FolkWorld article

T:-)M's Night Shift

FolkWorld Exploring the Written World of Music - Read by Walkin' T:-)M

Carl Spitzweg ,Der arme Poet', At the bedside table there's another couple of books. Big books, small books, a jiggling pillar bound to be pulled down by gravity. Song sheets and instrument tutors are spread across the floor, tunes waiting to be incorporated into the repertoire. Who writes all that stuff? Who publishes? Who prints? Who buys? Who reads? Who cares? Who can tell? - O.k. let us read!

Tonight I went to the cinema for the latest Disney craze. Did you know that Walt Disney was a heavy drinker, an unpaid FBI agent during the McCarthy era and a tyrant who ran his celluloid empire as a sweatshop? In the summer of 1946 Disney dropped into the office of the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin. It was his intention to make a film dealing with the Irish fairy folk. Disney toured the countryside, eager to encounter those teasing leprec ha uns. Was it for the rainbow beneath whose foot they hide their crocks of gold? He asked an old man,

"Tell me, sir, did you ever met a leprechaun?" "Begod then if I didn't see a leprechaun, Mr Disney, I saw his traces."

Brid Mahon worked for many years with the Folklore Commission, set up in 1935 to assemble a great body of folklore, legends, beliefs, and traditions that had survived the odds for some thousand years, almost swept away by the Great Famine of 1845, then became under pressure in the 20th century's radical changes.

"I remember a cartoon ... It showed an old man seated by the fire muttering to himself the familiar opening of a folktale, 'Fado, fado', while the remainder of his family sat with their backs turned, their eyes glued to the television set and paying him no heed ..."

While Green Grass Grows recollects the great variety of the Commission's work. Brid's encounters with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien (biograph of the leprechaun-like Hobbit), Maud Gonne, Frank O'Connor, Peig Sayers, Seamus Ennis (high king of the uilleann pipes), and Patrick Kavanagh, least to forget those men and women passing on tales, songs, and customs over the generations.

"Cattle and even human beings (especially children and young brides) were said to be 'taken away by the fairies'. One old woman from a remote corner of Donegal wrote to tell us how her granddaughter had been abducted by the fairies on the night of her wedding ... Many years later I came face to face with the 'abducted bride' but that was in another country. The wench had eloped with a company of travelling actors who were passing through the village. When we met she was on her fifth (and very wealthy) husband and had a Jaguar car and a pet pug."

In the end Disney produced a ditty called Darby O'Gill and the Little People (Sean Connery in one of his early roles - and he sings). It's a wonder (or a blessing) that the film industry hasn't discovered yet the rich legacy of the great heroic sagas.

Collecting folklore is one thing. How it has survived and been passed on and on is another. But that's a more academic question.

It's origins are unclear. In pre-Christian society music was perceived as having magical powers: The Royal Hill of Tara (i.e. wall of music) was called for its celebrity for melody. When the Gaelic society declined, the court harpers had to join with the folk musicians. While the school curricula drew on European art music, German airs and English daubs, Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, or was devoted to church music, the musical heritage remained outside the classroom.

The strongest and most successful traditions of music education have developed outside the formal system, observes Marie McCarthy's Passing it on. Even when Irish music was promoted (to the extent that jazz had been banned from the radio), a narrow music curriculum, general indifference and economic factors still put a severe pressure to its development. Fortunatly traditional music has been eared down to the young as an natural part of growing up, until the revival of the 60s and new media and technologies have taken over.

Now for something completely different. One of Brid Mahon's photographs shows the founding members of the Folklore Commission in 1937, among them Adolf Mahr, the Austrian-born director of the National Museum in Dublin, and German linguist Hans Hartmann, at the time gathering folklore material in the Irish Gaeltacht. Furthermore the Commission's director, Seamus O Duilearga, was friend with Celtologist Ludwig Mühlhausen. Historian Leon O Broin recalls Mühlhausen's visit to Teelin, Co. Donegal:

"When he woke, he took out his Nazi song book and sang a verse or two. I responded by kneeling down and provocatively blessing myself. He then put on his dressing gown, walked with me to the pier head nearby and dived into the bleak sea. Not to be outdone I did the same and nearly died of the cold. I gave this morning exercise up; the Nazi, a man of tougher breed, did not."
Teelin folk could not figure out whether the German was having them on when he claimed that Germany would run Ireland far better than either the British or the Irish - even to the extent of levelling the local mountain, Slieve League!

Mahr, Hartmann and Mühlhausen spent the war years in Berlin broadcasting Nazi propaganda to neutral Ireland. Now David O'Donoghue's Hitler's Irish Voices tells the story of this motley crew (including Irish writer Francis Stuart). Some marginal notes: The theme music chosen was the traditional jig The Frost Is All Over arranged by Colonel Fritz Brase, the head of the Irish Army's School of Music. There were another half a dozen old 78s to be heard, such as Danny Boy. One wartime listener recalls hearing

"a German male choir singing Irish phonetically. They had obviously been drilled thoroughly although they didn't understand a word of what they were singing."

Seemingly the first Germans to play Irish music!? - Well, I need some harder stuff to keep my eyes open. So what about bagpipes? Best if accompanied with one or another audible example of the Scottish war instrument.

Once the pipe was a universal musical instrument. The Roman Emperor Nero has variously been described as fiddling or piping while Rome burned. As a bagpipe with drone accompaniment, it became common from the 12th century. Robert the Bruce's army marched to a popular melody to Bannockburn in 1314, of which Robert Burns later wrote Scots wha hae . A carving in stone on Melrose Abbey of a pig playing a bagpipe dates probably from 1385. In 1746, piper James Reid was executed at York as a rebel. He had not carried arms. Since a Highland regiment never marched without a piper, his bagpipe was regarded as an instrument of war. Ironically the Highland bagpipe survived by virtue of the growth of the British empire and the piper followed the British army round the world.

The Book of the Bagpipe has been published by Appletree, who produced Ciaran Carson's Irish Traditional Music guide some years ago, a short but highly informative classic. Hugh Cheape follows a similar approach (even shorter, but it includes some 40 illustrations). He is a piper, of course, curator in the Museum of Scotland, and he was responsible for the setting up of the Bagpipe Museum in Glasgow (then the only specialist museum of its kind, now there's another one in Northumberland as well).

"He who pays the Piper may call the Tune, Give the Piper a penny to play and two pence to leave of ..."

So here's two pennies to leave off for a while. There's something left, something more bizarre. Is Shane MacGowan still alive? Is he? I heard he's been seen tied to a microphone stand recently giving another ghostly performance.

Tommy Makem once complained that Shane MacGowan and The Pogues were the greatest disaster ever hit to Irish music: They re-invented the irresponsible drunken Irishman and managed to do more damage to Irish culture than Mrs Thatcher and the British government ever could. Tim Bradford wouldn't agree.

"The Brits have been jealous of the Irish for centuries because of their ability to drink, their nice singing voices, their straight-armed dancing style (which is so much sexier than Morris dancing) ..."

Tim had his first experience of Irishness at the Hammersmith Irish Centre

"A bloke who looked like Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, was sat at a table. When a jig came on, Gerry started dancing. I wonder what he's doing here. I'm not sure what the hard-liners of the IRA would think if they could see him now. Still, I bet he can dance better than Ian Paisley."

Where's the real crack? Tim sets off to an oddyssey across the Emerald Isle. A leprechaun by his side (here we are again), squeaking When Irish Eyes Are Smiling when you press his belly, he gets his first deadly experience in Viking Town:

"Downstairs in the '24-hour bar' a dreadful singer/accordion player is murdering a few classic tunes - 'Rivahhhssss roon freeeeeeeeehhhhhhrrr', 'Dirrdi ooooooohl taaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhn', 'Fffffeeeeeeellllzzzzz ovathenraaaiiiiiiiiiiiiii' etc., etc."

Is Irish Music Any Good?

"You suddenly hear this beautiful bazouki playing and for some reason you can never understand, you just want to dance like that preening idiot in Riverdance (you know, the one with the blond quiff and the vaselined chest who went off in a huff because his name was only fifteen feet high on the posters and he'd categorically stated they had to be fifteen feet and four inches). But it's especially about those times when you are sitting in a pub in Doolin and a little old bloke with a red leathery face gets up and, in a high-pitched, wheezy voice, sings some ancient ballad about sea, existential angst and death (and he looks so rough it seems as though it's the last thing he'll ever sing) ..."

What does he hope to find? Crocks of gold at the end of the rainbow? - It's three a clock in the morning. To give Shane the last word: Now the song is nearly over. We may not find out what it means ... As the light turns off, my sweet dreams circle around a bagpiping leprechaun playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. What a horrible nightmare! So good night and bless you all, T:-)M.

Bradford, Tim, Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive? Travels in Irishry. Flamingo/HarperCollins, London, 2000, ISBN 000-655168-8, Paperback, 316 pp, UK£6.99.
Carson, Ciaran, Irish Traditional Music. Appletree Press, Belfast, 1986, ISBN 0-86281-168-6, Paperback, 72 pp, IR£3.99.
Cheape, Hugh, The Book of the Bagpipe. Appletree Press, Belfast, 1999, ISBN 0-86281-706-4, Hardcover, 80 pp, IR£7.99.
Mahon, Brid, While Green Grass Grows. Memoirs of a Folklorist. Mercier Press, Cork, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-206-4, Paperback, 208 pp, IR£8.99.
McCarthy, Marie, Passing it on. The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture. Cork University Press, Cork, 1999, ISBN 1-85918-179-1, Paperback, 311 pp, IR£15.95 (Hardback, ISBN 1 85918 178 3, IR£45.00).
O'Donoghue, David, Hitler's Irish Voices. The Story of German Radio's Wartime Irish Service. Beyond the Pale Publications, Belfast, 1998, ISBN 1-900960-04-4, Paperback, 236 pp, IR£7.95.

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