Mapping the evolution of Clare’s musical tradition

Review: Flowing Tides: History and Memory in an Irish Soundscape by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

PJ Hayes at a traditional music session in Peppers Pub, Feakle, Co Clare, in 2001. Photograph: Frank Miller

PJ Hayes at a traditional music session in Peppers Pub, Feakle, Co Clare, in 2001. Photograph: Frank Miller


Here is Brigid, dressed in white
Give her a penny for the night
She is deaf, she is dumb
She cannot talk without a tongue

“This brídóg verse was common in Clare”, writes Dr Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin in a discussion of St. Brigid’s Day, on which same occasion in 2016 he finally signed off on his most recent book, Flowing Tides: History and Memory in an Irish Soundscape (Oxford University Press).

Groundbreaking work from the Ennis man who managed to map the evolution of musical tradition in Clare since the beginning of recorded acoustemological time, taking us through an earthquake said in the Annals of the Four Masters to have struck the county in 804, towards Napoleonic Europe’s legacy of military spectacle, and into the post-Celtic Tiger period of media moguls. The attention to detail over which the author casts his “broad analytical net” is astonishing. His elliptical reflections over the changing Irish soundscape almost have the effect of reducing history itself to a flowing tide, paving the way all the way for a most relevant citation of Paul Valéry who once remarked in poetry that we tend to enter the future in reverse (“nous entrons dans l’avenir”).

Ó hAllmhuráin’s penchant for French phrase in italic font throughout no doubt nods to the Norman heritage of his native Clare, to his formative postgraduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris, and to his current position at Concordia University’s thriving School of Irish Studies, Montréal, as the inaugural Johnson Chair in Québec.

Reminders of Ireland’s cosmopolitan history with regard to patterns of invasion and settlement authoritatively escort his text from its entrée right through to its epilogue. By the time we read in the 20th century chapters of nationalist objections to the bull fiddle, to jazz bands, or even to quadrille dances having withstood accusations to the tune that “these dances came with Cromwell”, we have been briefed to be aware of the irony of such dogma. Ó hAllmhuráin’s grace note consists in a game-changing celebration of Brazilian and Nigerian participation in the Irish music scene as the 21st century yields an Ireland whose return to a culture of net inmigration for the first time since the plantation period has secured a significant new conduit for sonic flow. The value of this new conduit may be appreciated in the opposite direction too, considering that a version of Mo Ghile Mear has found its way into the soundtrack of one of the first episodes of a new Brazilian medieval drama series called Deus salve o Rei.

Appendix I brings to life as though by a novelist Willie Mac’s pub over a trip to Inagh on a wet Sunday night in October 1977. As traditional musicians have in the past been singled out as representing the “poor cousin” in the family of Irish culture, Ó hAllmhuráin has taken great pains to mention the names of each and every musician involved in his discussion of Clare’s musical history, if not their townlands too. Appendices II and III provide lists of musicians and of céilí bands of Clare providence at home and abroad, the author himself identifying with the Kilfenora céilí band in abstentia.

Ó hAllmhuráin, however, is quick to qualify the success of Clare musicians such as Martin Hayes and Sharon Shannon with reminders of the demise of the Irish language in a county 66 per cent Irish-speaking as recently as in 1911, and holding the honour of having fostered possibly the best Irish speaker to ever have had his repertoire go on record – Stiofán Ó hEalaoire of Ballycullane, a shanachie whose astonishingly extensive folkloric repertoire and vocabulary was entirely unknown to his neighbours. Willie Clancy once famously said that he would have traded his musical talent in exchange for the ability to speak Irish.

A dour depiction of the “musical world of Doolin and its hereditary Irish-speaking keepers” as eventual victims to the craic agus ceol agus ruaile buaile of cultural tourism makes for uneasy reading. At one time “Ireland’s mecca of traditional music”, Doolin’s reduction to “postmodern simulacra of its former self, where pilgrims have supplanted the musical icons they came to worship” indeed seems to read like a word of warning to another Munster Gaeltacht town in particular which to my mind is in the midst of meeting with a similar fate.

And such a fate does not appear to be inevitable. Ó hAllmhuráin observes that Miltown Malbay “has avoided the paradox of its northern neighbor”, notably in the establishment of the Willie Clancy Summer School on the Danish precedent of privileging indigenous cultural heritage over lucrative exercises in cultural tourism, doing so by functioning successfully without bureaucratic baggage, political handouts or capital from drink company sponsors. Ó hAllmhuráin’s cynicism in respect of the role alcohol all too commonly plays on the music scene is abundantly clear from his citation of a warning through the medium of graffiti on the toilet door of a Doolin pub to the effect that “musicians make millionaires out of publicans, and publicans make alcoholics out of musicians”.

Ó hAllmhuráin did not, however, intend for Flowing Tides to become a troubleshooting manual for broken coastal tourist traps, nor did he intend it as a history of Irish music in microcosm. He makes expressly clear that the banner county must be considered on its own terms, composed of a web of micro musical territories whose political fringes are “umbilically linked to similar territories and dialects in Galway, Limerick, and Kerry”.

Series 1 episode 3 of Black Mirror envisaged generations of future humans armed with memory implants at odds with what they scathingly refer to as “organic memory”, which as one character explains is partial to corruption through “leading questions”. Ó hAllmhuráin’s research asks similarly important question of the faculty of memory, or as he likes to call it, “a rhizomorphic nexus of cognitive and subcognitive processes, many of them still uncharted by modern medical science”. Uncharted as they may be, Ó hAllmhuráin’s faith in memory as an important historiographical agent remains unshaken, staying true all the while to the conviction of Henry Glassie whose experiences led him to suggest that ethnological research must “begin with the words of the people we study”.

Ó hAllmhuráin’s research refers us to most every kind of source, from Irish language archival material to the theoretical framework of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai whose “scapes” theory has no doubt made its contribution to Ó hAllmhuráin’s choice of title for the book. His oral informants are nonetheless afforded pride of place in an interdisciplinary work featuring compelling exchange between the rigour of academic discourse and “the wink and elbow language of delight” spoken by musicians such as concertina player Molly Carthy who had “heard tell of Parnell” – she was 100 years old by the time Ó hAllmhuráin interviewed her in 1996.

Rather than tacking a cumbersome CD to the rear inside of the hardback cover, Flowing Tides consistently refers its readers to audio-visual examples made available via a url to a purpose-built “companion website” showcasing a variety of items including rare photographs and unpublished field recordings, as well as footage of the musically accomplished author himself in performance. I couldn’t help thinking that this tech-savvy feature of the publication represented yet another aspect of Clare music’s tidal flow into the future.

This book will be remembered as an important contribution to the newcoming field of what is termed here as “Celtic ethnomusicology”, the latter component defined as “a hybrid discipline that grew out of comparative musicology”. Here’s to the growth of Celtic ethnomusicology.
Dr Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh is a Fulbright FLTA in the University of Notre Dame, Indiana

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