After the Fianna: Reality and Perceptions of Traditional Singing in Ireland

 Tom Munnelly 

After the Fianna: Reality and Perceptions of Traditional Singing in Ireland

Collector Tom Munnelly assesses the state of Irish traditional singing today.

What shock I felt none could report,
To see the court of Finn of the steeds
A ruin lone, all overgrown
With nettles and thorns and rankest weeds.

Oisín in the Land of Youth [1]

Much of what is popularly believed to be traditional singing today can no longer be accurately categorised as such in any manner that would be recognisable to folksong scholars of the last century. This is not a purist/contemporary argument, it is a matter of definition and precision within definition. What I have been searching for and collecting for the last thirty-six years has been folk music, music that was coloured by the traditions and the social circumstances from which it sprang. Quite literally, ‘the voice of the people’. Social circumstances change, folk traditions evolve and mutate. They have to or die. Perhaps the milieu wherein songs that have been sung for centuries has now reached a terminal stage, in which they can no longer speak to the people who gave them birth because they are no longer relevant to them? Maybe it would be no harm to let them die a natural death and move on to the next stage?

However, I feel there are, even yet, enough people who are interested in folk song to be interested enough to listen to what these songs are saying, to be concerned, not as preservationists, but as conduits through whom the ancient streams of tradition run naturally. In this article I want to address the fact that a very considerable number of people who were born within, or found access to, the tradition of singing in Ireland, are losing sight of, or never find, their traditional roots. With constant exposure to electronic media such erosion is of course totally to be expected. A song tradition, which came as naturally as the air they breathed to some people born into certain geographic areas and particular dynasties, has now to be searched for by even these people. An active tradition has now become a passive one with very few exceptions. So, in practically all of our cases, we need reminding of this tradition, because we are less and less likely to encounter it in the social circumstances in which it evolved.

This reminding process does not involve us wearing green waistcoats, knee breeches and buckled shoes. This Darby O’Gillism, beloved of Comhaltas and Jury’s Cabaret, plays no constructive part in recalling our traditions, but a significant role in the eradication of the genuine and replacing it with pap. It is so much the sadder when it involves so many fine musicians and singers who are asked to perform like leprechauns.

There have always been different strata in the songs we sing. A cast system, if you like, that differentiated between song and poetry that could be termed high art, and the poetry of the folk that could be termed popular art. Occasionally one could achieve the status of the other; a piece of bardic, minstrel or court poetry could pass into oral tradition. Conversely a traditional song, ‘Dónal Óg’ for instance, could reach a plane of rarefied beauty equal to that of any lettered or sophisticated poet. But generally speaking the bardic or formal poet was conscious of writing above the heads of the rabble. Poets like Daibhi Ó Bruadar were contemptuous of poets like Eóin Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin who wrote in amhrán metre, the metre of the kitchen rather than the hall.

In England and Europe, from the seventeenth century on, there was a fashion for the aristocracy to play at being rural. Lords and ladies, even kings and queens, would play at being shepherds and shepherdesses, usually named Colin and Phoebe, and dance around singing their merry little country ditty, which had probably been composed by their court composer the week before. This fashion persisted for an extremely long time, reaching its apex in London’s Vauxhall Gardens. If you go through the many hundreds of songs in such collections as Thomas D’Urfreys delightfully named Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-20), and Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Time Miscellany (1724-37) you will encounter a lot of songs like the following:

How Blest are the Shepherds, how happy their lasses,
While Drums and Trumpets are sounding Alarms!
Over our lowly sheds all the Storms passes,
And when we Die, ‘tis in each other’s Arms:
All the Day on our Herds and Flocks employing,
All the Nights on our Flutes, and in enjoying!

As writers like Sheridan, Farquhar and Edgeworth reminded us consistently, the upper classes in Ireland strove tirelessly to imitate the fashions and fads of London and Paris.

The Dublin and London drawing rooms of the early nineteenth century found a glittering star in a young Dublin lawyer, Thomas Moore. Moore had published a number of volumes of verse that had been received indifferently, but as a socialite he was a great success in British drawing rooms. His friend, Lord Byron, famously remarked, ‘Tommy loves a lord’. In fairness to Moore, it would seem that this love was frequently reciprocated. In 1807 he published his first volume of his Irish Melodies, which he continued to bring out in parts until 1834. Paradoxically, Moore never wrote a melody in his life. He certainly wrote verse, but his music he pilfered from published sources and from Edward Bunting in particular.

The merit of Moore’s poetry I find difficult to comprehend, but the songs certainly had some beautiful (borrowed) airs. These helped in no small way to bring about the phenomenal popularity of the songs. They were also seen as being nationalistic. How then were they so popular among the British and Irish establishment? This may be understood by casting an eye on his song titles: ‘The Harp that Once through Tara’s Halls’, ‘Let Erin Remember’; ‘Oh, Where is the Slave so Lowly’, ‘Remember the Glories of Brian the Brave’, and many more.

This was a very safe romantic nationalism, the lamentation of slaves for the days before bondage. The frequent references to battles were to battles fought and lost. The concept of future battles and possible victory never arose. These songs are safely supine and no threat to the establishment that praised them for representing the very essence of Hibernian spirit.

The point here is that the perception of Moore’s melodies as being the embodiment of Irish song was widespread for generations. When Breandán Breatnach petitioned the Department of Education in the 1960s to begin collecting Irish music, he had to get past one high official who asked him what was the point of such a collection when Tom Moore had done it already?! This may be an extreme example, but it illustrates a point I will be returning to: from as far back as one may find documentation, there are two streams – the actual tradition and the popularly perceived tradition. There can be fairly gaping chasms between the two.

On the subject of Moore’s Melodies, the late Liam de Paor wrote: ‘The green bound volume, with its slightly tarnished stamped gilt lettering and patriotic devices, seemed in my early childhood to be the very essence of the Irishness of Ireland. It was opened after tea when aunts and uncles came to visit. They gathered round the piano to play and sing, not Moore alone of course, since the repertoire included a variety of popular drawing room sings.’[3] Such scenes were reproduced in thousands of middle-class Irish homes for more than a century.

Parlour songs drew heavily on sentiment, and we are all prey to emotion at some level. The melancholy generated by such songs as ‘Oft in the stilly night’ is captured well in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when the young Stephen Dedalus returns home to his extremely impoverished family:

‘The voice of his youngest brother began to sing the air of “Oft in the Stilly Night”. One by one the others took up the air until a full choir of voices was singing. They would sing so for hours, melody after melody, glee after glee, till the last pale light died down on the horizon, till the first dark night clouds came forth and night fell.

‘He waited for some moments, listening, before he too took up the air with them. He was listening with pain of spirit to the overtone of weariness behind their frail fresh innocent voices. Even before they set out on life’s journey they seemed weary already of the way.’ [4]

We have in James Joyce an extremely observant reporter on the role of songs as part of the everyday life of the people of Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular. ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ runs through his magnificent story ‘The Dead’ like a Wagnarian leitmotiv. The ‘Ithaca’ chapter of Ulysses not only gives us a version of the medieval ballad, ‘The Jews’s Daughter,’ here called ‘Little Harry Hughes’, it even gives us the full staff notation.

Ulysses alone contains hundreds of song references. Central to the ‘Sirens episode is an afternoon singing session around the piano in the lounge of the Ormond Hotel. Moore figures prominently of course; among his songs sung or referred to are ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘How Sweet the Answer Echo Makes’, and ‘The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls’. Dozens more appear throughout the book. The Sirens session gives us an idea of just how broad a repertoire was to be found among middle class Dubliners in 1906. Arias from operas such as Martha, Don Giovanni and The Rose of Castille rub shoulders with folksongs like ‘Irish Molly O’ and ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’. Parlour songs like ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ and ‘The Lost Chord’ alternate with songs from the pen of The Nation poets like ‘The Memory of the Dead’, ‘The Men of the West’ and ‘The Boys of Wexford’. The star song of the episode – as sung by Ben Dollard in his ‘Bass barreltone’ – is ‘The Croppy Boy’, by Carrol Malone. This song, ‘Good men and true in this house who dwell’, in which a young Croppy confesses to a yeoman disguised as a priest in the confessional, repeatedly reminds Leopold Bloom of Molly’s betrayal of him with Blazes Boylan.

The repertoire of urban singers a hundred years ago was a complete mixem gatherem of songs from all strata. Did the same thing apply to rural singers who would not have had such immediate access to the products of the music and concert halls? In my experience the answer would be yes, particularly in the case of English speakers. For obvious reasons the dilution of the Irish-language repertoire would have been minimal in the case of monoglot singers. In the case of bilingual singers, however, most of them absorbed songs in English and very few were particular about their source. If they considered the song to be good, that was enough.

In saying that such singers were omnivorous, this is not to say that they were not selective in their choice of repertoire, for the songs they chose would frequently fit into the ethos of the local tradition, if not immediately, then by a process of musical evolution.

In its simplest definition, a folksong is a song composed within the community who sing it, and is passed on only by oral transmission. The great American ballad scholar, Francis James Child, had great difficulty in accepting the printed media as a form of transmission, and made the celebrated observation that the vast majority of broadsheets were ‘a veritable dunghill, where, after a sickening amount of grubbing a moderate jewel may occasionally be found.’ Realistically, of course, the process of song and music transmission moved on, collecting debris from many sources. Though oral transmission may have continued among some singers (mainly rural and/or specific groups like Irish speakers or travellers), on the whole methods of transmission changed irrevocably with the spread of literacy, and even more importantly, with the introduction of the gramophone, the radio, and the other electronic media that were to follow.

It was not only scholars who were loath to leave the Arcadian Utopia and ignore the spread of modern media. We are all familiar with singers who like you to think that they learned a song from an Old Gummy Granny (to use Joyce’s term) when in fact they got it from a Pentangle CD. Unfortunately their regard for the song’s bucolic origins frequently stop there. The alleged respect for its traditional source and its ostensible rarity is used as a form of one-upmanship that often does not carry over into a simultaneous esteem for the style and techniques of the source singer where there is one.

In 1971 I recorded Hugh Clare in Liscannor in County Clare. That was the first time I ever encountered the songs ‘The Highwayman Outwitted’, ‘The Green Volunteers’, ‘St Brigid’s Well’ and other songs I was not then familiar with. I had been told that Hugh was ‘a great man for songs’ by a number of local people before I visited him. They were right. Unfortunately, he was also in the terminal stages of throat cancer by the time I got to him. But if Hugh was long past being able to sing tunefully, he still loved his songs and was respected by his peers as a song carrier. I was reminded of Bell Robertson, the source from whom the great Scottish collector, Gavin Greig, got the largest amount of songs and the finest ballad texts. And she could not sing at all! She could only recite her songs to him. Most importantly, like Mrs Robertson, Hugh Clare considered his songs to be important and was very anxious that they be preserved.

There is a form of song among the Sami people of Lapland that is called a yoik, in which you actually sing an individual. The song does not only describe the person in question. To the singer the song is the person. It is not a concept we find in other European traditions as far as I know, but one may draw an analogy with singers like Hugh for whom the songs were so important that, in a manner of speaking, the songs and the singer were inseparable. On two occasions, separated by several years and many miles, I was told independently by people from whom I was collecting, ‘I have always been poor and I’ll probably die poor. The only thing I am rich in is songs, and I am glad I can pass them on.’

This was not a matter of humility in having nothing for posterity. It was a matter of pride, an awareness that they had something that they valued highly, and were glad to bequeath it so others could appreciate their value.

Joe Mikey McMahon from Creevagh, near Mullagh, also in Clare, had a splendid singing style. He also demonstrated the process of ‘melting into the song’ common with older singers. In his singing he was engaged in presenting the song to the listener. He is not engaged in presenting himself’ to his audience. This difference between objective and subjective presentation is one of the major differences between the older traditional singers and many people who sing traditional songs today.

Within the very broad range of Irish song you will get a kaleidoscope of very many colours. Of the Connemara singers, most aficionados will be familiar with the stunningly beautiful singing of Josie Sheain Jeaic and Johnny Mhairtin Learaí. Connemara remains blessed with probably more good singers per square mile than anywhere else in the country. Joe Heaney set a benchmark for singers in Irish and English in his recordings from 1947 right up to his demise. There is an extremely important lesson for all singers to be gained in listening to his later recordings. Joe Heaney was not only a true artist, he was also very conscious of his art .Those of you who think that traditional singers acquire their art in their genes or by osmosis should read the Heaney /Ewan McColl interview on the Musical Traditions page on the Internet.

Other splendid Connemara singers familiar to many would include the late Cáitlín Maude, Máire Áine Ní Donncha and Sean Ach Donnacha. Also particularly accomplished was Sorcha Ní Ghuarim, who may be less well-known because of inaccessibility of her recordings. Fortunately, Ríonach uí Ógáin is working on putting out a CD and biography of Ní Ghuarim in the near future. An uncle of Ríonach’s, the late Vail Ó Flathartaigh of Carraroe, was a prodigiously talented singer. Vail singing a single verse of ‘Róisin Dubh’ is more eloquent than a thousand words in describing what exactly is meant by sean-nós. [5]

Here we have a singing style that is very venerable, but there is more to it than that; there is a focus that demands intense concentration by the listener. The singer may not give in to expressing emotion through dynamics or histrionics, nevertheless the very timbre of the performance draws an emotional response from the listener. They have found what would be called in Appalachia, ‘the high lonesome sound’. Sarah Makem of Keady had it, and Robert Cinnamond of Glenavy had it by the barrowful.

Does anyone sing like them now? (I do not mean merely to imitate them, but to carry in their singing the layers of tradition that informs the repertoire). There are some I would regard as being informed at this level, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin of Mullaghbawn, for instance, who reproduces the sound of the old singers of Oriel with a proselytising passion. But is she is like Oisín after the Fianna, in that the social milieu for such singing no longer exists, and she is telling contemporary listeners of the beauties of yesteryear? Lillis Ó Laoire’s enthusiasm for the comparatively unknown Donegal Gaelic repertoire has opened many people’s ears to the song lore of that county and, I am sure, helped many listeners to discover a world beyond Clannad. Other people whose enthusiasms for particular areas have produced remarkable results has been Sean Corcoran’s work in Co. Louth and Jimmy McBride in Inishowen. Having done a substantial amount of work myself in County Clare over the years I can say with some confidence that what we all have in common is an ongoing ardour for styles and repertoires whose relevance is being lost sight of. But we are not, like Tom Moore, crying into our harps and keening over the good old days, which are lost forever (for very few of us would willingly embrace the hardships which most of the previous generations of singers lived through). We do not see these songs as having only a relevance in relation to the past. For us they are for now. The past is a river that bears these songs to our shore today, but the river still flows. If the historical or antiquarian aspects of the old repertoire adds sauce to the goose, well and good, but the main key to the enjoyment of these songs is to take them as entertainment. They may be didactic, humorous, dramatic, moralistic or sentimental as well, but it is as entertainment that they live.

Outside of media and commercial pressures, which have altered and diluted the tradition, there is another source that has been detrimental overall to traditional song, a source that may perhaps surprise some not familiar with this form of singing in general. It has been my experience that Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann have been an extremely destructive force in relation to traditional song in the last half century. For a very long time its adjudicators at local fleadhanna were the local teacher, priest, or other local luminaries, irrespective of whether they had the least iota of knowledge on the art on which they were pontificating. In many cases the ignorance of these adjudicators was profound. A manual Comhaltas printed to help such adjudicators, Notaí do Mholtóirl, á cur amach ag an Ard Comhairle, adds little illumination. Relating to the adjudication of singing competitions we are informed that ‘Songs are composed of words’. One despairs to think that anyone in a position of adjudicating competitions would need to be told that! We are then informed that:

(A) The song or songs must be traditional. 

(B) The style of singing must be traditional.

Not bad advice for adjudicating a traditional singing competition! It goes on to help those adjudicators who still don’t know the difference between traditional singing and Screaming Lord Such: ‘It is appropriate, even imperative, to discuss the old question often asked: What is traditional singing? Adjudicators ought never demur at, or evade this question. Rather, adjudicators ought to equip themselves to answer this and other questions … While on this point … one feels constrained to instance a very apt explanation given in adjudication many years ago by a very competent adjudicator. Adjudicating Amhránaíocht at an (sic) Sean-Nós at Feis Cheoil An Iarthair, he said: “Ni féidir liom a rá ceard é an sean-nós ach aithním é nuair a chloisim é.” Translated this means: “I cannot say what traditional singing is, but I recognise it when I hear it.” Though not in itself, perhaps, a satisfactory definition, this is a novel, and in a sense, satisfying explanation.’

On the tune or melody:

‘This, so to speak, is the garment in which the words of the song are clothed. While performing, the singer is in effect wearing or donning that mantle. It follows that he or she should wear it suitably, and artistically.’

On choice of song:

‘Nor is it uncommon to find lady-competitors singing songs which are in subject and sentiment more suitable for men. The reverse is equally common. Where necessary, adjudicators should advise, and so educate, competitors in this regard.’ (My italics.)

There is more of this patronising old guff, but this will suffice.

The influence of Comhaltas on song has been wielded, for the most part, through these singing competitions. Although the competitions for singing in English are entitled ‘Ballad Singing’ there is no requirement that any of the songs performed be narratives, and most judges clearly do not understand that this is a necessity with such songs. The songs favoured by the judges are romantic and patriotic songs, and, more often than not, a very solemn delivery is preferred. On the odd occasion when a misguided singer, who is not wise in the ways of Comhaltas, sings a genuine ballad like ‘The Holland Handkerchief’ or ‘Lord Bateman’ their efforts are immediately filed under ‘Burn everything British but their coal!’ The actual tradition of ballad singing, which has a very ancient repertoire and vibrant life in Ireland, is a field either totally unknown or mistrusted by Comhaltas, who look on it as a product of perfidious Albion that may in some way corrupt our pure Celtic spirit.

Unfortunately, most people, not being song specialists, assume that these gurus know what they are talking about when they disparage such songs. Their remarks are taken seriously by the innocent competitors who deliver themselves into their hands. Most older singers have, quite understandably, abandoned the practice of entering such competitions. Some singers like Frank Harte, Máire Ní Cheillachar or Jim McFarland, have had enough self assurance to make it through the competitions without being affected by their deadening influence. Many more, however, learned to abandon or modify genuine aspects of their singing tradition in order to please the adjudicators they found themselves before. It is in the nature of singing competitions that competitors soon become adept at adopting their performance to suit the prejudices of the adjudicator. The end result of this was, and is, a hybrid house style favoured by Comhaltas, po-faced, precisely enunciated, using non-traditional techniques like swelling and vibrato, and generally soulless.

Indubitably, there have been many fine exceptions, like those named above. And at the English singing competition in Enniscorthy last year, Róisín White, a fine Armagh singer and knowledgeable with it, was one of the adjudicators. But these swallows are far too few to make a summer. The fact that these competitions are seen as irrelevant by the majority of senior performers today, and .that very few singers of any stature enter them, is small comfort, for far too much damage has already been done. And yes, I am also aware that, as well as some individual performers, there are likewise some local branches within the organisation who are honourable exceptions, particularly in the field of instrumental music. Nevertheless, in relation to song, my remarks remain valid regarding the organisation in general.

Much of what passes for traditional singing today is merely transient fashion. Of course, we are all influenced by fashions and fads and traditional singers are no different. What is different within the last half century is the recognition of that tradition as a saleable commodity and deliberate attempts at deconstructing and reconstructing it. To quote Donal Lunny: ‘In the final analysis … formal structures in Irish music must be changed to accommodate changing sensibilities.’[6] We have arrived at a stage where leaders of opinion feel that the tradition must be deliberately moulded to cater for individual and/or commercial perceptions. This mind-set would seem to believe that musical evolution is a matter of individual and boardroom decisions rather than natural selection.

In an interview in Irish Music magazine in October 1997, the well-known West Cork singer, larla Ó Lionáird, said: ‘My grand-aunt Elizabeth Cronin was also a noted singer better known to archivists than anyone else … From my childhood it became apparent I could sing like her without the slightest prompting.’

This is the opinion of a young, intelligent and very articulate singer. Allowing that he was emphasising his own genius rather than dismissing his grand-aunt’s ability, he still seems to miss a very important point. To think that one could sing like Mrs Cronin as a child would seem to miss the raison d ‘etre of her singing, to look at a deep running river and see only the reflection on its surface. Her songs are informed not only by a beautiful voice, an impeccable technique, and an extensive and varied repertoire; what one hears behind every note is experience. Once again we are hearing the song as part of a person, not a superficial appendage. No child can comprehend this, and for an adult not to realise it is to see the world of song in an extremely one dimensional manner.

Ó Lionáird’s quote is used here because it appeared in print and can consequently be validated. However, he is not to be singled out as alone voice among today’s younger singers, rather he may be considered to be representative of very many of them. In my opinion, formed after almost four decades of listening closely to traditional singers, the biggest factor separating younger singers from their older peers is their change of focus.

Traditional singing is an art of intimate communication, not public declaration. The kitchen not the concert hall is its natural milieu, and the location wherein it evolved. You could say that times have changed and people no longer utilise the kitchen as a significant point for singing activity, the pub and the concert venue having replaced it. And you would be right to a large extent, but more important to the continuity of the tradition than its physical location is the maintenance of its ethos.

A great deal of singers whom I have recorded over the years would appear to have been just as relaxed performing in the National Concert Hall as they were at their own fireside. Of Clare singers alone, one could truthfully say that, with Tom Lenihan, Katie Droney, Martin Reidy, and others of their generation, it mattered not where they were singing, they gave the impression they felt they were sitting in their own kitchens, even when performing in front of a large and strange audience. Whether such situations actually did effect their performance is a factor to be considered.

My conclusion must be that, at least in part of their consciousness, such singers are not only aware of their surroundings, but adapt their performances to suit it. There is no truer art than that which conceals itself. Micho Russell, Tom Lenihan, Straighty Flanagan (to mention just three Claremen whom I recorded and knew fairly well), all had this lack of stage-fright in common. Performing in front of an audience did not diminish their performances, it frequently enhanced it. Pub and stage performances by traditional musicians are not always to be considered as being inferior to domestic performances. In many cases they may in fact be superior because there is an ‘edge’ created by the tension of a more public performance that can be lacking in everyday circumstances.

When Geordie Hanna or Sarah Ann, Eddie Butcher or Maggie Chambers, stands or stood in front of a formal audience rather than a group of neighbours or friends, their casualness was not because they are different to you and I and felt no sense of intimidation. Of course they were aware of their audience, but in projecting the feel of a domestic situation into a formal gathering they were maintaining the ethos of their art as they learned it. They kept the original focus, a considerable artistic feat in itself.

Regarding focus, traditional singers projected their songs to their listeners, not to themselves. They were the vehicle through which the song flowed to be shared with their audience. The song was the star, not the singer. This is not to say they lacked involvement at a personal level with the songs, for they most certainly were deeply absorbed in them. But, even if they would not put it in so many words, they were subservient to their art and maintained an objectivity about it. This required a discipline and an artistic maturity that is lacking in so many cases today. Perhaps because so few singers grow up with the songs nowadays this very important point is missed by so many.

The older singers understood that their listeners wanted to hear about love and war, adventures and wonders, murder and sex, and a thousand other topics. Nevertheless, they also knew that if their listeners wanted to hear about themselves personally, they could always tell them afterwards, over a cup of tea or out on the bog or wherever. The drama was contained in the songs, not in the performance. Many young singers (and quite a few older) cannot grasp this. They project themselves, not the songs. They use devices such as vibrato and dynamics, which are anathema to traditional singing. This rising and lowering of volume to emphasise points in a song suggest a lack of confidence in the song’s ability to do the job itself. Histrionics, which range from shouting to confidential whispering, have no place in tradition. So are accents that are outside the singer’s social and geographic norms. Dubliners do themselves no justice trying to sound like Nic Jones, and June Tabor vocal clones who revert to speaking tones more reminiscent of the Coal Quay are distinctly odd. Most distressing of all, to me, are the singers who enclose themselves in an impenetrable mantle of self-concentration and sing the songs with great emotion – to themselves! They are not uncommon. On listening to them I often feel like tapping them on the shoulder and saying on behalf of the listeners, ‘Can we come in?’

Ultimately, it is up to every individual to sing as they please, but I am talking here about the singing tradition that I have documented for several decades, and want to emphasise that such traits are not usually found in this oral tradition.

To conclude with the theme with which we began, the actual tradition as opposed to the popularly perceived tradition, Oscar Wilde said that it is impossible to underestimate the taste of the masses. This was vividly demonstrated when, in 1988, new depths of vulgarity were plumbed when the highlight of the Dublin Millennium was a concert outside the Bank of [reland featuring Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann musicians combined with James Last! It was also about this time that the mohair suits began to appear on the horizon, and multiply when they saw the commercial possibilities of ‘Celtic Music’. Characters with shades began to supply this new market and milk the Glas Ghoibhneach into the colander of trad-pop. We all began to be smothered in a Celtic Mist, or Enya’s dry ice.

Unfortunately, in 1985, Breandán Breatnach died and with him went Ceol: A Journal of Irish Music, which he had edited since 1963. This left Ireland without any regular journal of any quality devoted to traditional music (Will the JMI fill this need?). In 1995 the magazine Irish Music was launched, which began weakly but with some quality of content and writing. Nowadays it has expanded greatly and become a glossy. Regretfully, for this writer at any rate, it has become almost totally advertisement driven and has little more depth than the fanzines devoted to Boyzone or Oasis. But I am sure it reflects Celtic Trad showbiz as seen by the marketing companies who want a slice of the action. They will of course disappear like snow on a ditch when they identify newer or more lucrative fads.

The biggest single gathering of traditional singers continues to be the annual Oireachtas, which concentrates on singing in Irish and is fiercely competitive. On a more informal (though frequently educational) level, the social needs of traditional singers in Ireland today are catered by such non-competitive singing festivals as Ballyliffan, Ennistymon, Mullaghbawn and Sean-nós Cois Life. Dublin’s Góilín traditional singing club is the longest continuously running such club in Ireland. Newer clubs have emerged in Cork, Ennis, Nenagh, Roscommon and elsewhere. Gatherings like these, welcome though they are, are specialised by their nature and do not greatly affect the communities in which they are held or have a widespread interest among those outside of the already initiated.

In the popular media traditional singing hardly exists. The most striking exception is Raidió na Gaeltachta, which features traditional singers frequently and are to be complimented for doing so. Unfortunately they persist with the silly rule that songs may be sung in any language except English. How Sarah Makem or Eddie Butcher’s singing can be considered more detrimental to an Irish language ethos than say, Alan Stivell or Capercaillie, is beyond me. Nevertheless, they play more traditional song than any other Irish radio station. In relation to television, the same may be said of TG4. RTÉ Radio 1 has some traditional singing, but very little. This is also true for most local radio stations, Clare Radio being an intermittent exception. With regard to the other main television and radio stations, forget about it. Anyone coming to, or already interested in traditional singing, will find little to detain them there. If you have not had the good fortune to hear the older singers, your chances of doing so diminish daily as we lose them, and their songs become more and more irrelevant to a commercially driven media.

In summary, I have given a resume of some of the forces for change and evolution in traditional singing over the last couple of centuries. The changes within the last century have been the most dramatic. I have suggested that, with many singers today, the search for novelty and celebrity has resulted in a superficial comprehension of the tradition that has often blinded them to its real depths. With the constant intrusion of commercial interests in the world of Irish music and song today, direct access to the genuine article is more difficult. But not all the Fianna are gone, and a considerable number of adherents to the genuine tradition, young and old, can still be heard. It is imperative that we listen to these and give them the respect to which they are entitled. The more we listen, the more we learn. This is an agreeable rather than onerous task. Like any act, the more we learn about it the more pleasure we get from it. We may not have the numbers of singers we had in the past, but there have never been so many recordings available from which we may listen, learn and enjoy. If we add to this the vast amount of materials available in archives and other sources, there is no need to feel that all is lost. There is enough still available to keep us mentally and vocally busy for our lifetimes, or at least until our turn comes to meet up with the Fianna again.

1. Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover, Ancient Irish Tales rpr. Dublin 1969, p.454.
2. Thomas D’Urfrey, Wil and Mirth: or pills to Purge Melancholy, Reprint by Folklore Library Publishers, Inc. (New York, 1959), vol.III, p291.
3. Tom Moore and Contemporary Ireland, Sean Ó Riada Memorial Lecture. Pamphlet published by The Irish Traditional Music Society. University College Cork, 1989, p. I.
4. op. cit. Penguin Modern Classics edition (London, 1970), p. 164.
5. Transcribed by Ríonach uí Ógáin and Jackie Small. Published with the permission of the Head of the Department of Irish Folklore, UCD. Vail can be heard singing this on his LP Bláth na nAirní, Claddagh Records, CC45 (Dublin, 1987)
6. The Irish Times, 2 April 1996.

This is a version of a talk given at the Slieve Gullion Feslival of Traditional Singing, Mullaghbawn, County Armagh, 7 October 2000. The original talk contained many recordings used to illustrate points under discussion.

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 2 (Jan–Feb 2001), pp. 18–24.

Published on 1 January 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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