Hallelujah: a book to celebrate

Harry White and Barra Boydell’s encyclopedia of music in Ireland turns a labyrinth into a readable map

The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland
The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland
Author: Harry White and Barra Boydell
ISBN-13: 9781906359782
Publisher: UCD Press
Guideline Price: €125

In the introduction to this handsome set of volumes one of its general editors, Harry White, writes: “When it came to an abbreviation for this project, EMI was self-evidently out of the question, hence ‘EMIR’, but pronounced not as an Arabian ruler but as the name of an Irish princess (as in Emer/Eimear).”

The slipcase for these volumes carries a fine reproduction of the famous Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan by Sir John Lavery. So in effect we have Emer on the cover of EMIR, leaning on her harp, inviting us in to enjoy a journey through the story of music in Ireland. And what a journey it is.

The encyclopedia has had a long gestation. The publication of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada in 1981, while White was a graduate student in Toronto, provided the first inspiration for a similar venture for Ireland. The appearance a year before that of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (all 20 volumes), with its innovative global network of scholars providing comprehensive coverage, also set the scene for an explosion of dictionaries, companions, encyclopedias and similar reference works.

White also generously situates this new work within the echo of earlier publications by Brian Boydell (notably on music in 18th-century Dublin) and Aloys Fleischmann (his symposium Music in Ireland in 1952). Fintan Vallely's Companion to Irish Traditional Music, published in 1999, is credited, too, as helping to create a scholarly climate that further enabled The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland to appear in its current form.


The story of its emergence is also one of institutional cooperation, in this case between NUI Maynooth, University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology, all of which in different ways and at different times took the project under a protective wing. The Atlantic Philanthropies, through the generosity of the businessman Chuck Feeney, provided financial support, as did the Irish Research Council.

Deeply held views
When this encyclopedia was first mooted, some people expressed concern, notably through the pages of Toner Quinn's creation the Journal of Music, that it might reflect some deeply held – some might say conservative – views of musical values widely acknowledged as being held by Prof White.

Indeed, at The Music Education Gathering 2013, a conference this month organised by the Society for Music Education in Ireland, I shared the stage with him and with another of the keynote speakers, Prof David Elliott of New York University. Two more divergent voices than Elliott and White's would be difficult to find, and I found myself somewhat between them.

The conference was structured so as to revisit an earlier major gathering on the subject, 20 years ago, which became known as Music Education National Debate. Elliott had just published his innovative book Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, pulling performance back into the middle of the creative and educational process. White, a prolific scholar, had already launched his ongoing book series (with Prof Gerard Gillen) under the general title of Irish Musical Studies, and he was soon to publish his controversial The Keeper's Recital: Music and Cultural History in Ireland, 1770-1970, with its use of terms such as "the ethnic tradition" in opposition to "art music".

Ten years after that, here is Toner Quinn: “Take, for example, something as basic as the vocabulary used. More often than not, were traditional musicians to pick up any of the recent books or essays that have been produced on the subject of Irish classical music, they would come across something called the ‘ethnic tradition’, the ‘native repertory’ or the ‘ethnic repertory’. Then they would come across a phrase such as ‘art music’ or ‘serious music’ and note that its direct opposite is ‘folk music’.

“Seldom is the art form that traditional musicians engage in called by the name that they actually use: traditional music. Why is this so? Is it because the term is too imprecise for musicologists and classical music critics? Surely it can’t be any more imprecise than the terms ‘classical music’ or ‘serious music’. Is it because these writers are writing for a wider international audience who mightn’t recognise the term ‘traditional music’? If so, isn’t it about time that we enlightened the international community? Given this situation, I can imagine traditional musicians, on reading the latest debates in Irish classical music and seeing their music referred to by every name under the sun except its correct name, quoting Robert de Niro and asking: ‘Are you talking to me?’ ”

At The Music Education Gathering 2013 both Elliott and White were holding firmly to where they were 20 years ago at the Music Education National Debate. Elliott was poised to issue his new edition of Music Matters, with performer and performance still at the core. White, in a paper entitled The Frailties of Irish Music Education, was holding firmly to his guns in arguing for the cultural supremacy of "art music".

Barra O Séaghdha, a writer on cultural politics, literature and music, again in the Journal of Music, wrote, somewhat dismissively, of his misgivings about the forthcoming encyclopedia: "There is little reason . . . to be optimistic about this venture. We may optimistically suppose that whatever coverage is given to music irrelevant to the White worldview – music hall, showbands, jazz, rock and so on – will be relatively unobjectionable. Where traditional music, cultural history and classical and contemporary music are concerned, we can only hope that the contributors and co-editors will be allowed their intellectual integrity and not find that, emerging from the editing studio, their voices have become strangely indistinguishable from that of their master. In that case, we may see something approaching a monument, and not a simulacrum, of Irish culture. We shall all, then, have something to celebrate."

Online version
Well, The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland has entries on Westlife, Willie Clancy and Phil Lynott, not to mention Big Tom and the Mainliners – plus, of course, an extensive list of classical composers and musicians of note. Traditional music is as well covered as any other music forms, if not more so. Few stones are left unturned – and those that are will organically surface in future editions – in this sweeping historical and anthropological gathering of the most recent research across popular, traditional and classical music. Of course there are omissions, but with a work so long in the making it is inevitable that some very recent developments will not make the final cut – something an online version would quickly solve.

It is clear that White, in taking his inspiration from the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, three decades ago, has also held to the then innovative inclusion, shared by The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, of entries across all genres.

Prof Barra Boydell is the other general editor of this new encyclopedia. With an editorial board of 12, including other impressive names (Mel Mercier, Gareth Cox, Gerard Gillen and Méabh Ní Fhúartháin, to mention a few), a list of nine advisory editors (among them Nicholas Carolan, PJ Curtis, Joseph Ryan, Paul Collins and Gerry Smyth) and 240 contributors of the 2,000 individual entries, the motor behind The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland was well engineered and judiciously steered to the finishing line with clear evidence of reimaginings and transformations.

Seamus Heaney tells us in The Redress of Poetry: "The artist, the poet must in some sense set the world free to have a new go at the business . . . If our given experience is a labyrinth, then its impassability is countered by the poet's imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and bringing himself and the reader through it."

The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland is practical in its structure but also poetic in its generosity. As such it has transformed the labyrinth of the knowledge of music in Ireland into a readable map spanning the territory. It has had a new go at the business and, in so doing, given us all cause to celebrate.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is professor of music and founder-director of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick