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The origins of Irish traditional music

Ornament Ornament The following discussion on the origins of Irish traditional music was assembled from several posts made by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh to the IRTRAD-L list. Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is an expert on the fiddle music of Donegal, which he has been collecting and studying for many years. The discussion can be broken down into the following topics:

I feel that some confusion may have entered based on two concepts, namely the relativity of time and secondly the history of harp playing in Ireland.

What is traditional?

Stad a haonThe first point derives from the music being labeled "traditional". What does this mean? For every player/singer, there is a definition, but the prime common factor is typically some notion of "age"-it's being an "old" form of music. As Einstein might indicate to us, time is relative. Look at the Bunting, Joyce and Petrie Collections (the works of the early "great" collectors). They all invariably describe certain tunes as "ancient". This is the typical terminology of the "antiquarians" of their day (which they all were themselves). BUT, how old is old and ancient? A house in North America built in the 1700s is rare and considered very old. Alone in the small town in which I live, Ballyshannon in County Donegal there are several of them. How old is ancient? When Christ was born! That is a pretty good stab at ancient. Twice a day every weekday, I drive by a man-made religous structure that was very old when Christ was born!

We have a notion about "traditional" Irish dance music as being ancient. Certainly we have read as much in the great collections. The evidence (and this is critical and forms the basis of investigation into this subject) can only be derived from published collections and other literary accounts of what was played at various periods and it must be noted that these sources also contain their inaccuracies. If publications are examined through time, there is a clear indication that the body of tunes we now generally consider as traditional were composed in the 1700 and 1800s. For some, this is old, for others, it is hard to conceive of this as being ancient, and therefore not traditional.

Those who don't accept that this is old enough to be "traditional" often discount this music and maintain that the "traditional music of Ireland" was the music of the harpists, a tradition which has died out in a direct aural, passing-on tradition. They commonly note that this music was music which was revered and was performed in venues of high status.

What the latter view fails to recognise is that running exactly parallel with the harp history was a history of performance of music amongst the general public and there are numerous accounts of this music. In short music performed in houses by ordinary people on such instruments as primitive fiddles, flutes, pipes and whistles. I would call this music as traditional as the music of the harpists. It has evolved directly into today's dance music which we discuss so passionately on the IRTRAD-L list. Personally I suspect that the "elite status" of the harp is true but also masks the performance at citizen level. I base this on accounts of harpists (at the end of the period) who note that while they certainly played for the upper echelons of society, they also did so for the general public with warm receptions.

Furthermore, if one were to argue for the sole elevated status of harpists, they would in fact find themselves in difficulty. Much of the evidence for this high standing comes from State Papers, not in patronised harpists amongst royalty. In these same papers are accounts of pipers (presumably playing mouth blown pipes) holding equal status!

Repressive laws designed to stamp out a Gaelic order lifestyle played a large part in the decline of the harp tradition but it is worth while to note that with the demise of the national musical symbol came a quick replacement of it in the upper echelons of society by the uilleann pipes. Over a short period of time, the harp was wiped out and pipers quickly filled the gap with "patronised pipers" and "gentleman pipers" emerging rapidly as a distinct musical group which performed in the vacant venues left by the harpists.

In short, to say that the true "traditional" music of Ireland died with the harpists is to fail to recognise the parallel tradition of dance music played by the ordinary public on instruments which have been evolving in an unbroken development history to today's instruments.

The origins of the different dance metres

Irish dancing

There have been great debates about the evolution of the "traditional" dance music repertoire which we now generally agree as forming "traditional" Irish music. One fact of outstanding importance is that there are little facts to go on thus, our view of how we have what we have is from one point of view, purely speculative and from another, the result of a great deal of careful investigation and logical conclusion based on the tested information available.

A mathematician will argue very strongly that the number of music time signatures must be very limited since once you start assigning the number of beats to a bar starting up from one, you quickly meet numbers divisible by a smaller number and thus technically repeat a signature you've already accounted for. For example 1, 2, 3, the next number 4 is divisible by two and so is only a variant of 2, 5, the next number, six, is divisible by three so is only a variant of another time signature etc.

As a result of this mathematical fact there are only really a limited number of basic rhythms available (though I fully accept complex rhythms can easily be generated without a lot of effort using unusual number combinations). So, in Irish music we wind up with hornpipes, jigs, reels, highlands (or fling/schottische variants), barndances, strathspeys (even Coleman played them!) slides, single jigs, slip jigs, mazurkas and polkas (I exclude airs as we are dealing with dance music). Indeed, these are only the common forms; there are also other forms such as set dances (extra bar versions of key signatures already accounted for above), waltzes, rondos, etc.

Although the vast quantity of performed traditional Irish dance music is now done in the absence of dancers, tracing the history of the musical rhythms is inexorably entwined with the history of the dances. It is now widely acknowledged a critical agent in the spreading of traditional (not contrived by cultural committees, etc.) dances were military regiments. They brought dances with them they knew from their own countries as well as those they picked up in others. The significance of these can still be seen in the names of some of the sets still danced in traditionally strong dancing areas, such as The Caledonian (after a Scottish regiment) and The Lancer (after the French De Lancier regiment).

The history of the introduction of each of these rhythms into the performed "tradition" varies between complex to trace and simple to trace. For example, the introduction of the Polka into western European folk (Breathnach's definition of folk please, not to imply "Guns & Bullets" ballads etc.) idiom music is relatively easy to trace. It exploded into the repertoire with the sudden mass popularity of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind. Such was her notoriety that not only were polkas named after her, but polka dances were created and named after her.

Jenny Lind was primarily a singer, but her career was very much pushed by a new type of PR to emerge then. They made her a SOCIALITE. That is she performed on stage and was then invited to private (publicly covered in news terms by "Social Columnists") parties by influential, socially prominent people.. There was much dancing at these things and Jenny became well known for her preference for dancing a polka. (Jackie Small has done a good bit of digging on this one). As such, she was very much a "popularising vehicle" for the polka.

The mazurka is a dance of eastern European origin, commonly credited to Poland. It more than likely entered Ireland through the military route but never gained a great foothold with the exception of Donegal. It certainly arrived by the middle of the last century and possibly earlier.

The date of the strathspey is easy to fix as its invention in Scotland is well documented. James Oswald printed the first strathspey in book 3 of his Pocket Caledonian Companion series in 1745. Its journey to Ireland was more than likely rapid, having only a sustained effect in the northern half of the country. Whether it gave rise to the highland, or whether the highland previously existed and used strathspeys as a melodic base to "compose" new highlands, would now appear to be impossible to determine.

The Penny WeddingAt this point we are left with the "big three" group of tunes: hornpipes, jigs and reels. Let's take reels first as they may be easiest to deal with. The typical statement is that "The reel came to Ireland in the 1700-1800s from Scotland". This is based on the known fact that early Irish publications do not show very many reels compared to jigs and we also know that thanks to the co-existence of the Scottish patronage system and affordable publishing costs, there was an explosion of reel composition going on in Scotland at this time. Look at the current Irish reel repertoire and you will find it shot through with Scottish compositions (the actual composers are often known-thus the anonymity of "traditional" music is grossly overstated). Personally I accept that the reel in Irish music owes an irrepayable debt to the Scottish tradition (though accepting we have done some pretty remarkable things with what we have been offered). BUT, I would not accept that the reel was unknown in Ireland until the Scots composers got down to work. I think it certainly was there, but, like the polka, became a popular fashion reaction which has stuck to today.

The jig appears to have had a greater popularity in Ireland before the reel (which is very different to saying it is older than the reel). O'Farrell's 1804 collection (obviously derived on a repertoire from at least the late 1700s) features a good number of jigs, many of which are still actively played today (a favourite Seamus Ennis jig - When the Cock Crows it's Day / Tá an coileach ag fogairt an lae). There are arguments for placing the slip jig as an older form. The Single Jig and Slide are timing emphasis variants of the double jig, and there is some evidence to show that they may have derived from the latter and thus be more recent. As for the double jig and its emergence in its modern form, this argument was carried out in a printed exchange between Breandán Breathnach and Declan Townsend in the early 1970s. The latter maintained that the rhythm derived from Carolan's compositions of "Gigas", the form of which he learned from the Italian composer Correlli. Townsend cited supporting evidence on the jig performance of Donegal fiddlers (almost certainly singularly based on John Doherty), which no one today would support. The former, writing in the article Tús an Poirt in Éireann (the origin of the jig in Ireland; appearing in Irish Folk Music Studies, Vol. 1) refutes this and suggests amongst other things they may be based on older tunes such as clan marches which have had their speed altered slightly. In an English language summary, Breandan writes: "The jig most probably came to Ireland from England, perhaps as early as the 16th Century. Native marches were adapted for dancing, some tunes borrowed from England and a start made on composing those tunes which constituted the greatest single division of the dance music until reels began to catch up on them in the second half of the last century".

The hornpipes have been argued as a more recent arrival with some indications of England as a source. More recently it is being argued that this rhythm in particular has been popularly spread through publications with a respectable amount of evidence in the tradition to support this. The notion of the performance timing of the hornpipe-the question of dotted or undotted playing appears to be entirely a local matter based on the local dance tradition requirements. Its slower speed gives the player much more time to attempt more technically challenging performances of this type piece, thus the bunches of triplets and the "difficult" (flat) keys. As such hornpipes were sometimes played away from the dancing environment as a show of virtuosity. In an effort to establish virtuosity note reading players (usually the more formally trained and adapted to classical based techniques) were anxious to purchase books and learn new "virtuoso" hornpipes. Examples of this are the popularity of James Hill (a Lowland Scot who came to settle in Newcastle in the north of England), who certainly had a big impact on Irish fiddle playing up to today, as well as the likes of Sean McGuire who liberally avails of published virtuoso hornpipes and who has impacted significantly on the tradition.

For those living outside Ireland and building their repertoire in pub-based sessions, with the view that this music is not really "ancient", i.e. for the most part about 200 years old, and is massively reel, reel, reel dominated, it may be of value to note that if you listen to the still living older players in the west of Ireland, you will find their repertoire (when they play at home and not in "reel" demanding pub sessions) is certainly reel dominated but shows a more even balance of jigs, hornpipes and other rhythms compared to what is performed in sessions.

For those interested in looking at early Irish music, could I suggest three excellent and highly affordable publications. The first is Popular Music in Eighteenth Century Dublin published jointly by the Folk Music Society of Ireland and Na Píobairí Uilleann as well as A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes by William and John Neal in 1724 and which was facsimile reprinted by the Folk Music Society of Ireland with Nicholas Carolan as editor. Lastly is O'Farrell's Collection of National Irish Music for the Union Pipes by O'Farrell and facsimile reprinted by Pat Sky as editor (IRTRAD-L list member).

Irish music before 1700

In terms of the ORIGIN of what we now call "Traditional Irish Music" this is an absolutely central and critical question. It is also desparately hard to answer. I think anyone trying to do so must start from a viewpoint that says there was no "Adam then Eve" situation. In otherwords, there was no "Creation Instant" and then everything else followed after. The music has no defined origin instant. It has (as is often hotly debated on the IRTRAD-L list) been evolving constantly with mixed periods of revolutions and subsequent quiet periods of adjustments. (Palaeontologists have called this phenomena "Punctuated Equilibrium" for some time now). For a period of revolution, look at the introduction of the reel, or similarly the polka and the subsequent adjustment period which followed.

When speculating on the answer to this, we seem to be lost with the absence of bits of evidence which we can lay our hands on, like collections for instance. BUT, there are some reasonable assumptions that can be made which may guide our guessing.

Start with instruments. There are very good ideas and even some examples of the kinds of instruments that were used before the advent of publishing. These allow us to conjecture the maximum level of performance which could be got by even a very gifted player of the day. In the case of fiddles (probably the most widely available along with fipple flutes) these indicate that the performance levels would not be of today's "technical wizardy" status. Even consider the playing advancements that string manufacturing technology have delivered to us. When trying to logically work backwards, look at what has been the approach of classical players trying to reproduce very early "period" performances. Their experience, and I believe the parallel with traditional music is very strong, indicates the general type of music played was simpler and to an extent slower.

Irish danceLikewise, think of the social conditions of the era. If we are looking for "the music of the people" then the general populations of the pre-1600s were largely concentrating on basic survival! The amount of time they could devote to practising (our modern day "leisure time") was minimal. The average level of dexterity due to gruelling, heavy, largely agricultural manual labour would mean performance ability would be lower than that we know now. I also suspect that, like the "house dance players" of the early part of this century (who to a considerable degree parallel the latter group of players described) , they had a drastically smaller repertoire than the modern player has, as they only needed enough tunes to provide music for acouple of dances.

In short, I personally suspect the music played for dancing was melodically simpler and probably a good bit slower. Going back to my mathematical reference above, I suspect we would recognise a couple of rhythmic forms arising from 2/4 and 3/4 timing variations. Now if you wish to line these up with jigs, reels, etc, I suppose there is an argument there, but I personally would wait for evidence (which I don't expect to emerge). As regards what types of melodies were played, I agree with the thinking proposed by Henrik Norbeck that the melodies in the earliest publications are based on pre-exisiting ones which have been adapted to some extent, but I would stress that I, myself, think the types of melodies would be considered today to be simple, or, "the bones of the tunes". So, there are clues there.

My personal overview of the evolution of the music has been one of melodically simple, unadorned (by today's standards) music up to the early 1700s with an explosion of repertoire at this time. A RELATIVELY large number of persons able to play per capita in existence. Numbers of players stayed high and technical advancements were massive and rapid in the 1800s due to more freely available, radically better and technically improved instruments. Performance levels soared and melodic and ornamentation complexities rocketed. Throughout the 1900s the music gradually dropped off in terms of numbers playing in Ireland with economic decline and associated emigration but playing standards remained extremely high. By the 1960s the "folk boom" re-introduced the music to an excited new generation. Though numbers playing is still down on those which played at the start of this century, the standard of performance has never been as high and appears to continue to rise in the forseeable future (the medium term sustained rise will depend critically on education interventions-in short teaching availability by voluntary bodies).

What I have stated above may appear to praise the youth and show the players of the pre-1700s in a poor light-as simple unskilled players. This is not how I see it however. These views must be taken in social context. The "early" players were of an equivalent level of genius as those we praise today. How? Because they were even able to play under the social conditions in which they had to live. Their leisure time and health conditions in no way parallel that which we appreciate today. Looking at things that way, we must be massively grateful to the unnamed legions who proceeded us gradually shaping, crafting, creating, and selecting the inspired body of music which we today have inherited and in which can revel. Some time ago when the IRTRAD-L list considered the question of a short list of the most influential players in the tradition I forwarded the idea that Michael Coleman is as close to the traditional Irish music icon as anyone today will find. As a result, I argued that the person/s who taught him must therefore be the most influential.

I still maintain this idea. Without those who have worked to pass on the music it would not have survived. As a result, if you play even just one tune you are indebted to a long line of people stretching back some goodly amount of time for having kept either the melody or the technical/ornamentation skills alive to be able to play that tune.

Adh mor,

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh

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