Majoring in trad music at the Taj Mícheál


Traditional music and academia may seem strange bedfellows, but Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL is challenging certainties while helping to keep the music alive, writes Siobhán Long

‘THIS BUILDING is like a poem,” says Prof Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, with his customary talent for understatement, of University of Limerick’s bespoke new home for the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. “It has all the practicalities of a safe haven, and all the poetics of a work of art. The Irish World Academy team holds it in trust for the Irish nation and for fellow artists and scholars across the world.”

The new building has been dubbed the Taj Mícheál. Since its inception 16 years ago, when Ó Súilleabháin was appointed to the position of UL’s first Chair of Music, the Irish World Academy has tugged at the boundaries of our traditional arts.

More than 1,500 students have graduated from programmes that include Irish Traditional Music Performance, Contemporary Dance Performance and Ethnomusicology.

But what of the tradition itself? Is its prominence within the halls of academe a reflection of its rude state of health or could it be simply a highly marketable bauble for the humanities? Might all this academic scrutiny act as a tourniquet that could ultimately stifle our traditional arts?

For generations, it needed (and got) little by way of formal instruction, relying instead, like most other traditional art forms the world over, on the enthusiasm of the singers, musicians and dancers to guarantee its survival.

Cúl Aodha sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, a member of the groundbreaking Afro Celt Sound System, needs no convincing of the benefits of bringing traditional music within reach of academia. A PhD Programme in Arts Practice commenced in September 2009, attracting internationally renowned performers including Ó Lionáird.

“My reasons for pursuing an academic route are purely personal,” he admits. “I like learning. It isn’t really about having hard and fast opinions. It’s about having a place where everybody can have diverse opinions.

“Where that is a challenge to oral-based traditions is to their sense of some overarching or underlying truth,” Ó Lionáird continues. “Some might consider that our traditional arts are laden with certainties. They have shaped us through generations and are the root of who we are. The academic gaze challenges those precepts, and for some that might be de-stabilising, but I find it enlivening.”

Donal Lunny, one of the Academy’s artists-in-residence, is sanguine about the idea that future generations might come to the tradition via a formal education system, rather than via the oral route which informed his own musical development.

“I think we have to accept that the oral tradition is vanishing, and it’s vanishing everywhere,” he notes, “but I don’t think that the existence of these courses is accelerating it. There are pros and cons, but the pros are that the students are acquiring a great deal of knowledge, even if it’s not of the same cultural depth. I feel that a lot of the gaps will be filled in, in time. A lot more people will be carrying the tradition with them into the future.

“It also gives substance to the whole notion of pursuing traditional music as a career, rather than making it up as you go along – which is what I did!”

In an unexpected way too, Lunny has put his own musicianship under the magnifying glass, through his teaching work in the university.

“I have to confess that there were huge gaps in my knowledge about traditional music around the country, even though I’ve been involved for years and years. My first few years of teaching consisted of back-pedalling from the beginning of the lesson to the end,” he laughs. “It’s been a revealing process for me, because teaching is a skill; being able to see things from the learner’s point of view.”

If anything, Lunny is convinced that the Irish World Academy’s efforts have added a further dimension to our traditional arts, rather than threatening its core in any way.

“What Cardinal Newman called the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of the place, is informed by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and others who have created a brilliantly inspirational environment.”

Setting aside his own comfort with the academic environment, Iarla Ó Lionáird sees the rewards of forensic study being reaped by younger musicians on campus in UL.

“There are younger musicians who are less inclined to feel the need to support this bulwark of notional truths: a mythic ancientness. Now, I can assure you that I’m not doing my work to devalue my tradition. I have an abiding love for my tradition, but there are people who would say I display scant regard for it, and perhaps endanger it with my creative frolics.

“But this is the beautiful thing about academic discourse. It allows for different opinions. You have to state your case and you have to be prepared to be gainsaid by better proof, if it’s there. I think that’s very valuable. I have no time for sacred cows myself anyway.”