The flutes, the flutes are calling – Frank McNally on Ireland’s most politicised musical instrument

   You can strut while playing the flute, something much harder to do with bagpipes or accordions. Photograph: iStock

You can strut while playing the flute, something much harder to do with bagpipes or accordions. Photograph: iStock

 

If you’re Irish and the owner of a flute – of the musical variety, I mean, not the champagne glass or any other kind readers have in mind – you may feel strange stirrings in your instrument around this week every year.

The metal ones, at least, must be subject to a force field that aligns them on a north-south axis, like compass needles, in July. Not exactly north and south, perhaps, but pointed towards the magnetic poles, which in this case are Belfast and west Clare.

The former is headquarters of the North’s marching season, to which flutes are quintessential. The latter is where traditional music’s annual Haj, the Willie Clancy Summer School, is now also approaching climax.

Flutes are not quite so central there. The week features a wide range of instruments, which during the pub sessions that complement the classes, combine in multiple and ever-changing combinations. But at the nightly recitals, where each family of instruments is showcased in turn, Tuesday is for “flutes and whistles”. 

So last night, as usual, flute virtuosos lined up to demonstrate their styles. They never get long on stage, no matter how good they are, because there are so many to fit in.  They’re on, play a couple of tunes, then they’re off again. It’s the nearest thing you’ll see in Miltown to a flute parade.

Many northerners you meet in Clare at this time of year are refugees from the dreaded Twelfth. But some will be from what is broadly termed “the Orange tradition”. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be, because the festival is a politics-free zone, unless you think traditional music is for “Taigs” (as, unfortunately, many unionists do).

The late, great Leslie Bingham, a flute player from Co Down who was a Miltown regular, knew otherwise. But in July, at least, most Northern Protestant-owned flutes are tuned to martial airs. With the possible exception of Lambegs, they also tend to the most militant-looking instruments at marches.

Maybe that’s because you can strut while playing the flute, something much harder to do with bagpipes or accordions. That in turn might explain why flute bands tend to be male-dominated, and accordion bands female: a sub-plot to the criticism of Tyrone’s Gaelic foot team for singing Come Out Ye Black and Tans in the vicinity of an Orange parade in Aughnacloy last weekend.

Had the song been directed at a flute band, it might have passed for robust northern banter. But in the clip that went viral, the footballers seemed to be singing “come out and fight me like a man” at a girls’ accordion band. That’s never a good look.

The incident inadvertently highlighted one of the great wisdoms of traditional music: that most tunes have no words, only titles, rarely of much significance. 

As for the singing of songs, during Willie Week, that is mainly confined to one venue.  It used to be Marrinan’s Pub, before it closed. Now it’s the golf club at Spanish Point. The songs would rarely be controversial anyway, but the arrangement ensures that most music sessions are for instruments other than vocal.

Traditional tunes are usually apolitical. This is true even of the ones used by northern marching bands, as I was reminded last weekend.  Watching a clip of the Orange parade at Rossnowlagh, I first thought the bands were playing “The Wearing of the Green”, which would have marked a dramatic development in the Brexit crisis.

But it’s not like hymns, where Protestants have all the best ones. Traditional airs are shared, and endlessly recycled, by Green and Orange. So without the words, you wouldn’t know whether you’re listening to, for example, of “The Sash” or “Sean South”.

The same goes for “Come Out Ye Black and Tans”, which uses an old tune that, before the Behans rewrote it, had already undergone several incarnations, ranging from the Jacobite “Lady Keith’s Lament” to the Loyalist “The Boyne Water”.

Speaking of which, and based on literary fiction at least, there is an example that breaks the rule about the safety of tunes without words.  Because, after all, you can often infer the background of the musician, and therefore the implied lyric, from other clues. 

Thus it is in Gone With the Wind, where we learn that Scarlett O’Hara’s father had to leave Ireland in a hurry after the death of an “English absentee landlord’s rent agent”. Details are elliptical, and Gerald O’Hara does not plead guilty in so many words, except to claim provocation. The dead man had insulted him, he explains, “by whistling the opening bars of ‘The Boyne Water’.”

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