This project investigated the relationship of Irish traditional music to Irish modernity. It draws upon a significant and unique store of primary research—ranging from printed sources in the National Library of Ireland, to field work with over 100 traditional musicians in three countries, to auto-ethnographic reflection on five years’ professional experience in the arts sector in Northern Ireland and nearly thirty years as a practicing musician. The focus on the project was twofold, to reflect upon research on the historical development of Irish music, and to intervene into the contemporary field of aesthetic experimentation with the materials of Irish traditional music.
The project, now completed, has three main outputs. The first is a monograph of five chapters, Traditional Music and Irish Society, Historical Perspectives (Ashgate, 2014). The opening chapter of this work integrates a thorough survey of the early sources of Irish music with recent work on Irish social history in the eighteenth century to explore the question of the antiquity of the tradition and the class locations of its origins. The second chapter that the formation of what is today called Irish traditional music occurred alongside the economic and political modernization of European society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I then illustrate the public discourse on music during the Irish revival in newspapers and journals from the 1880s to the First World War, also drawing on the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Lacan to place the field of music within the public sphere of nationalist politics and cultural revival in these decades. The situation of music and song in the Irish literary revival is then reflected and interpreted in the life and work of James Joyce, which includes treatment of Joyce's short stories ‘A Mother’ and ‘The Dead’ and the 'Sirens' chapter of Ulysses.
The final chapter of the monograph is a development of the second main output of the project: a series of interviews and s historical essay on traditional music in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and Peace Process of recent decades which constitutes an entire special issue of the journal Ulster Folklife. This brings into publication field work with Northern Irish musicians during 2004 and 2005, and also reflects directly on my own experience performing and working with musicians and arts organizations. I offer an assessment of the current state of traditional music and cultural negotiation in Northern Ireland in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Finally the project resulted in the creation and production, in collaboration with sound artist and technician Úna Monaghan, poet Ciaran Carson, and an ensemble of Irish traditional musicians, of Owenvarragh: A Belfast Circus on The Star Factory. This piece, based on a score by John Cage which facilitates the musical realisation of a literary work, has seen three public performances in 2012 and 2013.