What part have the values within Irish traditional music played in its ascent over the past forty years? How much of it has been about the music, and how much has been about the community? As the world turns on its side to get a better look at the way we’ve been living, economically and environmentally at least, it underlines how traditional Irish music has always represented something else, something utopian even.
It is the egalitarianism inherent in traditional Irish music which leaps out first, and which is manifest in the informal music-making that is the pub session. A ‘session etiquette’ prevails, an unwritten code based on respect for knowledge and experience, and an undeniable comradery among strangers. There is also a respect for, and curiosity in, diversity of expression: simplicity of interpretation and technique receive as much attention as music of great sophistication; the Irish language is valued, as is the cultural expression of other cultures; and there is a patience for learning, with both youthful and more mature learners taken seriously and singled out for encouragement. An ethic of volunteerism is also widespread, in the form of teaching and organising. Engagements are often carried out for little reward, and performing for no remuneration at all is equally commonplace.
All these values, perceived as ‘old values’, like the music, have somehow managed to sustain through the generations. Such deportment is often broken of course, but the point is that transgressions are still recognised as such, and frowned upon. Combined with the appeal of the music itself – an easy-entry, low-cost art form, which provides challenge and opportunity for the complete beginner as well as the virtuoso – it makes for a particularly appealing community to become a part of.
Why a community that displays these values has been so attractive over the past few decades is clear: those same values have struggled to sustain themselves in society at large. Society’s breakdown in trust and the resulting atomisation has sent citizens running for communal shelter. Traditional Irish music – its sessions, festivals and community – is an escape. When the cold wind blows, people are swept into this musical world, and thus its previously tiny numbers have ballooned.
This year’s TG4 traditional music awards provide a particularly good example of traditional Irish music’s value system in action. The Traditional Musician of the Year award (or Gradam Ceoil, to give it its correct title) has often gone to high-profile musicians – two members of the Chieftains, for example, as well as fiddle-player Martin Hayes and many others who have attained global success – but it is also noted for singling out unsung heroes whose names might be familiar to only a few. This year, the prestigious Gradam Ceoil went to a musician that most followers of the art form today may never have even heard play.
Charlie Harris is an accordion player from the Kilmallock area of Limerick. Born in 1953, in his early twenties he emigrated to London to work on building sites and was involved in the Irish emigrant musical culture of the city. Returning to Ireland in the early 1980s he set up an accordion and melodeon workshop and became a full-time musician, touring and recording several albums with the ceili band Shaskeen and has been living in Galway and playing locally since. Within traditional music circles, his name is well known as a noted musician, as a tuner and repairer of accordions, and also as the name put to a popular tune which has been often recorded, ‘Charlie Harris’ Reel’.
What the selection of Charlie Harris as 2009 winner of the Gradam Ceoil reflects is a key belief in traditional music, that is, that the contribution of a musician on the ground over many years is equivalent to the contribution of a musician who plays to hundreds of thousands on stage worldwide annually. The persistence of the art form through the years is considered a direct result of the work of unsung musicians and singers. Such musicians are revered. Keeping the music going when it was neither popular nor profitable, that was the real challenge. Bringing it to a global audience, well, that was the easy part.
Charlie Harris captures this, and the TG4 traditional music awards, which have only been in existence since 1998, are a long-overdue awards system for such artists. But still, the value system of traditional music, as represented by these awards, remains at a tangent to the rest of Irish society.
We are now some decades on since the extraordinary blossoming of Irish traditional music in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and one wonders what is to happen to those traditional musicians who put Ireland on the musical map in those decades, and who are now in retirement, or getting there, and who are still contributing to Irish musical life.
That is the artist’s life, I guess, but it doesn’t apply to all artists in Ireland. Recognising the significant decision that it is to dedicate one’s life to their art, the Irish state does make financial provisions for the support of artists via Aosdána, which literally means ‘people of the arts’. But traditional musicians have never featured significantly in the nomination process for new members, the emphasis being more on visual artists, writers and composers.
Traditional Irish music comes with its own aesthetics, and perhaps they cannot be reconciled with classical notions of art and creativity. It is not music that is written down, and its repertoire, on the surface, is incredibly simple in structure. But this does not make the disregard of traditional musicians by Aosdána any easier to stomach.
The value system of traditional Irish music continues to make it attractive to citizens of modern society throughout the globe; it’s just a continuing surprise that this hasn’t been fully appreciated, and capitalised upon, by Ireland itself.