Saturday, February 14, 2009

Irish Fiddle Regional Styles

An Article from Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on 
Regional Styles in Irish Fiddling


Approximately 90 years ago the Irish language was spoken without break along the entire southern western and northern coastline and as far inland as County Roscommon (Irish Language Survey of 1891). At this time the Irish of these areas, dialectically speaking, gradually flowed into one another, thus making distinct dialects along a continuous transverse section almost undetectable.

A language can be simply defined as a highly organised series of sounds and it is important to note that music, and in this case traditional Irish dance music, also fits well with this definition.

I feel that both language and music are reflective of their practitioners or creators. Northerners to me generally are straightforward people in their humour and speech. Their music is usually straightforward as well; their song, ornamentally, is also. The Ulster dialect of Irish is often referred to as bland or flat. The music of the more southern counties, as regards their sound, and Irish dialects are significantly lighter in nature. A link between the music and the language is herein implied.

I would like to speculate that prior to the drop-off in the acceptance and playing of traditional music as well as the speaking of the Irish language, dance music, like the language, existed in a continuous gradual blending of styles between areas. These gradations, however, most likely suffered some breaks in the face of insurmountable natural barriers such as the River Shannon and various mountain ranges which limited communication between regions. Postdating the decline in both the acceptance of both traditional dance music and Irish, it was exactly these barriers which helped to maintain the now remote, isolated pockets which held on to their traditions. By the turn of the century the blending of musical styles was defunct, with distinct styles, like Irish dialects, being recognisable only within isolated areas.

To support this idea, one can easily see the River Shannon acting as a natural barrier between County Clare, a musical province where the reel is a heavily emphasised rhythm, and Counties Kerry and Limerick, where a generation ago slides and polkas predominated. (The author acknowledges the presence of turf boats which, at the time in question did somewhat link these areas. It is significant to point out that The Foxhunter's Reel is claimed to be a native tune in both areas with each side claiming transportation to the other district to turf boats). Scattery Island, by all local accounts would have been enigmatic. As this island lies comfortably tucked in a harbour by the mouth of Poulnasherry Bay near Kilrush, it would be thought that the music of the island would be more representative of the Clare area, yet highly credible sources without exception maintain that the music of this island was more like that appreciated on the southern bank of the Shannon. These informants also tell me, however, that the islanders, although forced by geographical division to call themselves Claremen, preferred to consider themselves as separate "islanders". Another excellent example of geographic barriers seperating musical and linguistic provinces are the Bluestack and Sperrin Mountains of Counties Donegal and west Derry which isolate the latter from the flat basalt plain of east County Derry and County Antrim. The mountains of Connemara act similarly separating Connemara from the east County Galway plain.

Rapid mass transportation for the general population in Ireland has become a reality within approximately the last fifteen years. Essentially, what this means, in terms of traditional music, is that prior to the arrival of the motorcar, buses, etc. the country population (musicians included) were restricted to small localised areas. The boundaries of most of these areas were commonly dictated by natural geographic barriers such as rivers, mountains, watersheds, etc. This exposed the musicians within them to a local sphere of influence, thus promoting the continuence of local styles, as outside influences such as travelling musicians still remained minimal. (Some such as Johnny Doran, in recent years however, had a dynamic effect on the local style within certain areas).

As regards the mass media and recordings, I feel it can be truthfully stated that it will be these which deal the killer blow to localised fiddle styles. At present anyone can readily obtain a recording of nearly any type of fiddle style, thus I feel eventually contributing to the rise of homogenous fiddle styles based on heterogenous influences. The late Patrick Kelly of Cree, Co. Clare best summed up the evil side of recordings when he stated that "the worst thing that ever happened to the West Clare style of fiddling was the appearance of Micheal Coleman's records". I needn't go further to illustrate the gargantuan impact which the recordings of the late Sligo fiddle master had on the entire musical population.

I posted part 1 of the promised article on regional styles. In relation to this, I wish to point out that it was written back in the late 1970s and published in the early 1980s (I suspect about 1980), based on a reference to Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh as having been already married. At that time it was the only article published which directly addressed regional styles. Few if any, other than Philippe's, have been published, indicating the dearth of investigative initiatives directed at one of the most interesting and important subjects in the music.

I should point out also that while I still stand over the article, my views have changed a wee bit. I would also write it today with a more tempered view such as substituting a different word for "evil" as appearing in part one. Again, this is an indicator of where things stood then in the 1970s, where the "national" style was booming and there was a virtual intolerance of anything local

No comments: