Two Book Reviews – Adam Kaul

Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives

Martin Dowling
UK: Ashgate, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4094-3510-5

Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond

Mark Fitzgerald and John O’Flynn (eds.)
UK: Ashgate 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4724-0968-3

Ashgate Press recently added two ambitious books to its already robust collection on Irish music. In many ways they are very different from one another. Martin Dowling’s Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives is a monograph that drills deeply into the complexities of Irish history, focusing particularly on the evolution and social construction of traditional Irish music over the course of several centuries. The rich contextual approach in Dowling’s book immerses the reader in the incredibly multifaceted and changing place that we call Ireland, steeping us in fine-grained detail while simultaneously pulling us along through the broad sweep of history. Of particular note is the attention he pays to class divisions (among many other things). In many contexts, and perhaps even more so in Ireland, the socioeconomic issues surrounding music are too often treated as secondary or tertiary concerns. The other book, edited by Mark Fitzgerald and John O’Flynn entitled Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond, is a collection of essays that purposefully reaches out beyond the geographic confines of Ireland. It includes in its remit the analyses of multiple genres and composers of music, both historic and contemporary, from ‘art music’ to traditional genres, and from orchestral composers to modern popular artists like Morrissey and U2. It also explores a multitude of cultural identities related to music and Ireland (broadly conceived). While Dowling takes an historical approach, Fitzgerald and O’Flynn’s edited volume attempts to incorporate a wide array of disciplinary methodologies, including ethnography, history, sociology, and musicology. As such, one books tells a single, historical story about music in Ireland, albeit one that is highly dynamic, complex, and inclusive of many points of view. The other book tells multiple stories. Despite these key differences, there are several shared insights that are most welcome. To name two important themes, both books critically question received definitions of Ireland and Irishness, and also the typical taxonomic (and often hierarchical) categorization of musical genres.

Ireland itself has never been easily defined, and Irishness has never occupied a single cultural space nor coalesced around a singular national state or geography; and yet somehow, Ireland and Irishness are concurrently the common targets of glib and breezy stereotyping. The external romanticisation and demonisation of Ireland and the Irish over the centuries seems to have allowed an imagined monologue to coexist alongside the cacophonous reality. O’Flynn and Fitzgerald address this contradiction head on in the first passage of the introduction to their volume, describing how the hegemonic, “dominant narrative that acts to sustain homogenising representations of Irish people… has consistently been subject to negotiation, contestation, and re-articulation” (1). Dowling does not so blatantly incorporate the question of defining Irishness or Ireland as the core thesis of his book, but by the sheer force of contextual detail across several centuries, across the class divides, and across cultural and national boundaries, he powerfully complicates the simplistic narratives throughout. One cannot but help walk away from both of these works with a far more nuanced conceptualisation of the many Irelands that exist—sometimes versions of Ireland that are ‘hidden’ or ‘hiding’, and also of the diversity of those who might be called Irish both ‘at home’ and abroad.

This reviewer was pleased that the all-too-common but overly simplistic trope pitting the supposed ‘traditional arts’ against ‘high culture’ is problematised in both books as well, and that both take pains to find the fluid connections between genres rather than singling out and sterilising various music(s). Many of the essays in Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond do a very good job of writing against the tendency towards taxonomies and hierarchies. But this is where Dowling’s text in particular really excels. This is in part because the book-length format allows him space to do so, but it also speaks to his nuanced perspective about the history of music in Ireland. In the first three chapters, in which he leads us through “The Eighteenth-Century Inheritance”, the “Foundations of a Modern Tradition”, and “Music in the Revival”, he effortlessly illustrates the connections between the music(s) of the elite and the musical lives of the ‘hidden Irelands’ of the lower classes and the countryside. His ability to deftly weave music into the broader social and economic fabric is exciting. We are introduced to the world of itinerant Irish harpers, buskers at country fairs, quiet house ceilis and boisterous country house dances, and to the fascinating social and musical lives of Anglo-Irish taste-making elites such as Mary Delany who rubbed elbows with the likes of Handel and was a lifelong proponent of opera. All of these characters and social milieus blend and run headlong into one another in Dowling’s account. He correctly leads us to the conclusion that the boundaries between what is ‘art music’ and what is traditional or ‘folk music’ are highly porous. Moreover, central to his project is a laudable “conception of ‘tradition’ as a modern phenomenon” (pg. 11). Many of us who write about music in Ireland have been attempting to break down the supposed dichotomies between modernity and tradition, the folk and the fake, the local and the global, and the authentic and inauthentic. The dissolution of these simplistic binaries is difficult (even, as he points out, for some scholars), but a more nuanced perspective is thankfully gaining steam.

When I approach a substantial historical tome, I sometimes worry that in the quest for more archival documentation, the author will not be able control the desire to lead the reader into thickets of detail where the living, breathing story is quietly suffocated. But happily, Dowling has a knack for using the historian’s craft to turn the flood of useful information into a great narrative. He brings his disciplinary skills to bear on the genealogy of music in Ireland, sometimes tracking down the earliest version of tunes (75-78) and tracing them forward in time, or in one section (190-194) documenting the introduction of particular musical instruments into what we now recognise as ‘traditional Irish music’. We learn not only about music in Ireland, but also a great deal about daily life in Ireland. Because of Dowling’s thorough use of a diverse array of source material and his focus on socioeconomics, we also have the privilege of hearing from the people themselves: letter-writers, Ordnance Survey employees traveling the countryside, or from the minutes of early Feis Ceoil meetings. This is a very human history that lives and breathes. Dowling finishes his book with two interesting chapters, one on “James Joyce and Traditional Song” and an important one on “Traditional Music and the Peace Process”. This brings his book to a close in the contemporary period. Here, history evolves into ethnography as Dowling recounts his own experiences immersing himself in traditional Irish music circles and daily life in Northern Ireland. Dowling makes use of rich personal stories and interviews to chronicle the Troubles through the lens of traditional Irish music.

There is an elegant transition from the end of Martin Dowling’s Traditional Music and Irish Society to the beginning of Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond. Following the introduction, Fitzgerald and O’Flynn’s edited volume begins with a section of six chapters on “Historical Perspectives” (and in fact, the connections between the two books are solidified by the fact that Martin Dowling contributes the second of these chapters, an essay that covers some of the same territory as his chapter on “Music in the Revival” in his own book, although much more briefly here). As they point out in the introductory chapter, this book utilises an inclusive approach that goes well beyond the expected ideas about Irishness to include Britishness, Ulsterness, the formation of diasporic Irish identities abroad, and recently accreted immigrant identities in Ireland. The collection of essays Fitzgerald and O’Flynn have put together in their volume demands a re-examination of the dynamic identity politics in Ireland and the multifaceted expression of Irishness beyond the island.

The first section of the volume includes essays on topics that move the reader chronologically from the 1700s up to the Celtic Tiger era. Boydell points out how inclusive the Anglo-Irish in the eighteenth century were in regard to many forms of music, even ‘traditional’ genres. Music had not yet become seen through the political lens we use today. Dowling takes up this question of the politicisation of music in his chapter on the uses (or the lack thereof) of music in the Revival period. There are also some very interesting passages on the development of the post-Famine ‘culture of surveillance’ here too. The rest of the chapters in the first section analyse ‘art music’ and composers and their fraught relationship with Irishness. Edmund Hunt deals with the largely failed idea of a national school of art music in Ireland. Huss and Fitzgerald’s chapters in turn look at individual composers. Huss delves into the complex attraction to Irishness exhibited by Arnold Bax and E.J. Moeran, while Fitzgerald sets out to document the influences of Frederick May. Finally, in a fascinating essay, Ruth Stanley analyses the early years of broadcasting for BBC Northern Ireland in the years just after the violent partitioning of the island.

The second section of the book does not in fact depart radically from the flow already established by the first six chapters. It begins with McCay’s essay on the composer Kevin O’Connell, which includes substantial interviews with him. Adrian Smith’s chapter on Raymond Deane is an interesting exploration of music and identity in that Deane clearly rejects Irishness in order to fully embrace a more difficult, avant-garde (and iconoclastic) musical and personal identity. Veblen applies a narrative analysis in her comparison of a 1951 Seamus Ennis/Alan Lomax recording and a 1996 studio album by The Afro-Celt Sound System. Next, the inclusion of Isabella van Elferen’s analysis of the music of pop star Morrissey seems surprising on the surface since he has represented a dandyish British identity for so long, but as she effectively illustrates, Morrissey’s multifaceted liminality includes an increasing ambiguity about his Britishness and Irishness. This section ends with an impressive chapter on the aesthetic and cultural transformation of U2 in the late 1980s and early 1990s from a solidly modern and Irish orientation to a postmodern and cosmopolitan one.

The chapters in the third section of the book are all set in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Smith’s account of Tom Munnelly’s fieldwork on Cape Clear Island explores the process of filtration that occurs, and all of the attendant identity issues that emerge, as the urban, English-speaking Munnelly cajoles the Irish-speaking islanders into singing for the recorder. In what is perhaps the most ethnographic of the essays, Cullen introduces the reader to the diversity of the pan-African communities in Dublin and their musical lives. This is a very welcome study since there is a dearth of analysis of Ireland’s immigrant populations. O’Flynn revisits the notion of ‘Celticity’ to interrogate the deterritorialised globalisation and commodification of Irishness and Irish music in particular reference to issues of race and gender. Hogan uses three musical genres to act as a lens onto youth culture in Ireland: ballroom show-bands, punk rock, and traditional Irish music. And finally, since Harry White is quoted throughout the volume, it is apropos that he finishes out the book with his sweeping exploration of the modern meanings that accrue around traditional Irish music. He interrogates the very Irishness of Irish music, issues of ‘authenticity’, and how this music is imbricated in constructions of identity in Ireland and elsewhere. It is a fitting conclusion to the volume as it raises a series of issues that were addressed implicitly or explicitly throughout.

One small quibble about Fitzgerald and O’Flynn’s collection is that there are sections that undermine their promise in the introduction that the book takes a broad, interdisciplinary approach to music and identity in and out of Ireland. Most of the authors are musicologists, and while many of them very successfully reach across the disciplinary boundaries to employ methods and concepts from a variety of other areas (history, sociology, cultural studies), there are other sections in which the focus zeros in very closely on individual composers or rather fine-grained histories of the genealogy of high art music in Ireland and the British Isles. In this sense, while the book does widen its scope, it does so from a decidedly musicological disciplinary frame of reference. This should be read as a minor critique, however. Interdisciplinary work is fraught with risks, but it is important and should be applauded.


Dowling’s Traditional Music and Irish Society is deeply contextualised history, while the collection edited by Fitzgerald and O’Flynn is purposefully expansive and inclusive, creating a conversation between the authors who focus on a wide array of themes and geographic contexts. But both books, despite their differences in format, disciplinary perspectives, and methodological approaches, create a resonant pair and should be added to any serious collection devoted to Irish history, contemporary Irish culture, and music in and out of Ireland. Many of the authors discussed above point out that much more analysis of Irish music needs to be done. I agree. Following their own suggestion, these two books add significant substance to the scholarship on Irish music.


Adam Kaul

Augustana College, South Dakota, USA