Intellectual Enterprise

Without giving away too much, one point raised in Axel Klein’s travelogue of his recent (and most enterprising) trip to the US can be commented upon here. Mr Klein suggests that it is ‘Irish people’ (and not he – who is German and based in Bonn) who should be providing new insights into Irish musical life and be pro-actively promoting them at home and abroad.

Reading this, I could not help but be reminded of a comment made by the British musicologist John Blacking in the early 1970s. In the course of an article in which he raised some issues relating to Irish traditional music that interested him, he wrote: ‘I am sure that … Irish musicians can answer many of these crucial questions … Ireland does not need droves of visiting ethnomusicologists to discover and exploit its musical secrets: it has more than enough talent within its own shores.’

Yet thirty (yes, thirty!) years later in JMI, Fintan Vallely did not conceal his disappointment at the fact that the very first third-level course book on Irish traditional music had been written by two American scholars and also published in America: ‘The conclusion is that there is considerable lack of foresight (or is it just resources?) among the many people in Ireland who might have done such a publication as Music in Ireland. Some twenty people, at least, should be questioning their own failing…’.

The comments of Klein, Blacking and Vallely all relate to what one might call ‘intellectual enterprise’, and it is on such matters as book and magazine publishing, and our commitment – in public life, education and the media – to ideas, culture and debate, that we must judge the standard of intellectual enterprise in Ireland. However, it is difficult to pick up a clear opinion in our society on whether we are, or are not, performing well in this regard. Intellectual enterprise and intellectual life – as defined above – are not the usual values by which we as a country judge ourselves.

Given this fact, is it any wonder that most of the calls for Ireland to have more of a commitment to ideas and intellectual activity come from abroad? It seems it was ever thus, but can it change? As ever, and as with all walks of life, the challenge has not been knowing what to do, but simply having the will to do it.

January 2005

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