Ireland . . . and all that jazz
The Jazz Age? In Free State Ireland, the moral guardians weren’t having any of it. A free music festival in Dublin looks back at the Anti-Jazz Campaign of 1934 – and celebrates the rise in Ireland of ‘The Devil’s Music’
IT WAS like cocaine for the feet. We’d always been fond of a good hands-by-your-sides dance, but this new foreign music was something altogether different. The first decade of the Irish Free State coincided with the Jazz Age and the viral spread of what was essentially the world’s first pop music. New-fangled contraptions such as the wireless and the gramophone were bringing its infectious rhythms to every corner of the civilised world.
In rural Ireland, returning immigrants brought sheet music and fancy notions back from London or New York. Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly doing the Black Bottom and the Collegiate Shag. And the moral guardians of the new state weren’t one bit pleased.
Of course, it wasn’t really the music that the Catholic clergy and the more conservative elements within Conradh na Gaeilge were unhappy about. What was really getting them so hot under their starched collars was the kind of dancing that jazz inspired. Unlicensed dancehalls were springing up everywhere in rural Ireland, and within these sinks of bohemian depravity, unsupervised men and women were actually touching one another. Someone had to put a stop to it.
Enter the Very Reverend Peter Conefrey of Cloone, near Mohill, Co Leitrim. A zealous cultural nationalist, Fr Conefrey was determined to realise Pearse’s vision of an Ireland not only free but Gael, and on New Year’s day 1934, he led a demonstration of several thousand people along the main street of Mohill, grandly inaugurating Ireland’s Anti-Jazz campaign. They unfurled banners in the chill January air, reading “Down with Jazz” and “Out with Pagansim”, and five pipe bands spurred the marchers on.
When they reached the local parochial hall, Conefrey delivered a fiery speech. A graver danger than drink or landlords, he told the congregation, was stalking the Irish countryside. Jazz was “borrowed from the language of the savages in Africa, and its object is to destroy virtue in the human soul”.
Messages were read out from President De Valera and former President Douglas Hyde in which they expressed support for Irish music and dancing, though they wisely avoided any direct condemnation of the music that had everyone else jumping for joy. The Catholic Primate, Cardinal Joseph McRory, however, had no such qualms and wasn’t going to let total ignorance stand between him and a chance to pontificate. “I know nothing about jazz dances,” he wrote, “except that I understand they are suggestive and demoralising, and in country districts and small towns are a fruitful source of scandal and ruin, spiritual and temporal. To how many poor innocents have they not been the occasion of irreparable disgrace and life-long sorrow.”
A strongly supportive article in the Leitrim Observer, reporting on the event, predicted that “the West will not now slumber but rush forth again to expel the last and worst invader – the jazz of Johnny Bull and the niggers and cannibals.” Dancehalls were damned as “synagogues of Satan”, and the music was even portrayed as part of a Bolshevik plot to corrupt young Catholics. When it came to handing out the blame for jazz, it seemed any Johnny Foreigner would do.
But even in the context of the 1930s, with fascism on the rise in Europe, the xenophobia and paranoia of the Anti-Jazz campaign alienated more people than it attracted, and by the summer, the campaign had run its course. Nevertheless, the following year, under pressure from the Catholic hierarchy, the Fianna Fáil government passed the Dancehalls Act and unlicensed dances, whether they purveyed jazz or traditional Irish music, became a thing of the past.
Conveniently, the dances now moved into licensed parochial halls, where the local priest could ensure that there was “at least the width of a bible between dancers at all times”. The government took 25 per cent of ticket sales, thank you very much, and the church authorities kept the rest. So the Anti-Jazz campaign was at least partially responsible for bringing dancing under the supervision of the State. This attempt to stem the tide of foreign music, however, failed miserably and young people continued to practise advanced fondling to a jazz beat when the priest wasn’t looking.
But behind the rabid conservatism and the Victorian moral squint, there remained nonetheless a more general undercurrent of resistance to modernity in the nascent Free State. And it’s a resistance that Gerry Godley, artistic director of a festival of music satirically commemorating the Anti-Jazz campaign, which takes place in Dublin’s Temple Bar next weekend, can still see in Irish society today.
“We’ve never been great about the ‘new thing’. We are quite change-resistant as a people, which also comes though in our discourse about visual art, or non-narrative theatre, or modern dance. Artforms that favour the abstract really struggle for purchase in Ireland. And that is something that we’re trying to confront with this event. We’re trying to prod people about that prejudice we still have about various abstract forms of expression.”
Jazz in Ireland today is not much used for dancing any more. Groups such as the Swedish House Mafia have taken on the role, and we all know where that leads. That’s right – more touching – and not always in a good way.
Meanwhile, jazz has developed into a serious genre of music, practised by some of our most gifted and forward-thinking musicians, many of whom will be performing at the free event in Meeting House Square. They range from edgy hipsters OKO and Mixtapes from the Underground, to local legends such as veteran saxophonist Chas Meredith, to established artists with international reputations such as saxophonist Michael Buckley and singer Christine Tobin.
Godley also promises plenty of side shows, including a “rant podium” where historians and commentators (including Jim Carroll of this parish) will debate attitudes to contemporary culture, and there will also be projections charting the history of jazz in Ireland. Those looking for opportunities to touch members of the opposite sex are encouraged to seek permission first.
The weekend kicks off at 7.30 pm on FRIDAY with performances from up-and-coming singer Edel Meade’s Swoo-Beh Project; Afro-Peruvian groovers Phisqa; edgy electric jazz hipsters OKO; and new pop-jazz standards from rising singer Jaime Nance and the Blue Boys. Two generations of influential Dublin jazz family the Guilfoyles are on the bill in the form of 3G with brothers Ronan and Conor joined by Ronan’s son Chris.
The grooving gets going again at 7.30pm on SATURDAY with young composer Patrick Groenland’s Leafzang; leading London-based vocalist Christine Tobin in a duo with noted UK guitarist Phil Robson; guitarist Chris Guilfoyle’s second appearance, this time with his own group Umbra; and genre-busting hip-hop-meets- jazz collective Mixtapes from the Underground.
The pick of Saturday’s bill may well be Freefall, featuring two Brooklyn-based Irish jazzers, Justin Carroll and Simon Jermyn, home for the occasion with New Yorkers Jeff Davis and Jason Rigby in tow. Also on Saturday’s bill is a special duo featuring local legend, veteran saxophonist Chas Meredith, with guitarist Hugh Buckley.
SUNDAYis an all-day affair starting at 2pm with acts including saxophonist Dennis Wyer’s chordless quintet Rhombus; drummer Matt Jacobson’s palindromic RedivideR; leading saxophonist Michael Buckley’s Standard Time, with a heavyweight rhythm section including guitarist Tommy Halferty; a dixieland session from Sweeney’s Jazzmen; and sets to get the feet really moving from funksters Max Zazka’s Groove and the Hot House Big Band.
The Down with Jazz festival takes place in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar from Friday to Sunday. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. For more info, go to downwithjazz.ie