I appeared on RTÉ Radio 1’s What If? programme last Sunday with Nicholas Carolan of the Irish Traditional Music Archive. We were discussing ‘What if Ireland had lost its traditional music heritage?’ One of the pre-planned questions we didn’t get to discuss, because of time constraints, was, ‘What role does Irish traditional music play in our musical life?’ I had two ideas prepared, which I’ll venture here.
Firstly, I think the strength/ubiquity of traditional music in Ireland makes the country particularly interesting to musicians and composers abroad, and attracts them here. Their presence in turn enriches our musical life. In my own corner of the world, the Waterboys’ interest in An Spidéal and Connemara in the 1980s shined a national and international spotlight on the musical culture of Co. Galway, adding to the energy which drives it still. Take also the example of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who visited Ireland in February for the RTÉ Living Music Festival. Before his visit Part stated, ‘I am looking forward to my first visit to Ireland with much anticipation and excitement. I am eager to learn more about the country which has managed in an astonishing way to keep its historical, cultural and religious identities until today.’ The Pärt festival was a huge success with capacity audiences and naturally added a new layer of experience to our musical culture.
Secondly, regardless of the genre a musician may be involved in, the strength of Irish traditional music must, in some way, act as a source of confidence. A musician or composer bringing their art to the world knows that their musical life has deep roots. Then again, an Irish classical pianist travelling the world might feel they have little in their Irish musical culture which connects them to the history of classical music. But is that really the case? Ireland’s classical music history, thin though it may be, is gradually being uncovered.
Another ‘What if?’ question we didn’t have time for was ‘What if we didn’t have a strong traditional music – would Ireland have achieved so much musical success worldwide? It’s debatable. If we take the top five best-selling artists from the island of Ireland – U2, Enya, Van Morrison, The Cranberries and the Corrs – two have obvious traditional music backgrounds: Enya grew up in a family of traditional musicians (her brothers and sister formed Clannad), and the Corrs’ latest album, Home, a collection of traditional music and song, is explicitly described as a return to their routes. U2 seldom reference traditional music, although Bono’s admiration for Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and the Dubliners is well known, and their success appears to owe nothing to it. Their achievement, if this is true, is all the more extraordinary for that, but, in a country Ireland’s size, is it really possible that two such global phenomena would be totally unrelated?