Song is existence.

By Frank Armstrong.

“In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly”

– Seán ó Faoláin



Donal Dineen recently described this as a “golden age” in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. What is this this creative outpouring in our midst?.

No golden age in music can be divorced from its socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians do not float free, insulated from broader currents. We may expect the golden age to have a silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has survived unbroken unlike after other historical crises, albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under 25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public-health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome cannot mask genuine warmth. Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the exclusionary colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism. Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively.

Musically, many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah deserve a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified “conjunctures” or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the first, blood-curdling, adventure of the British empire, had enmeshed a peasant society with an advancing industrial society generating an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish had acquired the language of the coloniser but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing optimism of the epoch. In ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegans Wake’ the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce, and WB Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In ‘Songlines’ the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sang their land into existence. He writes: “In aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die”. He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life”. Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: Gesang ist Dasein meaning “song is existence”.

Songs are of course both music and words, but their inspiration comes from different parts of the brain. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak, but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the life-blood of poetry. But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is the responsibility of the practical, left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right, as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, indeed echo and embellish them. This co-ordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially that of song raised on instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: “both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately”.

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world”. John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organised religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from the exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbids the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung has traditionally been the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist. Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music “has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together”.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence, from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many shuffle back to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys lives in Dublin. He recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the songlines.

A recent album ‘An Interview with Mr Yeats’ (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s works into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes, led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we perceive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album ‘Crossing the Threshold’ concerns Roger Casement: “A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name”. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeats’ poetic homage to Casement in Ryan’s lines: “There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door”. Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: the songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: “Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start”.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering and inequality. Our great music can make words dance. •