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ORAL AND LITERATE CONSTRUCTS OF “AUTHENTIC” IRISH MUSIC MARY TRACHSEL the harp that is stamped on every piece of the Republic of Ireland’s currency bears witness to the symbolic power of Irish music to represent Irish national identity. The concept of an exclusively Irish musical tradition reaches far back through the island’s history. In the twelfth century, Giraldus Cambrensis noted during his travels that the musicians of Scotland and Wales sought instruction from Irish harpers and tried to emulate their music.1 Although he otherwise found little cause to praise the Irish, Giraldus wrote admiringly of the Irish cruitire (“harpers”): They are incomparably more skillful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their manner of playing on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the melody is both sweet and pleasing. It is astonishing that in such a complex and rapid movement of the Wngers the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the diYcult modulations on their various instruments the harmony, notwithstanding shakes and slurs, and variously intertwined organising, is completely observed. They delight with so much delicacy, and soothe so softly, that the excellence of their art seems to lie in concealing it.2 Beyond its aesthetic qualities, Irish music was felt to wield sociopolitical power to which even the English dwellers on the island were dangerously susceptible. In 1537 a British statute suppressed the activities of “rhymers, piobaire (pipers), bards, and aois ealadhn” in Ireland because, by singing praises to “gentilmen of the English Pale,” these musicians allegedly instilled in the English gentry “a talent of Irishe disposicion and conversation.”3 A CONSTRUCTS OF “AUTHENTIC” IRISH MUSIC 27 1 W. H. Grattan Flood, A History of Irish Music (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1913), p. 52. 2 Cited in Grattan Flood, p. 61. 3 J. E. Caerwyn Williams, The Irish Literary Tradition, trans. Patrick K. Ford (Belmont, MA: Ford and Bailie, 1992), p. 171. similar statute against minstrels appeared on the books during the reign of Elizabeth I. Such legislation no doubt eventually strengthened the power of music to represent a distinctly Irish cultural identity in opposition to British occupation. As Thomas Moore attested in the early nineteenth century, these acts against minstrels “were as successful in making my countrymen musicians as the Penal Laws have been in keeping them Catholic.”4 Although the allure of Irish music for visitors and newcomers to the island was primarily aesthetic, the native population knew that the cultivation of music, especially of harp music, was central to the maintenance of Gaelic cultural and intellectual leadership. In the earliest history of Ireland , this leadership came from a caste of seer-poets known as filidh, who were the human repositories of cultural wisdom and knowledge and were believed to possess supernatural powers of divination and prophecy even greater than those of the druids. Their formal education consisted of a rigorous thirteen-year course of study in custom, genealogy, law, legend, and history. Additionally, they learned the art of oral composition in the ancient syllabic metres—what are now known as the “bardic metres”—which they employed to produce the court literature of heroic culture. Once the file had successfully completed his studies, he might attach himself to a single taoiseach (“chieftain”), or he might become an independent agent, moving freely from one chieftain to the next, receiving food, lodging, protection and a place of honor from each in turn. For centuries the bardic schools existed side-by-side with the monastic centers established on the island by Christian missionaries. They were unique among Western educational institutions in a number of ways. They represented the only secular system of formal education in Europe, and comprised, moreover, a system that Xourished for centuries within an oral tradition despite the presence of two forms of literacy on the island. Native Gaelic orthography was an unwieldy system called ogham, consisting of slash marks above and below a baseline in patterns corresponding to phonemes in the language. Chadwick and Chadwick report that although both bards and filidh acquired some knowledge of ogham in the bardic centers, their training...


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