Country Fiddling and Dancing in East and Central Down
by Nigel Boullier
Ulster Historical Foundation, ISBN-10: 1908448512
There will surely come a day when the mandatory pun in a book's title is as distant a memory as funk, fondue and flares: but as an example of the practice Handed Down is less arch than most and has the benefit of succinctly telescoping into two simple but informative words the twin thrust of Nigel Boullier's inwardly fascinating, outwardly impressive and all in all quite extraordinary volume on the traditional music and dance of County Down. At a stroke - from the reader's point of view, that is, but scarcely from his own - he has raised what was hitherto a totally-disregarded backwater of traditional music to being probably the best-documented area in that respect - the dust jacket refers to 500 biographies, 300 tunes and 30 dances - not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the British Isles. The 't word', it should be noted, does not appear in the title, though it peppers the text not only with reference to a method of transmission, but also, conventionally, as a short-hand for the music thus transmitted and the people transmitting it: a convention I have not departed from here for practical reasons.
To call Handed Down merely comprehensive would be absurd and to diminish the author's achievement. A lot of hard work and enthusiasm, and obviously money, have gone into producing a book which should be a prized possession of anyone who pretends to an interest in, knowledge of or affection for the traditional music of Ireland - or indeed of anywhere in the British Isles - and wherever it has travelled. And I say that despite the cost: as I write Amazon seems to be currently offering it at about £17 - a bargain by any standards; and although I'd rather you supported your tangible local bookshop, it's more important that Handed Down should reach the readership it and its author deserve. A word of warning though: Handed Down may contain the notations of 300 tunes, but there is little here for the sessionista other than enlightenment.
As the author reveals, it was not his original intention to produce such a magnificent tome, but merely to document the music of County Down for the benefit of local musicians. In the event he succeeded in unearthing for the world at large a repertoire, or rather a set of repertoires which had been almost completely submerged or sidelined, but survived on paper, in people's memories and in the flesh sufficiently for him to record in intrinsic detail for posterity. The importance of his work did not go unnoticed, and encouraged or assisted by a number of institutions with an interest in local history or traditional music, and with the benefit of an introduction to the graphic designer Mark Thompson, whose enthusiasm for the project is more than apparent throughout, the author was able to secure funding for his project - through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland - from the National Lottery, and seldom can its proceeds have been better spent in this area. The quality those funds afforded is immediately apparent from the images on the dust jacket and persists through the stunning photographs of musicians, music, manuscripts and maps - and much else besides - which the author his garnered and assembled, not so much illustrating the text as generating and justifying it.
As his sub-title indicates, it is the centre and east of the county which are the author's main focus, those being the areas which his sources - initially encountered playing the fiddle himself rather than as a researcher - were familiar with (rather than some otherwise arbitrary area defined merely by county boundaries, which so often serve as the basis for examining local traditions). He explains how it was the total omission of Down from any consideration in a lecture he attended on fiddle styles in Ulster at Newry in 1976 that set him off on the journey which ended up at Handed Down. My own researches suggest that if you look closely enough anywhere you will find at least records of a dense network of traditional musicians and music-making. But it calls for a special kind of devotion and dedication to search out what must be just about every piece of relevant information about (and photographs of) every traditional musician who was ever active in an area where their very existence has been virtually denied. Such was the lack of interest in the traditional music of County Down locally, let alone more widely, that the author had nothing but his own personal experience and instincts to go on.
The author - a civil engineer by trade, a fiddler by inclination and a native by birth of Bangor in Co. Down, which sits just to the east of Belfast at the head of the Ards peninsula - identifies the essence of his book as 'the bonds linking musicians of generations'. This does not, however, betray a naive belief in continuity, for the author is aware of the part played by revival in the history of traditional music in Ireland in the 20th century: he is referring rather to the personal contact across generations which alone constitutes tradition it the true sense.
He goes on to look at the special nature - and decline - of traditional music and dance in County Down, drawing parallels not only with other parts of Ulster (and inevitably with Donegal in particular) but also with that area on the borders of Counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick which aficionados (and aficionadas) of traditional music in Ireland know as Sliabh Luachra. Without using the term he suggests that these are what linguists call relic areas, where different combinations of shared older forms survive in common isolation. Similarities with other areas on either side of the Irish Sea and beyond allow us to go further and postulate that such 'relic' areas are in fact the surviving outposts of a repertoire of tunes, styles and dances which was universal throughout these islands - and elsewhere in the English-speaking world - in the 19th century and sometimes later.
Tellingly he points out that the similarities between the traditional repertoires and styles of County Down and those of other parts of in Ulster were also perceived by older traditional musicians from Down, who would feel comfortable playing with musicians from Donegal because of those similarities. "Scottish music played wrong - not really Irish music at all" as someone from Comhaltas allegedly described it.
Here too he examines the politico-cultural background, and in particular the suppression of traditional forms of musical expression by the Gaelic League and (later) the Free State's Public Dance Halls Act of 1935. The effects of such institutionalised suppression are too well known to need rehearsal here, but the author reminds us that the prohibition of house dances in the South was not part of the Act's inherent purpose, but the result of its wilful misapplication by local (Catholic) clergy in collusion with the police: it had no force in Northern Ireland, of course - or, apparently, much impact in other parts of Ulster. But the consequences in the South were devastating. To quote Lucy Farr, as Nigel Boullier does: "they killed the house dances, they killed the music".
Superficial - and generally remote - commentary on traditional Irish music sometimes suggest that 'the English' attempted to suppress it, but nothing could be further from the truth. And had they even wanted to (which they plainly did not), the Irish themselves had got there first. Assaults on traditional music by the Catholic clergy in Ireland were nothing new: O'Neill himself bewails its attempts to eradicate music and dancing in his native Cork throughout the nineteenth century. It can be no coincidence that while the Irish clergy was attempting to root the music out in Ireland, such musicians as Patsy Toohey's elder brothers were crossing the Irish Sea - as Lucy Farr was also to do more recently - to ply their trade in a land where earlier Irish pipers such as Denis Courtney and O'Farrell (of still-unknown-Christian-name and Pocket Companion fame) had been welcome everywhere from common alehouses to the London stage.
As the author points out, it was also largely the Gaelic League which forged the 'mainstream', ethnically-cleansed repertoire of jigs and reels which came to dominate Irish music in the 20th century, largely on the basis of the publications of Francis O'Neill, whose own purpose was ultimately similar to that of Nigel Boullier - to secure for posterity and promulgate a repertoire which he himself regarded as virtually extinct. It is hardly conceivable, though, that O'Neill found no music at all when revisiting County Cork: it is surely more likely that he - like many an early collector (and in reality quite understandably) - disregarded a current and surely yet vibrant repertoire of quadrilles etc. in favour of preserving an ailing repertoire of jigs and reels.
There is, of course, also a more recent socio-political dimension, to wit the association of traditional music with nationalism at the time of the troubles, which caused the Protestant element in the population of County Down (which is predominantly Protestant) to reject even its own music and musicians, who perforce became circumspect about when and where they played. As Boullier's researches show, both communities had once shared the embracive musical culture of Country Down, but the Catholic element in Down's population, particularly in the south of the County, had long since adopted the ceili band culture which in the Republic had already filled the gap left by the suppression of the house dance. The author does not refer explicitly to the ceili bands' repertoires, but commercial recordings like those of the McCusker brothers from nearby County Armagh suggest that they may have included some of the older local material in their repertoires. As the author's researches also show, the older repertoire which survived among the Protestant Community was not exclusive - as the ceili-band culture of the Catholic Community was - , but continued to absorb popular trends as they came along, as indeed it always had. The tunes associated with 19th century ballroom-dances, quadrilles, 'country' dances and also step-dancing include many universal tunes which are still familiar, but alongside a number of now otherwise unfamiliar special-to-purpose tunes which constitute discrete elements in what is actually a 'modular' repertoire. Not quite all-grist-to-the-mill, despite modern misconceptions about similar repertoires elsewhere in the British Isles, more 'all the tunes that fit'. Boullier's work usefully reminds us that tradition is an external perception, and that for the 'traditional' musician there was no such thing - just an ever-shifting variety of tunes of different origins serving different purposes. In the same way it is misleading to think in terms of a single overarching repertoire - even a local one - , when in reality almost every musician had his or her own peculiar repertoire. Any conformity in those repertoires would rather have been a factor of the dancers' tastes and preferences.
The biographies consequently span a period between the beginning of the 19th century and almost the present day, and the different tastes - and imperatives - which prevailed at different times during those two centuries are reflected in the nature of individual repertoires where they are provided. Inevitably some of their subjects mention the subjects of other biographies, and the frequent references to respected fiddlers reveal which were the most highly-regarded, such as James Ward of Drumknockan near Dromore (d. 5 June 1944, aged 80).
The author reveals that about 70% of the fiddlers researched were Protestant. It is impossible to say how many were actively Loyalist, but 68% of those eligible at the time (in 1912) signed the Ulster Covenant. Some of them are identified, but the author does not routinely assign religious or political affiliations to the subjects of his biographies. Several of the briefer biographies in Part 2, however, provide lists of appearances in the 1920s and 1930s drawn from notices in the press and the like which indicate that many of the dances concerned were held in Orange Halls.
A large number of the tunes are entitled Quadrille, which is not a metre of course, but a reference to a tune's use. These include a high proportion of Scottish tunes - not just those we might expect to find anywhere - and the repertories of some of the fiddlers, like that of Willie 'Toye' Savage of Derryboye (9 November 1880 - 22 November 1956), seem to be almost exclusively Scottish. The tunes used for quadrilles also include, as well as many which are still universally familiar such as the Girl I left behind me, the Hundred Pipers and Marching through Georgia, many which were once among the common currency of older country musicians on a wider front - in a variety of contexts - such as the King of the Cannibal Islands, Old Bob Ridley ('Bob Bradley'), the Boyne Water, the Maid of the Mill, Off She Goes, and the New Rigged Ship. A similar spread of tunes is found among those which were noted down or found in fiddlers' manuscripts without any reference to quadrilles. It would be interesting to know to what extent the original fashion for quadrilles necessitated the use of tunes which were already popular, and to what extent that fashion popularised them: probably something of a two-way street, one imagines.
Other metres which occur frequently include the mazurka, the schottische and the polka. The reels are generally Scottish in origin, and account for 19% of the notations, being exceeded in frequency only by the proportion of quadrille tunes (21%) in different metres.
In Section 3 the author makes almost passing reference to step-dancing, which was widespread (in the wild) in County Down until the 1950s, but had died out by the turn of the century. This reflects the situation elsewhere in the British Isles. In County Down the favoured metres for step-dancing were apparently the reel and hornpipe. Among the few fiddlers with hornpipes in their repertoires, most either played a couple of standards (possibly to satisfy the step-dancers, like Jackie Donnan's Greencastle Hornpipe) or betray a familiarity (not necessarily first-hand of course) with 19th century publications like Kerr's Merry Melodies or Honeyman's Tutor, as in the case of Davy Gray.
Of particular interest in this respect is the repertoire of the locally-celebrated James Ward (born c. 1865), whom I have already mentioned. His tunes include a number of what the Northumbrian FARNE (Folk Archive Resource North-East) website calls 'underground' hornpipes. These are hornpipes which have been found since pre-Victorian times under a variety of names (or nameless), many of them seldom if ever published, whose erstwhile popularity - and in some cases universality - has consequently not previously been recognised. I have looked at them (a particular hobby-horse of mine, as you will see) in detail elsewhere on Musical Traditions (Name that tune, MT Article 251, and Ceol rince na mBreathnach, MT Article 272). In the case of James Ward they include the Victoria Hornpipe (aka - among other things - the Bristol Hornpipe, O'Neill's Clover Blossom), Bonaparte's Hornpipe (ditto the Harlequin Hornpipe or Colosseum Hornpipe, a standard version of which is also to be found in the Ward MSS), an untitled Hornpipe (ditto Whittle Dene Hornpipe and - in O'Neill - the Friendly Visit). Interestingly this part of his repertoire is almost identical to the same part of the repertoire of the Somerset gypsy Henry Cave (see my "Scissors Grinder and First-Rate Fiddler": The life and tunes of Henry Cave ..., Folk Music Journal vol. 10, no. 2, 2012).
But the most intriguing of these hornpipes is one which is found throughout England and Wales (including in the repertoire of Henry Cave), usually nameless but a few times entitled the Railway Hornpipe. This doesn't seem to survive in published form (assuming there was one), and on a number of occasions appears twice in slightly different settings in a single fiddler's or piper's manuscript tune book. This is also the case with James Ward, whose manuscripts contain two versions, entitled respectively the Gibraltar Hornpipe and the Queen's Hornpipe. Both have the standard 2nd strain, which is very similar to that of the Harvest Home, but the first strain of the Queen's Hornpipe in particular is very similar to those of three versions found elsewhere in Ireland: Terry Teahan's Tadgh's Ailment and the Thieving Magpie published by Roche, which share a different 2nd strain, and O'Neill's Honeysuckle, which has substituted a third 2nd strain from another 'underground' hornpipe, sometimes known as the Ferrybridge (or Ferry Bridge) Hornpipe.
James Ward's Queen's Hornpipe would thus seem to be a missing link between English and Welsh settings and other Irish settings. Incidentally, the reference to Queen in the title (a reference which is not confined to this tune, of course), may refer not to Queen Victoria or any other royal personage, but to Johnny Queen (1843 - 1884), a celebrated American stage dancer of whom Douglas Gilbert writes (American Vaudeville, Dover, NY, 1940, p.24): A clog dancer named Queen electrified the English music halls when he went abroad for a tour in the eighties. They found his triples, rolls, and nerve steps uncanny, refused to believe he accomplished them unaided by tricks, and caused him no end of embarrassment by demanding to see his shoes.
The hornpipe element in James Ward's repertoire would therefore seem to be a discrete element - a module, as I described such elements earlier - , and one which he shared with at least one other fiddler on the other side of the Irish Sea.
The features of James Ward's repertoire as I have portrayed it will ring a bell with anyone familiar with Breandan Breathnach's criticism of the 'duplicates, tunes with parts reversed, unrelated turns, ... and commonplace tunes presented 'untitled'' in Allen Feldman's personal take on the fiddlers and fiddle music of Donegal, the Northern Fiddler. On inspection this objection is a - presumably unwitting - criticism of the music of Donegal and adjacent counties and its exponents rather than of the author. Similar 'faults' in the repertoires published in Handed down underline the wrong-headedness of Breathnach's stance.
There are some other aspects - I shan't say omissions because that would be to prejudge the matter - which aren't addressed in Handed Down. Did travellers play no part in traditional music in County Down? And what was the impact there of the Scottish musicians who recorded commercially on 78 before the 2nd World War? The answer may be no and none respectively (though I'm inclined in my ignorance to doubt it), but their significance elsewhere is surely such as to warrant mention, if only in passing.
On both counts, of course, the author might legitimately answer that his purpose was to record what was there, and not what wasn't. But if Gypsy fiddlers and Scottish 78s - like melodeons - were largely absent, those facts surely constitute a feature of the Down tradition when viewed against the backcloth of traditional music throughout the British Isles.
But I am straying in the direction of pedantry, and this book is not a pedantic one. As the author himself points out he is not an academic, and the fact that the germ of Handed Down was his desire to draw the attention of musicians in modern County Down - and specifically its fiddlers - to their local heritage imposes limitations on its scope which may disconcert the more earnest of our folkademics. That scope, however, is succinctly and concisely delineated in its subtitle, and given the volume of the material which was available to him the author's commitment to his original purpose - documentation rather than analysis - is his book's great strength.
Long ago, when I was a student at an educational establishment which years later I awoke one day to discover had been an embryonic university, a lecturer referred to the anecdotal nature of material I had quoted in a tutorial as though it was, in the immortal words of Gene Hunt, "a bad thing". Well, Handed Down is crammed with anecdotes and ten times as informative for it. And that is a very good thing
And that would be my last word, did it not behove me refer to the apparent absence of something which is fairly crucial to the study of traditional music, and that, of course, is the music itself. Are there nowhere any recordings of any quality which might add to our understanding of the music which is documented in Handed Down?
Philip Heath-Coleman - 24.6.14