Princess Grace Irish Library - Principality of Monaco

28-30 September 2012

A two-day symposium on the Folklore, Music and Song of Ireland was held in the Princess Grace Irish Library, home to a unique collection of works of Irish interest, many of which are first editions of classical publications in the subject areas of Irish folklore, song and music.

            Ireland is renowned for its song, music and storytelling traditions which are arguably amongst its richest cultural resources. Although tradition may be regarded as somehow 'constant' and thus recognisable, of its nature, vernacular material is also in a continuous state of flux and change. The word 'tradition' lends itself to many interpretations and, within the context of vernacular culture, traditional song, music and lore are core elements. Folklore encompasses the universalities of human life thus verbal and non-verbal manifestations of folklore and material culture are represented in many tradition archives. Through these collections — including the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin — the voice of the subaltern community is both documented and heard.

            The landscape of tradition is changing – this includes the physical and the linguistic landscape in addition to the landscape of music, song and of the imagination. Music and song are fundamental elements of folklore just as folklore is a fundamental element of music and song. Ethnographic collecting work is central to providing scholars with material for analysis and presentation. The function of narrative lore in the transmission of traditional music and song is evident. Through this lore, context and history are established and songs are named; composers or great players are acknowledged, if only sometimes in the tune titles. In talk and stories about songs or tunes a shared sense of inclusion is often subtly added to, with each telling more often than not, through the addition of a local flavour. The associated lore of music and song may become local-specific in the telling of a story or the expression of a belief associated with tune, song, musician, singer or collector. Narrative lore and human interaction and engagement serve a critical role in sustaining and enriching the social process of music making.

            This symposium addressed some of the evident and not-so-evident changes that have taken place in recent decades in the landscape of Irish tradition with special emphasis on the interrelated areas of story, song and music. Developments in, changed approaches to and current documentation and fieldwork methodologies were outlined along with discussion of earlier methods of collecting folklore, music and song. The importance of tradition archives and of continuing fieldwork was clear while technological advances, which have changed not only the speed of transmission but also the nature of collecting and thereby the nature of the material, were discussed.

            The complementary constituents of narrative, music and song were highlighted with particular reference to local and regional dialects. The background or backdrop to a song or a tune might be told in one district or by one singer or musician where another musician or singer from the same district or from elsewhere might tell an entirely different narrative. Since no aspect of folk tradition exists in isolation, the crucial relationship between music, song and lore was further illustrated while recent key changes in that relationship were also explored.

            As part of Ireland's living traditions it may be argued that certain aspects, such as music and song, are even more vibrant than they were at a time when folklore was first documented. We need go no further than the texts that are constantly sent by means of mobile phones – texts which are essentially oral in nature. Folklore's continuing state of flux and change challenges definitions and descriptions. It is perhaps, more important than ever to create the record and document and analyse the vernacular. These recordings and tradition repositories are what allow the academic to demarcate, examine and analyse folklore. The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin brings all aspects of Irish traditional culture together in one repository. The Collection, therefore, allows for academic engagement with every aspect of oral tradition. Many of the contributors to the symposium have drawn on, and utilised, the Collection. There is reason to be grateful to the collectors, transcribers and archivists of this material.

            The definition of folklore has evolved over centuries. From the first use of the Irish term béaloideas – literally translated as 'oral education' - in the seventeenth century as recorded by Seathrún Céitinn in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, the word has come to equal the English term 'folklore'. At the end of the nineteenth century, we might ask what meaning Douglas Hyde ascribed to the word béaloideas when he used it on the programme for the Irish competition the Oireachtas that is still an annual event today. Did Douglas Hyde and Séamus Ó Duilearga, founder of the Irish Folklore Commission, understand and interpret the word in the same way? Today, in 2012, as we direct students in their fieldwork, how do we define folklore and ethnomusicology?

            They are related in numerous ways. Just as ethnomusicology is the specific study of all of the musical manifestations of a society, folklore is the study of the more general vernacular manifestations of a society. The folklorist and the ethnomusicologist both search for the universal. Another question posed at the symposium was how the direction of a supervisor might affect the outcome of ethnographic fieldwork? In a hundred years' time, it is difficult to imagine how folklore and ethnomusicology will be studied, or even how they will be defined. Thus, the traditional landscape is constantly changing in relation to subject, language and the aesthetic. The larger dynamic process of change embraces both the subject areas in question and the scholarly approach to analysis of these subject areas. Currently, folklore and ethnomusicology have a particularly reflexive emphasis.

            Prior to the two-day symposium on the changing landscape of tradition, a concert of song and music took place. Traditional songs in Irish and in English and tunes fast and slow made a strong impact on all who attended. This aspect of the symposium set the stage for the following two days' events. Invited speakers were all performers of music and song, a fact which gave the symposium its raison d'être. They included Dr Aileen Dillane, University of Limerick, Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Archivist with the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Dr Máire Ní Chaoimh, Galway, Dr Fintan Vallely, Dublin, Dr Jimmy O'Brien Moran, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, University College Cork, Prof. Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Notre Dame University, Indiana, Dr Lillis Ó Laoire, National University of Ireland, Galway. In addition, the symposium highlighted the strong element of academics within the field of folkloristics and ethnomusicology who also perform as musicians and singers. Participants were invited to prepare their contribution based on their academic engagement with specific subject areas within the broader spheres of ethnomusicology and folkloristics taking the theme of the symposium into consideration. Speakers represented third level institutions that excel in not only Irish studies and Irish music but also in folklore studies. The last decade, in particular, has witnessed a dramatic growth in academic research in Irish music and song.

            The event was organised by the Director of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Prof. Ríonach uí Ógáin, who has for many years championed the need to include traditional music and song alongside the wider realm of folklore studies and folkloristics. To take music and song out of context does not allow for a full understanding of their role in culture and in society. This symposium brought together researchers in such a way that an appreciation and understanding of traditional material has brought a new sense of clarity. The delegates came from different yet related backgrounds and it emerged in the course of the papers and ensuing discussion that similar links, approaches and challenges were encountered and gave shared levels of academic pursuit. The speakers were afforded an opportunity to meet and discuss in a venue that allowed them to step outside their customary environment. The venue was ideal as it gave people who are in touch on a regular basis an exceptional opportunity to engage in new discussion.

            The artistry of tradition requires the same level of aesthetic value and evaluation as any other art form. At times, this may blur the view of the creative process. For numerous reasons, we may impose our own social contextual information on the aesthetic in the tradition, as it is so linked to the universal and to life. Arguably, the very recognition and organisation of tradition have in some ways made it appear stagnant and have disallowed change. To take a few examples – commercialisation, professionalisation, festivals, academic analysis and publications have all engaged with, and have had an influence on, tradition. The agents of change in folkloristics, ethnomusicology and the living tradition include expansion in education, the intensification of urbanisation and the increase in social mobility. This Princess Grace Irish Library Symposium brought together a unique gathering of specialists working from within the field who posed important questions for the changing traditional landscape. Are people less aware of, or interested in, the authentication of a song or tune? How are community, identity and continuity supported and celebrated in the landscape of tradition today? In what ways are aspects of Irish identity caught up in verbal and musical arts? The symposium offered an opportunity to identify and assess changes, developments and influences in this regard.  Revitalisation of concepts and ideas in addition to affirmation of approaches to analysis in the various subject areas proved to be fruitful. Connections between the complementary nature of folklore, music and song were highlighted and this combination was ideal.

            Paul Kavanagh, Ambassador of Ireland to France and Monaco, referred to the speakers as 'a distinguished team of first-rate panellists'. The various attributes that each speaker brought to the table ensured good discussion and engagement. The gathering offered an opportunity to brainstorm. Although, everyone had engaged with music, song and folklore at some point, each contributor brought their own personal experience, outlook and analytical approach in relation to their particular academic area. Each of the panellists was involved in the study of vernacular culture at third-level institutions. Questions were raised as to how that might have affected their understanding of the tradition. Other questions that emerged involved the insight that this might give, how it might enhance singers' and musicians' engagement with the living art and whether it might create a distance between the performer and this art? Another question raised was whether the introduction of ethnology and folklore in third level institutions might have influenced the living tradition or its process? As academic subjects, folklore and ethnomusicology are relatively new areas which entail fieldwork. Personal acquaintance and personal performance are cornerstones in the analytical approach of the folklorist and the ethnomusicologist alike.

            Working on Irish material cannot be confined to any geographical location. Aileen Dillane's research on Irish Music Performance and the City of Chicago underlined this absence of geographical boundaries. Her interest in ethno-musicological theory and practice, critical and cultural studies and approaches to concepts of 'nostalgia' and 'sentiment' in relation to the diaspora set the tone for the weekend.

            Lillis Ó Laoire connected Carna, County Galway to Australia through the singer Seosamh Ó Héanaí and his performance in the Sydney opera house. Irish culture is island-focused in numerous ways and Lillis' seminal research on the singing traditions of Tory island has highlighted this phenomenon.

            The research of Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Archivist with the National Folklore Collection, brought the focus back to the folklore narrative context. His academic engagement with oral narrative and especially with legend material has greatly contributed towards a fuller understanding of the function of the legend. Although his paper at this conference concentrated on history, legend and folktale, as an ethnologist he has placed the material culture aspect of the tradition alongside the narrative as found in his publications on the traditional boats of Ireland and on folk drama.

            Another eminent graduate of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin is Professor Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Notre Dame, whose seminal publication Locating Irish Folklore, Tradition Modernity, Identity placed folkloristics in Ireland in the larger historical context. He continues to challenge our subject area and his work ensures that the vibrancy of the discipline retains its relevance.

            The dual role of performer and academic is to the fore in relation to Jimmy O'Brien Moran whose dissertation research centred around the collected repertoire of Paddy Conneely, a blind professional piper from Galway. More recently he has drawn on the music transcriptions of the collector and piper, Séamus Ennis, found in the National Folklore Collection. His symposium contribution directed attention towards the manuscripts of collector Henry Hudson and raised questions of provenance of source material.

            Another person who is both performer and academic is Ciarán Ó Gealbháin who spent some time as singer with the group Danu. His dedication to both areas has contributed greatly to his rigorous analytical approach as a researcher. He is the most recent appointment in Folklore and Ethnology/An Léann Dúchais in University College Cork. His paper centred on a song where he highlighted the interminable levels of interpreting a single text.

            Máire Ní Chaoimh comes from Tralee, Co. Kerry, and completed her PhD at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in the University of Limerick studying 'The role of the button accordion in Irish Traditional Music'. She is well known as a traditional fiddle player with her repertoire including music from such varied traditions as Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, Shetland and Cape Breton. Her paper questioned matters of regionality versus individuality.

            Fintan Vallely was no stranger to the Princess Grace Irish Library as he was academic-in-residence in 2008. He has made a lasting imprint on not only the flute and singing traditions but has also edited the standard reference book The Companion to Irish Traditional Music which has been revised and reissued in the last year. His talk highlighted some of the developments relating to contextual information of the song performance.

            Ríonach uí Ógáin reflected on some of the many changes that have occurred in her own collecting work in the course of the last forty years. A number of papers focused on a particular individual and the repertoire, impact and creative contribution of that individual in the related spheres. Discussions led to the fact that texts are arguably objects containing social and historical facts whose forms and dispersal lend themselves to analysis in folkloristic and ethnomusicological terms.

            The format of the symposium allowed for discussion within and without the library. A sense of ease permitted full engagement with the papers and subjects. Of their nature, music and song are universal and the papers reflected this concept. Generally accepted beliefs were challenged and deconstructed. The role of the individual, notions of nostalgia and how they affect perceptions of authenticity were highlighted. The development of folklore studies in Ireland is far broader than is often suggested and in this regard Ireland was placed in the larger European context. A benefit resulting from the papers and the discussions illustrated that the impact of fieldwork reaches beyond the interaction of two human beings with each other. The afterlife of fieldwork is the tradition archive, which will be the primary source for future academics and researchers. We need to recognise the challenges that face academics working with archival repositories. It was unanimously agreed that a continuation of documenting the tradition is essential.

            The symposium underlined the interrelatedness of folklore, music and song and demonstrated that context is crucial for thorough analysis. Another point that was underlined was the development in both the relevance and function of folklore since the early days of folklore collecting and analysis in Ireland. Media consumption and dissemination have assumed a central role. Copyright and intellectual property were addressed and such issues might be compared to the anecdote of the uilleann piper who was said to beat the ediphone machine when he heard his recorded tune being played back as he believed the machine had stolen the tune. In the early days of collecting the social fabric was made up of farmer, fisherman, blacksmith, draper for example. A life devoted to purely music or song was exceptional. No one from whom Séamus Ennis recorded during his time with the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940s was listed as only a musician or singer. Today categorisation and demarcation are notable and arguably due to the nature of dissemination, individual singers and musicians in particular are associated with their particular artform and instrument. This symposium concentrated for the most part on twentieth and twenty-first century developments in folkloristics, including ethnographic fieldwork. It was highly evident that we can still benefit from methodologies and approaches since the inception of folklore in the nineteenth century.

            Within the National Folklore Collection, we see Douglas Hyde as a starting point on a number of levels, not least of all linguistically. In the field, as a collector, who had particular interest in song, he retained equal interest in lore and language. At that point in time Hyde and members of the Celtic Revival were convinced that sensual experiences were real and saw traditions as collectible objects or observable performances that could be and should be recorded verbatim. We still teach this approach in universities today. On the other hand, W. B. Yeats had a more humanist approach and felt that the creative side of folklore was where true knowledge is stored. In a letter to Douglas Hyde, for example, Yeats wrote as follows: “I deeply regret when I find that some folk-lorist is merely scientific, and lacks the needful subtle imaginative sympathy to tell his stories well…The man of science is too often a person who has exchanged his soul for a formula; and when he captures a folk-tale, nothing remains for him for all his trouble but a wretched lifeless thing with the down rubbed off and a pin thrust through its once all-living body. I object to the “honest folk-lorist,” not because his versions are accurate, but because they are inaccurate, or rather incomplete” (Quoted in Dundes' International Folkloristics 1999:48). Elsewhere, in 'The Message of the Folk-Lorist', Yeats explained his notion of the relation of living traditions to individual creativity and wrote that the greatest poets of every nation have drawn from folktales, vernacular symbols and events to express the most lyrical and the most subjective moods. Writing of poets who tried to express such moods without adequate knowledge of folk-lore, Yeats wrote:

Shakespeare and Keats had the folk-lore of their own day, while Shelley had but mythology; and a mythology [that] has been passing for long through literary minds without any new influx from living tradition loses all the incalculable instructive and convincing quality of the popular traditions. No conscious invention can take the place of tradition, for he who would write a folktale, and thereby bring a new life into literature, must have the fatigue of the spade in his hands and the stupors of the fields in his heart [quoted in Dundes 1999:53]

Just as Yeats recommended that demarcation between naturalists and realists was unhelpful in pursuit of the creative, it might be said that demarcation between ethnomusicology and folklore is limiting. Looking at the changing landscape for music, song and lore we are reminded that tradition may be viewed as shared symbols or patterns that find expression in any medium whether oral, written, behavioural, or material culture. The symposium touched on numerous aspects of traditional culture. Above all, the symposium offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on the science of folklore, music and song and their artistry receiving equal recognition. Fortunately, the papers given at this symposium are ideally suited to publication and will appear in the next volume of Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society in 2013.

            The hospitality and conviviality offered by the Princess Grace Irish Library were exceptional and contributed to the ease experienced by the delegates at the talks, the concert, the informal sessions and the meals. The delegates commented on the warmth of the welcome and the care and attention provided throughout by Judith Gantley and Géraldine Lance of the Princess Grace Irish Library. Much of the preparatory work occurred behind the scenes creating a seamless sequence of events, which nonetheless never lost their spontaneity, throughout the weekend.

Ríonach uí Ógáin

Photograph © EdWrightImages Monaco
1st row from left to right: Dr Aileen Dillane, Dr Máire Ní Chaoimh, Professor Ríonach Uí Ógáin.
2nd row from left to right: Dr Jimmy O'Brien Moran, Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Dr Lillis Ó Laoire, Professor Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Dr Fintan Vallely, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin.