A fantastic early history of the Irish avant-garde

What, you haven’t heard of Zaftig Giolla or the Guinness Dadaists? Let Jennifer Walshe enlighten you

In the early 20th century composer Johnny O'Connor-Murphy wrote an opera titled The Hound of the Baskervilles in Ballydehob. It has been described as a "strangely prophetic madcap horror comic opera by a musically illiterate composer who needed an amanuensis to take down the music he performed to his own accordion accompaniments".

O'Connor-Murphy is just the sort of man composer Jennifer Walshe would be interested in. She has been mapping the early history of the Irish avant-garde in enough detail to produce books, exhibitions and recordings.

If you think you would be interested in the endeavours of the likes of Mayo hedge-school teacher Andrew Hunt (whose work crossed over into the occult), Galway man Zaftig Giolla (a "musician-composer-poet-field recordist" obsessed with Futurism) or the Guinness Dadaists ("the Irish language is a material which can be broken into fragments which can be mobilised against all sense and meaning"), then you'll be delighted to hear that their achievements are documented on a website, Aisteach.org. A CD of some of the work is due in a couple of months.

What O’Connor-Murphy, the Guinness Dadaists et al have in common is that none of them exist. I invented O’Connor-Murphy. The others were created for Aisteach, which Walshe describes as “a communal thought experiment, a revisionist exercise in ‘what if?’, a huge effort by many people to create an alternative history of avant-garde music in Ireland, to write our ancestors into being and shape their stories with care. We played fast and loose with history and the truth and we like to think Flann O’Brien would have approved.”


For a 2009 project commissioned by South Dublin County Council, Walshe invented sound art collective Grúpat, whose membership included Turf Boon, Bulletin M, Ekeoirn O’Connor, the Avant Gardaí, and an “über-geek-hacker” called The Parks Service. Their work was showcased at the Project Arts Centre with supporting documentation that included reproductions of authentic-looking fake media coverage and reviews.

Grúpat’s membership and output were all created by Walshe, although as a performer she had for a number of years been slipping pieces by the likes of Ekeoirn O’Connor into her programmes without telling anyone. The Aisteach project broadens the base and the experimentalists it presents were created by a team of people rather than just Walshe.

In creative terms, Walshe seems to feel like a musical foundling, someone who arrived in the world with a set of interests and enthusiasms that don’t fit in with the culture she found around her.

The two-volume Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland gives a good idea of the extremity of the situation. The only reference to dada that I've been able to find in its 1,200-plus pages is in the entry for the Virgin Prunes. Surrealism gets a mention only in connection with Brian Boydell's paintings and Brian Irvine's juxtaposition of widely contrasting musical styles. I drew blanks on futurism and fluxus and found the most in-depth discussion of an Irish connection with Webern in the entry on Samuel Beckett.

Walshe seems to feel an affinity with Beckett, Joyce and Flann O’Brien that she doesn’t feel with their musical contemporaries. In Grúpat and Aisteach she is inventing the ancestors she would like to have had. Given the artistic freedoms she allows herself in the works that directly carry her own name, I’ve sometimes wondered if she doesn’t experience some kind of extra liberation when she can assign a particularly wacky idea to a fictional creator, a bit like Nina Conti’s monkey giving voice to otherwise unspeakable ideas.

Aisteach is being presented as an open project, and there’s an invitation on the website: “If you feel there’s something we missed, something you want to have happened and would like to bring into being, please let us know.” Over to you.

Irish piano music

It was a busy week for new music in Dublin, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra focusing on the softcore retro-romanticism of Philip Hammond; composer Raymond Deane presenting a programme of Irish piano music covering more than four decades at the NCH's Kevin Barry Room; the young Brennan-Cahill saxophone and piano duo teaming up with the RTÉ ConTempo String Quartet for an all-Irish programme at the Royal Irish Academy of Music; and a visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday by the Sepia Ensemble from Poznan, for a programme of Irish and Polish works.

The RIAM concert was part of an exam for saxophonist Gavin Brennan, who is to be congratulated for his courage on presenting an all-Irish programme, his nous on roping in seasoned professionals in the ConTempos and his common sense in providing a printed programme with notes, although he rejigged the printed order.

The institution of the printed programme with programme notes has been with us since the 19th century. But, in spite of the elaborate pre-performance talks at the Horizons concert, the onstage introductions by broadcaster Bernard Clarke, and the programme notes that are available online, nowhere does RTÉ provide any information about when the featured composers were born.

There were no notes for Deane’s concert, just a list of works without dates, and no breakdown of movements for one work that had seven sections. But Deane did introduce the music in a way that created an enjoyable, club-style atmosphere.

And although the Sepia Ensemble allowed one composer, John McLachlan, to introduce his work, Extraordinary Rendition, and Enda Bates said a few words about the venture as a whole, the printed programme made no distinction between the young and the old or even the living and the dead.

Some people, of course, like to hear and treat music in the abstract. But most people I've spoken to, whether seasoned concert-goers or novices, find notes of use and value. The less familiar the music, the greater the need. The Association of Irish Composers, which was behind both the Deane and Sepia concerts, is selling itself and its members short.

The stand-out performances in Deane's programme were the slow sections of his own Noctuary, the pithy tributes of Siobhán Cleary's early Études, and Jennifer Walshe's Becher, a multilayered sandwich featuring fleeting snippets of well-known pieces.

The most memorable performances from the Sepia Ensemble were Ed Bennett's My Broken Machines (the title says it all), and the late Kazimierz Serocki's Swinging Music, a witty 1970 blend of the avant-garde and popular that had the players and audience smiling.