The Sight of Sound: Traditional Music in Irish Art

Fintan Vallely gave the 2018 Breandán Breathnach Memorial lecture on 7 July 2018 on the opening night of Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Venue: The Community Hall.

A century and a half ago, the Young Irelander Thomas Davis urged that the plain people of Ireland and their cultural practices deserved to be represented in painting and sculpture; he regarded Art as: “biography, history and topography taught through the eye”.

Fintan Vallely assessed this aspiration by examining more than five hundred artworks that are the visual record of Traditional music over two centuries of painting and drawing. Much of the work was done by artists from outside Ireland, but despite that he finds that it is a detailed and valuable resource. Dancing is the main feature; bellows-blown pipes are the popular instrument, and there is evidence of teaching and learning. But a change is seen as we approach modern time, with the painter’s eye following the trend in music from music and dance being part of community activity, to a focus on the individual performers. Dance style can be seen to have changed too, as has the gender balance of musicians. These findings, and others, are presented in a lecture supported by images of two hundred wonderful oils, watercolours and engravings which have not been seen together or on such a scale before.

Irish music in Irish art – the hidden is louder than the visual

Irish painters have from time to time portrayed music in Ireland; occasionally it is the music of ‘the plain people’. We have harpers representing a romantic view of the past, pipers as the continuation – or relic – of indigenous traditions, and we have fiddlers and dancers, occasional whistlers and flute players; in the twentieth century we have accordions, the session and the bodhrán. Each period of this art is a valuable technical record of what was and is, and also indicates what was acceptable, valued and desirable. But in such a story of attitudes, the absences are as important as the presences, and in this paper Fintan Vallely draws on both well-known and little-known art images, guided by opinions of experts, including NPU archivist Terry Moylan, Sighle Breathnach (Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland (1998–2009), Barra Boydell, and Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith, UCD School Of Irish, Celtic, Folklore & Linguistics.

fiddle, tin whistle, and bodhran, painting by Pam O'Connell.
Painting by Pam O'Connell