A Schism in Irish Traditional Music

Dónall Donnelly states Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann needs to move with the times

Perhaps when the Thomas Street Pipers Club from Dublin assembled in Mullingar in the cold bleak January of 1951 they had little providence they were to create an organisation that would become the solely most influential cornerstone of Irish traditional music and inspire generations of Irish musicians across the globe.

Nonetheless, the humble beginnings of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann took shape when these Pipers and traditional music enthusiasts from County Westmeath came together with a view to creating an institutional body that would be responsible for the promotion of Irish traditional music, song and dance at home and abroad.

The idea was also to create a monumental annual festival known as the Fleadh Cheoil and Mullingar would be the initial experiment. Fifty-five years on, the most salient questions to be asked are perhaps, what of Irish music before the existence of Comhaltas, what influence has Comhaltas had on the development of Irish music since it’s creation and what is the status of Comhaltas now, relative to the radically evolving  scene on the ground?

Pre-Comhaltas, Irish music’s status lay somewhere in the mystical realms of Sean O’Riada’s maidens dancing at the cross-roads and the farming fiddlers conjuring an ill-tuned instrument from the cupboard to strike up a reel at the kitchen table.

Although, enjoyed by the masses, Irish music was essentially rudderless, although played by many, thousands of Irish traditional musicians went largely unnoticed or appreciated in popular social and intellectual circles. So, originally Comhaltas’s grand design was to create a focal point, a platform - where the cream of Irish musicians could come and strut their stuff. If anything it was borne out of an acute realisation that a dramatic decline in popularity was imminent if the musical potential of Ireland was not harnessed in some positive way.

In its inception, the Fleadh Cheoil was only attended by the ardent few followers. A mere smattering of an approximate few hundred patrons would take to the streets of the designated town with an uncompromising zeal and a new-found optimism that they were part of a new and proud movement.

As a pioneering body during these anti-traditional times, there was merely a raw sense of urgency to pass on valued traditions and ensure their survival. However, with time, Comhaltas was able to lend a sense of identity, confidence and credibility to those involved in the music and before long the Fleadh Cheoil metamorphosized into a National Festival attended by thousands of traditional musicians, singers and dancers hailing from all parts of Ireland and overseas. Comhaltas had arrived!

Buoyed by the success of the festival, branches of Comhaltas spread their tentacles into parishes all over Ireland, organising classes, concerts and sessions at local level. This in turn progressed to county level, then on to provincial Fleadhanna and further to other festivals such as the Fleadh Nua, the Tionól Fleadh and the Scoil Eigse.

In the past 55 years the Fleadh Cheoil and Comhaltas have gone hand in glove, with Irish exiles from member branches as far-flung as Liverpool, Birmingham, London, New York making the yearly pilgrimage. Presently, Comhaltas has more than 400 branches established in every Irish county, Britain, the US, Canada, Japan, Hungary, Sardinia and Australia.

So, Comhaltas has initially been a success in alchemising the musical potential in Ireland and beyond for fifty-five years. But, where does it go from here and what challenges does it face?

Comhaltas has as its central tenet the targeting of young people as the key to keeping the music in circulation, 'mol an oige agus tiocfaidh siad' ('praise the young and they will respond'). Nowadays however, its believed that Comhaltas is perhaps in danger of losing that respect and reverence from the very people it aims to encourage- the youth.

The many challenges facing the organisation lie in keeping abreast of the developments that have occurred across the traditional music landscape. Included among them are the modernistic playing styles championed by many young musicians, the fusion of other genres of music with traditional music, the proliferation of traditional bands which has provided a new meritocracy of recognition for young traditional players and overall, a new-found liberation of the music.

The issue for me is whether an organisation which has in the past exhibited an unwillingness to embrace change, propounded a competition structure adjudicated upon by cherry-picked representatives and continues to pursue a strictly traditionalist agenda, is capable of embracing this new-found change and the wave of gifted young innovative players that it has borne.

For a brief anecdotal insight into Comhaltas’s reticence to allow the music to follow its own course one only has to attend a Fleadh bodhran competition. For me, it is akin to sitting through an avant-garde performance of John Cage’s '4 minutes and 33 seconds', such is the trepidation or inability of the contenders to break out of the prescribed preconceptions of how the bodhran should be played.

The winner is invariably the one who is the most restrained with his bodhran stick and to all intents and purposes has indulged in an exhibition of virtual reality air-bodhran. Similarly with the guitar, syncopation in guitar accompaniment is as unpopular as someone trying to jump the super-market queue. All beats must also dutifully wait their turn and irregular pulse could signal a Comhaltas-guitar-adjudicator-cardiac arrest.

Many piano-players have been castigated for incorporating jazz influences into their playing. Many fiddlers have been accused of playing in a classical style. I have witnessed grupai cheoil (music groups) being disqualified for playing ‘over-elaborate orchestral-esque’ arrangements. There seems to be a palpable fear of traditional styles moving away from their roots.

During the days when Comhaltas was at its most influential most traditional players needed to have proved their mettle and obtained the stamp of approval from the title of being All-Ireland Comhaltas champion in order to go on and prove themselves in the arena of playing in a band. Now, the pendulum is swinging towards acknowledging bands for the new and innovative sound they create and not questioning their Comhaltas credentials.

Musicians who perhaps would not have complied with the necessary traditional protocol due to their creativity are now taking centre-stage and touring with bands across the globe. Fusions of traditional sounds with other genres of music are becoming more common and what is good and great in traditional music is not being left to the mercy of an subjectively qualified group of Comhaltas adjudicators, but to the democratic whim of the listening public to go out and buy the albums.

But wherein lies the truth? I do not purport nor is it my intention to signal the death-knell for Comhaltas as an anachronistic institution. There is no question that it still plays an amazingly salutary role in organising classes for thousands of young aspiring traditional musicians and is their first introduction into the music.

Its work is particularly exemplary in countries outside of Ireland in preserving the culture. However, I think that a certain schism between the organisation and the new face of Irish music is emerging and needs to be addressed.

In actual terms, I believe the role of Comhaltas to be changing dramatically in the wake of this upheaval and its future evolution to be dependent on how it chooses to respond. If it continues, as it has done so up to now, to bury its head in the sand and persist with the promotion of a strictly traditionalist agenda I feel Comhaltas will come to always embody the old way and fail to be enriched by the many attributes of up and coming talent.

When it was first set up, Irish music was on the wane and needed to be galvanised by the sort of single-minded zeal and coherence that Comhaltas had to offer. Now, largely attributable to Comhaltas’s success, Irish music is flourishing. But, this presents a new and interesting dilemma for the organisation.

I believe if they persist in espousing a limited traditional ethos their role will be redefined and shrunk to that of tutoring the very young and providing encouragement and an outlet for traditional musicians in countries outside of Ireland. The Fleadh will become a side-show and eventually be eclipsed by competitions throughout Ireland that are prepared to recognise the more diverse, modernistic playing approaches.

If however, Comhaltas decides that it wishes to welcome these exciting new opportunities, its grassroots are sufficiently entrenched to allow it to once more become the confident, vibrant organisation it once was and transform the Fleadh into a genuine showcase of talent across the vast stylistic spectrum.

Dónall Donnelly hails from Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His father, a highly regarded fiddle player played in many bands including the renowned St Peter's Ceili Band. Donnelly was immersed with traditional Irish music from an early age. He is also winner of the prestigious Fiddler of Dooney award and an All-Ireland champion.

He is a protégé of the renowned fiddle player Cathal Hayden from Pomeroy, Co Tyrone. He was also classically trained and played with the Ulster symphony orchrestra.

Donnelly has recorded a CD, Driven, with Brian Hanlon. It is available on itunes and for purchase at www.thelivingtradition.com.