is with the more public face of the music that we are concerned here. The players are familiar with the forms and traditions of other countries, and feel increasingly free to draw on them. They love their music but they know that they are in the market with a product to sell and an image to project. They have managers, they make deals, they travel the world. They insist on high standards when they record and know how best to present the music. Some of them (like Martin Hayes in these pages recently) articulate fully developed philosophies around the practice of the music. Somehow, traditional music has managed a feat which few other Irish sub-cultures or social forms have done: it has become part of the new global economy and culture without erasing its past.

A lingering doubt remains, however. Those who have lost a deep religious faith can be among the most critical of change within the church that they have left. Singing and music were at the heart of the social activities that brought my parents together in the 1940s as teachers in Co. Tipperary. Their interest in traditional music and in the Irish language was a matter of choice rather than of inheritance. Later, in suburban Cork, singing and music of various kinds were a normal part of life. The records of musicians like Leo Rowsome, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Séamus Tansey, Darach Ó Catháin, the McPeakes, Seán Ó Riada, the early Chieftains and na Filí were treasured.

After some years of puzzlement at my father’s addiction to the monotonous drone of Joe Heaney, I woke to a realisation of the incomparable depths that were reached by that stony voice. I have probably inherited my father’s taste for solo singing and a preference – with a few dramatic exceptions – for solo or small-group playing that allows the individual voice and instrument to be heard. I have also inherited a taste for songs of loss, longing, heartache and dignity in defeat. It is in these and the slow airs that relate to them that the music is grounded, emotionally and historically, present even as the emotional bedrock underlying the happier, faster, more sociable forms of music.

I am only a part-time member of the world of traditional music and have become a musical magpie, listening to anything from small-group improv and jazz to the flamenco sean-nós of La Nina de Los Peines. I may well have missed some of the finest recordings of traditional music of recent years. I cannot help feeling, however, that, in the process of adapting itself to a changing world, the music has lost some of its emotional power and variety. When I listen to Séamus Ennis or Leo Rowsome playing the full range of the music in all its forms, it seems that the player has total belief in the musical language he is using: he is speaking both as a member of a historical and cultural community and as an individual able to express his individuality and human experience within the inherited language.

There is nothing mystical or racial or genetic or specifically Irish about this: whatever the art in question – and we could be talking as much about Gerald Barry as about Willie Clancy – the work will be affected by the completeness with which the artist invests in it. The question must then arise: to what extent do today’s traditional musicians believe that they are fully expressing themselves through the music that they practise? Are they expressing a life or a life-style?

The price of happiness?
Reels, Jigs, Reels, Jigs, Reels, Jigs, Hornpipe, Jigs, Jigs, Reels, Air, Jigs, Reels, Reels, Slip Jigs, Reels: that’s the running order of the tunes on The Wind Among the Reeds, a CD that came to hand as I was writing this piece. Tommy Keane on the pipes and Jacqueline McCarthy on the concertina (accompanied by Alec Finn on bouzouki and guitar) play an attractive selection of tunes in a relaxed, flowing style. The notes are concise and informative, the design attractive. The CD was issued in New York in 1996 by Kells Music – Keeping the Tradition Alive. I would quite happily wander down the road to hear these musicians play. I might put the CD on from time to time – the accompaniment is discreet, there is no Olympic-style race to the finishing-line and there is no pseudo-Celtic nonsense in sight; we are also allowed to hear the individual qualities of the players. What strikes me, however, is the fact that practically all the tunes are jigs and reels (when the instruments in question would lend themselves to far greater variety of tempo and texture) and that only a single slow air is included.

I pick up Reprise/Athchuairt, which brings together two fine musicians, Paddy Glackin and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. Here there are slides and hornpipes as well as jigs and reels – and two slow airs. Admittedly, there are some melancholy songs from Mícheal Ó Domhnaill, but it is the duty of any musician who can play airs as wonderfully as Glackin can to insist that singers, dancers, producers, marketing specialists and any other inhabitants of the music world should get out of the way and leave him space and time to play a few more untrammelled airs.

What fear lies behind the fact that on so many so-called solo albums the musician must be surrounded by half-a-dozen accompanists, reducing rhythmic flexibility and pushing the music towards blandness? How many more sub-Bothy Bands do we need? Can the big groups still recognise the difference between a slow air and a schmaltzy television sound-track? Wouldn’t the sweet torpor induced by the arrangements of the songs on Altan’s Another Sky – gentle breaks from the high-energy jigging and reeling – be better experienced in a warm bath? Can there be forgiveness for the sin of persistently losing Dermot Byrne’s exquisite touch in massed dashes towards mechanical ecstasy? The long-standing, lucrative underuse of talent by a group like the Chieftains is understandable, and the fine musicians locked into that enterprise can emerge from time to time to show what they are really capable of, but will the Chieftains of the future have individual voices to develop?

There are of course recordings by Neil Mulligan, Ronan Browne and various others where both the air and the whole range of the repertoire get their due. A singer like Maighréad Ni Dhómhnaill can stop you in your tracks, no matter what the musical context. There is still something in the best traditional music that distinguishes it from middle-of-the-road trad-pop, or allegedly mystical, pseudo-Celtic Anúnism, or the sweet, orchestrated tinkling around the airs on Micheal Ó Suilleabháin’s Templum. If the musicians become fully integrated members of the celebratory, historically amnesiac Ireland of the market-worshippers, however, will their performances carry conviction and will they be able to connect with songs and airs that are grounded in loss and longing? The price of happiness, perhaps.

Published on 1 July 2004

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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