What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music

In 2011, when the Queen of England made the very first state visit by a British Monarch to the Republic of Ireland, the occasion was marked with a concert of Irish music. It made sense, then, that during the first ever state visit by the President of Ireland to the United Kingdom this week, the occasion was marked by a concert of… Irish music.

Ireland’s muscle as a musical country is such that it has the power to nudge British music out of the way at the Royal Albert Hall. The UK annually hosts the biggest music festival in the world – the Proms – and provided an inspired opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics, but when it comes to putting on a musical event to celebrate the visit of the Irish President, it quietly concedes that the Irish could do it better.

This is not to boast about the fact, but rather to take the opportunity to say that Ireland at home must pay heed.

In The Irish Edge, a recent book by Finbarr Bradley and James Kennelly, the authors talk of the importance of valuing Irish culture, not as a relic but as a resource in fuelling the invention that the coming era will require:

While scientific research is important, breakthrough ideas require intelligence of the heart and hand, not just intelligence of the head… To think creatively we need to weaken conventional thought; to do so, we must embrace and harness ambiguity, ambivalence, counter-intuitive thinking and paradox….

…Irish leaders fail to recognise that the country possesses precisely those distinctive, inimitable and rare resources ideally suited for success in the emerging conceptual era. In the imaginative age, a refusal to accept the conventional is crucial and best nurtured through poetry, literature, drama, music and the arts.

The Irish state has historically under-invested in music and culture, and since 2008, has further diminished the support for artistic life, while myopically investing in ‘the economy’. Bradley and Kennelly are right: enterprise flourishes in a culture that values independent thinking and networks of creativity, where the arts, sciences and technology meet. Where does the state think that culture of creativity and exploration is going to come from?

As President Higgins said on Wednesday at the Royal Society in London:

I am convinced that it is through leaping the boundaries that divide discipline from discipline, science from the arts and humanities, and by marshalling the diverse influences from our intellectual heritage that we can best meet the complex challenges of the future.

Irish musical culture is undervalued, I believe, because of a narrow understanding of that culture.

What we think of as ‘Irish music’ – the great musicians, singers, composers and performances – is really only the end result of a process. That process is our musical culture, yet it is only when they see the product, when the musicians turn up at the Albert Hall and knock the socks off everyone, that Ireland pays attention. We need to change the view of Irish musical culture to one that is much broader, that encompasses the full range of processes that produce such imagination and skill.

What generates Ireland’s musical strength?
If I were to parse Irish musical culture into some key features, I would venture three ideas. These aspects of Irish musical culture are most obvious in Irish traditional music, but they spill out across all genres, and together are pivotal in creating the culture that has given Ireland such musical strength.

Firstly, Irish musical culture values raw, spontaneous performance in community settings, literally among people in the everyday of life. This is most evident in the traditional music pub session, where musicians spontaneously perform for hours together, perhaps never having played or sung together, or even having met before, and regardless of whether there is an audience or not. But the importance of this activity goes beyond the music. This social connection strengthens the knowledge-sharing within musical life and leads to a different, more open and inclusive way of thinking about music performance.

Every Christmas Eve in Dublin city, for example, when Glen Hansard, Bono and Sinéad O’Connor take to the streets to sing and raise money for the homeless – and the YouTube videos documenting it whizz around the world – I think of the musical culture that would inspire such action, such rawness, and that would, indeed, consider this normal. There is a direct line between these acts and the session culture in traditional music. Witness, too, the reaction from the crowds. They know exactly what to do: join in.

Irish musical culture seems to excel in exploiting music’s power as a social oil, and it sees no point in waiting until we are inside a music venue. It sees it as a power that can be deployed anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

Secondly, the concept of transmission or ‘passing on’ is valued: at traditional music sessions, I am regularly struck at the status that a child playing music can have. An eight-year-old playing the simple ‘Kerry Polka’ on the tin whistle will command rapt attention from both musicians and audiences. The standard is not important; the fact that they are expressing themselves is. Musicians do not hesitate to share their knowledge or skills with someone younger, regardless of whether they are their ‘teacher’ or not; it is the way they learned and they instinctively realise the importance of continuing on this act. Many Irish traditional musicians describe themselves as ‘self-taught’, but it is only in a musical culture in which everyone is your teacher that this could happen.

Again, this value goes beyond traditional music: in 2009, U2 committed to part-financing Ireland’s national music education programme, Music Generation. The Edge has commented: ‘Access to music for children and young people is something that is very close to our hearts… the chance to pass that opportunity on is important.’

A third notable aspect about Irish musical culture is that musicians will, in general, play with anyone. Of course, all musicians everywhere enjoy collaborating with others, but they would usually be of similar accomplishment. In Irish traditional music, musicians of completely diverse standards play together. Again, this is about support and encouragement: the gap between the learner and the virtuoso is never too wide; they learn together and develop together. The result is a stronger, tightly knitted musical community. This intense, group approach to music practice means it propels and indeed speeds up the learning between people, even increasing competition, which sparks innovation, originality and higher playing standards.

Irish musical culture clearly takes a broader approach than just sending children to lessons. It is a communal philosophy of music and it has served Ireland terribly well, not just musically, but culturally, economically and socially.

Were Ireland to appreciate and understand this philosophy more, nurture and resource it,  study it and then share that knowledge, would we not strengthen our musical life even more? Indeed, might other places around the world, who want to strengthen informal music-making in their communities, be able to use those insights too, and come to enjoy all the social, economic and cultural benefits that it brings?

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