Music Essays | Traditional Irish Ireland
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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017
Traditional Irish Ireland
Before discussing the contexts behind the development of traditional Irish music and the resulting label, it is important to define what is actually meant by the label “traditional”. Naturally, as with most art forms the definition differs between performers/singers/writers. The prime factor though is typically having some note of age. As with much music labelled “traditional”, Irish music has much history behind it and the music we recognise today under this category takes its roots from a much older form of music. Many references to Irish/Celtic music have even been labelled as “ancient”. Again these terms alone would require an essay in themselves to define what the understanding of them is. As a historians definition of “ancient history” is a time before written records and communication it is almost impossible to determine how old certain cultures and their musical backgrounds are. Irish music could definitely fall into this discussion although many would argue this to be even too old to be traditional and that the real traditional music of Ireland is the music of the harpists. A tradition that has all but died out in much of what we class as traditional Irish music today.
In retrospective, the music which ran along side this music is equally as “traditional”. This is music which was played amongst the general community in Ireland, music which was played in houses and pubs. These were the places where many people could gather to play “amateur” music on instruments such as Fiddles, Pipes, Flutes and whistles, which at the time did not have the higher status of Harp players who in general played for the higher class of society. This is the music which has developed into what most consider as Irish traditional music today. In many respects, they are not wrong although it has been altered and developed in a way, which appeals to more people and could also be described as Irish “popular” music, yet another term that creates much discussion as to its true meanings. ‘Riverdance’ and ‘Lord of the Dance’ are prime examples of this. Although many would go as far as to say that they have no resemblance of Irish traditional music at all, this is the music that has become known as traditional and Irish. The story behind Riverdance especially, does bare some resemblance to life in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. It revolves around the everyday life of Irish people and communities, and even the music does have strong connections to the music played at the time, although has been produced to appeal to a wider range of listeners and in particular, viewers.
This leads me onto the History behind the music, and its impact on how the music developed to what is recognised today. The traditional music of Ireland dates back to medieval Europe. In early medieval period Ireland, was not a unified country but instead, broken into four families who shared equal rule of the country. This was also the cases in many countries of Medieval Europe. The people of Ireland were descended from many other cultures throughout Europe including England, Scotland, Wales, Gaelic Europe (France, Germany) and Scandinavia. It would seem though, that the music played today which we label as traditional emerged in the 1700’s.
The 1700’s were a turbulent time for the Irish. This was the period when the old Gaelic aristocracy, who were for centuries the patrons of the poets and musicians of Ireland, were dispossessed of their influence and estates. The failure of the two Jacobite uprisings in Scotland marked the beginning of a period of intense persecution of Gaelic Scotland. It was at this time that the cultures of Gaelic Scotland and Gaelic Ireland were split apart, and henceforth regarded as separate entities. Up to this time, they had been considered to be a single culture.
It could be argued that traditional Irish music is related to music found elsewhere in Europe. A lot of Irish musicians would agree that today there certainly is a relationship with the music of Scotland and the north of England. This indicates that such relationships may have existed earlier in history and possibly throughout the 1700’s. This makes it feasible to look to other countries in Europe for an idea on what was happening at the time.
Equally, there is the argument that the Gaels had their own indigenously derived music, which was unique and not connected to what was going on anywhere else in Europe. Both points, I suspect are a little extreme and that the actual answer lies somewhere in between the two.
One event separates us from having little or no knowledge whatsoever. In 1792 Edward Bunting, was hired to transcribe the music of a number of harpers who appeared at a festival in Belfast. This festival had been sponsored by an early example of what we now call the antiquarian movement. These were people who believed that Gaelic culture was being destroyed, and wanted to save it before it may be too late.
One of the harpers who turned up in Belfast was Denis Hempson. He, as far as we know was the last living traditional Gaelic harpist, playing with fingernails on a wire-strung harp. All the other harpers, although their tunes were Irish, played gut-strung harps that were the same as those elsewhere in Europe, and their playing styles similarly were based on European styles. So it’s to the amazing determination of Hempson and the dedication of Bunting that we owe a large part of our knowledge about pre-1700s music in Ireland. However, we have to remember that this was all filtered through, first Hempson, and then, Bunting, who couldn’t play the harp.
Dance, of course now forms a large portion of what has become known as Irish traditional music. In Irish music, we wind up with a few traditional dance metres. The Hornpipe, the Jig and the Reel. Of course, these are widely considered to be the “big three” in terms of Irish traditional music. Others did and still do exist, as we know, the music from Ireland takes it’s roots from many other cultures in Europe, there is no exception with the forms of dance.
Let’s take reels first as they may be easiest to deal with. The typical statement is that “The reel came to Ireland in the 1700-1800s from Scotland”. This is based on the known fact that early Irish publications do not show very many reels compared to jigs and we also know that thanks to the co-existence of the Scottish patronage system and affordable publishing costs; there was an explosion of reel composition going on in Scotland at this time. Look at the current Irish reel repertoire and you will find it shot through with Scottish compositions. Personally I accept that the reel in Irish music owes an enduring debt to the Scottish tradition.
The jig appears to have had a greater popularity in Ireland before the reel (which is very different to saying it is older than the reel). O’Farrell’s 1804 collection (obviously derived on a repertoire from at least the late 1700s) features a good number of jigs, many of which are still actively played today. There are arguments for placing the slip jig as an older form. The Single Jig and Slide are timing emphasis variants of the double jig, and there is some evidence to show that they may have derived from the latter and thus be more recent. As for the double jig and its emergence in its modern form, this argument was carried out in a printed exchange between Breandán Breathnach and Declan Townsend in the early 1970s. The latter maintained that the rhythm derived from Carolan’s compositions of “Gigas”, the form of which he learned from the Italian composer Correlli. Townsend cited supporting evidence on the jig performance of Donegal fiddlers, which few today would support. The former, writing in the article Tús an Poirt in Éireann (the origin of the jig in Ireland; appearing in Irish Folk Music Studies, Vol. 1) contests this and suggests amongst other things they may be based on older tunes such as clan marches which have had their speed altered slightly. In an English language summary, Breandan writes: “The jig most probably came to Ireland from England, perhaps as early as the 16th Century. Native marches were adapted for dancing, some tunes borrowed from England and a start made on composing those tunes which constituted the greatest single division of the dance music until reels began to catch up on them in the second half of the last century”.
Certainly, I have discovered, by playing and listening to much “traditional” music from Ireland that I have found myself knowing the tune either in a different time signature, speed or a slightly altered form. Even to the extent of knowing words to the tune, which almost certainly are not Irish. Whether or not they were composed in England, Ireland or Scotland first, we do not know and I would not like to put forward a theory as to which it could possibly be.
The hornpipes have been argued as a more recent arrival with some indications of England as a source. More recently it is being argued that this rhythm in particular has been popularly spread through publications with a respectable amount of evidence in the tradition to support this. The notion of the performance timing of the hornpipe-the question of dotted or un-dotted playing appears to be entirely a local matter based on the local dance tradition requirements. Its slower speed gives the player much more time to attempt more technically challenging performances of this type piece, thus the bunches of triplets and the “difficult” (flat) keys. As such hornpipes were sometimes played away from the dancing environment as a show of virtuosity. In an effort to establish virtuosity note reading players (usually the more formally trained and adapted to classical based techniques) were anxious to purchase books and learn new “virtuoso” hornpipes. Examples of this are the popularity of James Hill (a Lowland Scot who came to settle in Newcastle in the north of England), who certainly had a big impact on Irish fiddle playing up to today.
As with all cultures, political and social changes within a community and in Ireland’s case, a whole country have a knock-on effect to all aspects of their traditions.
In Ireland in the seventeenth century the pattern of society was changing drastically. The old patrons of poetry and music were exiled or reduced in power and wealth. The poorer Gaelic-speaking people had less to lose from the disruption of the older Irish society. They allied themselves to and intermarried with the English and Scottish settlers and formed the beginnings of a middle class, prosperous enough but lacking the cohesive traditions, grandeur and of pre-Cromwellian Ireland. We cannot be sure how much of the old truly Irish musical tradition survived the seventeenth century. Just as elaborate syllabic court poetry disappeared and simpler verse was composed, so it seems likely that much of the intricate high art of the earlier Irish harpers was lost. We know more about the Irish harpers of the eighteenth century than about any earlier players and it is obvious that their instruments, technique and musical style were subject to many non-Irish influences. Their repertoire consisted mainly of tunes of Irish association, simply but movingly played on harps which retained enough of the tonal charm of the older Irish harp to have still a special character and quality. Judging from material published first in the eighteenth century, some of the tunes were probably very ancient, perhaps drawn from the old aristocratic repertory and from popular usage. A few were of Scottish, English or Italian derivation. But it is probable that the style of some of what we now consider traditional Irish music evolved in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a hybrid of largely unrecorded indigenous music and imported foreign styles. This phenomenon has been common enough in other art forms throughout Irish history.
In conclusion it is apparent that much of what we know as Irish traditional music today actually still bares a strong resemblance to the music of the 17th, 18th and 19th century’s. Yes, there are also many features of that music which have been altered or all but died out in many parts but the fact that we know of them and recognise them as being the traditional music of Ireland at the time surely makes them the traditional music we recognise today. Its popularity today takes accreditation from the fact that it has been so widely spread throughout the world. The Napoleonic wars saw much of the Irish population join the British army fighting against the French in the latter 18th and early 19th century’s. This of course leads to the distribution of at least some of the music of Ireland throughout Napoleonic Spain, Portugal and France and of course much of Europe.
Similarly, the spread of this music to America has had great influence on what we enjoy about Irish music. During the potato famine in Ireland, many upped sticks and left for North America. Now, in the 21st Century, what better way to advertise the popularity of anything, including music, than to have roots in what is one of the world’s superpowers? It is largely down to the commercialisation of the music today that it has reached such a high degree of popularity throughout the world. Of course it would seem that it takes most of its regard and recognition in the British Isles at it naturally holds historical and patriotic qualities, which of course makes anything holding these merits “popular”. “Traditional” Irish music is that of the people and communities of Ireland. Whether it is music composed 300 years ago which only exists through word of mouth, or the modern takes on this music introducing the popular world of rock and pop and merging the two disciplines with each other. It is music which is played, written or sung to evoke a response about the country, however controversial it may sometimes be.
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