Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender: The Construction of Irish National Identity, 1725-1874

By Dugaw, Dianne | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender: The Construction of Irish National Identity, 1725-1874


Dugaw, Dianne, Western Folklore


Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender: The Construction of Irish National Identity, 1725-1874. By Leith Davis. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xvi + 326, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth, $30.00 paper)

Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender is one of the most thorough, analytically sophisticated, and intellectually exciting studies of European song culture and history in decades and should become a classic in the field of folksong scholarship. The book surveys Irish print and manuscript materials, identifies an historical trajectory from these materials, and analyzes the ways that the discourse of gender interweaves with the determinations of colonialism. That the book was published by the University of Notre Dame, one of the premier centers for the study of Irish literature, history, and culture, attests to its importance.

Carefully researched and artfully argued, this study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts on Irish music shows these works shaping the imagining of the Irish nation within the fraught colonial dynamic with England. Davis insists that "the examination of Irish music and of the discourse that links that music to Irish society is as crucial to our understanding of the complexities involved in the construction of Irish identity - both at home and abroad - as the examination of Irish literature is already acknowledged to be" (5). Tracing the idea of Ireland as an exceptionally "musical nation," Davis argues that this fixation on Irish musicality represents a power dynamic existing between the colonizing Anglo-Britain and the colonized Ireland going back as far as the commentary of Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century. Examining "how music was written down and what was written about the music," she surveys "introductions, prefaces, and contents of musical collections, lyrics, histories, fictional texts, and reviews, all of which . . . contributed to the imagining of Ireland as the 'Land of Song'" (6).

Drawing on post-colonial theory, Davis sees the texts she examines as sites both of colonial co-optation by English and Anglo-Irish writers, and of simultaneous resistance, within the socio-cultural politics of Gaelic- and Anglo-Ireland under English rule. Two strategies direct her analysis. The first is a concept of hybridization and ambiguity that locates in Irish music a "double inscription" that is "a continuous negotiation between the original cultures of the native Irish and the dominant cultures, both Anglo-Irish and English" (a negotiation by turns "complicit" and "liberatory" in particular texts and textual moments) (9) . The second is a recognition of the importance of gender in the colonial dynamic - both studying the contributions of particular women to eighteenthand nineteenth-century collection and discussion of Irish music, and also analyzing "masculinizing" and "feminizing" discourse within texts to show such gendering enacting a power dynamic vis-à-vis Ireland as an English colony. This analysis of gender in the formation of political hegemony is one of the most nuanced, lucid, and convincing demonstrations of the topic that I have read. Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender shows images of and ideas about gender to be inextricably imbricated in the dynamics and formations of inequality.

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