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  • Irish Music Orientalism
  • Aileen Dillane and Matthew Noone

In a 2005 review of Joseph Lennon’s Irish Orientalism (2004), Nicholas Allen commends the author for the manner in which he has opened up “new perspectives on a discourse” that continue to be relevant for “the new century,” adding that the “phenomenon of Irish orientalism needs further examination … and critical attention” from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.1 One of those new perspectives is surely that of music. Studying Irish music through the prism of Orientalism, and expanding discussions on Irish Orientalism to include music, has much to offer to Irish Studies more broadly—particularly given that Irish music has long been at the center of discussions on different registers of Irish identity over the centuries.2

The central tenet of Edward Said’s seminal 1978 study, Orientalism, is that nations appropriate from others to define themselves and that the Orient is one of Europe’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other … a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes [and] remarkable experiences.”3 These ideas are familiar terrain for anyone who reads about Irish music and its connections to landscape and memory.4 But Said also cautions that the Orient is an invention “with no corresponding reality” and a construction based on myths that “has helped to define Europe as its contrasting image, idea, [End Page 121] personality [and] experience.”5 If Orientalism is a myth-building project, how does it operate in the realm of Irish music? And is its operation there any different from what happens in other artistic and cultural realms?

A powerful iteration of Orientalism in musical terms may be found in a 1970 Danish documentary in which the celebrated Irish composer, musician, and scholar Seán Ó Riada (1931–1971) tells the interviewer that “Ireland has a highly developed traditional music, very complex, very sophisticated, but it’s more Oriental than Western,” and goes on to compare it with different Oriental traditions, including Indian classical music.6 In the course of the interview, Ó Riada not only recreates the Orient through sound; he also uses the Orient to validate ancient Irish cultural practices, which he explicitly locates as standing in opposition to Europe. This “perceived otherness” is something by which Irish cultural identity has long been shaped, a point that John O’Flynn asserts in The Irishness of Irish Music (2008).7 But Ó Riada takes it a step further, by harnessing alterity as a double Otherness in order to copper-fasten the distinctiveness of ancient Irish musical heritage. Ó Riada’s allusion to Irish-Indian sonic connections may rest upon colonial sympathies and cultural links between India and Ireland dating back to the nineteenth century and earlier.8

But can this account for the Indian-inspired music Orientalism that maintains a sustained presence in Irish “musicking” currently?9 Among other contemporary performers and composers working in this vein, we find the traditional group Trúir, which has utilized an Indian drone instrument, the tanpura, to accompany newly composed sean-nós (“old style”) songs.10 Irish traditional and jazz musicians under the leadership of Ronan Guilfoyle have toured, collaborated, and recorded with South Indian musicians in his ensemble named Khanda.11 The Ó Snodaigh brothers of the Irish group Kíla were recently filmed [End Page 122] on a trip to India as part of the documentary Cheoil Chuairt, broadcast on the Irish-language service TG4. They met and played with a variety of Indian musicians, and their interactions unmistakably suggested connections between their Irish culture and the “ancient” one they encountered.12 And Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, the founder-director of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, has composed a piece titled “At the Still Point of the Turning World,” which uses Indian musical sounds, instruments, and compositional techniques.13 In light of these and other examples, a provisional definition of “Irish Music Orientalism” might be the adoption, adaptation, and application of perceived Irish-Oriental cultural sympathies—both real and imagined—through music making and its surrounding discourses. Musically, it manifests as the appropriation of the broad attributes and musical indicators that have stereotypically signified...


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