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  • Myth, Meaning, and Modernity:Printed Record Sleeves and Visual Representation of Irish Music, 1958–86
  • Niall McCormack (bio) and Ciarán Swan (bio)

Longer lasting than flyers or posters, eminently collectable, and under going something of a renaissance in popularity, the vinyl-record sleeve generates visual imagery around music and its performers. Although every sleeve has two sides (and sometimes inserts and printed interior sleeves as well), purchasers and listeners first view the front cover. It typically includes the name of the musician or group and the title of the album—in type or hand-drawn letters—as well as photographic, illustrative, or abstract imagery highlighting the performer(s) or theme of the music. The visual imagery of these artifacts reflects myth and modernity as well as tradition and authenticity. Developing his concept of myth and mythic speech in the 1950s, Roland Barthes proposed that beliefs held by large numbers of people "give events and actions a particular meaning" (115). Australian cultural critic Donald Horne expands on these ideas and explicitly points to Ireland in this context, noting that "the [myths] of the Irish revolution remain" (Horne 111). He further argues that 'myths' have a magic quality of transforming complex affairs into simple but crystal-clear 'realities' that explain and justify how things are now, or how we would like them to be. Whether altogether false, or partly true, 'myths' have the transforming effect of hiding actual contradictions, confusions, and inadequacies (40). The protective record sleeve—generally lasting as long as the vinyl record itself—is thus replete with visual signs and symbols, some deliberate, others the product of broader cultural, political, and commercial dynamics. These signs and symbols, interacting with one another and with the viewer, generate a web of signification and meaning. A product of material culture, the sleeve concurrently acts as vehicle to propagate mythic speech. [End Page 46]

Musical groups, regardless of genre, legitimize themselves as "authentic" through their visual self-presentations as well as their music. Popular genres with styles that emphasize transient enthusiasms, commercial appeal, and novelty can be charged with lacking continuity with the past. But notions of authenticity are frequently dependent upon regional or ethnic specificity, despite Jon Savage's observation that many perceived authentic musical forms are, "in fact pop and highly mediated" (488). Richard Middleton, for instance, points out the centrality of "authenticity" to the politics of folk music. He argues that the genre's

value—particularly when set against other, less favorable kinds of music—is guaranteed by its provenance in a certain sort of culture with certain characteristic processes of cultural production. Thus the supposed purity of folk society … goes hand in hand with the "authenticity" of the music. … [B]oth are myths. Culturally, they originate in the romantic critique of industrial society.


This article examines the visual representations of Irish traditional music on record sleeves printed from 1958 to 1986, with a focus on recordings of groups released by domestic record companies. It examines record sleeves not merely as identifiers of performers but as artifacts invoking technological, social, cultural, and political processes. Through interviews with artists, designers, printers, and musicians, as well as through visual analysis rooted in material-culture studies, design history, and semiotics, we explore the evolving ways in which these material objects generate meaning.1

Gael-Linn: Modern and Commercial

Language activists founded Gael-Linn in 1953 as an organization "to foster and promote Irish … as a living language and as an expression of identity" (qtd. in O'Brien 6). The new company began recording music in 1957 and released its first album, Ceolta Éireann, the following year. This was a decade that saw strong reengagement [End Page 47] with traditional forms of Irish music. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), founded in 1951, established the Fleadh Cheoil, an annual festival competition (Ní Fhuartháin). Irish composer Seán Ó Riada formed Ceoltóirí Cualann, a group of Irish musicians who sought in part to afford traditional music equal esteem to that given to classical music by approaching the former in a more formalized way. By the 1960s, according to Marie McCarthy, traditional music expressed the country's growing tolerance...


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