Sad news today that one of Ireland’s most important and respected song collectors, Tom Munnelly, has died. Munnelly made the largest field-collection of Irish traditional song ever compiled by any individual, recording, indexing and transcribing over 20,000 songs, and he was a world authority on traditional song. Since 1974, he was a professional folklore collector and archivist with the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin. His work in song is well acknowledged, but I have to admit it was not directly through his work as a song collector that I knew of him.
As I came to traditional music, Munnelly distinguished himself in my mind as one of a group of thinkers, writers and speakers who for decades have been to the fore in speaking up for traditional music, campaigning for traditional music, and generally contributing in ever way they could to the furtherance of the music and song. Munnelly was a leader among that group.
I was quick to contact him when JMI started up in 2000. He contributed a major essay on traditional song to the second issue, three subsequent book reviews and a ‘firecracker’ of a letter (as he described it himself). His review-essay on George Petrie in particular is a gem. Munnelly was regularly supportive of JMI, particularly early on. Soon after it started, he attended a meeting in the Arts Council on the subject of funding for traditional music. Apparently, the need for a quality “traditional music magazine” was raised, but Munnelly proposed that, instead of going the road of a single-genre magazine, JMI should be supported instead. He won the agreement of the other attendees. Such seemingly small gestures here and there in a lifetime can make a big difference.