Paper for Féile John McGrath, May 2012
Fact, fashion or fetters?
Issues of perception, passion and patriotism raised in the compilation of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music.
In 1999 a large number of the diverse strands that make up Irish traditional music were brought together in The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Effectively an encyclopedia, its 478 pages covered music, song and dance, tunes, style and lyrics, people, practices and transmission. It filled a need in the Irish education system which was by that time teaching the music at university levels. The book sold some 5000 copies over five years, creating demand for a second edition. Now published, at 900 pages this is twice the size of its predecessor. That can be interpreted as a response to a broadening of its field of reference, a loosening of genre boundaries in music in Ireland and of course expansion of interest in the music, academically as well as internationally. The book is not a memorial-style ‘Digital Tír na Óg’ for Irish Traditional music data however. On the contrary, it is an affirmative document of an active canon. Questions are raised by the fact of the book’s compilation and by its use in education. Will the book make it easier to teach the music in schools, and will it expand music-lover’s knowledge usefully? Is it of confidence value to musicians? Does inclusion or non inclusion of items indicate greater or lesser importance? Might it lead to music performance becoming prescriptive? Might blowing away many of the mysteries leave the music less enchanting? Does the internationalization it illustrates devalue the music’s core Irishness? These and other such points are explored by Fintan Vallely in a discourse on how the book took shape between 2008 and 2011.