The Companion to Irish Traditional Music

Fintan Vallely, editor

1999, Cork University Press. ISBN 1 85918 148 1. xviii + 478. Hard Back only. £25.00

Some years ago the collective panjandrums of a certain faculty for the exercise of intellect dropped me right in it.  "Fred", they said in that expansive arm-round-the-shoulder manner of one who's about to make you an offer you'll regret for the rest of your life, "We want you to come and organise a class on Irish music for us."  I leapt at the chance.  A captive audience for two hours a week, and a whole heap of heaven-sent assertions about modal classification schemes and ethno-geographic performance models and tune types and Child Numbers and unheard-of collections of broadside ballads, with which to bore the buggers rigid.  By God, was I going to give them the works!

Then it dawned on me that there were no works to give.  Ireland has traditional music pontificators fit to beat the band.  However, their pronouncements seldom result in good quality published material.  With certain honourable exceptions, the few texts available mostly either bask in a fast fading Celtic twilight, or concentrate on the music's formal characteristics, as though it had been brought into the world by some miracle of non-human conception.  Either way, as an academic subject, a large proportion of the books which serve it fail to live up to academic standards.  The consequence is that my life has turned into an interminable search through LP sleeves, CD booklets, magazine articles, fag packets; anything at all which might put a little beef on the bones of Irish music.

You may therefore appreciate just a little of my exultation when this glorious tome came thudding through the letterbox.  It is physically not all that large, yet the apprehension of its subject matter is massive.  Cover pictureThe book's total of 496 pages, besides containing the usual introduction, appendices etc, hold around 1,000 entries and sub-entries, by 108 contributors.  Between them they have coughed up approximately 300,000 words.  Incredibly, the whole work has been pulled together by one solitary editor.  I give notice therefore, that any criticisms of such a Herculean endeavour are entirely of a constructive nature.  The book is not devoid of faults, but if nobody had undertaken the task of compiling it there would have been nothing to criticise.

In fact, most of the few shortcomings which attach to this opus can be laid at the door of simple economics.  That is, to make it worth the publisher's while, the product has to be tailored to suit the market, and produced at an economic cost.  Thus, as Fintan Vallely's introduction points out, this was a job for a properly funded editorial team and the end result should have been twice as big.  Unfortunately, while there may be a burgeoning interest in Irish music - the introduction gives some surprising statistics regarding the growth of the idiom since the 1960s - that growth does not bless us with the prestige or financial luxuries bestowed upon say, opera or ballet.  In Ireland, just like anywhere else, textbooks on traditional music have to be cut to suit a none-too-extravagant cloth.  That is presumably why some entries are shorter than one would expect, and why there are some curious omissions. 

Most of these omissions are possible to live with, although there are some which I will need to encounter presently.  In the meantime, allow me to further impress readers with details of size and scope.  For anyone who hasn't yet cottoned-on, we are dealing with a reference work which has been arranged by subjects listed in alphabetical order.  The range of comprehension this entails may be gauged by the fact that the entries open with that most rationally modulated of instruments, the accordion, and close with Zozimus, the blind eccentric street singer of eighteenth century Dublin.  Exactly midway between these two cultural icons lies an insertion for Tony MacMahon, an accordion player of somewhat quirky disposition.  He is on record elsewhere as saying 'There is no bog hole in Ireland too deep for all the accordions'.  I have no idea whether his thoughts on Zozimus are more even-tempered, but I hope I have successfully conveyed the magnificence of this book.  It is not just the amount and variety of information which makes it so valuable, but the way that information is structured, and the general ease with which it may be accessed. 

Previously, had I wished to learn something about, say, the flute in Ireland, I would have had little alternative but to leaf through Breandán Breathnach's unindexed and insubstantial Folk Music and Dances of Ireland.  The entry for the flute in this present volume spreads over more than five copious pages of fairly close print.  In common with the general editorial style, it contains a brief definition, followed by a general history of the instrument and an account of its importation into Irish music.  There is a discussion of regional playing styles, a deliberation on the changing status of the flute, and some information on home made models.  Similar contributions can be found for all the major instruments of Irish music, including some of the more modern introductions, such as the cittern, mandolin and bouzouki.  Where instruments are concerned, the size of entry seems to be a function both of the implement's current popularity and of its traditional provenance in Ireland.  Other entries cover the various tune types of Irish music, while still others concern themselves with the cultural, social and commercial organisations associated with the idiom.  Surprisingly enough, that warhorse of Gaelic culture, Gael Linn, does not appear.  You can, however, locate topics as diverse as ethnomusicology, regional performing styles and tourism - the effects, that is, of overseas interest in Irish music.  One or two famous public houses are mentioned, as are those terpsichorean extravaganzas, Lord of the Dance and Riverdance, and there are massive sections on song both in Gaelic and in English. 

Some contributions stray outside the immediate subject matter, and there are entries for the Orange Order, for the Royal Irish Constabulary and for the various provinces and counties of Ireland.  At first sight, some of these may not appear to have had much effect on the music, until one stops and thinks about it.  There is even an entry for that most unfortunate invention of the foreign licensing trade, the 'Irish' pub.  As the anonymous author of this piece tells us, such institutions represent the manifestation of Irish colonial aspirations.  If so, it is a sad manifestation.  I cannot speak for the United States or for continental Europe, and I'm not pretending that all such establishments in Britain are tarred with the same brush.  However, as anybody who has drunk in one will tell you, it is a rare pub in Ireland which bears even a passing resemblance to the infantile squalor of some of the worst examples of 'Irish' pubs over here.  Equally, there are few pubs, in rural Ireland at any rate, which would host the dismal cacophony, that often passes as the entertainment norm in their overseas mock equivalent.  There is a melancholy parallel here.  Just as the absentee landowners of colonised Ireland distanced themselves from the very people they ruinously exploited, so do 'absentee' brewery directors distance themselves from the ruination of English popular drinking habits, and the concomitant ruination of Irish popular culture.  To put it another way, those who make a fortune out of 'Irish' pubs don't have to drink in them.

Back to more agreeable matters.  Of all the components of Irish tradition, Anglo-Irish song is the one dearest to my heart.  It is also the one which receives the least attention from broadcasters and cultural organisations, and from writers about Irish tradition.  The Anglo-Irish song section, therefore, should for me have been the most rewarding of the whole book.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be an exception to my earlier comments about accessibility, and I found the whole section decidedly impenetrable.  That is because, like other large entries, it is broken down into sub-sections.  In this case, however, they are not arranged in alphabetical order.  To make matters worse, the sub-section headings, although italicised, do not stand out very well.  Needing some information on famine songs in a hurry, I must have spent a good ten minutes thumbing through the pages before I finally found the relevant bit.  A little emboldening would have made things much easier, and done wonders for my blood pressure.

The majority of contributions were commissioned specifically for this book.  Some, however, are synopses of existing works.  This is the case with the section on the Irish harp, which summarises Joan Rimmer's excellent little book on that instrument.  Unfortunately, while the fact is mentioned in the introduction, I could find no acknowledgement in the text, either in the harp section or under the entry for Joan Rimmer.

By far the greatest number of entries are concerned with people.  I had a lot of fun wading through these, and in discerning the ages of some of the younger stalwarts of the Irish singing scene.  It fair cheered my senescent spirits to discover how many of them merely look as though they're ready for the Zimmer frame!  As well as singers, there are biographies of famous instrumentalists past and present and of assorted worthies, such as collectors and broadcasters, who are in various ways associated with the music.  Anyone into biographies of present day musicians could well follow some of these up with another of Fintan's books; The Blooming Meadows (Town House, Dublin, 1998.  Co-authored with Charlie Piggott)

Regarding the present volume, it is among the biographic sections that most of the inconsistencies seem to occur - and, even allowing for limitations of space, I found some odd omissions.  For instance, among East Clare musicians, I located the fiddler Paddy Canny, and his famous nephew Martin Hayes.  There was, though, nothing about Martin's father, P J Hayes, the other famous fiddler of the family.  In similar vein, there are entries for those two grand Ulster singers, Róisín White and Pat Flynn, but nothing about their equally renowned associate and occasional vocal partner, Rosie Stewart.  On looking up the fiddler, Aggie Whyte, I was referred to The Ballinakill Céilí Band, by which is meant The Ballinakill Traditional Dance Players.  That is their earlier appellation and that is how Verena Cummins identifies them in this book.  Unfortunately, the piece on the Ballinakill contains no mention of Aggie Whyte.

I was surprised to find that there are no websites listed.  Traditional music websites are so common nowadays, that I would have expected mention of them in individual entries, or in a separate appendix.  Of the appendices which are included, there is a chronology of Irish music, which runs from the late 16th century to the end of the one we have just left.  It is a telling reflection on Ireland's sad and battered history that the first item refers to an edict of 1571, calling for the execution of Irish harpers.  There is also a massive bibliography, conveniently broken down by subject, which runs to over nineteen pages.  The size of this does not negate my earlier comments about the lack of published materials.  If Ireland lacks good reference sources, it is not short on song and tune books or instrumental tutors.  Also, as the bibliography shows, Ireland is not short of unpublished university theses.  To expect anybody to run all of these to earth would be to expect a miracle comparable to the second coming.  As it is, I failed to notice Sean Williams' MA thesis on Joe Heaney's singing style, or Reg Hall's doctoral thesis on Irish music in London.  I have not had the pleasure of reading the former work, although I have seen it listed elsewhere on several occasions.  However, I am familiar with the latter and pronounce it a major contribution to our knowledge of Irish music generally.  It deserves to be much better known.

There is a discography, almost as massive as the bibliography, which is broken down separately by instrument and by region.  Unfortunately, anyone using it is liable to run into problems.  Whereas performers, titles and matrix numbers are properly listed, the names of record companies often are not.  Thus, I had no way of checking whether John Spillane has actually recorded a CD called The Wells the World.  (HBCD 0011), or whether wells is a misprint for wheels, until I remembered that HBCD is the matrix of Humming Bird Records.  In fact, a separate appendix, with names and addresses of all companies producing Irish records, would have been a distinct asset.  There is an obvious problem of accessibility where recorded material is concerned and the discography concentrates on those discs known to be currently available.  Presumably, the present inability of Topic Records to find an Irish distributor is the reason why that label's Voice of the People does not appear.  It is an unfortunate omission, because Irish artists are well represented in that elegant series.

Thumbing through the contents, I spotted a fair number of typographical errors.  For instance, Cecil Sharp's surname appears as Sharpe; the Liverpool fiddler, Eamon Coyne, has his name spelt two different ways in one short entry; and Elizabeth Crotty is apparently buried at somewhere called Sharakyle.  There were not enough of these to justify me tearing my hair out, and I accept Fintan's observations about the difficulties of checking all the name spellings.  Nevertheless, examples such as an entry for the bodhrán, where a caption dates the accompanying photograph to 1946, while the text dates it to 1949, suggest that a more thorough proof reading might have been advisable.  I was also curious to note that, while some entries bear the author's initials, many do not.  This does not seem to be a function of the length of the piece, for some fairly weighty items remain unsigned, while some of only a few sentences proclaim the author.  In one case, the author is identified as BOO, but nobody matching those initials is listed among the contributors.

The text is by no means overloaded with illustrations.  That makes a welcome change in a world where publishers cram books with royalty free photographs of dubious relevance, and then charge the earth for the finished product.  There is though a most pleasing watercolour of the piper Felix Doran, which adorns the dustjacket.  It is by Brian Vallely, artist, piper and presumed relative of the editor.

The book also steps outside Ireland and examines those cultures which are 'historically important for a full understanding of Irish music', as the introduction puts it.  This policy has induced sections on Scotland, The Isle of Man, Wales, Brittany, The United States, Canada and Australia.  There are even entries for Cape Breton and Finland.  The more general sections are supplemented by specific entries on a wide variety of topics.  They range from Scots bothy ballads to the Sardinian launeddas, and from the Swedish polska to native American performers of Scots and Irish and French Canadian music.  The criteria of inclusion seems to depend on whether a region has either influenced, or been influenced by, the course of Irish music.  Application of this policy means that Finland is included because there is a healthy Irish music scene there.  Conversely, Brittany warrants a section because the example of a native Irish music revival encouraged the Brets to start one of their own.

I regard this internationalist stance as a most important development.  It is not that long ago that conservative 'authorities' in Ireland used to wax lyrical on traditional music as though it were a kulturgeist.  It was, they thought, something intrinsic to the spirit of Irish people, and thus unique to their own native land and devoid of overseas contamination.  This book presents a refreshing alternative to such strictures.  Nevertheless, I am concerned over an apparent lack of application of the above criteria with regard to England.  To lay it on the line, of all the countries which interacted with Irish music, England is alone in not having an entry in this book.  It is difficult to see why.  There is a long standing and tangible Irish music scene in most English cities.  Despite my earlier remarks, it doesn't all go on in imitation Irish pubs, and it doesn't all devolve around a load of shamrock waving pseudo Paddy Whacks throwing up the last of the Irish Rover.  A lot of it is very good indeed; as good, in many cases, as the home grown product.  Moreover, it is an integral element of most local music scenes in much the same way as, say, traditional jazz or Country & Western.  For that matter, the example of Ireland was a major influence in encouraging English musicians to seek out a home grown tradition of their own.  Also, as the Companion acknowledges, there has been extensive cross fertilisation of the English and Irish folk revivals for at least the past four decades.  Finally, and most significantly of all, the music and song traditions of England and Ireland have overlapped and influenced each other for centuries.

I want to make it clear that my objection is not raised out of some suddenly acquired sense of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism.  This is a book about Irish music, and there is nothing to stop the English compiling a similar work on English music; always assuming they could find a publisher.  Rather, I am concerned that long centuries of brutal occupation pushed Ireland into a state of cultural isolation, and into a blind negation of the idea that any such thing as English traditional culture could possibly exist, or could possibly have affected Irish culture.  I am also concerned that an omission like the present one could be taken as support for such a negation.  What the English did to Ireland was, and is, a crime against humanity.  Nevertheless, to deny that England has a credible folk culture, or that it left any imprint on Irish music, is like trying to deny the effects of slavery upon the music of the American South.

Neither do I wish to overstate the problem.  This is for two reasons.  Firstly, there are a number of references to England scattered throughout the text.  There are entries or sub-entries for Bishop Percy, Peter Kennedy, the Northumbrian pipes, the Newcastle fiddler James Hill, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society - though the latter was written by a Scot, Ian Olson.  There is also an entry for that peculiarly English institution, the folk club, which is supported by Mick Moloney's piece about Irish ballad groups, and his comments regarding Anglo Saxon influences thereon.  I am however at a loss to comprehend the opening comment of the former item, namely that the folk club is 'based in a structure begun in the nineteenth century by such as Cecil Sharpe (sic)'.  In what way did the motivations or the field collecting exertions of Sharp, Broadwood, Kidson etc, influence the structure of the present day folk club?  I was also surprised to find the anonymous author of this piece claiming that the first English folk club to set up was the Topic in Bradford in 1956.  Such a claim runs counter to received wisdom, namely that Ewan MacColl and A L Lloyd kicked the entire 'second' revival off with the Ballads and Blues Club in London in 1953.  The waters of the early English revival have become muddied with age and I am not sure how much credence can be given to this latter claim.  What is incontrovertible however, is that the Ballads and Blues was in existence well before the Topic opened its doors.

Getting back to English under-representation, there is a clear problem of author availability.  Although 108 people contributed to this volume, the number who were approached was actually in excess of 150.  Now, England is nothing like as well staffed as Ireland when it comes to authorities on indigenous music.  It may be, therefore, that some of those English authorities are among the forty-odd who never contributed.  Nevertheless, I would have expected to see separate entries covering the Carpenter collection, the post world war two London Irish music scene, and Jim Carroll's and Pat MacKenzie's collecting work with Irish travellers in London.  In particular, I was disappointed not to find any reference to John Adams' Village Music Project.  This latter is still at a fairly incipient stage and it is concerned primarily with English fiddle repertoires.  However, from the evidence uncovered thus far, I predict that it will eventually revolutionise the way we think about all strands of traditional music; English, Scots, Irish, Australian, American.

Reviewing this review, I am conscious that I have made more of the downsides of this book than may be warranted.  Perhaps that is the way of things where coverage of reference works is concerned.  Unlike other forms of media, there is little one can do but pick through the thing, highlighting those features which fall below whatever arbitrary standards the reviewer happens to set.  Whatever - reservations notwithstanding, this is one hell of a book and it deserves absolutely the widest readership.  It is fair to ask where this readership will come from because, at such a reasonable price, the publisher is clearly anticipating a respectable turnover.  To give you some idea, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music is not much smaller than one of the lavishly edited volumes of the Greig-Duncan collection.  It contains a lot more data and probably cost a lot more to produce, yet it retails at less than three quarters of the price.  Libraries, archives, and faculties for intellectual exercise the world over will certainly grab it, as will frustrated tutors in Irish music.  But where do you go from there?  Somehow, I can't see your average session goer wanting a copy.  The contributions are non-technical enough, but I doubt that most musicians or punters would swallow this in preference to the dozen or so pints they could buy with the asking price.  In the end, the book's strongest appeal will be to mainstream traditional music enthusiasts - those individuals, in fact, who patronise this present magazine.  If you've hit this site to find out what's happening in the world of traditional music, I can tell you that this book is.  Get out there and buy it.

Fred McCormick - 16.3.00

Top of page Home Page Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by   Updated: 21.11.02