Recent Books on Irish Music

Via The Journal Of Music: a roundup of new and recent music books, including studies of singer Colm Ó Caodháin, collecting music in the Aran Islands, and music in Irish film and television , as well as a collection of essays on Brian Boydell and an exploration of the Donegal fiddle tradition.

Colm Ó Caodháin: An Irish singer and his world

Ríonach uí Ógáin

Cork University Press, June 2021

Colm Ó Caodháin was a singer, storyteller, musician, lilter, whistler and dancer from Glisce, west of Carna in Conamara, Co. Galway. Born in 1893, he was the eldest of nine children and received most of his songs from his paternal grandparents. In the 1940s, Ó Caodháin became the main contributor or informant to the collecting work of Séamus Ennis for the then recently created Irish Folklore Commission (IFC); the two also established a strong friendship, despite having been over twenty-five years between them. IFC’s Liam Ó Coisdeala has collected a large repertoire of Ó Caodháin religious tales and traditions, and the Conamara singer was also recorded by Alan Lomax, appearing on the 1955 LP. The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music – Volume 1: Ireland. This recent book by Ríonach uí Ógáin, former director of the National Folklore Collection, includes a translation of Ó Caodháin’s own account of his youth and a chapter dealing with 33 recordings made by Ó Caodháin, all of which are included on a CD which accompanies the book. There are also chapters on personal traditions, local customs and beliefs, as well as tales and rhymes. Colm Ó Caodháin: An Irish Singer and His World follows uí Ógáin’s earlier books focusing on Séamus Ennis’ collectible diaries, Mise an Fear Ceoil: Seamus Ennis–Dialann Taistil 1942–1946 (2007), and its English translation, Fetching Water from the Well: Field Diary of Séamus Ennis 1942-1946 (2009). With this new work, as the title suggests, we get an even deeper insight into the world of an Irish singer in the mid-twentieth century.

Learn more here.


Collecting music in the Aran Islands: a century of history and practice

Deirdre Ni Chonghaile

University of Wisconsin Press, July 2021

The author of this work, ethnomusicologist Deirdre Ní Chonghaile from the Aran Islands, writes that this book “is the first to discuss traditional Irish music, or any kind of music, in Aran”. This indicates its importance. Collecting music in the Aran Islands deals with four different collections made between the 1850s and the 1970s, in particular the musical manuscripts of George Petrie and Eugene O’Curry collected in September 1857; the songs collected by Séamus Ennis for two weeks in August and September 1945; American collector Sidney Robertson Cowell’s recordings made in 1955 and 1956, some of which were released on his 1957 Folkways recordings Songs of Aran; and recordings made by Bairbre Quinn (the author’s aunt), originally from the Aran Islands, between the 1950s and 1970s.

The chapter on Ennis provides a critical analysis of his collection, its strengths and weaknesses, and when combined with the books by Ríonach uí Ógáin (mentioned above) and Nicholas Carolan’s essay on the Alan collection Lomax which accompanies the recently released double CD The New Domainwe get a much more nuanced picture of Ennis’s collectible work through modern scholarship.

The chapter on Cowell is the longest in the book and provides an intriguing account of this independent collector. Ní Chonghaile writes that Cowell created “a collection of sound recordings, writings and photographs which is pioneering and little known in the field of traditional Irish music”. She adds: “His recordings and papers in Washington, DC and New York have remained, until now, largely untouched by Irish music scholars. Sidney’s independence seems to have pushed her to the margins of Irish memory.

It is likely that Cowell’s presence on Aran in the 1950s prompted Bairbre Quinn (1935-1987) to create his own collection. Collector and recorder, her collection amounts to 44 tapes amounting to 32 hours, documenting performances in Aran and Conamara. They include forty-eight sean-nós songs, accordion plays, beats, whistles, ballads, comedy songs, country songs, contemporary releases and showband songs, illustrating the evolution of the musical milieu in the middle of the 20th century on Aran. Collecting music in the Aran Islands is a fascinating insight into almost 120 years of musical culture on the Aran Islands.

Learn more here.


Music, the moving image and Ireland, 1897-2017

John O’Flynn

Routledge, December 2021

Covering 120 years of film history, Music, the moving image and Ireland, 1897-2017 is a study of the music of Irish-themed films produced or co-produced by Ireland. The book also examines news and television from the mid to late 20th century, as well as the music and sound design of independent Irish feature films from the 1970s to the 2010s. John O’Flynn’s book has three aims: to map this relatively unexplored field of study, interpreting the history of Irish and Irish-themed music in film and television, and analyzing selected scores and soundtracks. The book covers a wide range of films and music, but among the composers discussed are Max Steiner, William Alwyn, Elmer Bernstein, Seán Ó Riada, Brian Boydell, AJ Potter, Gerard Victory, Seóirse Bodley, John Buckley, Roger Doyle, Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin, Bill Whelan and Shaun Davey. The author is Associate Professor of Music at Dublin City University and has previously published The Irish character of Irish music (2009) and co-edited with Mark Fitzgerald Music and identity in Ireland and beyond (2014).

Learn more here.


Creative Impulses, Cultural Accents: Brian Boydell’s Music, Advocacy, Painting, and Legacy

Edited by Barbara Dignam and Barra Boydell

University College Dublin Press, February 2022

Creative impulses, cultural accents is a collection of 15 essays on the composer (and painter) Brian Boydell (1917-2000). It follows earlier works centered on the artist such as The Life and Music of Brian Boydell (2004) and Rebellious Ferment: A Dublin Musical Memoir and Diary (2018). Edited by Barbara Dignam, Assistant Professor of Music at DCU, and Barra Boydell, Emeritus Professor of Musicology at Maynooth University (and son of the composer), the book is divided into two parts, “Boydell as Composer” and “Boydell as Contributor to Irish Musical and Cultural Life”.

Part 1 presents Joseph J. Ryan’s contributions to the composer’s “search for a personal voice” through his music, particularly his string quartets; Axel Klein with an essay on the orchestral music of Boydell; Shauna Louise Caffrey with a study of the orchestral mask in three movements Magh Sleacht (1947); an essay by Laura Anderson on her documentary film scores; Aylish E. Kerrigan talks about his songs for low voice; Philip Graydon on the song cycle The feather of death (1943); Clíona Doris on her work for solo pedal harp A bundle of fantasies for a traveling harpist (1970); and Mary Louise O’Donnell on the musical collaborations of Boydell and harpist Gráinne Yeats.

Part 2 includes essays by Kerry Houston on Boydell’s work as music teacher at Trinity College Dublin from 1962; Ita Beausang on her musicology; Teresa O’Donnell on her work with the Music Association of Ireland; Barbara Dignam on her first broadcasts for RTÉ radio; Peter Murray talked about his work as a painter; Ellen O’Flaherty with an archivist’s perspective on her papers at Trinity; and an essay by Niall Doyle on Boydell’s legacy and related contemporary issues, titled ‘Music, Advocacy and Activism: Music in Irish Life and Culture’.

Creative impulses, cultural accents is a comprehensive introduction to the composer, particularly for new generations as his music is rarely performed today, although Mary Louise and Teresa O’Donnell have recently released an album of his harp works. In the final essay, Doyle describes Boydell as “one of the greatest advocates, activists and achievers of music in Ireland in the twentieth century“. His skill was that he didn’t just plead, he took action. Doyle quotes Boydell as having once said, “Some people try to do so many things… while others just focus on one thing and perfect it.” Well, I’m in the first category…if I had my life again, I’d do the exact same thing.

Learn more here.


Between Jigs and Reels Revisited – The Donegal Fiddle Tradition

Caoimhin MacAoidh

Walton, January 2022

Between jigs and revisited reels is a revised edition of Caoimhín MacAoidh’s book, which was first published in 1993. As with the first edition, the foreword is by Tommy Peoples, and may be the famous player’s last written words of violin because it is dated June 2018 and he died two months later. MacAoidh’s book provides a history of Donegal fiddle music and chapters on fiddle folklore, music collections and dance, which are followed by sections dealing with music and musicians from different parts of Donegal, and chapters on traveling fiddlers and the diaspora. At 400 pages, this is a deeply researched book with sections on many well-known musicians from the region, including Neily Boyle, the Glackins, the Ó Maonaighs, Dinny McLaughlin, the Dohertys, the Peoples family, the McGinleys of Raphoe, the Gillespies, the Harper family, the O’Rourkes of Ardara, the Campbells, the Byrnes, John Gordon, the fiddlers of Glencolmcille and other musicians influenced by the Donegal tradition. It also includes references to many new generation musicians. Encyclopedic work for all those who are interested in the richness of this instrumental tradition of the northwest.

Learn more here.

Learn more about The Journal Of Music here.

About Norma Wade

Check Also

How Jews Invented Pita –

4 fun facts. Pita bread is perhaps one of the most misunderstood foods. This delicious …