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In the Mix

Adrian Scahill

Flowing Tides: History & Memory in an Irish Soundscape, by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Oxford University Press, 344 pp, £34.49, ISBN: 978-0199380084

Few musicians would question the centrality of Clare to the post-revival traditional music world as a site of pilgrimage, practice, and transmission. This prominence has also been reflected in the number of recent books and studies focusing on aspects of the region: these include Geraldine Cotter’s Transforming Tradition: Irish Traditional Music in Ennis, County Clare 1950-1980 (2016), Barry Taylor’s Music in the Breeze of a Wind (2013), Adam Kaul’s Turning The Tune (2009), and Verena Commins’s recent dissertation Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy: Transmission, Performance and Commemoration of Irish Traditional Music, 1973-2012 (2014). Taking a broader approach both geographically and temporally, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin’s impressive study investigates how Clare attained this status, and how it relates to and derives from its abundant cultural heritage.

As befits the rich texture of the music of the area, the book interweaves a number of different themes and ideas throughout the text, although with a light touch, so that the more casual reader can approach without fear of being overwhelmed by overly knotty academic terminology. Clare is imagined here as a soundscape, an increasingly familiar term from sound studies, associated with Canadian composer R Murray Schafer, and further familiarised by ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay; it is her idea of the soundscape as providing “a more flexible analogy to music’s ability to both stay in place and to move in the world today, to absorb changes in its content and performance styles, and to continue to accrue new layers of meanings” (Soundscapes, 2006) which perhaps best relates to Ó hAllmhuráin’s use of the term. It also has resonances with Arjun Appadurai’s concept of global cultural flows, which inhabit interrelated dimensions of ethnoscape, mediascape, technoscape, finanscape, and ideoscape. Explored in some detail within the text, this theoretical framework facilitates an approach which highlights the fluidity and play between periphery and centre, between the dynamic of flow and the solidness and rootedness of place, between the past and the future, and between music as heritage and music as a creative art. And although these types of binaries are evident throughout, Ó hAllmhuráin is careful to consider how different cultural flows, both global and national, complicate and should lead us to distrust sharp oppositions. So Clare is on the periphery of the country, yet is also a mecca, a spiritual centre for traditional music, and long the most favoured destination for musical pilgrims. It’s at the same time a tourist destination, and this particular cultural flow receives due attention throughout.

The book’s introduction usefully profiles Clare and its history, and while the main emphasis is on general political and social history, Ó hAllmhuráin pauses to reflect on how the development of heritage tourism and the representation of culture as a form of utopian nostalgia sharply contrasts with the loss of the Irish language and its current status in the county. The introduction also brings in a term associated with ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, when Ó hAllmhuráin suggests that Clare’s soundscape is made up of “a shifting cartography of micromusics”, rather than a singular stylistic unit. However, the maps of Clare’s musical territories and families included here are rigidly mapped out and seemingly fixed, and raised questions as to who defines these stylistic regions. Given that Ó hAllmhuráin posits that “subaltern subjects (in this case traditional performers) cannot speak except through the intercession of experts”, the contribution of such performers to this mapping might have been made more transparent. Indeed the question of style and the multiplicity of styles in Clare is often alluded to but never really fully explored in a way which underlines its existence in the performative and processual dimension, or which explores how different stylistic flows might have occurred over the timeframe of the book. Some acknowledgement of the critical work on the concept of region and stylistic mapping by scholars such as Daithí Kearney and Niall Keegan might have been helpful here.

It is also somewhat curious then that the initial chapter begins by focusing on archives, collectors and scholars of various disciplinary hues – informative for other researchers and scholars in its detailing of less well-known material, but perhaps somewhat removed from the “subaltern subject” mentioned above. There is some pointed critique here of “outsiders who arrived with impressive cargos of theory but little historical or topographical knowledge of the region”, with Josef Koning, Helen O’Shea and Adam Kaul’s work mentioned in this regard. This comprehensive section reviewing the extant work on Clare is complemented by Ó hAllmhuráin’s own consignment of theory, which along with the aforementioned application of Appadurai’s –scapes to Clare, draws on Josh Kun’s idea of musical space as an audiotopia. This “sonic contact zone” is defined as being rhizomic in its multiplicity of influences (a rhizome is an underground plant stem that grows horizontally): while it is rooted in collective memory, it is also refreshed by the recovery of the past, and influenced by the ebbs and flows of different music across Clare’s history.

The following couple of chapters are more chronological in focus, focusing on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Given the import placed on the eighteenth century by Martin Dowling’s recent book, its relative absence from this longue durée perspective was somewhat puzzling, although the lack of source materials was almost certainly a significant obstacle to extending the study further back. Despite this, I was fascinated here by the revelatory material on early tourism in Clare in the nineteenth century, and there is also valuable commentary on the importance of band music in this soundscape, both those associated with “the perfidious smog of Albion” and those linked to the abstemious slog of the temperance movement. Ó hAllmhuráin has written convincingly on the Famine and Irish music previously, and its immediate trauma and long-term effects on music in Clare are harrowingly portrayed here. Perhaps more novel is the excellent section on the feminisation of musical space, and the emergence of a communal house dance culture where participation was key, where most musicians were akin to Damhnait Nic Suibhne’s conception of the “house fiddler”, and only needed to play the basic tunes for a set (indeed Reg Hall’s conceptualisation of the rise of the post-Famine amateur musician might have been usefully acknowledged here). 

It was refreshing that the material on the early twentieth century had a broader political contextualisation rather than being more focused on the Gaelic Revival: the effects of the broader struggle for independence on the musical culture of Clare are vividly depicted. At the same time, this means that some areas related to the Gaelic Revival are somewhat vague, so that for instance little detail on the feis movement in Clare specifically was included (until a later chapter when there is mention of the Feis Laichtín Naofa in Miltown Malbay). The voice of the musician emerges more strongly from this point on in the text, in the recollections documenting the pressures placed on the country house dance by church and state in this period. Much attention is also given here to the contexts and opportunities for music-making, and how they related to the different concepts of cyclical time which structured life in rural Clare well into the twentieth century. Ó hAllmhuráin skilfully blends folklore research with ethnographic testimony here, Junior Crehan’s voice coming to the fore frequently in the text. Separating this chapter from the narrative as a whole underlines how these practices stood somewhat outside of the normal structure of chronological time, and how this cyclical time might relate to the structure of the music (the round), or to the perception of time in performance, suggest themselves as potential areas for further investigation.

The remaining three chapters re-engage with the chronological narrative, in tracing how Clare became a centre of traditional music through the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The import of the 1956 fleadh in Ennis is convincingly argued for here, but there is also much valuable material which demonstrates the influence that bands and musicians had in the 1940s in preparing the way for the revolutions of the following decades, especially less well-known figures such as Seán Reid. It also underlines the extent to which developments in transport, tourism, and the dissolution of sharp class divisions, facilitated the broadening of interest in traditional music during the revival years. Due credit is given to those individuals, most notably Frank Custy, who transformed the transmission of the music by challenging the narrow ambit of music education in the school system. Others such as Willie Clancy were equally transformative and open with their music in a less formal sense, and the book demonstrates how this spirit was carried through by those who founded the Willie Clancy Summer School. At the same time, there is criticism too here of the simultaneous narrowing of tradition in Clare, in the lack of attention paid to the Irish language and to the remnants of the Clare sean-nós song tradition. In this, and in the censuring of tourism’s tendency to stereotype, commercialise and vulgarise musical culture, Ó hAllmhuráin writes with the authority and knowledge of the insider, who is not simply concerned with documenting, but is actively responding to how his own “Clare soundscape” has responded to cultural flows, both local and global. These are further delineated in the final chapter, which emphasises how the global flow of the technoscape can both become harnessed for the articulation of local identities on Clare FM, as well as facilitating the construction of Clare as a virtual soundscape, allowing identification with the county as an imaginary audiotopia, and creating a musically-imagined virtual community.

This is a rewarding and valuable book, successfully integrating close detail with a longue durée approach, and it is particularly notable for its emphasis on how Clare’s traditional music soundscape has been continuously shaped by cultural flows both local and global, and its refusal to lapse into such binaries as “tradition and innovation”. While Ó hAllmhuráin’s Promethean vision and approach pays rich dividends, two larger issues kept resurfacing in my thoughts while reading. One was the problematic nature of the soundscape approach: while there are sections which valuably demonstrate how other musics related to traditional music during the period, these phase in and out of the narrative rather than being fully integrated into a form of total soundscape. Perhaps though it is asking too much of any researcher to fully apprehend and to make sense of the myriad micromusical threads which constitute an area’s musical culture. The second was the extent to which this narrative of Clare’s musical soundscape might be replicated in other counties’ and regions’ soundscapes, and the related question of how much of this soundscape might be representative, on a smaller scale, of a wider traditional music soundscape? Finally, the book’s cover is striking, not for its depiction of Clare’s beautiful landscape, but because of the unexplained use of a photograph of a session in the Cobblestone, a Dublin pub, featuring three (then) Dublin-based musicians. This seems to be a misstep rather than a potential illustration of Clare’s vicarious soundscape, and a rare one in this otherwise excellent contribution to the literature on Irish traditional music.


Adrian Scahill is a traditional musician, ethnomusicologist and lecturer in the music department of Maynooth University. His recent work includes articles on piano playing and pianists during the Gaelic Revival, and on traditional music and the Catholic church.