Two seminal collections of Irish traditional music brought back to life

Archive releases Famine-era melodies plus mid-century recordings by Alan Lomax

At the heart of our traditional music is the notion of returning to the well: that source of infinite riches where melodies and songs abound. Whether it's one singer borrowing a song from another or a musician stumbling across a tune in a dusty manuscript, there's a constant process of renewal at play. Fittingly, this spring sees the publication of two seminal collections by the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), one dating back 170 years and the other a relative newcomer at just 70 years of age.

William Forde was a native of Cork city, and a composer, arranger and performer who split his time between London and Cork. In the 1840s he undertook a gargantuan task of collecting over 2,000 airs from across the country. Working before and during the height of the Famine, Forde's interest lay not only in meticulously transcribing tunes, but in capturing the rich breadth of tune variation he encountered on his travels.

Of the 2,000 melodies in Forde's collection, 992 have now been published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive in The Forde Collection, edited by Nicholas Carolan and Caitlín Uí Éigeartaigh.

"We published 992 of the 2,000 airs, as the rest are from printed sources and are already available," Caitlín explains. She relished the task of transcribing all of Forde's tunes and working closely with both Nicholas Carolan and Jackie Small to bring them to publication.


'It was a lockdown project, and I found it enormously satisfying... I have no doubt that it will fuel many a creative imagination'

“It was a lockdown project,” she says, “and I found it enormously satisfying. My job was to look after the music text, and Nicholas did all the historical and biographical research. I have no doubt that it will fuel many a creative imagination, as well as an academic one.”

William Forde’s approach to collecting set him apart.

“Forde made it his business to bring together many different variations of a particular tune,” Caitlín explains. “Up to then, collectors like PW Joyce only published one version because he stated that he was only looking for ‘best’ versions. But for example, Forde collected over 30 versions of Róisín Dubh.”

We’ve seen how the publication of 19th century musical manuscripts has invigorated the tradition, with the Goodman collection finding its way into the repertoires of diverse musicians who have made it their own. Steve Cooney, Aoife Ní Bhriain, Mick O’Brien and Emer Mayock are just some of the artists who have mined the riches of Goodman to particularly satisfying effect.

Nicholas Carolan, the founding director of the ITMA, looks at the Forde collection through the lens of changing technologies and changing times.

‘A different world’

“You have to subtract radio, records, live performance and recording equipment,” he says. “It’s very much a different world. Irish traditional music has been in such accelerated evolution through the availability of radio and records, that you have to subtract all that and go back to a world where there was a decisive move from Irish to English, and there was a lot of bilingualism at that time.”

Forde’s timing, working before and during the Famine, lends a particularly poignant note to his legacy.

“It’s a different world,” Nicholas says, “which in human terms was a tragedy and affected most heavily people of traditional culture: Irish speakers, singers and musicians. It provides valuable evidence of the repertory and style of pre-Famine musicians in Ireland, particularly pipers, when the instrument and its music were on the brink of the most catastrophic period in its history.

“Forde made an extraordinary record of what he heard, and he was particularly interested in airs. There’s an opportunity now to unite airs and songs, because there had been a great tradition of people writing down the words of songs and not being able to write the melodies, so here are melodies from that period. There are opportunities now for singers and scholars to unite the two, and in some way mitigate the cultural disaster of the Famine.”

Carolan and Uí Éigeartaigh worked closely with Jackie Small to bring this colossal project to fruition, working remotely in Glasnevin, Terenure and Ballinrobe throughout lockdown, and only finally meeting in person to launch the collection recently.

'It's the healing of a wound caused by the Famine. It's a cultural gift from the past: a view of how Irish music was 170 years ago'

“It’s the healing of a wound caused by the Famine,” Nicholas suggests. “It’s a cultural gift from the past: a view of how Irish music was 170 years ago. Not every traditional musician will take up Forde and make sense of it, but certain people will, and they will internalise the music, play it and record it. It needs skill, talent and imagination to bring it to life, and then begins the oral process, as we’ve seen with the Goodman tunes.”

Leapfrogging forward over a century, Nicholas Carolan has been involved in another important project in partnership with the equally indefatigable Harry Bradshaw. The New Demesne: Field Recordings Made by Alan Lomax in Ireland in 1951 is a double CD with extensive accompanying liner notes, published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

Many of us will be familiar with Lomax's collecting activities in the American Deep Southand in the UK. In The New Demesne, we find an astonishing 66 tracks and 145 minutes of music, ranging from singers such as Elizabeth Cronin from Cúl Aodha to musicians from Connemara and Donegal, all of whom Lomax met through Séamus Ennis, who acted as his musical guide during an extraordinarily fruitful visit in 1951.

Lomax’s aim was to collect enough material for one LP (released on Columbia Records) and for a small number of radio programmes. He went way beyond that, however, and the task of bringing so many of Lomax’s recordings together was one of pure joy, for Harry Bradshaw.

Magnetic tape

“The sound quality was surprisingly good,” Harry says, smiling. “It was made just after the arrival of magnetic tape technology, which was brand new. The biggest problem was Lomax had cut some of the songs to suit the LP, but he put the unused versions aside on a spare reel of tape, so Nicholas had to go through those disjointed verses to piece them together again.”

The New Demesne is a snapshot in time, capturing not only the songs and tunes, but some of the stories that were exchanged in the process. Clearly, Ennis’s mediation was an important foundation stone on which Lomax built his relationships with the musicians and singers he encountered.

“They were all friendly with Ennis,” Nicholas explains. “Undoubtedly, Lomax was pushing an open door because of Ennis’s connections.”

'Alan Lomax had served a great apprenticeship with his father... so he knew how to connect with people, and he knew how to make good recordings'

“Elizabeth Cronin was particularly at ease with Lomax,” Harry adds. “It was as if she was chatting to an old friend, yet there was a world of difference in their backgrounds. Alan Lomax had served a great apprenticeship with his father, and they were recording chain gangs and all kinds of material throughout the States on disc, so he knew how to connect with people, and he knew how to make good recordings.”

Contrary to popular conceptions that Irish traditional music was on its knees in post-war Ireland, Lomax’s richly eclectic archive suggests a different reality.

“In terms of music history, it gives us a good insight into what state the music was in, in 1951,” Nicholas notes, “in the aftermath of the second World War, and before Comhaltas had been founded, and long before the ballad boom, before [radio broadcaster] Ciarán Mac Mathúna. We see a thriving scene around the country.”

“We were led to believe that traditional music after the war was almost dead,” Harry adds, “and it was the arrival of the Fleadh Ceoil, and then the radio exposure that Ciarán Mac Mathúna gave it that revived it. But in the light of what we have now, the Lomax recordings – and others by Jean Ritchie and Bill Stapleton – show a vibrant tradition.

“The country was packed with performers and all styles of musicians. It doesn’t add up with the history as we were taught it. These recordings prove just how strong the tradition really was, before the so called ‘revival’ breathed life into it.”

Nicholas chose the title for this collection carefully.

“The New Demesne was one of Séamus Ennis’s tunes,” he explains. “It seemed fitting, because this was a new continent for Lomax. It was his first contact with the Irish language and with the uilleann pipes. It was a new world and he captured it, and there’s nothing quite like it.”