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

Title page i
Summary ii
Contents iv
Introduction vi
Part 1: The Nineteenth Century
 Chapter 1. Music and Dance in Rural Ireland 1
 Chapter 2. Irish Settlement in London 17
 Chapter 3. The Transplantation, Survival & Adaptation of Irish Rural Music & Dance in London 25
 Chapter 4. Irish Traditional Music for Elite Society in London 55
 Chapter 5. The Creation of Urban Genres of London-Irish Music & Dance 71
 Chapter 6. The Assimilation of Irish Rural Music & Dance into the London Mainstream 86
 Chapter 6a. Setting the Scene for Parts 2 & 3. The London-Irish, 1890-1945 109
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 113
 Chapter 8. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1890-1914 149
 Chapter 9. The Gaelic Revival in Ireland, 1914-1945 202
 Chapter 10. The Gaelic Revival in London, 1914-1945 211
 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 235
 Chapter 12. The Commercial Dance Halls 254
 Chapter 13. The Parish Bands 277
 Chapter 14. The Drum-and-Fife Band Tradition 291
 Chapter 15. The Bagpipe Tradition 295
      i. Profile of the Borough Pipe Band 308
      ii. Profile of the Fogarty Family 314
      iii. Profile of the Dagenham Irish Pipe Band 325
 Chapter 15a. Some Conclusions 330
Part 4.
 Chapter 16. Discography: 1899-1945 331
Part 5: The Pre-Emigration Experience: Music and Dance in Rural Ireland, 1900-1980
 Chapter 16a. Introduction 365
 Chapter 17. Self-Generated Systems, 1900-1945 366
 Chapter 18. Responses to External Influences, 1900-1945 415
 Chapter 19. Popular Resurgence and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, 1945-1980 443
Part 6: The Gaelic Revival in London and the London-Irish Working-Class Tradition, 1945-1980
 Chapter 20. The Revival of the Gaelic Revival 467
 Chapter 21. The Decline of Urban Traditions 505
      i. Domestic and Community Music-Making and Dancing 505
      ii. The Commercial Dance Halls 514
      iii. Parish Bands, Bagpipes & Flute-&-Drums 514
 Chapter 21a. Some Conclusions 529
Part 7: The Adaptation of Rural Music and Dance in London, 1945-1980
 Chapter 22. Settling In 560
 Chapter 23. The Pubs: Mostly Camden Town 586
 Chapter 24. The Pubs: Mostly Fulham Broadway 618
 Chapter 25. The Pubs: The Favourite 633
 Chapter 26. The Pubs: And the Rest 652
 Chapter 27. The Commercial Dance Halls 672
 Chapter 28. The Commercial Dance Halls: The Local Ceili Bands 709
 Chapter 29. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann 730
 Chapter 30. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann -- Additional Illustrations 756
 Chapter 31. Repertory, Skills and Dissemination 782
 Chapter 32. The Media and the Folk-Dance and Folk-Song Movements 797
Part 8: Illustrative Biographies
 Chapter 33. Michael Gorman (1895-1970) 820
 Chapter 34. Jimmy Power (1918-1985) 874
Part 9:
 Chapter 35a. Discography, 1945-1980: 1945-1965 901
 Chapter 35b. Discography, 1945-1980: 1966-1980 949
Part 10: The Legacy in London, post-1980.
 Chapter 36. The Decline of Adapted Rural Practice and the Emergence of Urban Practices 995
Part 11:
 Chapter 37. Some Conclusions 1022

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:

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:

I was also interested to find that, in Ireland: ... 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:

In his 'Some Conclusions' section at the end of Part 2, Reg writes that, in Ireland: 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: And: 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:

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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