Music in Irish Cultural History By Gerry Smyth Irish Academic Press, 196pp, €24.95
IN RECENT years Gerry Smyth has led the way in establishing popular music as a legitimate field of study within the ever-expanding landscape of 21st-century Irish studies.
This volume combines previously published and new material which constitutes an extended critical meditation.
The fact that Smyth writes not as a musicologist but as a cultural historian means his is a less “disciplined” approach than some purists might prefer, but the book is all the better for that.
The interdisciplinarity that drives his critical practice – encompassing literature, history, politics, film studies, philosophy and psychology – produces many instructive readings that expand the parameters within which familiar texts are usually considered.
The chapter on music in Joyce’s story The Dead is a good example of the insights such a methodologically flexible approach can yield. Smyth’s analysis of the significance of Joyce’s invocation of The Lass of Aughrim in the story’s key scene begins with a short history of the ballad’s mixed Irish and Scottish pedigree. He then proceeds to discuss the different musical traditions represented in the story, after which he draws our attention to a seemingly incidental textual detail, namely, the fact that Gabriel Conroy is “gazing up the staircase” at Gretta as she listens to the ballad. Smyth seizes on this scopic detail to explore the philosophical implications.
His chapter on Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments makes a convincing case for why the book succeeds as a novel and film but fails as a representation of local music-making because of the characters’ marked reluctance to compose their own songs. Other contemporary novels in which music is overtly thematised – John B Keane’s The Bodhrán Makers , Dermot Bolger’s Father’s Music and Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood – are critiqued for their failure to do justice to the subtlety of traditional Irish music practice. Conversely, Ciarán Carson’s Last Night’s Fun is praised for its sympathetic engagement with the elaborate patterns of traditional music.
Smyth’s analysis of Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes is no less insightful, particularly his explication of how the text’s double structure mediates the paradox of transformative repetition in the context of Northern Ireland. However, his keen attentiveness to MacLaverty’s neo-romantic aesthetic makes Smyth somewhat deaf to the strand of the novel that conceptualises music as the “grace of God”.
But the chapter that lingers longest in the mind is “Paddy Sad and Paddy Mad”, in which Smyth addresses the intriguing question of whether there is something inherent in the particular tones and rhythms of Irish music which elicits the reactions it does.
He argues these sonic signifiers – “Paddy Sad” connoting a melancholic response to a history of dispossession; “Paddy Mad”, a comic, carnivalesque response – are closely bound up with long-established racial stereotypes of the Irish, which viewed them as unfit to deal with the modern world. Smyth’s piquant analysis leaves us to ponder why such disparaging Celticist stereotypes continue to flourish today, and why Irish musicians and film-makers are content to perpetuate and profit from them.
Liam Harte’s latest book is The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725–2001 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He teaches Irish literature at the University of Manchester
accordion achill activities Affiliate Program Alan Kelly Alan Shatter Alasdair Roberts Alison Krauss All Ireland Fleadh Altan Andy Irvine antrim archive armagh Arthur McBride Arts Arts and Entertainment Arts Council Arty McGlynn Athlone Baltimore band banjo Bantry Barney McKenna Baroque music Bill Whelan Bluegrass music bodhran Bodhrán bouzouki brendan begley Brendan Dolan brian boru Brian Conway Brian Cunningham Brock McGuire Band bunsatty Caoimhin O Raghallaigh Cape Breton Castlebar Cathy Davey Cavan cd ceili Céilí Band Céilidh celtic Celtic music Celtic rock ceol charlie lennon Chicago chieftains christmas Christmas music Christy Moore ciorras clancy Clancy Brothers classes classical music comhaltas Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Compact Disc Compass Records concert concertina Concerts and Events Connemara Conradh na Gaeilge Cootehill cork Cork County Council Cork University Press Cormac De Barra County Clare County Leitrim Dáithí Sproule Damien Dempsey Dán Dance Dancing at Lughnasa Danny Boy danu Dave Swarbrick De Dannan Declan Sinnott Deezer Derry dervish dkit Dolores Keane Dónal Lunny Donegal Donegal Fiddle Tradition Donnacha Dennehy doolin drisheen Drogheda Drumkeeran drums Drumshanbo dublin Dubliners dun uladh Dundalk early music East Clare Ed Reavy Education Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Eileen Ivers Eleanor McEvoy Electric Picnic emer mayock ennis European Union Fairytale of New York Feakle feis Feis Ceoil felix dolan festival Festivals fidde fiddle Fiddling Film festival Fleadh Fleadh Cheoil Fleadh Cheoil Competition Céilí Band Jig Comhaltas Fleadh Cheoil fleadh nua flute Folk music Folk music of Ireland folklore france outdoors Francis O'Neill Frank Harte Frankie Gavin frankie kennedy free download Gaeilge gael-linn Gaelic galway Galway Arts Festival galway bay George Bernard Shaw gig glor goodman manuscripts Grammy Award Green Linnet Records group Grouse Lodge Guinness guitar harp hinse history holidays hornpipe Iarla Ó Lionáird iPhone Ireland irish Irish American irish arts centre irish dance irish flute Irish language irish music Irish people Irish Recorded Music Association irish times irish traditional music Irish Traditional Music Archive irish whistle IrishCentral IrishTimes irishtune.info Israel itma Ivan Goff jack coen JAMES JOYCE James Joyce Centre Jig jigs Joanie Madden Joe Derrane John Carty John Doyle John McCusker John McKenna John McSherry john spillane John Wynne Julie Fowlis Junior Crehan Karan Casey Karen Matheson Kathleen MacInnes Kevin Crawford Kilfenora Kilfenora Céilí Band Latin America Le Vent du Nord learn Len Graham Leopold Bloom Lieutenant of Inishmore Literature Liz Carroll London London Irish Centre Lord of the Dance louisburgh lunasa Lúnasa MacTalla Mor Maggie MacInnes Máirtín Ó Direáin mairtin o'connor Máirtín O'Connor Malawi Mandolin Margaret Bennett Martin Carthy martin fay Martin Hayes Martin McDonagh Martin Quinn Mary Bergin Mary Black Maryland Massachusetts Matt Molloy mayo McMahon Merry Sisters of Fate Michael Flatley Michael Rooney Michael Tubridy Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin Micho Russell Mick Moloney mick o'brien milwaukee Monaghan Moya Brennan mp3 Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh music Music festival Music of Ireland Musical composition Natasha McShane Neil Young New York Noel Hill Northern Ireland npu NUIG o'carolan omagh Orkney Paddy Fahey paddy keenan paddy moloney paddy o'brien Padraig Rynne passionfruit theatre Paul Brady penny whistle pennywhistle Peter Horan Philadelphia Philip Duffy piano pipes Planxty podcast Poetry Pogues Quebec radio radisson Raidió Teilifís Éireann recording reel reels riverdance Robert Downey Jr Ronan Browne Ronnie Drew Roscommon rose of tralee rowsome Royal Irish Academy of Music RTÉ Concert Orchestra Ryan Molloy Saint Patrick's Day school scoil acla Scoil Éigse scotland Seachtain na Gaeilge Sean Nós Seán Ó Ríordáin Séan O'Riada séan potts sean tyrell Sean-nós song session Set dancing Shanachie Records shannon shannonside Sharon Shannon shetland show singer Singing Skara Brae Sliabh Luachra sligo solas Sorley MacLean st.patrick stephen ducke Streaming media Stuart MacRae summer school teada teetotallers tg4 the forge theatre Tin whistle Tommy McCarthy Tommy Peoples Tommy Sands Toner Quinn Town Hall Theatre trad trad music traditional Traditional Folk and Celtic Traditional music tradmusiconline.com tradschool trocaire Tulla Tulla Céilí Band tune makers tunepal tutorial tv uilleann pipes Ulysses University of Limerick vallely Van Morrison venue Vermont video Violin W. B. Yeats Waterford westmeath whistle willie Willie Clancy Willie Walsh workshop workshops world fleadh