The first publisher I worked for once told me that if I ever intended starting up a magazine, I should remember that somebody, somewhere has already done exactly what I might intend to do. So, the task is to find their work, find out how they did it, by all means copy them – but learn from their mistakes.
On this, the occasion of JMI’s first birthday issue, I am reminded of that advice. That was in Scotland, and when I returned home to Ireland I attempted to carry out my old employer’s instructions. I searched the internet non-stop and perused every music magazine that I could lay my hands on, but I never found the publication that I had in mind. So much for the voice of experience, I thought.
But I’ve realised that, while it is imperative that you adhere to such advice when battling for a place in today’s commercial magazine market, JMI’s true home is in a different quarter. And far from there being no magazine that JMI could learn from or try to mimic, there is indeed a fine if sporadic history of periodical publishing in Ireland. And as I leaf through JMI back issues, I realise our aspirations are reminiscent of so many other cultural journals in Ireland’s past. There may not be many of them around today but they have been a persistently appearing aspect of Irish cultural life and there is a huge amount to be learned from that story.
JMI is not a commercial magazine, that is, we did not see a niche in the market and decide that the JMI was what was needed. It was not so much a gap but a void which we felt existed, not in the marketplace, but in our cultural and intellectual environment. Thus, we have aspired to challenge and excite people’s minds, to question and document what is happening culturally in Ireland, to bring together Ireland’s artists and intellects and ultimately to educate each other about different views and musics. There is a very long line of little magazines which started with much the same ambitions. What Isaac Butt’s The Dublin University, James Duffy’sThe Nation, Dr Crone’s The Irish Book Lover, John Eglinton and Frederick Ryan’sDana, Sean O’Faolain and Peadar O’Donnell’s The Bell, Patrick Kavanagh’sKavanagh’s Weekly, Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane and W. J. McCormack’sAtlantis, Mark Patrick Hederman and Richard Kearney’s The Crane Bag, and even the now defunct Graph of the 1990s tell us is that it is normal – to be expected almost – to want to engage with ideas. So JMI, though not suggesting in any way that it is the successor to these efforts, takes solace in the fact that it has, at least, a tradition of ambition to look to. But, if JMI’s existence points to anything, it is that Ireland needs many more such ventures. JMI’s first year may be judged to be successful, but imagine if JMI were monthly or appearing every two weeks. Then imagine a regular periodical for every other art form in Ireland, all with the aim of engaging with ideas, plus a shower of political journals that would make their contribution every now and then. What a stir we would see then! Ireland would have an intellectual and cultural life second to none. We have the cultural activity, we need the extensive debate and commentary it deserves.
Joe Lee wrote in Media in Ireland in 1997 that, ‘[It is] not that the Republic of Ireland has lacked an intellectual tradition. What it has lacked is a tradition of intellectual debate.’ I take this to mean that though there hasn’t always been sufficient forums for debate in Ireland, the people capable of contributing were always there. Indeed, I could never have imagined there would be so benevolent a response by so many great composers and musicians to contribute to JMI. I’m sure it would be the same for every other ‘minority’ interest in Ireland.
Welcome though it may be that national newspapers are giving more space to arts and cultural debate and dialogue, those pages will always be out of the hands of the practitioners at grass roots level. One of the first aims of JMI was that the debate on music would be on the practitioners’ terms, driven by what concerned them. One musician that I know delights in the fact that now, whenever he meets a musician with a grievance about something, he tells them that he doesn’t want to hear it, that if they’re really serious they should write an article for JMI!
When first trying to get JMI off the ground, I quoted Richard Kearney in a proposal for funding. In his 1988 book Transitions he wrote:
We need more cultural journals in Ireland today, for without a renaissance of the kind of intellectual questioning which flourished in Ireland between 1850 and 1950, our culture will stagnate – either by uncritical reversion to tribal platitudes or by an equally uncritical immersion in the anonymous tide of modern consumerism.
Do I still believe this? Certainly, but it is different reading it now because JMI is up and running. I’m very conscious of the enervating elements in society Kearney mentions, but I find that simply having JMI in existence goes some way to displacing the absolute despair one may be tempted to feel. At least, I imagine, we’re trying.