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  • From Milan to Kilbaha:Bronzing Irish Traditional Music
  • Verena Commins (bio)

Monuments represent important anchoring devices, tying "collective remembering" to physical places and mobilizing a sense of shared memory and identity consolidation (Rowlands and Tilley 500).1 In the specifically Irish context of the last half-century, the types of events and people remembered by this process of monumentalization has changed significantly. Yet as the current decade of centenaries (2012–22) demonstrates, the erection of monuments persists in constituting a significant backdrop for both the representation and framing of national and local identities in public spaces (Commins, "Musical Statues"). Demonstrating their agency as devices to (re) create emotional bonds with particular histories and geographies, monuments focus attention on specific places and events, offering spatial and temporal landmarks loaded with memory. Situating itself within a body of work examining the growth of this monumental culture within Ireland (Breathnach-Lynch; Hill; Johnson; P. Murphy, "Introduction"; Whelan), this article examines Irish traditional music as a cultural channel that has more recently come to embrace monumentphilia. It considers the particular intersections of collective memory with local and national identity (and identities) as represented by monuments specifically raised to commemorate and celebrate Irish traditional musicians. In a rapidly changing world in which identities are increasingly fluid, the subsequent perception that cultures are becoming homogenized or indistinguishable from one another is widely shared (Tovey et al.), raising the attractiveness of the concept of tradition. This research addresses how the "in-placeness" of monuments—their materiality and physical presence—brings [End Page 275] these "traditions" to a much wider public, and in this particular case, beyond the listening and performing community of practice of Irish traditional musicians. In order to do so, it bookends its investigation with two monuments, indeed two moments, that commemorate uilleann piper Willie Clancy (1918–73): both located in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, and raised in 1974 and 2013 respectively (figure 1).

With an initial focus on County Clare this essay considers the emergent relationship between music and place and the augmentation of this dynamic by the insertion of commemorative material-culture into place. Stepping outside of County Clare and Irish music practices per se, this article goes on to examine the wider vista of monumentalizing commemoration in Ireland. General trends in commemorative culture are charted in order to contextualize the space that preceded the arrival of the first monument to Irish traditional music, the Clancy relief in Miltown Malbay, revealing a shift from the celebration of institutional to vernacular memory. By examining details such as commission, design, reception, and legacy, it employs the statue of Clancy and its portrait-relief predecessor as framing devices. It reflects, firstly, on the creative sector and cultural capital developments in the region that provide context for the creation of the monuments. Secondly, through an examination of the visual semiosis performed by these two displays of material culture across a forty-year span, it reveals how the meanings attached to the musician Willie Clancy changed, both literally and symbolically, in tandem with the shifting status of Irish traditional music during the bookended time frame.

The First Monument

The uilleann piper Willie Clancy died suddenly and tragically in January 1973. The affective power of Clancy and his music was appositely demonstrated by an immediate compulsion to commemorate. Hence the initiation in February 1973 of the Willie Clancy Memorial Fund and the subsequent launch in the same year of the Willie Clancy Summer School (WCSS). A weeklong celebration of Irish traditional music, its practices of transmission, performance, and commemoration are in keeping with Clancy's own philosophy with regard to music (Commins, "Locating"). As the first weeklong summer [End Page 276]

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Figure 1.

Willie Clancy bronze relief at Ballard Cemetery (1974), top, and statue on Main Street (2013), bottom. Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Photographs by courtesy of author.

[End Page 277]

school of Irish traditional music, this was virgin territory for the founding committee (Commins, "Scoil"). The relationship between Clancy and his hometown Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, is synergized through the annual repetition of the WCSS, as indeed are subsequent local, national, and international developments in Irish traditional...


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