Becoming Irish or Becoming Irish Music? Boundary Construction in Irish Music Communities

By Rapuano, Deborah L. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Becoming Irish or Becoming Irish Music? Boundary Construction in Irish Music Communities


Rapuano, Deborah L., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


In recent years, Irish traditional music has become the most prominent symbol of Irish national identity around the globe. Among the various activities that can be attributed to its rise to prominence is the recent Riverdance spectacle in which Irish dance and music become a pastiche reflecting a simulated version of Irish culture. This version is widely accepted as "traditional" Irish music and dance, although it bears little resemblance to what one might find in the town lands and villages scattered around Ireland, far from the tourist haunts.

There is no doubt that Riverdance has helped to spawn the recent wave of Irish revivalist activities around the world. Today Irish music festivals, competitions and sessions are not only held everywhere in Ireland, but they can be found almost anywhere in the world. Just as frequently, descendants of Irish immigrants are fervently searching for a connection to their Irish ancestral roots. To further illustrate the growing interest in Irish culture, in the past year alone, there has been an amazing increase in the number of websites connected to everything imaginable that might be construed as having to do with Irish culture. Tourists the world over flock to Ireland to experience authentic Irish culture, especially "real" Irish traditional music, most of them traveling from the United States. Furthermore, musicians (and aspiring musicians) all across the planet, regardless of their nation of birth, are picking up traditional Irish instruments to play Irish traditional music. One could say that "Irishness" is the haute couture of ethnic fashion today. It is trendy to be connected to the Irish.

Although Riverdance, and all of its blossoming offshoots, have contributed to the increased attention to Irish music, it is a recent phenomenon. Probably the more salient and enduring reason for this unexpected turn of events has been the growing number of Irish traditional music sessions, which have helped to spread Irish cultural music around the globe. Today Irish music sessions not only take place on a regular basis in Ireland, but they can be found virtually everywhere. How they have become such important vehicles for the promotion and continuity of Irish ethnic identity in an age where one's identity can be anything one desires, is the focus of this paper.

The ethnography that inspired this paper examines three local Irish traditional music sessions to obtain an understanding of the processes by which session musicians become members of session communities.1 This study focuses on three Irish traditional music sessions held in two different cities located in a Midwestern region of the United States. Participant observations over the course of two years were supplemented with informant interviews and informal conversations. In addition, numerous sessions were observed on three separate visits to the Republic of Ireland beginning in February 2000 and ending in November the same year.

Through observations of sessions and interviews with session musicians, we come to understand how the discourse surrounding the tradition and the musician's participation within the Irish music community serves to instill in the participants their beliefs about "Irishness," the Irish music tradition, and their place within the tradition. More importantly, as we trace how musicians construct their identities within and around Irish music communities, we come to understand how individuals have developed a sense of identity and boundaries different from those constructed between nations, races, and cultures during the modern age.

In addition to recent media-hype, there have been a plethora of books and articles written about various aspects of Irish traditional music over the past several years (e.g., Breathnach 1971; Carolan 1997; Carson 1986, 1996; Coleman 1996; Curtis 1994; Foy 1999; Gillen and White 1990; Mac Aoidh 2000; McCarthy 1999; Mc Manus 1994; McNamara and Woods 1997; O Connor 1991; O Canainn 1978; O Giollain 2000; O hAllmhurain 1998; O Laoire 1999; O'Neill 1973; Shields 1993; Smith and Osdilleabhain 1997: Tunney 1991; Vallely 1999; Vallely and Piggot 1998; and Williams 1996). …

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