Music in Ireland: 1916 and Beyond

Monday, May 30, 2016 - 4:30pm

Musicologist WOLFGANG MARX reports on the recent conference exploring 100 years of music in Ireland since the 1916 Revolution.

May this be a morning of innocent beginning,
When the gift within you slips clear
Of the sticky web of the personal
With its hurt and its hauntings,
And fixed fortress corners

These are lines from John O'Donoghue's poem For the Artist at the Start of the Day which Orla McDonagh, the new Head of the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, recited when opening Music in Ireland: 1916 and Beyond – a fitting motto not just for artists but also for academics embarking on a quest to investigate the musical aspects and repercussions of this focal point in Ireland's history. The Conservatory has a distinguished tradition of organising successful conferences and symposia, often on Irish topics such as The Symphony in Ireland. So it was most appropriate that it hosted this central musicological contribution to the centenary year of the Easter Rising. Supported by the Society for Musicology in Ireland and the Research Foundation for Music in Ireland, the conference took place from 22-24 April 2016, finishing on the actual date of Easter Monday 1916.

A number of contributions explored musical life in Ireland in the running up to the Rising, and particularly in Dublin during the fateful Easter week. Conor Caldwell highlighted the Gaelic revival’s attitudes towards Irish music while Axel Klein investigated Carl Hardebeck’s increasing “radicalisation” which is reflected in his arrangements of Irish traditional music. Maria Byrne’s paper on the Royal Irish Constabulary Band and Donal Fallon’s presentation on the role of the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band in revolutionary Dublin juxtaposed the role of music on different sides of the political spectrum. Ruth Stanley analysed Annie Patterson’s fight for Irish music and Irish musical institutions through her articles published in The Leader in 1915-16. Mary Louise O’Donnell outlined the concerts and recitals scheduled in Dublin around Easter week (a performance of The Gondoliers on Easter Monday in the Gaiety Theatre had to be called off). The Rising also resulted in that year’s Feis Ceoil (scheduled for the first week of May) to be postponed until July – David Mooney assessed the nature of the prescribed pieces, the adjudicators and the impact of the postponement.

Several papers engaged with immediate musical consequences of / reactions to the Rising. Maria McHale demonstrated how quickly songs dedicated to the events and the memory of the victims emerged, highlighting the importance of musicians such as Gerard and Joseph Crofts. Several of these songs also played a part in Richard Parfitt’s considerations of music and Irish political prisoners between 1916 and 1921 which offered fascinating glimpses into prison life through the letters and memoirs of those incarcerated at the time. This was complemented by Christina Bashford’s research into the violin classes organised among prisoners in the Ballykinlar internment camp during the Anglo-Irish war from 1919-21. But composers of art music also reacted to the events – Aidan Thomson analysed Arnold Bax’s In Memoriam (composed in 1916) as a highly original type of funereal music.

After the end of the civil war, cultural life in the new Irish state could not but be affected by the struggles of the previous decade as it strove to establish a musical identity. Michael Murphy compared different arrangements of the Irish national anthem, pointing out that a surprisingly large number of them was written by non-Irish composers. Ian Maxwell presented the results of his new research into E.J. Moeran’s visits to Ireland and the general relevance of his Irish connections. The development of public dance spaces up to the 1930s, the topic of Méabh Ní Fhuartáin's paper, was complemented by Adrian Scahill’s insights into the ensembles accompanying ceilidh dances and the transformation of those dances away from revivalist events to more general ones fully integrated into local communities. The growth of a specific ensemble – the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra – was at the centre of Joseph Kehoe’s presentation, demonstrating the often hilariously uninformed ways in which civil servants influenced artistic decisions. Teresa O’Donnell explored the ways in which music was utilised to commemorate the Rising in 1966.

Musical life in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and particularly the early years of the Troubles was highlighted by two papers: Siobhan O’Halloran explored the genesis of the Ulster Orchestra while Stephen McCann investigated the role of political folk songs in relation to the republican movement. Stephen Millar’s study of the use of music by republicans to commemorate the Rising in 2016 provided an interesting expansion of McCann’s frame of reference. A different contemporary engagement with the Rising was outlined by J. Griffith Rollefson’s analysis of the postcolonial political critique expressed by Cork-based hip hop artists.

A number of papers adopted a broader approach to the engagement with the Rising and related questions of cultural history and identity. Rónán Galvin investigated the impact of P.W. Joyce and Breandán Breathnach’s work on the study of Irish traditional music. Ita Beausang looked at Irish compositions across the decades that were inspired by 1916 while Angela Goff explored compositions engaging with Irish mythology, most notably the story of Cú Chulainn.

Despite its relatively young age, Irish musicology has already developed a master narrative of Irish musical history, and it is always a healthy sign for a discipline if such a narrative doesn’t petrify but is subjected to deconstructionist critique. In this spirit, Mark Fitzgerald’s contribution took on some sacred Irish musicological cows in an equally entertaining and thought-provoking way. Harry White’s closing reflections concluded the conference.

Having a musicological conference hosted by a Conservatory yields practical benefits: Among the highlights was a concert featuring works by Arnold Bax (including his Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp from 1916), Frederick May, Jane O’Leary and John Buckley.

The organising committee consisting of Kerry Houston, Catherine Ferris, Stephen McCann, Aidan Thomson and (as the main driving force) Maria McHale is to be warmly congratulated. That so many contributions appeared to engage directly with each other (without the speakers being aware of it beforehand) is a rare achievement and resulted in discussions of an unusual yet highly welcome intensity and depth. Hopefully the contributions will be converted into a book, making their insights available to those who couldn’t participate in the conference (while also adding Kerry Houston’s reflections on music at Dublin’s Protestant cathedrals in 1916 which couldn’t be presented at the conference) – and ensuring that this “morning of innocent beginning” will continue to grow into a splendid noon and afternoon.

Dr Wolfgang Marx is a Senior Lecturer in Musicology at University College Dublin.
Main Photo (at top): Sackville Street after the Easter Rising, from Miller, James Martin & H.S. Canfield. - "The People's War Book and Pictorial Atlas of the World." USA & Canada, 1920, p. 132. (Public Domain)