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  • Irish Traditional Music on Audio Recordings: A Core Historical Collection
  • Christopher J. Smith
Irish Traditional Music on Audio Recordings: A Core Historical Collection

The Tradition

Recordings in the genres of “Irish traditional music,” as they are conventionally understood in the twenty-first century, may be grouped according to several complementary taxonomies: stylistic, geographic, functional, and chronological. Like jazz, the music has been issued in various audio formats, essentially since the invention of sound recording, including wax cylinder, shellac disc, long-playing record, compact disc, and now in digital sound file form. With the exception of several relatively brief periods of commercial popularity—the “Golden Age” of the 1920s, the “Ballad Boom” of the 1960s, the “Folk Revival” of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the post-Riverdance (1994) and Titanic (1997) periods—the music has generally been recorded by and for aficionados interested in particular repertoires, stylists, dance functions, or nationalist imperatives.1 As a result, recordings of Irish traditional music are comparatively well documented and annotated, have often been compiled for comparatively disparate motives, and typically represent an unusually diverse and even “conventionally non-commercial” spectrum of styles.

Publication of dance music and songs in the pre-recording era focused upon collecting and preservation in the “popular antiquities” philological mode of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The great print and manuscript collections—Bunting ([1840] 2000), Goodman (1998), Joyce ([1909] 1965), and pre-eminently O’Neill ([1903] 1996, [1910] 1973, [1913] 1987, [1922] 1980)—were animated both by love for the music and by the desire to preserve it in the face of colonialism, famine, Anglicization, and exile. In the era immediately following Edison’s popularization of the phonograph (approximately 1890), not only collectors, but also musicians, cultural activists, and corporations (especially phonograph manufacturers) began to explore the creative, cultural, nationalist, and commercial possibilities of the new medium. From its first 1926 broadcasts over 2RN, the Irish national radio service, supervised by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, was very active in recording music, both in the studio and, eventually, “in the field,” to generate broadcast material—and as a tool for building a collective, “Independent” Irish national identity. Similar motives of education, preservation, scholarship, and cultural advocacy continued to play a role in the activities of the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s and 1940s.2

In the pre-recording era, the traditions of vocal and instrumental music in the island had taken on regional “accents” and “vocabularies” just as had the dialects of the Four Provinces (Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connacht). Traditional music, song, dance, storytelling, and the Irish language itself tended to survive in those regions of the West and South that, because less desirable as farmland, were reserved for the native Irish who had been pushed out of the more lushly arable, lucrative, or urbanized regions of the East (Dublin and Wexford) and Northeast (Ulster). Much collecting from the eighteenth century onward thus centered upon the Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking regions) of Munster (Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick) and Connacht (Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo) and isolated pockets of Ulster (especially Antrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Donegal).

Musical approaches all varied widely from region to region and rural locality to locality. In the pre-industrial era—and all the way to World War II—most rural people’s range of travel and contact was limited to a day’s walk or bicycle ride; in fact, 1930s clergy had opposed [End Page 343] the distribution of bicycles to the rural population, alleging that such access to “easier” transport might bring “undesirable elements”—that is, unmarried young men—into contact with local girls. The film This Is My Father (1998), though a fictionalized narrative of a family story, captures very well the feel of rural Ireland in the 1930s, and of the central role that both dancing and bicycles played in the courting rituals of the period.

As a result, tune types, preferred melodies, favored instruments, tempi, phrasing, ornamentation, and articulation still tend toward a degree of local specificity. The specificity and exclusivity of these local accents has blurred since the 1920s, as a result of increased mobility, enhanced communications, and (not least) wide access to recordings in diverse styles, but it...


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