Ireland encounters jazz
An Irishman’s Diary: ‘Down with jazz’ on the wireless
“The Gaelic League sent a letter in Irish to public bodies asking them to inform the government that the broadcasting of jazz was against Christianity, learning and the spirit of nationality, and urging every Irishman to boycott foreign dances.”
Eighty years ago, in January 1934, some citizens of the Irish Free State were exercised about a new threat to civilisation.
On New Year’s Day, Mohill, Co Leitrim, was the scene of a demonstration by 3,000 people protesting about jazz and, especially, about the time being given to it on the wireless. Five bands took part and banners proclaimed “out with paganism” and “down with jazz”. The event was organised by the parish priest of the village of Cloone who described the music as worse than drunkenness or landlordism, and messages of support were received from Cardinal McRory and the local bishop. McRory admitted that he knew nothing about it but he believed that all-night jazz dances were dangerous and led to scandal and ruin, spiritual and temporal.
De Valera wrote a supportive letter but regretted that none of his ministers could attend because they were “heavily pressed”. This was an unwise excuse as four of them had been observed at a jazz dance in Dublin and the minister for finance, Sean McEntee, had been a judge at a fancy dress dance in Tramore at Christmas.
One speaker, Sean O’Ceallaigh, the secretary of the Gaelic League, claimed that McEntee had “a soul buried in jazz” and was selling the musical soul of the nation for the money he received from sponsored programmes on “Athlone”, as the wireless station was known because of the location nearby of the transmitter.
The Gaelic League sent a letter in Irish to public bodies asking them to inform the government that the broadcasting of jazz was against Christianity, learning and the spirit of nationality, and urging every Irishman to boycott foreign dances.
The response was mixed.
In Wexford, one councillor called the request idiotic but another believed that jazz was “dancing gone bolshevik”.
Cork Corporation referred it back to the sender for a definition of foreign dancing.
In Sligo, the Board of Health declined to mark it as “read” because it was in Irish and they couldn’t read it.
A member of Dublin Corporation asked if anyone could demonstrate jazz for him.
In Waterford, a councillor suggested that people who didn’t like jazz could switch off their wirelesses.
The debate was also taken up more widely. In Athlone, the students at the Technical School threatened to strike if a teacher banned waltzes at a céilí. As might be expected, a motion in favour of jazz was carried in a debate in Trinity College. One speaker warned that soon, in the new free Ireland, people might only dance what the government wanted. But the minority view was expressed by a lady who claimed that jazz was like the beating of a tom-tom. It pleased the empty headed and wore down the physique. On the other hand, waltzes were melodic and brought on “old-fashioned thoughts”.
At another debate in the Dublin Mansion House, a speaker suggested that jazz wasn’t bad but merely vulgar and associated with the Shoneen tendency.
Meantime, Clerys sold silk handkerchiefs with “jazz designs” for three pence each in the new year sale.
The minister for posts and telegraphs, Gerald Boland, who had responsibility for the wireless, would later admit in the Dáil that he only listened to music out of a sense of duty. All jazz sounded much the same to him but he did recognise badly played traditional music and noted that “some people” wanted to chloroform certain fiddlers!
In mitigation of the more ridiculous comments it is perhaps worth pointing out that there were only about 50,000 wireless sets in the country and that most people had never heard jazz.
Early in 1935, an act to license dancing venues was passed after minimal debate in the Oireachtas. House dances almost died out and dance halls sprung up. Many were built by priests as sources of revenue and the State also benefitted by a 25 per cent tax on admissions. By the end of 1937, there were 1,248 in the country. Ironically, they led to a decline in the old music which had been a mainstay of dancing in homes and at crossroads.
The only victim of the controversy was O’Ceallaigh. He had been due to give a lecture titled “Irish Culture, Its Decline” on the wireless but Boland banned him on the grounds that he might depart from his script. This was probably the first exercise of censorship in Irish broadcasting. The slot was filled with a Russian song, a song about Vienna by the American tenor Richard Crooks, and a Spanish fandango. No jazz there!