17 December 2009 Edition
Return to the well in 2010
By Mícheál Mac Donncha
Irish music in its traditional form of song and dance has often been compared to a well of spring water from which generations of people have drawn and which has never run dry. Today it shows every sign of continuing to flourish and at no time has our distinct music been played by more people in Ireland and around the world.
It is hard to imagine that the music was ever in danger of disappearing, yet this was indeed the case in the middle of the 20th century. By the 1950s the number of people playing uilleann pipes had dwindled to a critically small number. In the cities and larger towns traditional singing and dance music were almost unheard of in public houses. Musicians played in their homes and in a small number of public venues. While céili bands operated and some traditional music was broadcast on Irish radio, the audience was limited and the music seemed about to be totally eclipsed by commercial popular music from Britain and the US, aided by the wider availability of radio, records and later television.
Ironically it was these latter innovations which were to provide the platform for the biggest revival of Irish music. There had been revivals before, going back as far as the 1790s at the Belfast Harpers Festival. United Irishmen were among the main organisers and the Festival was attended by Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell. The cultural revival that followed from the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893 gave Irish music a new lease of life, allowing many city-dwellers to appreciate it for the first time.
The 1960s saw a similar process but on a larger scale. The ground had been prepared by the founding of Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann in the early 1950s, which brought together musicians in a concerted effort to revive and promote traditional music. The folk music revival in Britain saw collectors coming to Ireland to record musicians and singers in their home setting. In the late ‘40s and ‘50s the great uilleann piper Séamus Ennis travelled the country collecting for the Irish Folklore Commission, Raidio Éireann and the BBC. His diary of his earlier years collecting has just been published for the first time (‘Going To The Well for Water: The Seamus Ennis Field Diary 1942-46’, edited by Ríonach Uí hÓgáin, Cork University Press)
Another important collector and broadcaster who helped to fuel the revival was Ciarán Mac Mathúna who died in the past week. He championed the music not only of his native Clare but of all the regions where it was still a living community culture. He brought the music to a very large audience with his radio and later television broadcasts.
While musicians and collectors and broadcasters were ‘getting their act together’ and helping to ensure that the music did not die out, it took another impetus for Irish music both to widen its scope and reach a mass audience. This came about when performers played the songs and music in a fresh way. The recent passing of Liam Clancy, the last of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem ballad group, was a reminder of the importance of that group and of the ‘ballad boom’ in general in the revival of Irish music.
The Clancys and Tommy Makem breathed new life into Irish ballads which had never been sung on stage or on records in that way before. They had the raw gusto of a natural sing-song, abandoning the formality which had previously stifled such performances of Irish songs. The group became commercially successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Their first album 50 years ago in 1959 was a record of republican songs The Rising of the Moon. Christy Moore credits them with inspiring him to turn to Irish music, as he pointed out at the recent SIPTU centenary concert in Liberty Hall.
Even more successful in Ireland were The Dubliners and they were hugely important because to the balladry of the Clancys and Makem they added instrumental music. The fiddle playing of John Sheehan and the banjo playing of Barney McKenna provided many people with their first introduction to Irish traditional dance tunes. And of course the incomparable Luke Kelly single-handedly lifted Irish song onto a new plane.
Parallel with this was the work of Seán Ó Riada. Trained in classical music, he turned to the Irish tradition to which he became passionately committed. He brought new energy and insight into the performance of instrumental music and sean-nós singing, as well as new audiences. The stage was set for the emergence of traditional and folk groups like The Chieftains, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad and Dé Danann in the 1970s, performing commercially while, on the ground, the music flourished with more and more people playing. Regional styles became more widely known and imitated and cross-fertilisation ensured the health of the tradition.
The success of Irish traditional music is measured not by the commercial success of stars or celebrities but by the vitality of the music as a living, popular community-based form of culture. Musicians look to their great predecessors of the past such as Willie Clancy, John Doherty, Margaret Barry, Pádraig O’Keefe, Julia Clifford, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, Séamus Ennis and countless lesser known local figures. These custodians guarded the well and ensured that its waters still flow.
A good resolution for 2010 would be to discover or re-discover this music. Most of the ‘greats’ of the past are widely available on CD, while the musicians of today are producing a wide variety of recordings. Better still, get in touch with the music directly. Search out music sessions in your locality and look out for events in your region.
Nationally the two most important events in the traditional music calendar are Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the largest music festival in the country and one of the largest in the world, and the Willie Clancy Summer School and Festival. The latter event will take place in Miltown Malbay, County Clare between 5 and 11 July 2010.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will take place from August 20-22, 2010 and the venue is Cavan town – the first time that the All-Ireland Fleadh has returned to that Ulster town since 1954. It promises to be a great occasion.
IRISH MUSIC REVIVAL: The recent passing of Liam Clancy reminded us of the importance of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Mackem