The Many Facets of Collecting Music and Songs

The history of traditional Irish music and song has long been informed and intertwined with those who have collected this music both in print and on recordings. Despite this, relatively little attention has been paid to the act of collecting itself, and so in this elegant and eloquent book, Deirdre Ní Chonghaile sheds new light on the contexts, processes and motives of collecting music in the Aran Islands, and in particular on the largest island, Árainn (or Inis Mór). A scholarly yet accessible text, it is informed both by Ní Chonghaile’s background as an ethnomusicologist, as well as her status as an “insider”: she is originally from Aran, has close ties to some of the subjects book and is also an excellent specialist in traditional music. violin player. From this perspective, she is keenly aware of how, despite the sustained scientific interest in Aran as a place of unique cultural significance, and the “tremendous Aranian canon” that such interest has generated, the Aran’s music has tended to be marginalized or ignored in these writings. Highlighting this music could then be seen as a secondary focus of the book, which, as Ní Chonghaile notes, is the first to discuss traditional Aran music and song.

The first to collect music on Aran was the well-known antiquarian George Petrie, whose famous visit in 1857 followed a great scholarly gathering organized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science – which was inspired by the romantic conception of Aran as a utopian sanctuary. of an older, more authentic and ancient cultural heritage, which deserved to be documented and preserved. Staying for a fortnight after the event, Petrie and Eugene O’Curry worked together collecting lyrics and music from the singers each night, with Petrie replaying the tunes on his fiddle after the arduous process of notating melodies. Ní Chonghaile is careful to repair the neglect of O’Curry’s contribution to Petrie’s work in the opening chapter, describing him as Petrie’s “interlocutor, guide, and touchstone” (p. 35) . Unfortunately, their Aran material was never fully prepared for publication and remains fragmented; Ní Chonghaile here associates six of Petrie’s thirty-four Aran arias with texts from O’Curry’s manuscripts.

The second chapter contextualizes and critiques the collection of songs Séamus Ennis composed in Aran as part of his work with the Irish Folklore Commission. Considering the relatively short time he spent there (compared to his time in Conamara), Ennis still managed to put together twenty-six songs. Nevertheless, what emerges from the text is its ambivalence towards the islands. He was very impressed with the singing of Tomás ‘Tyrell’ Ó Briain, transcribing fourteen songs by him, and also recorded Máire Ní Dhioráin during his visit to the Oireachtas in 1945. Yet, as Ní Chonghaile demonstrates, he s essentially disengaged from the island and its music after 1946, and did not visit there as part of his later work with Raidió Éireann or the BBC. This was partly due to Aran’s unfortunate positioning between what he believed to be “the two most extraordinary enclaves of traditional Irish music…Carna and West Clare”. For this reason, Ennis’ work on Aran is presented here as being more “everyday” in its failings: Ní Chonghaile describes several singers that Ennis either completely missed or did not recover from.

Ethnographic rigor
While Ennis may have somewhat marginalized Aran’s music through his work, American collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, and his collecting work, was itself marginalized by later authorities on traditional music. To remedy this, Ní Chonghaile devotes considerable space to the documentation of her work on Aran, remarkable for its modern methods, its ethnographic rigor and the diversity of the materials she has collected. At the time of her involvement with Aran’s music in the 1950s, she had extensive experience as a folk music collector, working with Charles Seeger and John A. Lomax; Ní Chonghaile uses Cowell’s own words here to great effect, demonstrating his disdain for the clumsy techniques (and sometimes condescending attitudes) of his male colleagues and mentors.

Her path to Aran music was somewhat circuitous: her husband, composer Henry Cowell, had met Aran singers through Robert O’Flaherty. Man of Aran, when Maggie Dirrane and others who were in the film visited New York for its premiere in 1934; they sang at one of his lectures and were also recorded by Henry. It was her return visit to Aran (as part of a European tour) to meet Maggie Dirrane that spurred Sidney into action, as she realized that much of the region’s music had not been recorded.

There are many vivid details in this chapter of the making of these recordings, highlighting the value of Cowell’s ethnographic approach, which generated rich field notes. It was also fascinating to read his hypothesis that sean-nós may have fueled melismatic singing styles in the southern United States, or been linked to singing styles across the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Here she anticipated the theories of an ancient cross-cultural singing style that Bob Quinn and Seán Ó Riada later promulgated (whether this amounts to sean nós exoticism was discussed in this journal some time ago ). As the book details, these theories were quietly dismissed by Cowell, even though his exploration and analysis of arousal practices fueled them. Ní Chonghaile highlights his work on the caoineadh as the most valuable and famous aspect of his work, especially since his recordings were supplemented by his experience of the funeral on the island in 1956, and his meticulous ethnographic accounts of it (helpfully quoted at length in the text). As the chapter suggests, his work as a whole deserves much more attention, in light of its quality and rigor; and given the unbalanced nature of the only publication from its collection, Songs of Aran (on which Séamus Ennis was consulted), additional access to the material would be welcome.

Insider and recorder
The final chapter turns to another style of collecting, focusing on the recordings of Bairbre Quinn, who was working at his parents’ guest house (Conneelys) when Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded there in 1955. Undoubtedly inspired by this , she bought her own reel. to-reel recorder in 1958, and was an early adopter of this new technology. As an amateur collector, she made extremely diverse tapes of music, conversation, poetry, and radio broadcasts, recording her friends, family, and visitors to homes and public houses. Because she was an insider, with a knack for connecting with people due to her good humor and personality, the chapter argues she was perfectly placed to document the dramatic shift in social life on the island. (and even Ireland), when the participatory practices of home visits faded away (or moved to the pub).

Important questions arise here about the nature of this form of amateur collecting, with a Catholic vocation, not distinguishing between the different types of popular or vernacular music (country music, ballads, sean-nós songs and other styles are found in the collection) . Indeed, Ní Chonghaile describes Bairbre as a recorder – someone who recorded for the present, for his circle of friends and for himself. And yet she also explains how these recordings also function as a “work of memory”, and how Bairbre (like other collectors) was inspired by the perception that this culture of song and history was in the process of disappear, that it had historical significance and that it needed to be recorded for posterity. Ní Chonghaile’s own contextualization, analysis and discussion of “Bailiúchán Bhairbre” (and indeed its name) further contributes to this transformation from personal collection to archive. She’s also outspoken in advocating for Bairbre’s inclusion and discussion. clandestine recordings, on the grounds that the local community welcomed and valued the recordings, regardless of how they were made. Here, the benefit of being part of this community is most clearly demonstrated; it also reveals how, at times, scholarly or institutional thinking about ownership of field records or other ethnographic materials may not always align with that of a community.

Deeply reflective study
There is no doubt that this is a tremendous achievement as a scholarly investigation into the collection of Aran songs and music. It reflects deeply on the nature of collecting, brings welcome attention to the work of two prominent female collectors, and is lively and dynamic in its depiction of collectors, singers, and other characters. That said, the emphasis on the collecting process and the dynamism of its contextualization means that the songs and music themselves sometimes get lost in the admittedly rich and compelling stories here. For example, the songs collected by Séamus Ennis are listed in full in two appendices, but no examples of tunes or texts are discussed, meaning that brief comments on the “variety of singing styles” on Aran are not included. not much developed. retail. The same goes for historically significant songs by Bailiúchán Bhairbre such as ‘Bóthar Gharraí Nua’, and compositions and songs that were first collected by Cowell. Given the structuring and emphasis on historiography throughout the book, it may seem that this criticism is irrelevant or unwarranted – but since the songs and music are the reason these collectors have acted the way they did, it’s a little frustrating that they sometimes stay away. scope here too. This aside, Collecting music in the Aran Islands is a substantial work, a fine addition to the canon of Irish traditional music studies and a timely contribution to current conversations about music collecting, cultural heritage, ownership and dissemination.

Collecting music in the Aran Islands: a century of history and practice by Deirdre Ní Chonghaile is published by University of Wisconsin Press. To visit