The man who saved a feast of music from the Famine years


Canon James Goodman, minister, piper and collector, left a priceless legacy to traditional music, which will be celebrated thsi week in a TG4 film, writes Siobhán Long

IN SOME QUARTERS there lurks a cliched image of the traditional-music collector as either some penurious spailpín or an incorrigible nationalist hell-bent on imprisoning our music and song in aspic. In reality though, those who've taken the time to collect Irish traditional music have done so in unlikely ways.

One of the best known, Francis O'Neill, was chief of police in Chicago in the early 20th century. Somehow, he married a commitment to peacekeeping with a forensic attention to the detail of traditional music, leaving behind him several collections of tunes which have become a standard reference for musicians from Miltown Malbay to Massachusetts.

Closer to home, and long before O'Neill made his passage from Cork to Chicago, another unlikely archivist beavered away in the quiet corner of Ardgroom, on the Beara Peninsula, where he ministered to his congregation.

Canon James Goodman was a Protestant minister, a native Irish speaker and uilleann piper from west Co Kerry, and a Trinity scholar. In his later years, he lectured both Douglas Hyde and John Millington Synge, but between 1860 and 1866, he committed to paper a vast collection of tunes transcribed from the playing of a fellow piper, Thomas Kennedy.

Goodman was a man with a foothold in two worlds. He inhabited that twilight zone of the semi-gentry, but was just as comfortable donning his flannel trousers and warming up the pipes for a slow air or a reel in the kitchen.

Peter Browne, RTÉ Radio 1 producer and presenter and a piper of considerable renown himself, has long championed the story of Goodman. In 1998, Hugh Shields, through the Irish Traditional Music Archive, published more than 500 tunes collected by Goodman in a seminal book, Tunes of the Munster Pipers: Irish Traditional Music from the James Goodman Manuscripts. Then, in 2007, Nicholas Carolan of the Irish Traditional Music Archive delivered a fascinating lecture at Ballyferriter's Scoil Cheoil An Earraigh, in which he revealed that the words of more than 80 of Goodman's tunes had been unearthed in England. Locals compared the significance of this news to the unearthing of the Ardagh Chalice, a discovery whose impact will be felt for generations to come.

Browne sees Goodman's legacy as a priceless contribution to traditional music, gathered at a time when the country had been decimated by the ravages of the Famine years.

"You can open his manuscript at any page," he enthuses, "and you'll see a tune that you can bring to life, and it's likely that you won't have heard it before. Now you can hear this repertoire being played, as practising musicians borrow tunes from it."

Browne sees Goodman's collection as a sort of "freeze-frame", a snapshot of the tunes as they were played at the time in west Co Kerry, before polkas and slides came to dominate the music of the Corca Dhuibhne region.

"The music is changing all the time, so it's a privilege to be able to go back 150 years and see what the music was like then," he says. "As the music marches on, some things change for the better, but some things are left behind, there's no doubt about that."

Darwin's theory of natural selection may have some relevance to traditional music as it evolves, but undoubtedly there are beautiful features of the music in its earlier incarnations which are now lost in time.

"You find some tunes which are embryonic versions of what we play now," Browne says, his intimate acquaintance with Goodman's manuscripts clear from his words. "There's a strong link with Scottish music evident. I imagine that our reels, in particular, are very close to Scottish music. It's the same language that we speak, but it's just that it's grown apart. When you go back in time, though, the links are undoubtedly there. If you take as an example the reel Lucy Campbell, it's played over a range of two octaves, but Goodman's Lucy Campbell is a simple tune, which is much more Scottish. The difference between the Scottish pipes and our own is that the Scottish pipes have one octave and a note, whereas our uilleann pipes have nearly a full two octaves. So Irish music uses a wider range of notes because that possibility is available to it on the uilleann pipes."

MICK O'BRIEN IS a Dublin piper who enjoys the surprises that lurk within the pages of Goodman's collection. For the forthcoming TG4 documentary on Goodman, he played some of the collected tunes in the heady environs of Trinity College Dublin's Long Room, where countless dusty tomes kept Goodman's own collection company for a century and a half.

"It's not often you get a chance to play in such a lovely setting," O'Brien admits, "and there was lovely life in the place. But I found some beautiful tunes in his collection; tunes that had to have been played by a piper, because of the way they were laid out."

O'Brien has had no doubt about Goodman's contribution to the living tradition since he found himself learning a tune from his own young daughter, who had learned a Goodman tune from a children's CD collection released by Steve Cooney a number of years ago. This is proof, if it were needed, that music enjoys a circular existence, ricocheting back and forth between musicians with no regard for such banalities as generational hierarchies.

Goodman's own musicianship informed the shape of the collection in a very particular way, Peter Browne suggests.

"It may be a lot more faithful as a record because he would have been familiar with the idiomatic nuances of the music. It's a very early example of a collector who was first and foremost a traditional musician," Browne says. "And it captures the music as it was within a discrete geographical area, with its own distinct accent. If you compare this collection to Sliabh Luachra music, for example, you'll find that they have very little in common. So many of those local musical accents have been lost since then, and that makes it even more important."

These tunes were the pop music of Goodman's day. But they held a currency that, he feared, may have been losing its value, by virtue of the decimation of the local population, post-Famine. In west Co Kerry alone, the population was halved between 1841 and 1861.

Steve Cooney shares Browne's enthusiasm for the Goodman tunes, and in particular is rapt by the uncommon dance motifs, which he suggests are "more reminiscent of Balkan rhythms" than they are of conventional Irish traditional dance music.

Poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has taken some of Goodman's tunes and written words of her own to accompany them. She has been careful not to write a narrative, as one might find in an English folk song, but instead to approach a story by encircling it again and again, "ag casadh timpeall", which is, she believes, more faithful to the Irish tradition.

Goodman's legacy has put a further spring in the step of Irish traditional musicians, whose appetite for tunes is never sated. Mick O'Brien is one musician who returns again and again to delve deep into music that reveals itself gradually, tune by tune.

"I'm fascinated by the way you can return to a tune and hear something new in it," he says. "One of the reasons I love returning to his collection is that I think Goodman understood the value of this music and he had this innate appreciation of just how important music is to us."

James Goodman: Caomhnóir Ceol will be broadcast on TG4 on Wednesday at 9.30pm