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Celebration of the work of Nicholas Carolan at the ITMA

24 September, 2015

Encomium for Nicholas Carolan
Dr. Fintan Vallely, ITMA, 6pm, September 24, 2015

At the launch of Fintan Vallely's companion 2 of Irish Traditional Music. Royal Irish Academy and harcourt Hotel. Dublin

At the launch of Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd edition, at the Royal Irish Academy and Harcourt Hotel. Dublin  [photo courtesy Jacques Nutan]

It is a great honour for me to have been asked by the Board of the Irish Traditional Music Archive to give this verbal tribute to Nicholas Carolan, a person for whom I have the highest of respect, and admiration. It was not specified what I should say, but I take it that this is an encomium, what the dictionary specifies as “a laudatory ode, a formal expression of warm or high praise”.

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.


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