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  • (Re)Interpreting Fieldwork:Jos Koning in East Clare
  • Helen O'Shea (bio)

In the early summer of 1975 a young man rode his bicycle into Feakle, the County Clare village tucked into the southern slopes of the Sliabh Aughty mountains that border County Galway, about twenty miles northeast of Ennis. Jos Koning was then a graduate student in anthropology and ethnomusicology at the University of Amsterdam, beginning what was to become the first ethnomusicological study of Irish traditional dance music. Koning observed in Feakle a population diverse in age, socioeconomic status, and aspirations. He documented their participation in various dance-music genres, from pub sessions and dances to competitions and céilithe. His aim was to account for that multiplicity, to discover the relationships between groups of people and their musical participation, and to explain how these had developed over time. This approach was new to studies of Irish traditional music, and it challenged the assumptions of cultural continuity and cohesion in rural Ireland that are at the core of received narratives of Irish traditional music.

These assumptions derive in part from the harmonizing nativist discourses of cultural nationalism and folklore studies, which informed the work of the most influential anthropologists of rural Irish life, Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball. County Clare's status as the reputed "home of traditional music" similarly draws on nativist discourse that locates the heart of Irish culture in the rural west, among Irish-speaking, religiously devout, and hard-working small farmers. The county's reputation also derives from George Petrie's fascination with its music in the early nineteenth century (Breathnach, Folk Music; Stokes; Petrie), a status more recently boosted by tourism, the work of folklorists and broadcasters, and an ever-expanding number of traditional-music festivals. These include the annual festival in Feakle, referred to as "the very heart of Irish music" ("Feakle Festival"), where the renowned fiddle player Martin Hayes [End Page 188] and concertina player Mary MacNamara pay tribute to the men who inspired and mentored them. These musicians include P. J. Hayes, Martin Rochford, Paddy Canny, Mikey Donoghue, Bill Malley, and Joe Bane (Hayes, "Liner Notes"; MacNamara), all of whom feature in Koning's research.

Drawing on Koning's records of this project, including two doktoraal scripties (master's theses), field journals, recordings, and published articles, which he generously donated to the Clare Library's Local Studies Centre, this article considers the significance of his study for our understanding of the diverse and changing social meanings and sounds of Irish traditional dance music. I outline Koning's findings that musical participation and values were aligned with social status and discuss the implications of social change for both musicians and their music as they split into two stylistically different groups. Later, I turn to Koning's published articles—a reflection on the roles available to an outsider musician ("Fieldworker") and an analysis of fiddle playing among Feakle musicians born in the early twentieth century ("That Old Plaintive Touch")—which indicate that the musical performance and values of these older musicians differed from those of visiting musicians from the urban revival, while their opportunities to play in public declined with the rise of modern instruments.

Conrad Arensberg and the Lure of Authenticity

The work of distinguished American anthropologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball provided both a baseline and a template for anthropological studies in Ireland up to the 1970s (Gibbon; Wilson) and remains a touchstone for representations of a typically Irish rural way of life. More widely read, at least in the United States, than their coauthored Family and Community in Ireland (Byrne et al. 48), Arensberg's Irish Countryman focused on rural communities in County Clare, while Kimball wrote about the townsfolk (Family and Community xlvi). Two features of their work in particular shaped the ways in which the two studies influenced subsequent scholarship and especially the tendency of their findings to valorize rural cultural life. The anthropologists were heavily informed by contemporary theoretical approaches to anthropology and folklore studies, and they drew from (and reinforced) the discourse of cultural nationalism. Arensberg and [End Page 189] Kimball introduced their joint study as a test of the...