Chairing Mick Moloney’s tribute talk on Cavan/Philadelphia fiddle composer Ed Reavey.
Chairing Mick Moloney’s tribute talk on Cavan/Philadelphia fiddle composer Ed Reavey.
Launch of this fabulous book of photographs taken by Guy Jungblut in 1966, and Nutan in 1969, images that are rare, nostalgic, humourous and tragic, and food for thought should we ever consider exiting the EC …
[photo courtesy Nutan]
Popular song as morale-builder, call to action, memorial and “pike in the thatch” in Irish revolutionary agitation … an Illustrated lecture on Songs of Rebellion, in Bow Street Studio 1, just off Church St in Smithfield, Dublin, live lecture commissioned and to be recorded for broadcast by RTÉ (Easter Monday), 11am
Irreverence, slagging and satire in agit-prop political song
In 2016 the dogs of the street know what a ‘bodhrán’ is. It is played in hundreds of sessions nightly all over Ireland, flaunted by the major Irish Traditional bands, and is used as a noise-maker at not only GAA but also soccer and rugby matches and even at international cricket where Ireland is involved. Every major Irish politician has posed with one, and every kind of product has been advertised on them. Yet the revolutionaires who went out a century ago in 1916 would never have heard it or seen it. So where does this magnificient, seductive percussion instrument come from? Fintan Vallely here cheerfully challenges myth, imagination and wishful thinking in the currently accepted history of that unique Irish drum. He explores the perceptions of Irish drum culture, looks scientifically at the evidence of the drum’s antecedents, and the meaning of the word bodhrán itself. His interim conclusions are that the famous Irish drum has no ancient artistic past: it was universally known in the late 1800s and early 1900s as what it was – a ‘tambourine’, and the actual ‘bodhrán’ was only a common agricultural and household utensil, and often a sieve. So indeed,, the history of the bodhrán that we have is riddled with holes. Yet the bodhrán IS around, and being brilliantly played, as solid and sought-after an art and presence as the harp or the pipes. But we borrowed the rhythms from dancers’ feet, the device itself from Black & White Minstrels, The Salvation Army or regimental bands, and we synthesized the modern playing style from the sounds of Ulster Lambeggers, Indian tabla tippers and Scottish pipe-band snare drummers.
Powerful new paintings of musicians at the Sol Gallery, Dawson St., Dublin until Dec. 12th
Brian Vallely art launch, 26 Nov, 2015
Launch address by Dr. Fintan Vallely, Professor Adjunct University College Dublin, School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics
I am delighted to have been asked to launch this exhibition of the work of the Armagh painter JB (Brian) Vallely, not least because my field is music, what I know most about, and that is what his work is best known for addressing. At a first glance it is surely larg
e scale art, and I am reminded by that that I was taught drawing in
school by JB’s earliest mentor, his father John, also a painter, who showed us how to use the wrist and forearm in our nature-study copybooks, not just the last two joints of the fingers. I only became aware of this years later in UCD when my Botany tutor was intrigued that I filled the whole page with plant images instead of the customary postage-stamp-size miniatures being done by my colleagues.
This exhibition is indeed of bold painting: sweeping and dashing brush and palette strokes, without parsimony as regards paint, and assured in the finesse of its disposition. The work here follows on JB’s progress through the years – from compositional, abstract and semi abstract forms, to more figurative work which seizes the mood of the occasion from inside the head of the subjects. Only occasionally does the viewer seem to be drawn in, most notably in his Ó Riada theme “hosts of the air” where snapshots of music occasions were juxtaposed as if in the clouds; but that was the 1960s, a time when Traditional music was mostly experienced on the wireless.
This intense interest in and accordance of nobility and primacy to the act of performance has been followed though too in JB’s sports imagery – the road bowlers (‘bullet’ throwers) with their studied intensity, who are observed in the act of galvanising themselves, focusing, compressing and synergising their mental and muscular resources for the spring that delivers the one chance at a perfect throw. The heroes here too- as in JB’s music, are always capped, masculine icons. This is as things were, not of course as they have come to be, for music in particular is well populated by women in modern time. But since it is a fact that this painter simply ‘does men better’, so be it: his figures are representative of passion in an artform, not prescriptive models for it.
None of this fabulous expressiveness has the explicit, accountable detail of photo-realism; it is musicians at work – music being made. It is no more about age than it is about gender, but it is about intensity and process. More variety of strong colour is in evidence in his work today, but this entered cautiously – via thin strands of often primary colours, but massed and intertwined so that they eye mixes to a final impression as it does the strands in woven fabric. Today’s work has more courageous celebration and disposition of colours, to the same effect: it is a tapestry at times indeed, with Bayeux shadows recalled in some work of recent years, such as the celebration of the 1600s Flight of the Earls; this was not so much political idealism as symbolism, an Irishness / Gaelicness – representation of the moment at which the centuries-ongoing development of a culture was suddenly arrested by political climax. Indeed, aggression as such appears little in Brian’s work: there have been some soldiers, some coursing, the latter vivid in its finale. But his themes hold a solidly introspective intensity that implies the body performing acts of careful consideration and subtlety, underscoring that a performance is always valuable, if not momentous, since every performance is unique.
The new work here has shadows of the rough-hewn muscularity of William Conor’s Mayo dancers and accordionists, a regional subliminality perhaps that may trace to JB’s mother being from Ballyhaunis. But the ruralness suggested by his work does generally imply its subjects being “of the soil”, an earthiness and standard by which few or any of our associates do actually live today – or can be let live by society. In that sense the work is heedlessly but confidently idealistic. Overall, what comes through in the work is quite the antithesis of what late 1900s novelists have vividly observed and described in modern society – ennui, boredom, what the Egyptian writer Naguib Mafouz highlights as “irrelevance” in post-revolutionary societies which leads to loss of sight of one’s personal value, and self esteem. None of that is here, no hopelessness. The participants in this work of JB Vallely are classic ‘sophisticated amateurs’, what might be regarded as “inverted professionals” – a concept which is has been established via the cultural re-enfranchisement of Irish Traditional music which was made possible by the post-1951 revival, a statement which in the mouths of JB’s subjects might take the form of: “our music is valuable … what we do is of worth … culturally important … we are artistes …”
The work also displays definitions: in particular the uniqueness of that we call ’the session’, which is not at all the long-standing tradition it is often assumed to be, but a modern-time response first to emigration, then latterly in Ireland to the weighty implications and impelling force of ‘revival’. You see in these figures care only about WHAT they do – the blanked faces, averted gaze, the inward-facing circle, activities engaged in primarily if not totally for the performers/players themselves; they are ‘minds at work’ in music-making, gender is not an issue, they are in a dimension outside of everyday representative reality. This can be seen too over the years in JB’s runners and cyclists too as well as the bowlers: all have an over-riding sense of noble purpose: the drive of physical exertion, the ‘high’ of personal achievement, the consequent, debilitating physicality of it all lifted by collaborative activity – in the team of runners in a field of teams, the lone cyclist in the pack, each of whom and all of them a link in a linear pulse of spatial progress.
Runners, cyclists, musicians, singers, dancers – these are what the artist depicts so well. Not the officials, rule-makers, commentators, not even the observers, the sports’ consumers. He shows us those who make the sport, the art and and action: structured contexts, depicted movement, suggested sounds, impulses and motion in which the observer has the freedom to invest themselves. In that sense the art work reaches the peak of visual art’s democratic potential. The fundamental representation theme is also a vital achievement because today we live in an age where artistic and sporting activity can be dwarfed by a preponderance of backroom directive, controlling, often financially self-serving, debilitating structures generated outside of the actual activity, against which participants and the artists alike have to battle for survival .
These paintings are like lyric fiction, poetry, scientific exploration and historical unravelling. In and though them we see life freshly, we selectively re-invest our selves. And in response to the painter’s skill the canvasses’ messages and mediation can change with the light and with the times, expand, and will live on.
Encomium for Nicholas Carolan
Dr. Fintan Vallely, ITMA, 6pm, September 24, 2015
I could take any direction for such an appreciation, for in Nicholas’s life there are so many significant achievements. His establishment and running of ITMA are of course the most profound among these, but there is also his personal research, editing and publication, and, not least, his ‘other life’ in television broadcasting, something that was so logical and appropriate, since it is transmission that is the very stuff of Traditional music. Indeed his programme made him a ‘star’ so to speak, for if you are walking along the street with him the turned heads let you know where those people spent their Friday evenings. Even where this was not informed knowledge, without doubt it marked a subliminal awareness of, and validation for, Come west Along the road. But Nicholas has also had much stopping in the street, hand shaking, praise … intrusion, yes, but by genuine, passionate well wishers with whom he deals courteously. Exceptionally though, on one occasion when by chance I went in for a drink with him to a hotel on Merrion Square, where a Fianna Fáil fund-raising function happened to be in progress, I wonder that Nicholas did not spontaneously combust when a senior politician who was introduced to him exclaimed: “Oh, the céilí man, the céilí-man!”
Nicholas’s view of the genre under his care of course extends considerably beyond such a narrow perspective. It stems from a deep respect for endeavour and passion in Traditional music which has directed that he put on the record a huge spectrum of musicians from all social classes and all parts of the island, from America, England and Scotland. This has involved caring about personality, contexts, communities and rights, and has demanded rigour, fastidiousness, tenacity and, often, sheer nerve. His ear has been always to the ground – seeking out, establishing contact, and opening up. Simultaneously, his brief dictated that he put in place a staff and a premises to make otherwise-nebulous contacts solid and meaningful, and, in particular, their artistic endeavour consultable. This demanded business acumen, personnel and financial management, strategic thinking, library skills, fund-raising -days and weeks of stressful form-filling, lobbying and harrying where necessary. In that regard we must consider – and appreciate and value – the immense support he enjoyed from his life partner and wife Maeve, who we miss greatly on this occasion, and for whom we are saddened that she could not see this day.
It might appear at times that those of us who know Nicholas personally take all of these things for granted. This is at least partly on account of his generosity of spirit. For despite the fact that he was ‘never off the television’, he has not been pushy, demanding or egotistical, but is quite a ‘man of the people’ in his field, generous with his knowledge and observation. This recalls for me another honour I was given in doing a similar appreciation for Tom Munnelly’s festschrift volume edited by Ann Clune in 2007. In that I addressed Tom’s reluctance to be regarded as an academic, despite the fact that he worked for a university. True to form, it was both laudatory and paradoxical that when he was eventually proposed for an Honourary Masters he held out for a Doctorate. This was not mean-spirited, or even perverse, but Munnelly saw his honour as a public affirmation of and accolade for the song and music he represented, as well for the volume, dedication and precision of his personal work. It is highly commendable and – in the spirit of Traditional music – appropriate, that Nicholas would sing from more or less the same culturally-conditioned, aesthetic, egalitarian ballad-sheet as Tom Munnelly, even if he comes from a different background. Both of them, in the spirit of that other great ideologue of the music, Breandán Breathnach, shared belief in the primacy of the practice of the artform the history of which they serviced. The trajectories of these three associates run parallel and criss-cross at key points over the years of what was – and still is – ‘the revival’, or re-appreciation of, and making accessible, the various dimensions of Traditional music culture. And like Tom Munnelly, Nicholas Carolan has had an informed caution with regard to State institutions and their bureaucracies. For, coming from ‘inside’ education, Nicholas has been alert to not only its amazing facilitative potential, but also to its inappropriatenesses in aspects of culture. But, like Breathnach too, Nicholas also has believed in, and demonstrated how vital it is to have the State as an ally.
As withTom Munnelly, I knew nothing of Nicholas for the first twenty five years of my life in music. This was, I think, because he had been ‘moving in’ from another flank, to use a military analogy. In my case I had progressed from self-taught player through competitions, sessions, professional playing into teaching, compiling a tutor and, then, finding that I had raised nothing only questions, to research and analysis which suggested that maybe all that I had previously thought of as ‘real’, was diaphanous myth. My ‘certainty’ about Traditional music in Ireland was wonderful, yes, but under the scrutiny required for education it now appeared as a cobweb jewelled with dew in early-morning sunlight, but quite invisible in the multi-directional light of day. Nicholas had a different prism; he was not distracted by the divil-ma-cared-ness of performance and impatience to learn tunes, but focused on exploring the “what?” and “where?”, the “what not” and the “from where”, the “why?”, the “who” and the “When?”. Yet I have subsequently heard him sing, and he has enthusiastically attended – as they say in Armagh, “everything bar the crib” – and he has been an enthusiastic fiddle-player for a decade or more. Maybe the archive impelled him? Like the metamorphic bicycle seat in Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman, the music energy that saturates each floor, room, cabinet and drawer of this huge building passing by osmosis into his physical being? Maybe also it appeared only right that one in his position should understand the feel of music, be able to practice what he preached? Not that ‘non-performance’ (if it be a deficiency at all), as Tom Munnelly would never miss the opportunity to remark, has ever prevented a certain other ideologue from pontificating on what is best for Traditional music. But Nicholas’s journey has been predominately one of identifying, seeking out, recording, collecting, protecting, preserving and presenting the print, acetate, plastic and electronic artefacts which hold – and collectively are – the history, personalities, repertoire, style and substance of the genre we call “Irish-Traditional” music.
It is an amazing concept perhaps that the earliest hard documents we have on the historic style of Irish music are in the form of empty space – the narrow, weaving, longitudinal gap cut in concentric circles into a flat disc which on an LP is about half a kilometre long. Proinsias Ó Conluain, from the same locality as myself in Co. Armagh, brought this vividly to mind to me once by describing that, when field-recording on acetate discs, Radio Éireann’s machine physically gouged out and removed this groove as a continuous, spiralling thread of acetate; at the end of the day there was a ball of it like a tumbleweed (rather like a rolled-up sound-wave perhaps, a ticker tape of melody?); to it the technician would apply a match, sending it up in a momentary whoosh of flame. Burning music, perhaps, but it was what was left behind, the empty groove, that was the cultural record – what was removed in order to create it was waste.
I use that image and statistic as a metaphor for academic questing. Similar data shows that on a hard drive (which is, for now, a standard archiving medium), though there is no abrasive needle or ‘head’, a digital recording’s microns pass under the reading pick-up at 232 KM per hour. That geekish statistic and analogy highlight the level of abstraction that recording is now at, and how fragile. It underlines two questions that challenged Nicholas as a pioneering archivist in the span of his work at ITMA: since all media are perishable, how long can a recording be kept for, and,
since space is precious, cultural values and public acclaim dictate what to preserve, so how wide should the selection net be cast? I read once about a hill-walking art critic in Spain spotting Pablo Picasso chalking out a draft of a stage backdrop on a huge flat rock. The tourist was horrified when it started to rain, and speculated about trying to cover up the artwork with bushes and coats; Picasso just shook his head and walked away, for for him the image was like a music performance. Nicholas’s task in the Archive has not been to preserve what the fashion or entertainment world may regard as financially valuable. His role has been to preserve the potential embodied in recordings and print as resources, so that ‘it’ can be done again – and continue to be done. But his job has also been, in a way, to worry about ‘the rain’, which could be material – fire, flood, an electrical hazard – or ephemeral -a financial crisis or political decision. In this he has had to embrace all levels of technology, and today has digital storage which demands multiple layers of backup machinery and facilities, an industry in itself.
In addition to this sound and style resource, the archive under Nicholas’s direction has assembled a formidable collection of texts. Each of them contributes to a vast potential in thinking, imagining and reinterpretation: ideas, histories, lyrics, notation, contextual and promotion materials, which collectively summon up an instant, three-dimensional reconstruction of era, place, occasion, energy and ethos. And what makes these printed pages most vital to the record of Irish music tradition is the fact that the reason they are there is on account of the music still being a performed, artistic medium, enthusiastically re-created and re-interpreted casually and often with little obvious sentiment or apparent awareness of aesthetic value let alone uniqueness.
It could be argued that if the music is ‘lived in’ (as it is) then what need is there for retaining so much? In this regard, one trembles at the memory of the Co. Meath Fianna Fáil councillor who in supporting a motorway being gouged through Tara said :“sure all it is is pots and pans …”. In this vein of thinking, even the (then-new) Arts Council as a policy in 1957 decided not to support Traditional music because it was still being played. Yet by the 1980s it accepted that people do change tastes and ‘move on’, so cultural ‘stuff’ could still come to be ‘left behind’, and lost. Indeed, already in the first 60 years of post WW2 revival we are all witness huge changes not only in Popular music preferences, but in Traditional music tastes and practices too. The Archive is therefore there to protect us from our innate, whimsical cultural self-destructiveness, just as various societies preserve landscapes, coasts, towns, streets, buildings and interiors, knowledge of the past, languages, artworks and literature. And, too, while the human species may be marked by having culture, it is also noted for dumping things in response to economic imperatives and opportunities and perceived obsolescence, while – paradoxically – valuing oldness, and needing to know exactly where it all came from – having maps, genealogies, geographies and histories.
The Traditional music archive therefore, despite the shaky nature of civilisation at the present time, is likely to persist, bearing the time-line of Irish music tradition into the future. Nicholas Carolan has been not just its custodian, but, carrying the baton fashioned and passed on by Breandán Breathnach, has moved leagues forward, beaten off detractors, faced down dismissal and cultural arrogance, challenged mealy-mouthed compromise while simultaneously lobbying successfully for State backing. ‘Half-a-loaf’ has not been his motto, nor has the concept of the sliced pan been to his liking either (despite its similarity to a concertina). He has aimed at – and held out for – the unprocessed, unsweetened, raw grain, and under his scientific intellectual direction we have in this honeycomb box of brick, plastic and steel nothing less than a holy grail of precious substance which is not only a confident past artistry, but also acknowledges a multifaceted pedigree: borrowings and impositions, rejections and reprogramming. Look at the most modern literature here and you see, reflected back, awareness of change as a process – the essence of ‘tradition’ – the opening of eyes that historical impositions, collisions, pragmatism and survival generate. In this context it is immensely gratifying that Nicholas, like Tom Munnelly, was awarded an honourary doctorate; in Nicholas’s case this was for a body of work which – effectively- may well surpass the collective Traditional music research of all Irish universities over the last century.
My own timeline intersects with Nicholas’s at the opening of this archive in the 1980s, a period in which I – and many others – began to need information. I see in his work the same intensity, dedication and, often, humour, that many of us were so deeply affected by in Breandán Breathnach in whom, for me, from the first time I met him while I was but a teenager in the early 1960s, could be seen an intense, informed pride in Irish music, a passion for its maintenance and deep respect for its past performers. It is in those now-gone, stylistic performers that the Archive implies we invest Traditional music with ‘plain-people-ness” (so to speak) for, as Hugh Shields once remarked, this music is neither mere ancestral Pop, or is it an arbitrarily- or politically-preserved ‘pastness’. It is a folk music which is infused with ethos and artistry of the pre 16th century harp music, the highest evolved form of music expression in its time. That residue may only be expressed inconsistently today, but it is there, it is distinctive, and something which alone demands looking after. The fact that today’s ‘plain people’ appear to care little for it (living, as they do, more easily with the simplistic, ubiquitous or sentimental) only emphasises that social class as such has not been the issue in Traditional music, but interest in the music is what is important. Past generations may indeed have been poor, and without property, but their intellectual material had the same potential as it still has today: we have always had alert and creative minds in music composition, and what this archive preserves, as a comprehensive resource, is the material record of the Irish people’s aesthetic sensibility, functional creativity, and cultural consistency.
Nicholas Carolan’s parting gift to us all is access to all of this, through the thousands of kilometres of music vibrations on disc and tape, the infinite cloud of digital reserves, and forests-worth of words from the past and present. He has secreted this from the ruthlessly-ever-modernising world which would, if left alone, declare it obsolete, have mislaid it, or dumped it. We here today – and indeterminable generations to come as well – are enabled to use these resources as a lifeline via Nicholas’ legacy institution so that we might be able to feel Traditional music’s vibrations fresh forever in our ears and under our fingers.
Lecture at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Sligo town. Methodist Church, 2pm, Thursday 13th August. A pictorial examination the history of the flute in Ireland, its introduction by the military, its adoption by Irish political movements and its distinctive colour in Traditional music today. Part of doctoral research which is to be published in 2016, this multi-media lecture looks at recreational and [photo by Jacques Nutan] political performance on different forms of flutes over three centuries, seeing interrelationships among taste, playing skills, repertories, levels of enthusiasm, identity, historical era and geographical locality. The flute has been a key part of both Irish nationalism and Ulster loyalism, and today we see a major cultural transfer of skills from the political flute to the concert one, a revolution in traditional-music revival. Fuller details of the context of this talk are on the web document. The overall event information, venue and other details are on the web also.
From a Jack to a King – the glorious rise in status of Traditional music in Ireland
Using spoken words, images and performed music, Fintan Vallely will illustrate the rise of the status of Irish Traditional music from an abandoned artform in the 1950s to being a supreme representative National icon by the 2000s. He looks at media, post-war Pop and Rock parallels, the ballads boom, the influence of Seán Ó Riada, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the fleadh cheoil, teaching and learning, the summer schools, recording, the music’s entry to higher education and professionalism.
A in the Irish Embassy, Brussels as part of the inaugural Tradfest there, 7pm
‘A Sense of Place’, Literary Evening at Rathmines Library, Lr. Rathmines Rd., Dublin 6
Forum with other local authors discussing the locality and how it may have influenced their writing, chaired by Niall MacMonagle. With: – Evelyn Conlon, Macdara Woods, Siobhán Parkinson and Fintan Vallely on Wednesday 23rd October, 6.30pm