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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Harp New-Strung: Music In Ireland

Music In Ireland: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture
Hast, Dorothea & Stanley Scott
New York: Oxford University Press 2004
Book & CD; 21 cm.; xix, 153 p.


Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 21 August 2004

In a new volume in Oxford’s Global Music Series, the subtitle ‘Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture’ emphasises the musical force gained by Irish music from its being rooted in the local. Dorothea Hast and Stanley Scott, practitioners and scholars both, visit a seisiún at Gleesons pub in Clare near the Miltown Malbay centre of melodic pilgrimage, interview traditional singers Len Graham from Glenarm and his wife, Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, from Louth, and analyze a performance held at Trinity Inn near the college in Dublin under the auspices of the Góilín Singer’s Club. By concentrating on these three manifestations of the current Irish scene, emphasising in turn the instrumental, the seán-nos and song tradition, and the song as both perpetuating the tradition and welcoming the innovative, Hast and Scott provide an overview easily enjoyed in a couple of sittings along with the accompanying 28-track CD, keyed to their informative text.

Although designed for the classroom, this volume (ISBN 0-19-514555-0; © 2004, Oxford UP) can inform anyone about the background, current context, and permutations of Irish music. As a ‘mediocre tin-whistle player,’ in the estimation of my twelve-year-old flautist son, I was impressed by the ease in which musicologists Hast and Scott integrate technical terms into their text designed for the rank novices like me to musical terminology. The activities allow you to learn from the CD track at specified moments in your reading, and particularly impressive I found one example. Piper Jerry O’Sullivan offers multiple versions of “Garrett Barry’s Jig.” The first is a stripped-down version transcribed for the beginning student. The notes simplify the melody. The second version adds ornaments. The third time through, with the use of the regulators of the instrument, adds even more intricacies. As a careful listener to the pipes, the combination of the three scores and the three takes added immeasurably to my comprehension of what, if I had been presented only with the audio tracks, would have sounded like lots of flash added to a straightforward tune.

How does this musical exploration of Irish indigenous—and imported—strains play upon the harp new-strung, as Wolfe Tone’s logo promised? Can we connect the culture with the political aspirations? As I have stated, the connection of the pub session and the repertoire with the local emerges strongly in these pages. Hast and Scott could have wandered all 32 counties and given a thumbnail rundown of famous players or notable tunes in these 150 pages. Instead, they study the etiquette, the passing on of tunes, the respect paid the elders, and the democracy of the audience and players, as all who play and sing thus gain appreciation in turn. The incident down the road or up the lane, as so many titles show, the inspiration of a particular player, and the commemoration of battles and courtships long faded remain memorialised but never mummified. The context emerges in the playing and the singing, ever-shifting but still reified. Each playing and recital changes the structure but leaves the scaffolding in place for the next builder. Eschewing the gazateer approach, the authors’ choice to zero in on three locales heightens their primacy of the community within what continues to be passed on within the Irish traditional repertoire, and what is added.

After an injury of a famous musician, the authors note that within a week or so not one but two ballads had been composed about his mishap while playing at doubles. E-mail and phone only accelerate the transmission of the oral tradition, it seems. Similarly, the ability to tape performances, to sell recordings, and share by technological advances the wealth of musical variation only increases the lustre of the treasure to which musicians and singers contribute. ‘In each postindependence generation of Irish musicians, individuals have had to choose between the urban, upbeat high-volume allure of swing, rock and roll country and western, heavy metal, or rap and the more rural, frequently slower-paced, quieter, intimate appeal of Irish music’. (96) Now, on the other hand, musicians and singers can mix forms. While in my opinion the hybrids can be dreadful, they do expose younger listeners to the older forms. For myself, as a punk in the late 70’s whose parents had only an l.p. of Bing Crosby, Shamrocks and Shillelaghs and another ‘Who Put the Overalls in Mrs Murphy’s Chowder,’ I recall my curiousity stoked after listening to Horslips, even though I recall Rolling Stone condemning their entire oeuvre as one-star rated ‘sham-rock.’

The gamut of players and singers treated shows this heterogeneity. While any listener or player may lament who or what’s been left out, you must admit that the range can certainly educate the beginner or the advanced fan of Irish music of the diversity we are lucky to hear and share now. For example: Carolan harp tunes, West Clare and Sligo fiddle, céilí bands from the 1940s, vocals from John McCormack, Joe Heaney, Andy Irvine, and Gleesons pub singers, sean-nós from Ní Uallacháin and Scots-Irish song from Graham, and members of Lúnasa live and in session demonstrating some of the finer points of the text, to which Hast and Scott also enrich their own musical collaborations. The text covers the history of Irish music effectively, although the influential and detrimental Dance Halls Act of 1935 in the south needed more explanation, as it weakened the ability of individuals to hold their own musical gatherings and seems to have been instigated by the Church and the Dublin government to weaken rural choices for venues. I wondered if this was part of the anti-jazz campaign undertaken by republicans in the middle of that decade, but the text offers no context. Dance tune traditions and their instruments in turn receive a few paragraphs; from this I learned of the bodhran’s very recent rise in popularity and that of the uilleann pipes, both having entered the limelight only during the 60s and 70s. The decline of the harp and the ascent of the fiddle still puzzled me due to their too brief treatment here. Why the concertina became the “woman’s instrument” can be traced, intriguingly, to not only its relative affordability early last century but its sale at hardware stores.

Throughout this survey, Ciaran Carson, Belfast poet-musician, from his estimable Last Night’s Fun (1996), the ultimate print on Irish sound, continues to be cited. Near the end of Hast and Scott: Carson--

Each time the song is sung, our notions of it change, and we are changed by it. The words are old. They have been worn into shape by many ears and mouths and have been contemplated often. But every time is new because the time is new, and there is no time like now.’ (116; in Hast and Scott, 135).

As with the language, so the music and the native culture. All are enriched by the blow-ins and the strangers, but never is the root as Gaeilge, ceol, nó duchas torn away. The nutrients from fresh winds plant themselves in the soil and the stronger creation, the hybrid, can better withstand old winds and new blasts. Or so we hope.







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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

24 August 2004

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Loughall - A Truth to Remain Untold
Anthony McIntyre

Ancient Order of Hibernians in America
Ned McGinley

The Harp New-strung: Music in Ireland
Seaghán Ó Murchú

There's a Uniform that's Hanging...
Kathleen O Halloran

Understanding the raison d'être for the armed struggle
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More on Captain Kelly Campaign
Report sent in By Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh

The North's Future Depends on Tony Blair's Bravery
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Standing With RSF
Sean O Lubaigh

Genetic Contamination of Mexican Maize
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The Letters page has been updated.

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Rathenraw Threat
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Troubled Waters
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International Conference Misled by Sinn Fein
Francie Mackey

Rearming the Provos with Picket Signs
Marty Egan

Richard Wallace

Fionnbarr Ó Dochartaigh and the Captain Kelly Campaign
Liam O Comain

Imperfect Peace: Terence O'Neill's Day Has Come
Anthony McIntyre



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