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Music and the Irish Imagination

Thierry Dubost
Alexandra Slaby


Thierry Dubost et Alexandra Slaby

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  • 1 Éric Rohmer, De Mozart en Beethoven. Essai sur la notion de profondeur en musique, Arles, Actes Sud (...)

1Irish music holds pride of place among the cultural attributes defining Ireland. On the strength of its indisputable role in shaping the identity of the country or the nation, Irish music attains a mythical dimension as a “natural” element of Celtic culture. To question these certainties which tend to convey a restrictive notion of a so-called Irish music, the first Irish music studies conference in France, which took place at the université de Caen Basse-Normandie on September 10th-12th, 2008, brought together Irish studies scholars, musicologists and musicians from Ireland and from France. Perhaps the belatedness with which music entered Irish studies in France has to do with the difficulty underlined by the late Éric Rohmer for French intellectuals to discuss music, whilst possessing an extensive literary and visual culture.1

2Seeking to meet this challenge by presenting different ways in which scholars from various backgrounds can include musical discourse in their research, this collection of essays arising from this event places itself in the context of the fairly recent development of Irish music studies as an area of scholarship. Musicology has existed in an institutional way in Ireland only since the 1980s. Apart from the research undertaken at the Irish World Music Academy in Limerick under the aegis of Prof. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and at the Irish Music Center of Boston College in the United States, scholarly attention is only beginning to look at the specificity and the evolutions of the Irish musical idioms. It is natural at this stage that this present volume begins by defining the genre and its evolution which is tightly intertwined with cultural politics. In this context, this volume recalls the questionings around the Irishness of Irish music in musicological studies; it will focus primarily on the aesthetics and history of music in Ireland, while excluding research on pure musical theory.

3In his dual capacity as head of the Irish World Music Academy and as chair of Culture Ireland, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin opens the volume by looking at the place of Irish music in Irish studies internationally. Irish music still has a marginal place in Irish studies, and he notes that in France, the 2008 Caen conference was the first Irish studies conference with an Irish music focus. He argues for the mainstreaming of Irish music into Irish studies for its potential to generate integrated thinking. He begins to explain how this is to be done with the shift of paradigm “from the poetic to the practical”, which permeates his unique approach to traditional music as a composer and as an academic. He then reaches into his personal experience growing up in Western Ireland and learning the classical piano. That was his first encounter with verbal, noted, sheet music, and triggered in his mind the distinction between non-verbal, oral, improvised music learnt by ear which was the native tradition, and another written tradition from Europe which he describes as “Oriental”. The feeling of strangeness surrounding this encounter stemmed, he argues, from the lack of a point of reference on classical piano-playing in the Ireland of the 1950s. There is a strong sense that Irish music comes from the ground, and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin evokes tap dancing in contrast to the quintessentially non-earthly, distinctly aerial classical dancing. However rooted in the soil Irish music can be, he shows – and convincingly illustrates with the piano – that it easily incorporates into its fabric other traditions such as jazz.

4Seeking to update the definitions of Irish music attempted by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin in The Crane Bag in 1981, Erick Falc’her-Poyroux’s paper contributes to “redefining Irish music”. Although both authors agree on the central argument of the historically intrinsic plurality of the Irish musical tradition, Erick Falc’her-Poyroux reveals the current transformations in the performance, the setting and the wider environment of traditional music, “from local pub music to global stage music”, from “music for the feet” to “music for the ears”. While academics battle with the questions surrounding the relationship between the notion of Irish music and its manifold realities, the actual category of Irish music tends to dissolve into a myriad of labels.

5Starting from a different perspective, Adrian Scahill looks at the music proper of the Riverdance show, an aspect of the phenomenon which has received little scholarly attention. Replacing the conception and reception of the music in its Celtic-Tiger context of postmodern enthusiasm over the conflation of tradition and modernity, he analyses whether the music is a global adaptation of a supposedly pure, local notion of traditional music, or whether it is a postmodern pastiche combining ancient and modern, local and global. After questioning those notions in the context of Irish traditional music and seeing them at work in this show in particular, he offers a new understanding of the music through the notion of exoticism whereby the local is represented in an idealised, fantasised manner. He thus comes up with the concept of “Celtic exotica” and ends by evoking the likely consequences of this new category of world music which are, in our “saturated soundscapes”, bound to further blur the boundaries between traditional and other musical genres.

6Musical forms are studied not only from the viewpoint of the cross-fertilisation between art music and popular music, of repertoire or any other particular aspect, but with a view to questioning the intentions underlying aesthetic choices. That is when Irish music becomes instrumentalised – if one may yield to the tempting pun. Alexandra Slaby analyses the political discourse on music in Ireland since independence. After briefly retracing the emergence of a polarised conception of music whereby art music is increasingly dismissed as being colonial music, she identifies the private initiatives which have led to a richer, more diverse soundscape. Then, she looks at the first attempts to have the State support various forms of music. She shows that the State has done relatively little to enrich Irish musical life with the representation of new genres, whereas the Arts Council has met with some success since it commissioned reports showing that Ireland was among the least musically literate countries in Europe. Thanks to the Arts Council, the musical offer is abundant and diversified. The remaining issue is to fill the seats, a challenge cultural policy makers have yet to overcome.

7An illustration of the instrumentalisation of Irish music for nationalist purposes is provided by Lison Ducastelle who looks at the occurrences of weapons in Republican rebel songs. She shows that those songs are fully integrated into the Irish musical repertoire, whether they have romantic and nostalgic overtones, or they take weapons as their subject, which is the case for about one third of the 128 songs under study. Weapons are at times presented as tools, but are more often personified, in a genre that is close to the Irish rebellious imagination.

8Music is also put in the service of more pacific agendas by rock stars with a humanitarian world view such as U2. Paying little attention to political overtones in U2’s music, Visnja Cogan has chosen to reveal the literary influences permeating the songs and to question the possibility of a genre of Irish music spanning low and high culture. Indeed, leaving behind the universe of the Republican rebel songs, one enters a broader frame of reference illustrated by the many borrowings from Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, as well as Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer or Salman Rushdie. This raises questions as to the role played by this anchoring into literary culture in the popular appreciation of U2.

9Conditions of production, reproduction and performance of Irish music are looked at several centuries apart by Jacques Tranier and Damien Verron. When Jacques Tranier studies the place of the lute in 16th-century Ireland, his findings reveal the degree of openness of the country to contemporary mainstream culture. Indeed, whereas in Scotland at the same time, the development of a lute repertoire reflected the close and active connections of Scotland with the Continent, in Ireland lute music was confined to the Pale and drew mainly on the Elizabethan repertoire. What is remarkable too is the disconnection from the Irish native repertoire, a feature which further distinguishes 16th-century Irish musical culture from the approach to music prevailing in Scotland. Conditions of production of Irish music are presented less from a historical perspective than from that of ethnomusicology by Damien Verron who examines the variations occurring in a session in connection with material conditions which may alter the performance of players in informal settings. Based on research carried out in North-Western Ireland, the findings of this paper point to the importance of a broader social environment as a parameter shaping the performance, without musicians being fully aware of it.

10Leaving behind the emergence of generic combinations specific to Irish music and the study of their place in Irish politics and culture, the fourth section turns to another mode of perception of Irish music, namely in literature: it looks at how music (not necessarily Irish) permeates Irish novels and plays. Pascale and Emmanuel Amiot bring together the approaches of a literary critic and a music theorist to explore the ways in which Samuel Beckett’s radio play, Words and Music (1962), combines a static and formalised compositional frame and a process of flow. Thanks to this approach, the “formidable and perhaps insurmountable” problems identified by the playwright are resolved in a profound unity.

11Mathias Lebargy looks at the musical elements of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto. Those elements can be referential, in the form of explicit references to music in the novel, or they can be formal, in which case they concern compositional techniques which can be shared by music and literature. On the referential level, Mathias Lebargy identifies a discourse on Irish music which is inclusive, echoing Adrian Scahill’s analysis. On the formal level, he goes so far as to show that music permeates the very composition of the novel by highlighting some recognisable motifs.

12The same approach, consisting in uncovering the musical structure of a work of literature is applied by Claire Majola-Leblond to William Trevor’s short story “A Day”. In the same way as Mathias Lebargy revealed features of the fugue in McCabe’s fiction, she highlights elements of counterpoint at work in literature. She begins with the paradox that the Irish have no native tradition of contrapuntal composition but, as she recalls, there have been historical encounters between the Irish and European musical traditions. She offers original and convincing graphical illustrations of the contrapuntal elements to be found in William Trevor’s writing.

13Musical motifs are to be found not only in novels, but also in plays, in which they can be manifold, making use of the musical potential of the dramatic language and of the physical presence of actors on the stage who can be turned into musical instruments as it were. Virginie Roche-Tiengo looks at the place of the music in a selection of Brian Friel’s plays from the perspective of the opposition between Apollonian and Dionysian principles which have informed tragedy since its birth. Her study of Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations reveals elements of music and dance which are Dionysian by their rapturous violence but also by their vital, creative force. Music is seen to transcend words as a means of communication between people whose speech is impeded for various reasons. On the other hand, the use of music in Philadelphia, Here I Come! is evocative rather of the Apollonian principle with its soothing potential, its harmony and regularity. Virginie Roche-Tiengo then concludes on the metalinguistic potential of music in the theatre; as in Claire Majola-Leblond’s study, music as an idiom reaches beyond verbal communication.

14In Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians, Matthieu Kolb analyses music as one of the possible metatheatrical devices used by the playwright. Music is then used referentially, as with the use of an extract from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to open the play, a choice which informs the title of the play. This chapter illustrates how the playwright uses the reference to baroque music and, through the music, to Greek mythology, to establish a certain relationship with the reader / audience. The use of musical motifs and the harnessing of the healing power of music for a traumatised population, shown at play here, add up to turn the theatrical space into a “choral space of celebration”.

15A final insight into the links between music and text and their interaction on the stage is provided by Thierry Dubost in his study of the operatic adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors. In this case, music is not part of the original work but is introduced in the adaptation; the novel is thus set to music. Music takes on a mimetic function here; the writing of the score and its rendition have much to say about the self-assertion of a battered woman. The implications of an allegorical reading are momentous and, once again, are best perceived with the superimposition of a non-verbal idiom.


1 Éric Rohmer, De Mozart en Beethoven. Essai sur la notion de profondeur en musique, Arles, Actes Sud, 1998.


Thierry Dubost is a Professor at the université de Caen – Basse-Normandie. He is the author of Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity (Jefferson – London, McFarland, 1997; 2005), and The Plays of Thomas Kilroy (Jefferson – London, McFarland, 2007). He has co-edited four books: La Femme noire américaine: aspects d’une crise d’identité (1997); George Bernard Shaw: un dramaturge engagé (1998); Du dire à l’être: tensions identitaires dans la littérature nord-américaine (2000); Regards sur l’intime en Irlande (2008); and has edited L’Adaptation théâtrale en Irlande de 1970 à 2007 (2010), all published by the Presses universitaires de Caen. An English version of this book, Drama Reinvented: Theatre Adaptation in Ireland (1970 à 2007), was published by Peter Lang in 2012. He is a former director of the Irish Studies Research Centre at the université de Caen – Basse-Normandie.

Alexandra Slaby is an Associate Professor of English at the université de Caen – Basse-Normandie. She researches cultural policy issues in Ireland and cultural discourse in the British Isles. She has published articles on various aspects of Irish cultural life, discourse and policy, and was commissioned to write the chapter on Ireland of a book comparing European cultural policies (La Culture comme politique publique. Essai d’histoire comparée. De 1945 à nos jours, Paris, La Documentation française, 2011). In 2010, she published L’État et la culture en Irlande (Caen, Presses universitaires de Caen) prefaced by Michael D. Higgins. In 2011, she organised an international conference on cultural production and practices in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 2013

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