Introduction
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vii What is known as ‘Irish traditional music’has been described as such for just over a century. It has been practised with considerable continuity as the onetime popular music of the island of Ireland – a body of melody, song and dance and associated activities that stylistically comes from the period before recorded music and radio. It has core, distinctive features which are uniquely of the place, but it has borrowed forms and practices from the neighbouring islands and from Europe. In turn, it has also contributed to these and to musics in the ‘new’ colonised worlds of America and Australia. Traditional music was neither uniform nor evenly spread over the island at all times in the past, but was present in response to population needs – in greater or lesser supply depending on available talent, social conditions and political upheaval. Certain areas stayed with it more than others and, on account of the greater expertise so honed, are accorded a higher status today. Styles were built around the talents of exceptional performers – aesthetes who in every place and in every age emerge as inspirational, influential mentors. Emigration, poverty, starvation and suffering, the effects of war and depopulation may have driven both the artistic and recreational practices into dormancy at certain times, but they also facilitated fabulous levels of achievement in others, notably so in the 1990s. Traditional music has been intimately associated with the rural poor and the politically downtrodden in the past – the greater part of the Irish population for whom it had been their major cultural resource – and it still positively retains this cultural cachet. However, impelled by confidence-inspiring Romantic philosophy and its consequent ideals prior to the 1900s the traditional music of Ireland has been able to accompany rural– urban migration and upward social mobility into all regions and class levels and it is now solidly representative of both itself as an art form, and of Irishness by origin. In the period of revitalisation of this music over the latter five decades of the 1900s, a most interesting observation can be made: in ‘revival’ mode it found new purpose in entertaining listeners , whereas over the previous half century it had been largely the melody and metre for dance. This eclipse highlighted and encouraged the development of individual artistic skills and talents so much so that the music by 2011 can be said to have never had a higher standard, and most likely not to have ever had so many performers, or been expressed in so many tunes. It could additionally be deduced that this was the resurfacing of indigenous ‘art’music talent within the favourable economic climate of the first prosperous age of modern Ireland, having remained largely dormant following the collapse of Gaelic art-music sponsorship in the seventeenth century. Within traditional music’s players there are many degrees of competence, understanding and sensitivity. Its popular image accommodates everything from big-stage spectacular to street busking and although more urban than rural, its performance is everywhere still an easy-entry social occasion. There is a great variety within its practices and contexts in Ireland as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century: organised and spontaneous sessions, ‘anchor’ playing in bars, casual performing, professional concerts, fleadhs and festivals,competitions,and song,music and dance classes. The music is promoted abroad too, it is emblematic in the Irish Diaspora, and there are several thousand widely-available, specialised albums of players of all ages and styles: from ‘straight’, solo, old-style playing to modernist fusions with rock, classical and various folk musics. Instrument makers and repairers cater for its community, with businesses supplying instruments , albums, literature and services. Institutions and organisations promote its learning at skills and academic levels, and knowledge of the field is developed and promoted by research, broadcasting and publishing. All this is considerable activity for one music form representing an island of five million-odd people. Introduction viii Introduction In the 1960s a player might be jeered in the street for carrying a fiddle case, ridiculed for playing uilleann pipes, or clichéd for persisting with the harp. At the end of that decade the country had only fifty uilleann pipers and the harp was in limbo; a player could either not afford to buy a proper instrument or get one repaired, transport was difficult, there were few major music events and only a handful of recordings available to listen to in order to learn...


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