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Thomas Moore’s Music: Nationalism and Identity

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Published: Mon, 11 Sep 2017

Nationalism and Identity in Irish music has become a topic of great discovery for many scholars. The aim of this essay is to illustrate how the compositions of Thomas Moore, airs taken from Edward Buntings collection, aided in creating a sense of nationalism and identity in Ireland at that given time in history. To do this we must first address the key words in the title in order to provide evidence within Moore’s compositions.

Context on Identity and Music

‘identity is mobile, a process not a thing, a becoming not a being;¬†our experience of music – of music making and music listening – is best understood as an experience of this self-in-process. Music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics. (Frith 96, p.109)

For decades now, the issues of identity and music have been a topic for debate for many scholars. The above statement by Simon Frith highlights several issues for one to address: identity, society and music. These three issues often come hand in hand when we speak of music and culture. Frith points out that identity is not a solidified, end result of a person. Identity is something that is always in process, ‘a becoming not a being’ (ibid). Steph Lawler also suggests that identity is a process by which we come to know ourselves when she states ‘that identity itself is a social and collective process and not, as Western traditions would have it, a unique and individual possession’ (Lawler 2014, p. 2). Both Frith and Lawler highlight the importance of society in creating identity. Frith indicates that identity showcases influential societal factors in an individual and the individual influences societal identity. This is done within one’s own moral code and ethics by which they chose to live, and can be adapted and changed as a person moves from one society or social structure to another. Lawler suggests that identity is ‘produced through social relations’ (ibid) thus confirming with Frith’s earlier suggestion that identity is a process which is constructed to social interaction.

Mark Slobin suggested that ‘we all grow up with something, but we can choose just about anything by way of expressive culture (Slobin 87, p. 55). One of the most expressive forms of culture and identity is music. Frith claims that ‘music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experience it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enables us to place ourselves in an imaginative cultural narrative’ (Frith 96, p. 124). This statement allows us to address the personal identity and the social identity. First off Frith states that ‘music constructs our sense of identity’ (ibid) which is done through either self-expression of self-selection. Self-expression refers to the act of composing or creating an original piece of music that one uses to express their personality of identity. Self-selection then is the act of choosing music already in the social spectrum that one identifies. Of course, each of these selections can change over a given period of time or as a result of social interactions.

‘But what makes music special – what makes it special for identity – is that it defines a space without boundaries (a game without frontiers). Music is thus the cultural form best able both to cross borders – sounds carry across fences and walls and oceans, across classes, races and nations – and to define places; in clubs, scenes, and raves, listening on headphones, radio and in the concert hall, we are only where the music takes us. (ibid)

Music not only has the ability to create identity for an individual, it has the power to unite communities, societies, cultures and nations in a very unique way.

Nationalism

Nationalism makes more of the nation than a mere political or cultural community. Its realization becomes the supreme ethical goal of human beings on earth: It is depicted categorically as the most important thing in life; it becomes the be-all and end-all of man in his search for security (Snyder 1954 cited Ryan, 1991. p. 3).

This quotation from Joseph Ryan’s dissertation in 1991 on nationalism in Ireland quantifies what nationalism became for Irish culture and identity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Music during the early decades of the nineteenth century reflected social and cultural identities, ‘Dublin musical taste reflected that of London, the mainstay of its concert programmes being drawn from the current European tradition’ during that period (Boydell 1986 cited Ryan, 1991. p. 77). Barra Boydell highlights how major organisations during this period were trying to create an identity of one nation. In 1792 the Harp festival was organised so that the collectors could:

Revive “the ancient music of the country” and “to preserve from oblivion the few fragments which have been permitted to remain as monuments of the refined taste and genius of their ancestors”, they emphasized both this perception of Irish music, specifically that of the harpers, as a relic of antiquity, and asserted the common Irish identity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter (Boydell, 2014 cited Fitzgerald & O’Flynn 2014. p. 37).

Here Boydell illustrates the original ideology of identity for the United Irishmen, one common identity for all the people of Ireland. This ideology began to change towards the end of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century. Once seen as a strong hold for British trade, Dublin and Ireland were now on a decline after the industrial boom during the 1800s. Ireland did not expand as well as other European cities of this era and as such lost its popularity for living and trade. Boydell conveys the direction in which culture and identity was moving:

[It was] later in the century that this identity would begin consciously to express itself through Irish traditional (or folk) music and the music of the Irish harpers. When that did happen, notably with Walker, Bunting and Thomas Moore, Irish folk music would become an important signifier of Irish national identity. (Boydell, 2014 cited Fitzgerald & O’Flynn 2014. p. 37)

The ideologies of organisations such as the United Irishmen, founded in 1791, would go on to contribute to the creation of what Irishness was or what Nationalistic views were at this given period in Irish history. Ireland in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, was in the depth of political and religious unrest. Still under British rule, the Irish people were now seeking equality for all Irishmen. The United Irishmen organisation was in pursuit of civil, political and religious equality from the crown of Britain. They sought to engage in a resistance to British cultural supremacy and in 1798 saw the first major failed rebellion of their fright for Irish freedom. As part of their ideology, songs and music would begin to play a major part in creating and maintaining a nationalistic view. Irish song would grasp the attention of the Irish people and make them ’emotionally involved in the question of nationality through songs which were inherently Irish’ (MacCarthy 2012, p. 165). This period in Irish history was very unsettled for the people of Ireland, and yet it began to unite the country as a nation. Ireland was fast becoming a passionate subject matter with the majority of the country, specifically with Irish born Catholics of middle to lower classes. Thus music was seen as a suitable ‘vehicle for nationalism’ within the ranks of these classes (MacCarthy 2012, p. 104). By utilising the national music of the Ireland the: ‘Songs and ballads conveyed a sense of Irishness to readers based on traditional cultural aspects such as music or history’ (MacCarthy 2012, p. 103).

These tactics aided in boosting the ideological drive of certain organisations. By encompassing the cultural and historical aspects of the nation through music and song, these organisations were creating a national identity through music that supported their cause. The Act of Union was passed in 1803 and this brought about a wave of nationalist expression. Ryan suggests that:

literature dominated [arts in the eighteenth early nineteenth century] but music too made some contribution and in so doing helped link the first and second wave of expression (Ryan, 1991. p. 98).

It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century -1807- that Thomas Moore began publishing his ten volume work of Irish Melodies; which concluded in 1834. Contained heavily within these melodies, is evidence of Moore’s political beliefs. Moore’s Melodies were expressing not only the political and cultural themes of Ireland in this period, but also nationalist themes which would later lend themselves to ideologies within new waves of revolt in the coming decades. It was ‘towards the end of the century, however, emerging nationalism begins to imbue Irish music with a clearly political and nationalist identity, a development charted by White and by Davis, and to which Moore’s Irish Melodies would later make such a defining contribution’ (Boydell, 2014 cited Fitzgerald & O’Flynn 2014. p. 36).


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