Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music

cover art for Companion to Irish Traditional MusicHere at Green Man Review, we have a special affinity for all things Celtic, which is why nearly 80 percent of our readers visit our award-winning Celtic music reviews. But even we cover just a fraction of all the music that’s released in a given year, and our knowledge of this genre isn’t as good as it could be. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for reference works that help us better understand this fascinating music genre. In the past, we’ve reviewed a number of works on Celtic music including including Breanda’n Breathnach’s Folk Music and Dances of Ireland, Ciaran Carson’s Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music, P.J. Curtis’s Notes From the Heart: A Celebration of Irish Music, Barry Foy’s Field Guide to the Irish Music Session, Gearoid OhAllmhurain’s A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music, Francis O’Neill and James O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, and Hugh Shields’ Tunes of the Munster Pipers.

The one I found while busking in Vancouver near the Public Market is a corker. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music is literally everything you need to know about Celtic traditional music, but were afraid to look like an idiot by asking. There may be a better guide to Irish traditional music but I haven’t seen it. What Fintan Vallely has done is follow the MusicHound and Rough Guide approach, which is to assemble a crack team of writers who then proceed to do essays, short and long, on those subjects dear to them. The Companion presents descriptions of musical instruments, the history of traditions, and analyses of the impact of the media and the modern history of traditional music-making. Biographical entries cover significant musicians and composers, and themes within traditional music are given extended entries such as the effect of recorded music upon the traditional scene, the bardic system, the role of the banjo (!), the oral tradition, and the politics of Irish music.

Traditional music and dance are the Irish’s universally recognised and appreciated cultural expression, ranging from the Irish music session in your local pub, to the sometimes reviled Riverdance. But since the late 1960s, the traditional music scene has changed radically, with what was truly traditional Irish music becoming open to debate. Its commercial life has mushroomed, bringing with it a huge growth in music tourism. Strenuous debate on what is traditional in Irish music has created an abundance of new approaches to playing this music. This book attempts to draw as much of this new work together as possible. The editor, a crack musician and music scribbler, has gathered together scores of musicians and music journalists who between them present a sweeping portrait of this milieu.

This is a book for both the fan of Irish trad music and the player of Irish trad music. For example, here’s a passage on the differences in Cl’irseach harps:

A parallel may be found in the chanter scale of the great Highland (Scottish) bagpipe. As a music instrument it was second only to the harp in Gaelic regions, and its three-part construction closely resembles the cosmological construction of the cl’irseach with a ‘male’ chanter corresponding to the harppillar, a ‘female’ bag corresponding to the soundbox, and ‘sacred’ drones being a counterpart to the clirseach neck. If the drones may be thought of as sounding na comhluighe G instead of the A or A# to which their modern pitch falls the closest, its nine-note chanter sounds a scale of F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G, precisely matching the cl’irseach’s mixolydian G tuning.

Obviously the fan of Irish trad music isn’t going to find that sort of information terribly useful, but a musician will. Ann Heymann, writer of this section, a Cl’irseach harpist and author of Secrets of the Gaelic Harp, was the perfect person to write this section. This book is the ideal reference for the interested aficionado and musician, but it is the serious musician who will learn best from this book as understanding the history of Irish traditional music will require a well-developed grounding in the music itself. What the casual fan will get out of the Companion to Irish Traditional Music is a great resource for expanding her knowledge of those artists she encounters, either in recorded form or at a concert. And it does a great job of giving a sense of the tremendous scope of the Irish traditional music scene. As Fintan Vallely says in his introduction:

“What is the worth of O’Neill’s magnificent compilations and biographies, Roche’s illuminating introductions, Breathnach’s polemicising and observation, Tom Munnelly’s collecting, R’onach U’ Og’in’s analysis, Hugh Shields’ sorting and deduction if one does not know what has been done? What value are the Irish Traditional Music Archive, the Comhaltas Ceolt’ir? Eireann collections and the university archives if one does not know what they contain or that they exist?”

Buy this book for its richness of detail about this old, but still evolving, art form. And get yourself out to your favorite music venue and hear the living music itself, for the book only matters if the music survives!

(NYU Press, 1999)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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