Why does Irish trad music play second fiddle at home?
Ireland is home to some extraordinary talent, yet they often need to travel far to be recognised as such
Frankie Gavin of De Dannan is being honoured in Verona today, but he must work most of the year abroad to make a living. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Soberingly, a couple of years ago, it emerged that 80 per cent of uilleann pipes in use by Irish traditional musicians were being manufactured in foreign locations as implausible as China and Pakistan. Here we had the instrument which, more than any other, summoned up the sound of Ireland in the world, its strains and swirls made world-famous by Séamus Ennis, Paddy Moloney, Finbar Furey, Davy Spillane and Líam Óg Ó Flynn. Other nations have their emblematic instruments, but few lay claim to one with such a capacity to invoke a whole history. Yet, in what seemed like a fable of our inadequacy in matters of self-sufficiency, culturally and otherwise, it emerged that people who had never been to Ireland were keeping us in pipes.
And in the present year, when the Irish nation reaches out to its diaspora through the medium of the Gathering, there is a gnawing sense that perhaps a more immediate problem resides in convincing those who remain at home. Irish enthusiasms for its indigenous culture have recently ebbed and flowed, with the peaks tending to overlap with moments of great optimism in other contexts. It is perhaps not coincidental that the most significant recent revival of Irish folk and traditional music occurred in the 1970s, following the Lamass boom. Today, with what seems like the whole world rising to its feet in acclamation of Irish music and musicians, there’s less Irish music than ever on Irish radio, and less opportunity to hear the music live on a whim. While political and cultural leaders pay lip service to our sterling cultural contribution to the world, many of our greatest musicians struggle to make a living at home.
At an event in Verona today, the great Galway fiddle-player Frankie Gavin will be honoured by the local community, which has appointed him its musical ambassador in Ireland. Three years ago, Frankie relaunched De Dannan, of which he was a founder member in the 1970s — the brand having lain dormant since the original band broke up in 2003. The “new” De Dannan has been winning followers around Ireland, but, like most traditional acts these days, is achieving far greater recognition and success abroad.
The general decline in record sales and the collapse in recent years of Irish pub culture are cited as factors contributing to the growing difficulties for Irish musicians in Ireland. Gavin says that the global exposure achieved by Irish music and dancing that followed Riverdance has not rebounded to the benefit of traditional musicians.
Most trad musicians agree that a core issue is radio plays and TV appearances. Raidio na Gaeltachta and TG4 make a great effort, says Gavin, but there needs to be a more mainstream treatment of trad, as when De Dannan first made a breakthrough four decades ago. In other countries, he says, indigenous folk music is accorded a special place. In Portugal, for example, “Fado” music is played on mainstream radio all the time. But in Ireland, trad plays second fiddle. Gavin namechecks Clare FM’s The West Wind , which plays two hours of traditional music every evening Monday to Friday. Otherwise, he says, the primetime pickings are poor.
“Visitors to Ireland should be entitled to expect that there’d be some place they could get to hear Irish music played on the radio, or to see Irish traditional musicians on the television. Often they think they’ve landed in the wrong country. There should be a music programme that you don’t have to speak Irish on. People who speak Irish can speak English as well! And they can enjoy the music as much in English as in Irish!”
Cathy Jordan of Sligo-based Dervish says that the issue is not the decline of a tradition. “There’s never been as many musicians and bands. It’s not that Irish music is dying out — it’s just that it’s ignored. Traditional music is healthy but it’s a kind of a sub-culture.” Less than five per cent of Dervish performances are in Ireland — perhaps 10 gigs per year and sometimes less. “It’s the old story of never being a prophet in your own country. There’s a perception, generally speaking, that Irish traditional music is something that belongs to the past.
“One factor has been that local radio stations seem increasingly prone to takeovers by corporations, who are basically trying to get all the local stuff off the air. They’re not interested in the local fellow up the road who’s made a record. There’s a lot more recordings nowadays, but fewer places to get them played.”
She also thinks that the easy accessibility of so much good traditional music for free makes people reluctant to pay for the professional article.
Triona Marshall, harpist with the Chieftains, makes a related point. “When I travel through the States with the Chieftains it’s very obvious how vast the country is. I have gone out to the lobby after shows and spoken to people who have travelled six hours or more to go to our concert. On the other hand here in Ireland it’s a little like trying to sell ice to the Eskimos. There are so many accomplished players in Ireland. Thanks to Comhaltas there’s hardly a town in Ireland where there isn’t an All Ireland champion musician playing amazing music in a local pub session.”
The Chieftains, like Dervish, spend much of their year abroad. In recent months, they’ve featured in a massive open-air bluegrass festival in San Francisco, been named touring band of the year in China, played for President Obama in the White House and performed with 10 different symphony orchestras around the US. Bandleader Moloney says they’ve been among the lucky ones in building a following abroad. “There’s no way I would have been able to earn a living in Ireland from playing Irish traditional music,” he says flatly.
One of the main motivations that guided the Chieftains 50 years ago, Moloney recalls, was the desire to take Irish music “away from the clinking glasses thing”. Marshall also believes the economics of the pub session are not conducive to supporting the growing numbers of talented trad musicians now emerging.“With the session set-up, the burden falls on the publican to compensate the musicians for their services. The real question is: is there a way for the Irish community to support our young upcoming talent that gives artists the opportunity to both perform and to pay the rent?” An idea that’s worked for her and others, playing in the US, is the “house concert” idea, whereby people bring their own drink and pay a nominal contribution towards the music.
Cathy Jordan’s bandmate, box-player Shane Mitchell, speaks of the need for some formal, perhaps government organisation to promote and develop Irish music. “Bord Bia promotes and helps develop the Irish food sector, so let’s have something similar to promote our music,” he says.
He believes there are deeper psychological issues at the back of our neglect of native music. “There seems a lack of confidence in Irish people about things that are indigenous to Ireland. The rest of the world gets us quicker than we do ourselves as a race.”
Gavin is more particular: “I think the Gathering is missing the point. We need to project Irish music and culture here in Ireland first of all, to respect our own heritage, before trying to sell it to the rest of the world.”
It’s strange that, here as in all other matters of recent times, we end up talking about money. Irish music contains the life of Ireland, past and present, a rich treasury of passion, energy and intensity, a music of extremes. The Irish personality, as a consequence of the history it emerged from, tends towards melancholy, but is also given to dramatic surges of elation and celebration. No one or nothing captures this as well as a Frankie Gavin or a Martin Hayes. And perhaps this, ultimately is why our music is currently a little neglected — that it carries too many reminders of the truth, too many Proustian triggers to remind us of what might have been and what has been mislaid, too emphatic an injunction to look too frankly inwards.