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Authenticity and Commercialization: Traditional Irish Music’s Balancing Act

In our capitalist society, music has become a decidedly financial endeavor as significant monetary resources are essential in not only the creation and distribution of most mainstream music, but also in the exhibition of a lifestyle which mainstream audiences find desirable. In the scope of Irish society, this can be seen in how the emergence of significant demand, alongside increased commercial viability, has impacted and influenced the development of Irish music in recent decades. This impact can be seen most clearly in the gradual professionalization of the Irish musician, the trade-off these musicians face in balancing authenticity and commercial success, and the change in instrumentation and equipment in the continuing Irish music tradition.
            While modern-day Ireland would be considered by many to be a prosperous, wealthy nation, traditional Irish music mostly originates from a time of relative poverty in Ireland. As a result of this, a lack of financial resources has had a long-term effect on the development, performance, and maintenance of traditional Irish music. Many characteristics of Irish music that were necessitated by poverty, particularly after the famine, eventually became defining characteristics of the genre. An example of this can be seen when Uí Ógáin writes that “it should also be remembered that very often portaireacht bheil, or lilting, frequently functions as an instrument in its own right used to accompany dancers, even to the present day” (Uí Ógáin 2002, 128). In this specific case, it can be seen that a new technique, namely lilting, arose from the dilemma facing those that lacked the resources to purchase or produce an instrument who nonetheless wished to create an environment for dancing. Lilting was far from the only way in which ingenuity was incorporated into the Irish music tradition. Uí Ógáin continues by saying that “we may also observe that objects not usually associated with music can be used to provide accompaniment to dancing: mugs filled with water to varying levels were used in Donegal to make fine music by banging them with a spoon and combs - sometimes covered with tissue paper-were and still are used for playing tunes” (Uí Ógáin 2002, 128). Again, it is clear that the adaptation of commonly available resources, such as household items in this case, into musical instruments is a method not simply utilized within traditional Irish music, but also embraced beyond its necessity. The adaptable instrumentation described in these previous quotations exists in stark contrast to the instrumentation present in Irish music today. As Uí Ógáin explains, in “recent developments and changes in traditional music in Ireland have also seen the introduction of African, Asian, Arabian and Australian portable instruments such as the djembe, the ud (lute) and the digereedoo, all of which are attracting and creating relevant lore and traditions” (Uí Ógáin 2002, 144). Thus, it is apparent that, while post-famine, pre-revival traditional music was characterized by limited access to instruments being remedied through creativity, modern traditional music not only has sufficient access to traditional instruments, but also goes so far as to incorporate foreign instruments and aspects of their related cultures. Therefore, we can understand that financial hardship, as opposed to prosperity, was key in the development of traditional Irish music leading up to the revival. This financial hardship can not only be understood as impacting specific aspects of the musical traditional but rather as embedding itself into the spirit of the musical tradition as a whole.
Unfortunately, the financial hardship which lent much to the development and character of the tradition also detracted significantly from the maintenance of the tradition through non-oral avenues. The lack of significant commercial involvement within the tradition, combined with a failure in identifying its cultural value, led to an underwhelming level of meticulousness in the preservation of aspects of this tradition. This is apparent in Séamus Ennis’ diary when he writes that “as I left him [Colm Ó Caodháin] I had 'Port na Gioboige' ('The Tune of the Old Hag') on wax cylinder and other songs that the ediphone didn't record all that well” (Uí Ógáin 1996, 300). In this case, it can be seen that a considerable number of valuable recordings had been lost due to insufficient equipment or resources being provided to the collector. Another case in which a failure to preserve aspects of the Irish music tradition can be seen when Smith writes that “when Bunting published his first volume of collected airs in 1796, it contained sixty-six native Irish airs never before published. The melodies were published with piano accompaniment, but without words, and the titles were given in Irish and English” (Smith, 153). This case differs from the first in that a failure to recognize the cultural value of the lyrics to these melodies led to their loss. In the modern day, as a result of commercialization, many musicians who brand themselves as traditional Irish musicians have the opportunity to record albums, shows, or a variety of other performances. However, this becomes problematic as it is often the performers that are criticized for their lack of authenticity who retain the greatest presence in media. Thus, we can see a movement away from recording the most authentic forms of traditional Irish music in an academic collection setting toward the recording of the most marketable forms of traditional Irish music in a commercial setting.
As the genre of traditional Irish music has gradually emerged as a desirable commodity, there too has been an emergence of a professional path for musicians within the genre. The commercialization and commoditization of traditional Irish music has led to a change in the relationship between not only the musician and various related businesses, but also between the musician and his or her performance. Before the Gaelic revival and Celtic Tiger, it can be seen that traditional Irish musician’s relationship with music was almost purely one of the pursuance of internal satisfaction, meaning their performance sought enjoyment primarily for themselves as opposed to for any monetary incentives. This is explained when Kaul states that “Doll O'Connor told me that playing music was perceived to be something of a waste of time by many, something that detracted from the endless cycle of farming fishing and surviving…Money was scarce in Ireland and music did not feed families” (Kaul, Loc 1234). In this quotation, it is not only apparent that there was no external monetary incentive to perform but there was no obvious reputational incentive for performance either. However, it is unquestionable that the relationship between the musician and their performance was considerably altered as the commercial value of traditional Irish music began to grow and be discovered. As a result of this change, musicians not only gained an external incentive in the form of monetary compensation, but also gained a reputational boost as their work came to be admired. This can be seen again as Kaul writes that “increased commercial gain from the music creates stronger social relations between certain actor, for example publicans and musicians, while simultaneously professionalizing some roles, like that of musicians” (Kaul, Loc 2487). Kaul not only addresses the professionalization of Irish traditional musicians that occurred, but also mentions the change in the nature of the relationship between the musician and those who stand to gain from the commercialization of traditional music. Thus, it can be seen that the initial purity of the traditional Irish musician performing due to their passion for the music has since been morphed into musicians who perform, at least in part, for external incentives, and who are influenced, in a more significant manner, by other members of the traditional Irish music industry.
            As a result of the aforementioned influences, many Irish musicians spend much of their careers in an internal struggle between maintaining their authenticity while still seeking commercial success. While there are those more traditional artists who would go so far as to consider these two objectives as mutually exclusive, the majority of artists believe that this coexistence is merely difficult to obtain. As explained by Kaul, “the music industry at large has consolidated traditional music in the same way that it has done so for other musics: by creating 'products' like records and stage shows, and creating markets for their consumption” (Loc 2882). Though many would argue that the distribution of traditional music through more contemporary, commercial channels merely makes it more accessible to a wider audience, it is important to consider that this commercialization places pressure on the musicians to create a consumer-friendly product. Furthermore, the vision that consumers have and expect of Ireland and Irish culture can often differ significantly from true, authentic Irish culture. This can be clearly seen as Scahill writes that “the archetypal example of the globalization and commodification of Ireland and Irish culture, Riverdance can justly be described as one of the emblems for the now rapidly fading Celtic Tiger” (70).  Thus, we can understand from this that traditional musicians face pressure to fit within the mold of what would be considered ‘Irish’ or ‘Celtic’ music from the viewpoint of those who have shallow experiences with Irish culture. This leads to a balancing act between what is more desirable to those who are providing external incentives and what individual musicians seek out for internal gratification. This is commented upon again by Scahill when he writes that “recent scholarship has argued that the session is itself now being aggressively sold and marketed in Ireland as part of the tourist experience; in many cases and spaces its continued existence depends on it being commodified, and similarly globalized, for an international audience” (73). This pinpoints the degree to which the desire to become commercially successful has taken the authentic experience of a traditional music session and synthesized it into a bite-size tourist attraction. The framework that has been forced upon traditional musicians as a result of their newfound professionalism is addressed when Kaul explains that “a paid musician is required by their verbal contract with a publican to not only show up at a given time to start off a session, but also to sit the night out. In other words, they are paid to show up and to stay ... the paid musician cannot get up and leave a mediocre session and find a better one as they would have done during the Revival” (Loc 2882). Thus, we can see that as a result of the requirement to perform in exchange for monetary incentives, much of the spontaneity that would have been associated with traditional music sessions of the past has been replaced by a necessitated consistency associated with providing a product to tourists. Consequently, it can be inferred that only those musicians that are willing to forgo significant commercial success can sufficiently maintain the authentic Irish musical tradition.
            Ultimately, it is clear that the commercialization of traditional Irish music has had significant impacts, both positive and negative, on the tradition. It would be undoubtedly challenging to maintain a musical tradition in the modern world without some commercial involvement. However, as a fragile oral-tradition, the level of commercialization that traditional Irish music has reached today has placed it in danger of deterioration, with much of the characteristic spontaneity and unrefined quality being sacrificed. Thus, it falls upon traditional Irish musicians to maintain their authenticity despite commercial incentives. This process of commercialization morphing cultures into products is not unique to Ireland, it has led to the sacrifice of the integrity and authenticity of many smaller cultures so as to satisfy the consumeristic tendencies of larger cultures. As a result of this, Irish traditional music exists in a delicate place in which it must weigh the benefits of continuing commercialization in a tradition which has originated in poverty.

Works Cited
Kaul, Adam R. Turning the Tune Traditional Music, Tourism, and Social Change in an Irish Village. Berghahn Books, 2013.
Ó hAllmhuráin, Gearóid. “‘Amhrán an Ghorta’: The Great Famine and Irish Traditional Music.” New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, vol. 3, no. 1, 1999, pp. 19–44. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Scahill, Adrian. “Riverdance: Representing Irish Traditional Music.” New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009, pp. 70–76. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Smith, Thérèse. “The Fragmentation of Irish Musical Thought and the Marginalisation of Traditional Music.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 89, no. 354, 2000, pp. 149–158. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Uí Ógáin, Ríonach. “'A Tune off the River': The Lore of Musical Instruments in the Irish Tradition.” Béaloideas, vol. 70, 2002, pp. 127–152. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Uí Ógáin, Ríonach. “Colm Ó Caodháin and Séamus Ennis: A Conamara Singer and His Collector.” Béaloideas, 64/65, 1996, pp. 279–338. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Valleley, Fintan. “Authenticity to Classicisation: The Course of Revival in Irish Traditional Music.” The Irish Review (1986-), no. 33, 2005, pp. 51–69. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Nicholas Harding Bradley


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