A Few Tunes of Good Music
A History of Irish Music and Dance in London, 1800-1980 & Beyond
by Reg Hall, 2016
Topic Records, Web Book/PDF
|Part 1: The Nineteenth Century
|Chapter 1. Music and Dance in Rural Ireland
|Chapter 2. Irish Settlement in London
|Chapter 3. The Transplantation, Survival & Adaptation of Irish Rural Music & Dance in London
|Chapter 4. Irish Traditional Music for Elite Society in London
|Chapter 5. The Creation of Urban Genres of London-Irish Music & Dance
|Chapter 6. The Assimilation of Irish Rural Music & Dance into the London Mainstream
|Chapter 6a. Setting the Scene for Parts 2 & 3. The London-Irish, 1890-1945
|Part 2: Invention of Tradition: Music and Dance of the Gaelic Revival, 1890-1945
|Chapter 7. Gaelic Revival Ideology and Its Practice in Ireland, 1880-1914
|Chapter 8. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1890-1914
|Chapter 9. The Gaelic Revival in Ireland, 1914-1945
|Chapter 10. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1914-1945
|Chapter 10a. Some Conclusions 234
|Part 3: Creation of Urban Traditions: Music and Dance of the London-Irish Working Class, 1890-1945
|Chapter 11. Domestic and Community Music-Making and Dancing
|Chapter 12. The Commercial Dance Halls
|Chapter 13. The Parish Bands
|Chapter 14. The Drum-and-Fife Band Tradition
|Chapter 15. The Bagpipe Tradition
| i. Profile of the Borough Pipe Band
| ii. Profile of the Fogarty Family
| iii. Profile of the Dagenham Irish Pipe Band
|Chapter 15a. Some Conclusions
|Chapter 16. Discography: 1899-1945
|Part 5: The Pre-Emigration Experience: Music and Dance in Rural Ireland, 1900-1980
|Chapter 16a. Introduction
|Chapter 17. Self-Generated Systems, 1900-1945
|Chapter 18. Responses to External Influences, 1900-1945
|Chapter 19. Popular Resurgence and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, 1945-1980
|Part 6: The Gaelic Revival in London and the London-Irish Working-Class Tradition, 1945-1980
|Chapter 20. The Revival of the Gaelic Revival
|Chapter 21. The Decline of Urban Traditions
| i. Domestic and Community Music-Making and Dancing
| ii. The Commercial Dance Halls
| iii. Parish Bands, Bagpipes & Flute-&-Drums
|Chapter 21a. Some Conclusions
|Part 7: The Adaptation of Rural Music and Dance in London, 1945-1980
|Chapter 22. Settling In
|Chapter 23. The Pubs: Mostly Camden Town
|Chapter 24. The Pubs: Mostly Fulham Broadway
|Chapter 25. The Pubs: The Favourite
|Chapter 26. The Pubs: And the Rest
|Chapter 27. The Commercial Dance Halls
|Chapter 28. The Commercial Dance Halls: The Local Ceili Bands
|Chapter 29. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
|Chapter 30. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann -- Additional Illustrations
|Chapter 31. Repertory, Skills and Dissemination
|Chapter 32. The Media and the Folk-Dance and Folk-Song Movements
|Part 8: Illustrative Biographies
|Chapter 33. Michael Gorman (1895-1970)
|Chapter 34. Jimmy Power (1918-1985)
|Chapter 35a. Discography, 1945-1980: 1945-1965
|Chapter 35b. Discography, 1945-1980: 1966-1980
|Part 10: The Legacy in London, post-1980.
|Chapter 36. The Decline of Adapted Rural Practice and the Emergence of Urban Practices
|Chapter 37. Some Conclusions
This is a truly massive work - 1041 pages! It is right that it should be so, in that it encompasses the whole of Reg Hall's experience of Irish dance music in London (and quite a lot of Ireland, too). It is the fruit of a project that he has been working on for decades. Perhaps obviously, no review can hope to deal effectively with it all, and so it is my intention to simply cover the parts and ideas that particularly interest me, or that I think are particularly important. Equally obviously, these will be different to those of any other reader, or indeed, of Dr Hall himself.
Not only is it massive - it is also massively important! As has been noted in these page before, the quality of past scholarship in the study of Irish traditional music and song, and of the socio-cultural history that underpins it, has been notoriously weak. Here we get a far better and more accurate example.
Since this study begins in 1800, we very soon encounter The Famine (1845-52), and its consequences for Irish music in England:
Some grasp of the nature of music-making and dance practice in Ireland in the nineteenth century, in terms of repertory, practice and social distribution, is necessary to consider what could possibly have been transferred by emigration from Ireland to London at that time. The main surge of immigration resulted from the ravages of the Famine in the middle of the century, and a vital issue to be grasped is that back home in Ireland the Famine was a social watershed. Famine immigrants (and those who had immigrated in the previous fifty years), whose social experience was pre-Famine, were different in many ways from later immigrants, especially those at the end of the century, who had seen the social, economic and political changes that had taken place in Ireland. As far as music and dance are concerned, quite different repertories and practices emerged and developed after that devastating event from those that existed before it. It follows, therefore, that those Irish who came before the Famine and at the time of the Famine brought one body of experience and related expectations, while those who arrived in London during the five decades after the Famine brought different experience and expectations.
These differences are discussed in detail and at some length - particularly interesting was the change from the 'high dance' of the 18th century to the 'low dance' of the 19th and subsequently. Then a point I'd not encountered before emerges: that in both Ireland and England little of the rural culture survived the move to the cities in the face of the overall condition of social deprivation – poverty, bad housing, appalling sanitation, and particularly the lack of privacy caused by confined living space in multiple tenancies and shared rooms – and the consequent exhaustion and demoralisation they found there. For some, emigration was the last desperate attempt to stay alive, but for others the process of emigration and subsequent life in the cities were major factors contributing to their impoverishment.
It was also interesting to note that, pre-Famine, the Catholic Church in Ireland had been a disorganised church with a poorly educated clergy, who tolerated superstitious beliefs. Religion was thus wedded to superstition, and secular and religious celebration was intertwined in rural practices marking rites of passage – christenings, weddings and funerals – and patron saint’s days, popularly known as patterns. While being nominally Roman Catholic, the bulk of the Irish in nineteenth-century London were not galvanised by collective religious observation. Church attendance had been poor in Ireland before they left home and, in London it was as low as about 20% by the turn of the century. The Roman Catholic Church was weak in England during the beginning of the century and there were few Roman Catholic churches in London before the mass immigration following The Famine. Thus the Irish in London did not 'benefit' from this cohesive factor in their cultural life.
Something I've noticed, and written about in these pages, is the fact that there is a substantial underlying similarity between the song repertory (and to a smaller extent, the musical) of the rural lower classes in both England and Ireland. So it was both interesting and pleasing to me to find the following paragraph:
One factor that might have determined the relative balance of Irish identity retention and integration into the London mainstream, is the fundamental question of how different were the Irish in London from their social and economic peers in the host population? How alienated, in fact, were the Irish in London? Dislocation and difference of language were problems specific to the Irish. Poverty and adaptation from a rural to an urban way of life were problems shared with many of their English neighbours and work mates. Many English Londoners were, in fact, immigrant rural workers, with some degree of cultural background in common with the Irish ... Several hundred years of social intercourse between working people from both counties – Irish migrant harvesters, horse dealers, cattle drovers, navvies, tinkers and house servants working in England, Englishmen and Irishmen rubbing shoulders in the army, at sea and in the colonies, and English farm lads posted with their regiments to Ireland – provided opportunity enough for cultural cross-over and shared development.
I was also interested to find that, in Ireland:
Between the 1870s and 1940, complex bonds of household, kinship, friendship and community loyalties and obligations were, in part, facilitated by the system of evening and night-time house-visiting. There were antecedents for this complicated system of social intercourse in pre-Famine Ireland and the legacy continued until after the Second World War, but it was this social structure and these systems of social organisation that produced a golden age of Irish rural music-making and dancing.
... and that this was almost exactly parallelled in the English countryside - as noted by Flora Thompson in Larkrise to Candleford - in that 1875 was marked by a rise in agricultural wages and the beginnings of the availability of cheap, mass-produced musical instruments. This led to what we think of as the golden age of English rural music-making and dancing between the 1870s and the 1950s.
I would assume that most potential readers of this web-book (and of this brief review) would be most interested im accounts of 'traditional' performers, so it in interesting to note that it's not 'til page 177 that we encounter any of them - fiddlers Dennis (Din) Tarrant and Daniel Kelleher, both from Sliabh Luchra, who came to London to perform for the Gaelic League between 1897 and 1901. The chapters dealing with the Gaelic Revival and the Gaelic League (Part 2: Invention of Tradition: Music and Dance of the Gaelic Revival, 1890-1945; Chapter 7. Gaelic Revival Ideology and Its Practice in Ireland, 1880-1914; Chapter 8. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1890-1914; Chapter 9. The Gaelic Revival in Ireland, 1914-1945; Chapter 10. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1914-1945) may be seen as both hysterically funny and deeply depressing, simultaneously. Reg shows that the Gaelic League was composed exclusively of middle and upper class people who had little or no understanding of what they were trying to do, or first-hand knowledge upon which to base their conjectures. Having invented things, since they had no real traditional sources, they then spent months and years arguing amongst themselves about the authenticity of these inventions! Exactly the same may be said of what was happening in England at the time, but I think we should count ourselves lucky that the EFDS, EFSS and their ilk were far less successful in their efforts to change English culture than were the Gaelic League in Ireland. Read chapters 7 to 10 to get the grizzly details for yourself!
The Gaelic League's original, and doubtless admirable, aim was the re-introduction of the Irish language. Their efforts in this respect are wonderfully sent up in Flann O'Brien's book An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth). Although the League was very active in London, this aspect of their work was, of course, far more difficult to effect amongst the London-Irish. Their sub-plot was to eradicate everything that was English - or seen as that - and it wasn't long before their interests spread to almost every aspect of Irish life and, particularly, culture.
Nor did they do much better there; Reg doesn't include this quote, but I feel it's germane. Proinsias de Roiste in his 'Note on Irish Dancing', Nodlag 1927, wrote:
'It was unfortunate that in the general scheme to recreate an Irish Ireland, the work of preserving or reviving our old national dances should have largely fallen to the lot of those who were but poorly equipped for the task. For the most part they were lacking in insight and a due appreciation of the pure old style, and had, as it appears, but a slender knowledge of the old repertoire .... The musicians were, apparently as slack in tunes as most others proved to have been in dances .... The spectacular and difficult dances for the few were cultivated to the neglect of the simple ones for the many, leaving the social side untouched except to criticise or condemn .... The ballroom dances in vogue at the time were the quadrilles or sets, lancers, valse, polka, schottische or barn dance, two step and mazurka. These were all banned and nothing put in their place but for a couple of long dances. An exception should have been made, one would imagine, in favour of the popular old Sets, if only on account of the fine old tunes with which they were associated, but they were decried amongst the rest.'
In his 'Some Conclusions' section at the end of Part 2, Reg writes that, in Ireland:
The Irish musicians who had most access to radio broadcasting were centred on Dublin, where a small number, from the city itself, from neighbouring counties and immigrants from the west, were active at Gaelic League ceilidhthe and at the Dublin Piper’s Club, which had been re-formed in 1936. While these musicians were not hard-line revivalists, their feeling of vulnerability and their outlets for music-making at Gaelic League events directed them towards acceptance of Gaelic revival philosophy and dogma. Typified by Leo Rowsome, the union piper, they were important figures in the progress of Irish music, deserving their honoured place in its history. However, their view of the state of Irish music-making, unexposed as they were to much, if any, rural practice, has distorted subsequent accounts.
Part 3: (Creation of Urban Traditions: Music and Dance of the London-Irish Working Class, 1890-1945) is where it starts to get interesting for me / for you? Reg writes:
The paucity of written evidence about London-Irish social life obscures the probable survival and adaptation of some Irish rural practice in London at that time. Oral testimony, both eyewitness and hearsay, indicates that there was some music-making and dancing from Irish rural roots in domestic settings, among kin, friends and neighbours from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1930s.
The shift from middle-class Gaelic revivalist to working-class nationalist organisation of social events was fundamental to the London-Irish working class evolving its own construction of Irishness, in terms of its music and dance practice. Sinn Fein and the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain inherited the form of their social gatherings directly from the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, that is, organised programmes of solo singing, ceilidh dancing, exhibition step-dancing, recitations, instrumental music and speeches. What was so different about their events, however, was the freedom from Gaelic-revival fundamentalism and the constraints of middle-class manners. Working-class performers were thus free to offer any Irish material, without censorship, in an atmosphere they found friendly and conducive.
Rather obviously, this period was greatly disrupted by world and Irish events: the Great War; the 1916 Rising; the Treaty; the Civil War and The Emergency (Second World War). Almost all the cultural and political organisations active amongst the London-Irish were greatly affected in terms of their influence - usually for the worse. The idea of an evening’s social dancing was quite new to the urban mainstream working class when the Hammersmith Palais opened in 1919, but it was taken up quickly as commercial ballrooms opened in most town centres in Britain. Ceilidh dances had been disseminated in London-Irish communities before the Great War by the Gaelic League to working-class children, and in the early 1920s these children, by then young, single adults, brought these two entertainment and recreation models together – the new craze for public social dancing and their experience of ceilidh dancing. Events sprang up, or expanded, all over London's Irish areas - and where there's dancing, musicians are needed. And bear in mind that vernacular music was, at this time, almost entirely functional - it was dance music. The idea of a music session, of dance music to listen to, had scarcely been imagined.
The whole hundred pages of Part 3 details the countless people and bands that served the dancing London-Irish in this period. It is full of the excitement, enthusiasm and enjoyment that the players and the dancers experienced. In this way, it reminded me very much of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies of the English folk song and music revival, when exactly the same passions were evident amongst all the participants that I knew.
Part 4 is a surprisingly large Discography, though Reg points out that most of the records listed sold in very small numbers, and often in only one country or area. Consequently, most are extremely rare.
Part 5: (The Pre-Emigration Experience: Music and Dance in Rural Ireland, 1900-1980) is extremely interesting, and begins with dozens of descriptions of rural house dances and ceilidhing, and of the people involved. He writes:
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the rural working population had evolved systems of practice, moulded to prevailing social structure and conditions, which were to continue until the middle of the century. Social and economic changes contributed both to modifications in domestic and kinship and friendship network practice and to innovation in the organisation of community and commercial practice. In the four decades following the Treaty, a number of significant outside influences had impact upon these systems. Closed communities were opened up by the development of private and public transport, literacy and communication with emigrants; the gramophone and radio broadened musical horizons; and Gaelic revivalism presented alternative aesthetic ideals, models of organisation and additional repertory. A popular resurgence of rural music-making and dancing in the late 1940s and early 1950s was galvanised by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann into a national movement, creating in the process new systems of traditional music practice.
The remainder of this enormous work - the rest of Part 5 and Parts 6 through 11 are, I would assume, likely to be of the greatest interest to most of my readers. However, this review is getting far too long already - so I will suggest that, if I've whetted your appetite, you go online and download it for yourselves at: www.topicrecords.co.uk/a-few-good-tunes/ I don't think you will be disappointed!
However, if you get as irritated as I did by the 'flip-book' format, you can click the download icon at the foot of the page, and get it as a PDF - which you can then save (only 116.014KB). Much kinder to the nerves, and far easier to move about in!
Rod Stradling - 16.7.16
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