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Traditional Music in County Clare by Niall Keegan


Diverse music practices are hard to quantify. The immanence, singularity of experience, temporality and intrinsic non-referentiality of these multiple arts of sound turn our accounts of them into bottomless pits of metaphor. However, we do know through historic precedent and sheer affected instinct, places where music becomes more important, larger in the minds and imagination of people and which type of music these are. We know that if we go to Milan we will meet opera, if we go to Paris we will hopefully hear a musette, if we go to Java, gamalan will not be too far away. The place where we go to hear traditional Irish music is Clare.

Ennis musician John Joe Cullinan
Ennis musician John Joe Cullinan playing in a session at Fleadh na Mumhan, Ennis, 1974. Photo: Michael John Glynne.

The community of traditional music and its impact on the musical life of Clare are immense. Ennis is currently the undoubted session capital of Ireland where semi-formal music making can be found in several public houses any night of the week throughout the year.1 The county hosts numerous festivals such as the Fléadh Nua at the end of May, the Ennis Traditional Festival in November, the Willie Clancy Summer School in July among others that would be regarded internationally as high points in the traditional music calendar. At the time of writing the local radio station, Clare FM devotes six separate shows, accounting for 11 hours every week, to traditional music outside of its general music programming which in itself contains a high level of traditional music. Transmission of the tradition in the county is facilitated mostly outside of formal institutional structures by numerous instrumental and ensemble teachers, many of whom are employed by music schools such as Maoin Ceol an Chláir in Ennis and Deirdre O’Brien-Vaughan’s school in Clarecastle or the various Clare branches of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann (a national organisation for traditional music). There is a vibrant traditional social dance scene throughout Clare serviced by informal and formal dance bands such as the Tulla, Kilfenora and Ennis Céilí Bands (there have been over fifty Céilí bands in Clare over the past century) and more populist traditional dance bands such as Shaskeen. Indeed it would be unusual for popular dance bands in Clare not to include traditional dances in their repertoire. It was quite natural, therefore, for the music venue Glór in Ennis to initially portray itself as the national centre of traditional music although its move away from this position is symbolic of the failure of traditional music in Ireland to attain a full part in the modern Irish music business. It would not be an exaggeration to state that county Clare has more musicians and performance events than any other county in Ireland and that the music plays a larger role in the economic, social, and aesthetic life of the county than any music anywhere else on the island.

Within the world of traditional music generally there is the perception of there being a body of ‘Clare music’ distinguishable by members of the community knowledgeable enough to do so. Very often this is subdivided into smaller regions, predominantly east and west Clare and other sub-divisions that will be indetified later. Clare music is sometimes seen as such a strong and influential tradition that it is often considered ‘the home’ of traditional music. This view can be viewed with some animosity from elsewhere on the island. Donegal fiddler, collector, academic and activist Caoimhín Mac Aoidh writes;

Following this were the Clare styles (all persons of my generation learned by well managed Bord Fáilte-ish PR machine rote – CLARE IS THE HOME OF TRADITIONAL MUSIC).2

Traditional musicians, perhaps more so than any other type of musician in Ireland, root their music conceptually into time and place and the role of individuals is conceived in these two axes of understanding. Time is usually measured through generations - the thing you are most likely to hear before a formal performance is ‘I learned / got this tune from….’, usually citing a musician from an older generation whom the performing musician was acquainted with personally and holds in some regard. To this end, traditional musicians do not like stating that they learned music from recordings (unless they are of a particularly iconic individual, separated from the performer in time) or books (with the possible exception of one or two historical publications such as Capt. Francis O’Neill’s Dance music of Ireland (1907) or The Roche collection (1927)).3 The community of traditional Irish musicians also has a strong tendency to categorise performance practice according to regions. Thus regions have their own sounds and this can be found at the root of much repeated clichés such as ‘Donegal music is fast’, ‘East Galway music is slow’, ‘Sliabh Luachra music is all polkas and slides’.

The rooting of a creative performance practice in past practitioners and localities is of course related to the orality of the practice and is not unique to Irish music. The growing importance of understanding and organising ones music in terms of people in time and space is a product of our increasingly bigger, busier and more complex music world. In early twentieth century publications concerning Irish traditional or folk music such as Capt. Francis O’Neill’s Irish minstrels and musicians (1913) there are no mention of regional styles of performance, something that would be unthinkable in a general account of the tradition today.4 Indeed, the first systematic formulation of a ‘map’ of regional styles was proposed by Sean Ó Riada in his RTÉ radio and television series Our musical heritage after his interactions principally with a diasporic community of traditional musicians living in Dublin.5 In this publication Ó Riada mentions Clare styles of performance for fiddle and flute.

This regional structuring of traditional music practice in Ireland is problematic for a systematic musicology shaped by the literate tradition of western art music. Empirical examination of the regional based conceptual organisations of traditional music through musicological analysis or ethnographic research subverts the cohesiveness of the structures presented. One woman’s east Clare style is another man’s east Galway style. Also, implicit to the paradigm that supports regional style (ie. that they are founded in regional isolation) is that the concept of regional style is modern. Indeed it is striking that our ideas about the sounds of regional styles, seen to be vestiges of a more varied and coloured pre-modern life, are rooted in the sounds of often the first mass-mediated, virtuosic musicians. This of course sometimes creates the paradox that the very sounds that are iconic for certain regional styles are perceived to be damaging to the diversity of their own and others. It is perhaps most important to remember that this structuring of sound, unlike many of the conceptual structuring of western art music, plays no role in performance practice. There are no manuals for playing in a ‘Clare style’. Many musicians are concerned with issues of authenticity but these are all part of diverse aesthetic structuring complicated further by a general western aesthetic of individualism. Such stylistic and essentially aesthetic structuring happens after the sound, having no operational role in performance practice.

This all said I will now try and present one structured look at the music of Clare. Musicologists such as Charles Seeger warn us of the pot-holes at the ‘musicological juncture’ of language-based structure and music but they also acknowledge that such structuring proceedures are inevitable.6 Indeed the ones presented below are mainly derived from those of the communities that practice Clare music and as such reflect the values and aesthetics of those communities.