Representing traditional music

Mon, Jul 21, 2014, 01:15

Sir, – There was a minor controversy last year when the newly designed Irish passports began to be issued, and several people remarked on the background design of one of the pages, which incorporated images of musical instruments associated with Ireland. Those included were the accordion, banjo and bodhrán, relatively recent introductions to Irish music. The instruments that have won a global audience for Irish music, in former and in modern times – the harp and the uilleann pipes – were left out, and their absence was remarked upon and criticised by Kevin Conneff of The Chieftains, among others.

Now “Official Ireland” has done it again. A set of stamps was issued by An Post in May as part of the Europe-wide Europa series, on the theme “national musical instruments”.

The An Post website tells us that the stamps feature the harp, “the classic Irish musical instrument”, and the bodhrán, “the most popular”.

It is difficult to know how to respond. Difficult indeed not to feel that one’s leg is being pulled! The harp is indeed Ireland’s “classic musical instrument”, and the Irish harp attracted the attention and admiration of foreign observers for 700 years, from Norman times up to the beginning of the 19th century, when the unique Irish wire-strung harp ceased to be played. Examples of this instrument survive, the Trinity College harp, for instance, or Denis Hempson’s harp which is to be seen in the Guinness Storehouse.

Unfortunately the stamp designers chose to depict, not the kind of harp that was celebrated for centuries, but a 19th-century instrument – one that does not deliver the sound that entranced Europe for centuries.

As for the bodhrán being “the most popular instrument” in Irish music, I can only suggest that the question be put to the people who actually play the music, on pipes, harp, fiddle, flute, box, concertina, whistle or banjo.

No tune was ever played on a bodhrán, although the late lamented Sliabh Luachra fiddle player Paudie Gleeson raised many a smile with his yarn about the man in his district who “knew all the tunes”. The punchline was that this musical genius turned out to be a bodhrán player.

Those who hold and play the music continue to be slighted. There are national institutions that would readily provide any advice or information required – the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and ourselves, to name only the most well-known. All that designers have to do is ask. – Yours, etc,



Na Píobairí Uilleann,

15 Henrietta Street,

Dublin 1.