The past in the present : a study of some aspects of the politics of music in Belfast

  • May McCann

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The ongoing debates on the relative value of 'insider' as opposed to 'outsider' research has raised, and continues to raise important methodological and ethical issues; they do not provide any solution to the essentially misconceived question as to which has the greater intrinsic worth. Only once in this work do I allude to this issue: in discussion of Bourdieu's views on 'the objective limits of objectivism' (Bourdieu 1977:1 ); in that instance I am more concerned with the problems raised by the author, than with the category of anthropologist, 'insider' or 'outsider', most likely to succumb to them. Having said this, however, my status as a 'native' (insider) anthropologist has had a profound effect on the present work. While the 'outsider' may, or may not, choose to 'make a place for himself (herself) 'in the system observed' (Bourdieu, 1977:1), my place, as 'analyst' and 'informant' ('analysed') was ascribed. For the native anthropologist the 'intellectual promise' of anthropology can become that of enabling men (and women) 'to become aware of historical structures and of their own place within them'. (C. Wright Mills 1959), in a very particular manner.
The unit of study is the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, interpreted as both a spacial (geographical) and historical entity. While the major part of the research was carried out by means of participant observation in Belfast in the period 1973 to 1974 the historical dimension of the study extends well beyond the notion of history as background. Aspects of Belfast's and more generally Northern Ireland's social and cultural past are treated as ethnography. The theoretical significance of the historical dimension of the study is elaborated in chapter I. Although concentrating on the city of Belfast account is taken of the wider social units of which it is a part. It is not an autonomous, socially isolated entity, Belfast people move outside its boundaries as part of everyday life, and on a more general level it is an integral part of wider geographical, economic and political structures which have changed over time, as has Belfast's relation to them.

According to census figures the population of Belfast in 1971 was 360,150. Intensive fieldwork was conducted among only a fraction of these inhabitants. The primary interest of the study - the politics of music, and more specifically folk music and the political developments relating to the rebel song tradition which occurred in that domain during my period of fieldwork, directed the main focus of study to Catholic working class areas of the city. While the notion of community plays an important role in the analysis the study is not a community study in the sense of a detailed account of one working class community within the city. The main emphasis is on entertainment in the local communities and on the 'community' of entertainers, folk musicians, who provided a significant part of it and were a mobile group of people, members of a musical sub-culture who moved from community to community as performers, and who, as musicians also participated in a musical social world which extended well beyond the boundaries of the city. The physical boundaries of my fieldwork were more or less established by following the movements of these musicians as members of folk groups and as individual musicians.

Research into the different historical periods necessitated differing methods of data collection. The contemporary data was derived primarily through the method of participation observation. The politico/ musical phenomenon which I came to study in 1973 was historically specific and limited having emerged in the post August 1969 period, it was already beginning to go into decline towards the end of my fieldwork period. I felt it necessary therefore to reconstruct aspects of the prior formative period. My methods of data collection included interviews eliciting information about that period and also library research, particularly into the entertainments columns and relevant articles in the Northern Ireland 'Catholic' press. Another source of data derived from the fact that as a 'native anthropologist' I had had sustained contact with Catholic local areas and with sections of the folk music subculture during that period. The means by which I attempted to deal objectively with material of this nature will be discussed below in connection with the section of the thesis dealing with the folk revival of the 1960s, for the same kinds of problems were involved.

Content analysis of song texts plays a significant role in the present study, particularly of songs concerned with the struggle for Irish independence. Of paramount concern however is social context, especially the fact, and implications, of changing social contexts. Three varied historical contexts involving the public performance of 'rebel songs' are described and analysed, two for purposes of comparison, the third and more recent as a part of a processual analysis of change leading directly into the period of fieldwork.

Data in the chapter on Irish ceilidhe dances as a context for the performance of rebel songs, and as a cultural manifestation of a minority section of Belfast's Catholic population, was attained primarily through oral history sources, the recollections of older informants. The musical event is reconstructed as it was described by people who attended ceilidhes regularly in the period of the 1930s and 1940s. I was fortunate to be allowed access to the scrap books of a leading dance teacher. My 'native anthropologist' status permitted a relatively continuous stream of information since in addition to formally arranged interviews it was possible for me to turn almost any personal interaction into an informal interview if the individual in question was of the appropriate generation. Again research into local newspapers dating from the period of the Gaelic revival to the 1940s was a valuable addition to the relatively poor secondary sources.

The parades of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) as a context for rebel song performance and as politico/cultural manifestations of a minority section of the Catholic population, are described on the basis of secondary sources, primarily historical sources not solely concerned with the AOH, and on the basis of newspaper research relating to the 1950s and 1960s and with particular reference to the ethnography of processions, Hibernian, Orange and Republican, and to rally issues. Attendance at AOH parades during my period of fieldwork was precluded by their decision to refrain from public demonstration (1969-1975). I did however attend Hibernian parades in various rural towns and villages when they resumed processioning. Interviews on the subject of marches and processions and more generally on public political and cultural manifestations of 'Catholic', or 'Nationalist', or 'Republican', or 'Irish' identity contributed primary source material.

The most recent historical period discussed, the folk revival in Belfast in the 1960s, was amenable to another level of data collection. It might be described as a 'reflexive' study, based on 'retrospective fieldwork' 'self understanding is connected integrally to the understanding of others ' (Giddens 1976:20). As a 'native', it was possible, not imperative, for me to have been involved closely in the Belfast folk revival subculture of the 1960s, which was the case. In order to analyse that period it was necessary not only to analyse my personal recollections, but the recollections of others involved which were acquired by means of the established research technique of open-ended interviews, and of relatively silent participation in group discussion which one might initiate. The overall interpretation of the folk revival presented above is very different from how it was perceived by me while participating in it as a folk enthusiast and sometimes 'performer'; my perceptions, as 'actor's model' are incorporated into the description. While available secondary sources were referred to, data on the 'folk scene' in England - in London clubs, and folk festivals, is informed by personal experience of such events.

Finally I wish to mention briefly a body of data which I collected during fieldwork and which is referred to in this thesis only minimally, for comparative purposes (see appendix 6). While collecting 'adult's songs' in clubs and pubs, and by means of secondary sources, song books and commercial recordings, I also collected 'children's songs'. The primary social context for the performance of these songs was situations of confrontation, for example, riot situations involving children and the British Army, or in sectarian confrontation between school children. The songs were qualitatively different from the adult song tradition and were related to the 'bootboy', 'tartan' gang youth subculture of the time. While having observed such riots frequently my primary means of song collection was more peaceful; I visited many schools in Belfast - primary and secondary. Catholic and State (Protestant). I also, when possible, accompanied groups of school children on extended school trips. In these more informal than class room contexts communication with the children was facilitated. They also permitted closer, and longer term, observation of behaviour. While the data collected on children's songs is for the most part not presented or analysed in the present study, knowledge of such material and the experience of collecting it has informed my understanding of the adult song traditions discussed herein.
Date of Award1985
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJohn Blacking (Supervisor)

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