Letters: Music and Nationalism

Dear Editor,

What dreary horror to see Patrick Zuk occupying 30 per cent of a 34-page magazine again (JMI, July/August 2003). In this format the potential wisdom of his words becomes just an unmemorable gripe, however revelatory. His comments were never a review anyway, they are an obsession. Where is the editor? Academic articles normally appear in journals – book size, visually compliant – and of reasonable reading length – 5-8,000 words, maybe more, but if they are longer they run the risk of losing steam and making no impact. At 13,500 words Patrick’s reply is maybe 20 per cent of a full book. Anyway, if the reader of a magazine is faced with the prospect of ten A4 pages of dense text, secretly they will skim-read, or not at all.

As regards the content of the Zuk material, anyone who ‘writes academic’ knows that you can argue black to be white, and with equal conviction the opposite, sometimes by shifting a few commas. It just depends on what you decide to exclude, or omit to include. Patrick is concerned that in scholarship one must ‘go as far as is possible in demonstrating fact’. ‘As far as is possible’ is as precise a concept as ‘a long piece of string’. Truth is that we all know that Douglas Hyde was a nationalist, why wouldn’t he be? Harry White has that absolutely right, so why split hairs?

Patrick’s subjects are probably also right too that the intensity of nineteenth-century Irish nationalist political zealotry in its intellectual, artistic and organisational dimensions did marginalise the potential of Western art music for would-be composers, and indeed audiences, and made it difficult for even the Anglo-Irish to develop it where that was their interest. But while Marie McCarthy’s book Passing it On, and Francis O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels and Musicians evidence that the latter association was not automatically the norm, the politics of the period does appear to have also almost destroyed what we now call ‘traditional’ music – including traditional song (replaced in many mouths by populist Young Ireland balladry), the uilleann pipes (falling victim to technological developments in mass produced free reeds), and live music and singing of all genres themselves (undermined by music hall).

Personally I could take issue with many nuances in Harry White’s book The Keepers’ Recital which have been unchallenged by Patrick Zuk. Such potential suggests that the book has been hugely successful, by being provocative, and possibly has generated more discussion and comment than most other works on music in Ireland. But how many of those who have read Patrick Zuk’s denouements have not got round to reading the original book? Massive reviews are unfair. They become a smokescreen, and divert from the point of reviewing by placing the ego of the reviewer centre stage. If one has so much to say ‘agin’ the subject matter, why not write one’s own book and get the chance to state it all positively, accountably, with proper explanation and in a readable format? For no matter how many words, the criticism is soon forgotten, but the book persists. Harry White is objectively right about Hyde, and probably Annie Patterson too, so far as it is possible to deduce from ‘demonstrable fact’. For between those lines there has got to be some ear given to popular assumption and to common sense, much of these collectively shaped from historical knowledge. Dev very likely never did speak of ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’ – but he is confidently quoted that way all the time because we know that that’s what he meant.

Fintan Vallely
Music Department
Dundalk IT
Co. Louth

Published on 1 November 2003

Fintan Vallely lectures in traditional music at Dundalk Institute of Technology. He is author of several biographical and ethnographic books on the music, and is editor of the A-Z reference work Companion to Irish Traditional Music.

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