Tuned out: traditional music and identity in Northern Ireland

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Reviews, Volume 17

1Tuned out: traditional music and identity in Northern Ireland
Fintan Vallely
(Cork University Press €39)
ISBN 9781859184431

This book considers the attitudes of Protestant performers and of the broad Protestant community towards Irish traditional music in Northern Ireland. It also discusses how political attitudes have affected traditional music throughout Ireland and how they continue to do so, North and South.
Its author, Fintan Vallely, is arguably the most influential figure in the disciplined study of Irish traditional music. His accomplishments are many. He is a flute player and writer of a tutor, Timber, for his instrument, and a maker of savagely iconoclastic songs about many aspects of Irish politics and religion (including one deriding moving statues). He writes, reviews and lectures widely; he seems to know everybody and everything. With this book, Tuned out, he also demonstrates a finely honed capacity for analysis across a wide range of disciplines apart from Irish music studies: ethnomusicology, anthropology, history, political science, popular cultural studies, conflict studies and folkloristics.
The present book is a development of his Master’s thesis in ethnomusicology completed in 1993 in the Department of Social Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast. I remember the thesis well: as a Protestant singer of traditional songs, I was one of those queried for its data bank. As a fellow student of traditional music and its practice, I begged a copy on its completion and, as an ‘expert reader’, I read and reported on two revisions for a publisher who, despite my consistent enthusiasm for the drafts, failed to publish. With this fourth incarnation my enthusiasm is undiminished.
I was also, I suspect, present at its conception. In October 1991, a shocked Fintan Vallely arrived, late, at the Forkhill Festival of Traditional Singing in south Armagh, having been at a conference organised by Co-operation North: ‘Traditional Music: Whose Music?’ His shock had been occasioned by the attitudes of others at the conference. They saw music, he lamented to me, not for enjoyment but as a tool in social engineering or as a weapon in a war of cultural ideology; Protestant representatives in particular expressed their rejection of Irish traditional music, rather than, as he and fellow Irish musicians did, seeing it as the common cultural property of everybody on the island of Ireland and in the Irish diaspora. It might be useful for those who intend to read this book to seek a copy of the proceedings of that conference (Traditional music: whose music?, Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, 1992).
The resolution of these disparate views is the real subject of this book. It demonstrates, from a basis of evidence, that the past practice of traditional music was not exclusive to any one community and that it is not so in the present, though there were and are differences; traditions of political music are not shared, yet the musical and poetic forms through which they are expressed are very similar. It is, however, much more wide-ranging. Its 24 chapters introduce its methodology, outline the disciplines of traditional music study, describe musical habits in musicians’ own terms, show how political ideologies exert pressure on that practice, debunk the assumption that traditional music is better rural and from the west, and show that there is a negative attitude towards Irish traditional music among Protestants. They also show that some of that negativity stems from the use, in Irish nationalist political contexts, of Irish music and song. The story is a long and tortuous one, and Fintan Vallely uses all his experience and long discipline to thread his way, exposing and illuminating every aspect (at least all those that I would be looking for), among them giving clear explanations of the links between the musics of Ireland and Scotland, of how musical culture migrates, the influence of the American-inspired folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s, and how modern conditions affect the manifestation of traditional musics in general. In this way, he has written a book that his fellow researchers can admire and the more general reader can assimilate with ease.
Regrettably, after such a clear exposition, he is unable to offer any more than regret that most Northern Irish Protestants deny themselves an aspect of culture within which their ancestors played a frequently dominant part; the reel is a Scottish dance form. Among the most salutary things he says—an insight which, in my view, is almost sufficient justification for the publication of this book—is that the use by Protestants (or Loyalists) of music as ‘political statement’ has caused them to believe that the music of other groups in Ireland must necessarily have the same function. Tuned out, without being vested with any missionary intent, sets out to put the record straight and does so admirably. It would be a bonus if it made any difference to how people think and feel. HI

John Moulden is a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the TEXTE project at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway.

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