One of the recurring themes in Irish history is the importance of music, song, dance and literature in encouraging and forging a national identity. Yet, though the theme is often overlooked, the history of 20th century Ireland is intertwined with many soundtracks of music that have defined, reflected and shaped our destiny. Music as an intrinsic part of our identity has been recognized by Thomas Moore, Patrick McCall, Percy French, but especially Thomas Davis.
Davis is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. Not far from his grave is that of Edward Bunting (d. 1843), who rose to prominence as a musician and collector of folk music. He influenced Thomas Moore, Erin’s bard (Often in the quiet night, The minstrel boy and The Last Rose of Summer)which in turn influenced Percy French (The mountains of Le Morne, Phil the Piper’s Ball and Come back Paddy Reilly). In the 20th century, many of these songs were kept alive by the internationally renowned Irish tenor, Earl John McCormack, and later still by Frank Patterson. The Waltons-sponsored program on Radio Éireann ran with the line: “If you sing a song, sing an Irish song.”
This particularly Irish musical strain had roots dating back centuries to the earliest Uilleann harpists, flautists and flute players. The latter were renowned for the “Great Irish War Pipes”, played as the Irish went into battle and guaranteed to encourage the enemy to flee. Despite the Elizabethan edict of 1571 that harpists were to be hanged and their instruments burned, the tradition survived and the blind harpist and one of Ireland’s great bards, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), composed many poems, songs and lyrics, including 214 pieces of instrumental music for harp. Among the favorites are O’Carolan Concerto. He also composed Owen Roe O’Neill’s Lamentwhich the Young Irishman, Thomas Davis, used for a similar lament in the 19th century.
Patrick Pearse considered Thomas Davis the father and evangelist of Irish nationalism, the guardian of the nation’s soul and the one who helped to transform the national consciousness. He was like Thomas Moore in a way – acknowledging that music has helped define us as a people. In the case of Davis, it found expression in The nation newspaper. In a poem, Who’s afraid to talk about 98it revived the memory and sentiment of Wolfe Tone and 1798, with the aim of renewing and rebuilding the national fiber and fostering the nation of Ireland once more.
Davis understood that culture supports nationality and historical legitimacy would be irrelevant without the narrative power of songs and music. Through these lenses (whether suffering, love, emigration, rebellion) the history of Ireland over the centuries would be seen and music would be called upon to invigorate the nationalist cause more wide of political independence. This understanding ensured the popularity of his heroic songs of the dispossessed, especially One nation again and The West is awakening emphasizing hope and courage.
During the commemorations of 1798, PJ McCall takes over from Davis and entrusts to us Boolavogue, Kelly of Killane and The Boys of Wexford. He also wrote the Bards Pulse, Erin songs and Irish Fireside Songs.
A few years later, Patrick Pearse wrote a poem – Mise Eire – ‘I am Ireland’. A trumpet call to the nation before the 1916 uprising.
The young Irish Free State also recognized the central role that its cultural heritage, and in particular music, would play in nation-building.
In this regard, the national anthem Amhrán na bhFiann (The soldier’s song), 2RN (precursor to Radio Éireann) and the Army Number 1 Band (using Moore’s Melodies for the source and character of the national idiom), were seen as crucial tools of nation-building. Cinemas, theaters and dance halls played the national anthem at the end of the evening’s entertainment, a tradition that lasted until 1972,
Likewise, the pioneering work of Alan Lomax, Séamus Ennis and the Irish Folklore Commission, Garech Browne and Claddagh Records have done much to collect and preserve our musical heritage. Individuals such as harpist Mary O’Hara (Erin songs), Seán Ó’Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann, as well as céili groups such as Tulla and Kilfenora, encouraged the unique Irish musical tradition and brought it to a wider audience. Their efforts spawned young musicians such as Altan, the Bothy Band, Clannad, Planxty, the Chieftains, Dé Danann and Stockton’s Wing.
They were said to “make sure we had apples in the winter.” Some of the band members – Eleanor McEvoy, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon, Frances Black and Maura O’Connell – went on to produce one of the best selling Irish albums of all time, A woman’s heart (1992).
The folk group Dubliners (although having seven drunken nights banned from Radio Éireann) led a veritable musical rush and were joined by The Fureys, Wolfe Tones and many others to add an Irish flavor to the international ballad boom. They were also pioneers who kept the tradition alive during lean and good times.
Simultaneously, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Ireland witnessed a showband mania that swept the country with ballrooms popping up in cities all over the country. At one time there were almost 800 showbands crossing the country and it was said that their popularity was such, playing music on the go, it’s safe to say they carried Ireland into the 20th century . Among the luminaries were Dickie Rock (“spit on me Dickie”), Brendan Bowyer (The Huckle Buck) and Big Tom (Four routes to Glenamaddy).
A member of one such showband was Rory Gallagher, who, reflecting the new mood, opted for a rock band (Taste). Others followed new international musical trends, including Van Morrison (Them), Brush Shiels (Skid Row), Horslips, Thin Lizzy, The Blades, Aslan and eventually U2.
Meanwhile, the showband era was overtaken by disco fever, with “Europe’s No. 1 nightclub”, The Zhivago, leading the pack in the early 1970s. was “Where Love Stories Begin”. “But ended in the Rotunda,” according to a Dublin observer.
Maurice Curtis is the author of Independent Ireland 1922–1992: Raised on Songs and Stories (Orpen Press, July 2022)