Day of action highlights gender imbalance in Irish music business

‘You might go to festivals and see 70 per cent, 75 per cent or 80 per cent men on stage’

Sabina Higgins with Michelline Sheehy Skeffington at the Mansion House, Dublin, during   commemoration of La na mBan 1918. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/ The Irish Times

Sabina Higgins with Michelline Sheehy Skeffington at the Mansion House, Dublin, during commemoration of La na mBan 1918. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/ The Irish Times

 

Twenty eight traditional Irish music sessions took place across Ireland, Britain and the US on Saturday as part of a day of action and awareness to highlight the gender imbalance in the Irish music business.

The sessions were organised by “Fair Plé” (Plé is the Irish word for discussion), an advocacy group started in February to talk about women in Irish music.

Harpist and academic Síle Denvir said the group wanted to start a discussion “because often women aren’t as present when it comes to the professional stage.

“You might go to festivals and see 70 per cent, 75 per cent or 80 per cent men on stage and a lot of the bands are formed of men as well.

“We’re just drawing attention to that and hoping that more women will decide to go that route,” and become professional musicians.

Síle Denvir singing during the Fair Plé session at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Síle Denvir singing during the Fair Plé session at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

She was part of a group of about 30 male and female musicians who took part in a session in the Oak Room of the Mansion House, hosted by Lord Mayor of Dublin Cllr Micheál Mac Donncha.

It was one of a number of sessions across Ireland and elsewhere - with sessions too in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast as well as in Scotland, England and across the US including New York, Boston, Chicago and in California.

Ms Denvir, who also works in the Irish department at UCD, and is a member of one of the few all girl traditional Irish music bands Líadan (currently in hiatus), said the sessions were the first in a series of initiatives over the next year, to draw attention to the issue.

On September 8th and 9th Fair Plé will host concerts in Liberty Hall and panel talks with people from the industry and academics to discuss the role of women in music.

“In February next year we’re co-hosting an academic symposium in the Irish studies department in Galway.”

‘Can’t find them’

The group has started a website and a social media campaign and “we’re putting together a directory of female musicians because often times festival organisers say ‘we don’t know the women or we can’t find them’.

Singer and music teacher Niamh Parsons asked: “How can young women have somebody to look up to if they don’t see women on the stage? We’re not trying to take the gigs away from men,” she said.

“We want us all to talk together. We feel there’s more women learning Irish music than there are on the stage so there’s a cut off. They lose confidence. Women just don’t feel that it’s a job for them.

“And in a way they’re right because it’s hard for them to get gigs. So there’s a certain amount of women not getting the goods, not headlining.”

Musicians at the Mansion House included Donal Lunney, Declan Farrell, members of Horslips and singer and flautist Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.

Ms Nic Amhlaoibh said that “even back stage people booking gigs, agents, managers, sound engineers, lighting technicians,” are mainly men.

“We just have a little bit of catching up to do in terms of the programming of events,” she said. Women also need to try and ‘coinnigh an misneach - keep the courage’ because it’s hard to stick your head above the parapet when you’re in the minority and keep going.

“And I see so many women giving up and when children come along sometimes they take a few years off, it’s hard to come back into it especially when it’s such a male dominated industry.”

While the Fair Plé session was taking place inside the Mansion House, outside Siptu were marking the 100th anniversary of a day known as La na mBan (Women’s Day) on June 9th 1918, when 2,500 women members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union marched along with up to 800 members of Cumann na mBan (Women’s Council) to City Hall in Dublin to protest against the conscription of men into the British Army in the First World War.

Organiser of the pageant-style event Siptu deputy general secretary Ethel Buckley said “women took to the streets and said that if men were forcibly conscripted they would refuse to do their work”.

Musicians and speakers addressed a small audience on Dublin’s Dawson Street from an old tram with a banner on it with the message “votes for women”.

Actor Sabina Higgins, wife of the President, in costume of the time, created and gave a speech she imagined might have been given 100 years ago:

She said that they were at City Hall, seat of local government, “to give public witness to our pledge that we will reject and oppose with everything in our power, even life itself, rather than give way to any attempt to force Ireland by conscription to take part in this bloody imperial war.

“How dare the British government decide that having wasted the lives of their own young they would send our youths to battlefields where millions have been slaughtered.”

Michelline Sheehy Skeffington, a granddaughter of feminist and suffragette Hannah Sheehy Skeffington quoted from a number of her speeches including at that march in 1918: “We Irish were never more attacked and maligned than we are at present but from my part I’m proud to be of Ireland today.

“She is standing practically alone in her fight and she is the only country in the world today that says she will choose her quarrels and know what she is dying for if she is to die.”

In the early 20th century Ms Sheehy Skeffington received two jail terms for her suffrage activities including for smashing windows in Dublin Castle.

President Michael D Higgins will formally launch a plaque to commemorate Ms Sheehy Skeffington’s window breaking, in Dublin Castle on June 13th