Breandán Breathnach's 'Folk Music and Dances of Ireland'

Growing up on Long Island with two Irish-American parents was not a particularly Irish experience. Carmel Quinn records played on our stereo and were appreciated by all. My father regularly annoyed my mother by listening to bagpipe music. The truth was that my parents were American Irish who had lost contact with most of their musical heritage. They appreciated The Clancy Brothers wearing their Irish sweaters on the Ed Sullivan show, but that was about as Irish as they got.

Review of Breandán Breathnach -- Folk Music and Dances of Ireland -- Cork, Ireland, 1996 (originally 1971). Ossian, publisher, trade paperback, 152 pp. with musical examples

Somewhat later, in the early 1980s, I was induced to attend a concert of The Chieftains at Carnegie Hall. The friends who convinced me had the Chieftains LPs and had made cassette tapes of them. What I heard on their homemade tapes made me happy to chip in for a ticket and take the train to NYC for the concert.

Of course, I was astonished at the unbelievable flow of music emanating from the stage. The first tune amazed me with its combination of rhythmic drive and melodic invention. When I had a chance, I glanced over at the audience. It was a uniquely Chieftains audience, including many members of religious orders -- both men and women -- as well as many obviously Irish people. All were happily lost in the pleasure of a Chieftains concert.

Derek Bell stands out in my memory for his superb musicianship combined with his quirky personality. He was the quintessence of the eccentric musician. When he waved his handkerchief at someone praising his playing, it was a defining moment. Paddy Moloney on pipes and recorder played superbly as usual -- as did the rest of the band.

When The Chieftains played "Bonaparte's Retreat," I was rapt. Silence reigned at Carnegie Hall as they played. Ever since that concert, I have been an avid fan of Irish music. And that is why I picked up a copy of the 1996 book "Folk Music and Dances of Ireland."

The author, a lifelong civil servant, was a piper, and the book therefore focuses on instrumental music. It includes many musical examples and covers roughly from 1700 to present. He makes the point that while music was clearly part of ancient Ireland and is mentioned in many medieval accounts of Ireland, most of the melodies played today cannot be dated much older than 1700. The traditional dances seem to date from the same era.

He points out that most melodies are in the keys of G or D with A being common. He briefly explains the scales/modes that are used in creating Irish tunes.

They possibly date from a modal (pre chord era) -- generally considered to be dated 1600 or so. The ancient national poems by authors like Fionn were all written to be sung -- probably by bards accompanied by harps. Breathnach's knowledge of melodies, derived from his pipe playing, enable him to properly analyze these melodies and point out that they are not pentatonic, as many English folk melodies are.

Breathnach shines in his personal knowledge of the musical practices of the early 20th century, gleaned from his lifelong collecting of Irish melodies. He knows both the later English / Irish Gaelic era and the preceding Irish / Gaelic era well. He spoke and read the Irish language, which was a sine qua non for writing this book. Because the book was written in 1971, none of the contemporary Irish revival groups we're familiar with from the radio show Ceol na nGael like the Chieftains, the Pogues or Planxty, are mentioned. This is a book that will teach its readers much about the roots of traditional Irish music.It is officially out of print but 15 copies of the PB  are currently available on Amazon.

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Tags: Folk Music, Folklore, Traditional Irish Music

Comment by Fran Reddy on May 17, 2016 at 9:22am

Great personable review James, thanks.

Comment by Kate Hennesey on May 23, 2016 at 5:44pm

This looks like a wonderful resource! I had a similar experience growing up without any direct contact with Irish traditional music and dance, but through Irish dance classes (my daughter was part of the "Riverdance" generation in the 90s), discovered a whole new wonderful world that is now a big part of my life (adult dancer and teacher). I love reading about the dance and music roots.


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