Thinking outside the squeeze box
By staying ahead of the technological curve, the Irish Traditional Music Archive has become a one-stop shop for anyone curious about our cultural heritage, as its director, Nicholas Carolan, explains
Reference archive: singer Eddie Butcher at Féile na Bóinne in 1977. Photograph: Joe Dowdall/ITMA
Reference archive: fiddler John Loughran, in a 1977 drawing by Eamonn O’Doherty. Photograph: Eamonn O’Doherty/ITMA
Reference archive: Nicholas Carolan (centre) with colleagues at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Reference archive: from A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes Proper for the Violin, German Flute or Hautboy, the first notated collection of Irish music, from 1724. Photograph: ITMA
A quarter of a century is a long time by anyone’s reckoning. Governments form and fall, families begin and grow up, and artists come and go, their reputations sometimes ebbing and flowing according to nothing more than the insistent rhythms of life.
The Irish Traditional Music Archive saw the light of day in 1987, when Nicholas Carolan, its director, first rented space in what is now the Irish Film Institute, in Temple Bar, and was then owned by the Religious Society of Friends – a building more commonly referred to as the Quaker meeting house.
Established with Arts Council funding, the archive is a national reference and resource centre for the traditional song, instrumental music and dance of Ireland, a one-stop shop where musicians, music lovers, researchers and the simply curious can dip a toe in or dive into our traditional-music heritage.
Musicians come seeking tunes, singers trawl for songs and lyrics, and students look for source material for research. Artists such as Iarla Ó Lionáird have been known to phone from studios abroad, up against recording deadlines, in search of lost song verses.
Although some might assume that the archive is forever focused on the past, Carolan emphasises its role as a repository of contemporary traditional music. In addition to its rich bequests – check out the remarkable Inishowen Song Project section of itma.ie – the archive’s sound recordings, books and serials, sheet music and ballad sheets, photographs, CDs, videos and DVDs ensure that it is a living, breathing ecosystem that draws its lifeblood from its ties with those who sing, dance and play traditional music at home and away.
And tomorrow night the Irish Traditional Music Archive hosts its first concert: the sold-out Taisce, at the Abbey Theatre. Performers include a new quartet – Liam O’Flynn, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Paddy Glackin and Neil Martin – as well as Matt Molloy, Donal Lunny, Emer Mayock and Len Graham, among others.
Carolan is a former teacher from Co Louth with a lifelong interest in the discography of Irish music. Before he laid a record or a book in the archive he visited archives around the world, including the British Library, New York Public Library and Rutgers university jazz archive, in New Jersey, to see how others went about collecting historical and contemporary artistic material.
Carolan’s quietly spoken but meticulous personal style is widely known, thanks to the RTÉ television series Come West Along The Road, which is now in its 15th season, and has more than 400,000 viewers.
Carolan is a modernist with a keen interest in the past. Although some people might have harboured sepia-tinged ambitions for a traditional-music archive that would gather historical documents and recordings to preserve them in aspic, Carolan ensures that the Irish Traditional Music Archive stays ahead of the technological curve, capturing the past to preserve and protect it alongside the present (largely though digitisation).