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Between Country and City:

The Cultural Production of Irish Traditional Music


Deborah Rapuano
Loyola University Chicago

In this age of globalization, the trend towards an increasingly connected and consolidated
world economy in which the common language is money together with the shift toward the
rational management of cultural heritage(s) in order to augment national (and individual) wealth,
brings the dual issues of ethnic/cultural identity and cultural consumption into the realm of
sociological analysis. These issues come together in Irish traditional music sessions1 where the
intensification of the production of culture is central to the success of capitalism.2
The revival of traditional Irish culture in its music, literature and language during the
Irish nationalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a culture that served to
unite the Irish in the fight against British colonialism. What evolved is a creation story based on
the real living tradition of the rural population of Ireland that has been appropriated for national
interest and now commercial gain. Since that time, the original purposes of the nationalists have
served to augment the wealth of selective individuals and enterprises. According to Nuala
OConnor (2001:156), the almost total commercialization of sessions has been detrimental to the
music, and I would add, to the majority of musicians who perpetuate the tradition through their
practice. While most who are connected to the music derive various levels of social and cultural
capital from making music in public venues, the majority of ordinary musicians who produce the
music for others consumption do not enjoy economic rewards from their everyday practice.
1

Sessions, or seisin, as it's known in the vernacular, are gatherings of musicians who meet in a pub or
bar to play traditional Irish music together (originally) for their own enjoyment. A session is not a
performance, but rather a group of musicians gathering informally and making traditional Irish tunes.
Sessions are places for musicians to share tunes and songs with one another, where dancers can dance to
the music (in Ireland at least) and where musicians and non-musicians alike can come to listen, eat, drink
and socialize. The participants are generally not paid, but they are sometimes compensated with free pints.
Although these sessions were originally impromptu gatherings, today they are much more likely to be
regularly scheduled, planned and sometimes even rehearsed events.
2
This empirical study focuses on music sessions taking place in pubs located in the rural countryside and
towns of the West of Ireland as well as those taking place in the metropolitan city of Chicago.

Irish traditional music was once perceived by the Irish upper class as the barbarous music
of the poor, uncultured peasantry. However, this attitude eventually changed with its discovery
as a cultural symbol of authentic Ireland. The elites purposeful cultivation of the music as the
cultural heritage and expression of all Irish people eventually eroded the historical social
continuity of the tradition and exploited the native music of the rural Irish people for capital gain.
Although the music itself has reportedly changed little over the past three hundred years, the way
in which it is produced and enjoyed has changed in significant ways as a result of its promotion as
a cultural commodity. The music has now become popular music; music produced primarily for
profit in the marketplace. Sessions, especially, have become sites of exchange value as the music
and the musicians have all become one commodity: Irish traditional music.
As Marx argued (1978) in The German Ideology, the real dialectical question is how
capitalism reproduces and maintains itself. His answer is by two mechanisms usually hidden from
view: consumerism (consumption) and surplus value. The second mechanism, surplus value, is
gained by extracting more labor time than is actually paid for. Like other exploited workers, these
musicians are working for the owners of the means of production, producing surplus value.
Almost all work done by non-capitalists within a capitalist system is exploited labor, since
exploitation equals the difference between what the worker receives and what the work earns for
the owner.3
While it might be arguable to say that these musicians are not working in the traditional
sense of the word, since most consider what they do to be fun and entertainment for themselves,
they are nevertheless generating business and, as a result, profit for the publican and others who
market the sessions in an effort to increase liquor and food sales, among other things. Whether or
not the work is enjoyed, it is nevertheless exploited labor. The additional social and cultural

For example, a musician who is paid in drinks that total $10 for the pub owner, who takes in an additional
$2,000 from food and liquor sales that night, exploits the labor of the musician at a rate of $1,990 (minus
other overhead costs) in profit for the pub owner as a result of the musicians labor.

benefits that may be enjoyed by the musicians are produced by the musicians and therefore,
should also belong to the musician. Networks of organizations, individuals, groups and
businesses are instrumental in not only the promotion of the music but in building and
maintaining the ideologies necessary for the musicians to continue to produce their music in
public places for no economic rewards.
Today the culture industry promotes this music tradition as a key symbol of Irishness.
Just as the music of Tin Pan Alley portrayed the Irish in a certain stereotypical light, marketing
the traditional music of Ireland for consumption leads to new, perhaps more benign, stereotypical
images. But most importantly, it places the music firmly in the hands of the culture industry, as
well as the beverage industry4, leading to economic profits for capitalists and general exploitation
of musicians, thus reproducing a system of inequality that erodes traditional culture even as it
creates wealth for various individuals, groups, organizations and industries.
This essay is a study of the ways in which cultural productions, which were once tied to
the social cohesion of a community or region, become co-opted for the purpose of increasing
economic wealth and cultural, political and social capital. It is about the networks (Becker 1982)
involved in cultural production that disseminate cultural practices, sustain cultural images, create
cultural identities and perpetuate economic inequalities in the world of Irish traditional music.
It is also about the tensions and divisions within and among these networks. Extending Beckers
analysis of the art world, I suggest that support, as well as maintenance and control networks are
necessary to the production of the world of traditional Irish music. Following Raymond Williams
(1973:58), it is an attempt to relate cultural production to its socio-historical background within

For example, since it was first established in 1759, Guinness Brewrys has expanded its profits
considerably since its most famous beer has been inextricably linked with Irish culture, especially pubs and
the music. Interestingly, it was only in 1961 that Guinness draught beer was introduced in Ireland. In 1995,
the 1,500th Irish pub in the world was opened and only two years later, the 2500th Irish pub was opened. In
2001, almost 2 billion pints were sold around the world while over 1 million pints a day were sold in Great
Britain alone. Today, Guinness is brewed in distilleries around the world and they sponsor numerous Irish
cultural events everywhere, including concerts, sessions and match-making festivals. See their website,
www.guinness.com.

the frame of nationalism (Ryan 1995; White 1995) and capitalism, which has shaped images of
the past, governed a value system and defined possibilities5. Various documents unearth a
historical archeology that reveals the social and cultural developments that have constructed the
notion of traditional Irish music as a historical representation of real Irish culture. What has
emerged over time, as Raymond Williams (1973:58) has noted, is a structure of feeling. This
feeling has become part and parcel of a new economythe production of cultural heritage and
identity in which (in the case of Irish traditional music musicians at least) the musicians are the
primary cultural workers who generate profit for many outside their session communities.
Silence in the Land
In order to understand the current situation for Irish traditional musicians and the music
they make, it is important to appreciate the social conditions that generated the change in attitudes
towards the native music of the peasant folk of Ireland, their historical social conditions, their
positions in the class structure of their country and here in the United States and their
transformation as purveyors of cultural and symbolic capital in the most recent historical context.
As most socio-cultural productions which endure over great lengths of time, the reasons for this
musics longevity and tenacity are complicated and various. Irelands geographical isolation and
its centuries of colonization are essential components, as are the many technological innovations
and the Irish Diaspora. But the major essential component keeping this music alive over years of
oppression, intolerance, famine and emigration is the communal practice of ordinary men and
women who make the music and sing songs in social settings within their local communities, both
in Ireland and abroad. Although this music would survive without the aid of various ideologies to
uphold it, the ideologies that are perpetuated and maintained by the network of various
organizations, institutions and individuals create a powerful association between this music and
Irish culture that links them together to form a notion of real Ireland that may be outdated.
5

See the essays in Gillen and Whites compilation for their assessment of what has been lost as the result
of narrowed possibilities with the formation of the rural music of Ireland as the definitive symbol of Irish
culture.

However, for our purposes, the link between the political economy of marketing and selling
culture heritages and identity through the appropriation of indigenous culture for profit is a
compelling problem.
In the middle 1800s, music collector George Petrie wrote that, The music of Ireland has
hitherto been the exclusive property of the peasantry. The upper classes are a different racea
race who possess no national music; or, if any, one essentially different from that of IrelandHe
who would add to the stock of Irish melody must seek it, not in the halls of the great, but in the
cabins of the poor (quoted in hAllmhurin 1998: 5). Despite the fact that the native music of
Ireland has for centuries been a cultural product of the rural inhabitants of Ireland, most of the
recent research and writing has been about the more notable exceptions; famous musicians6 rather
than ordinary folk who produce the music solely for their own entertainment, as an aspect of their
social environment (e.g., Carson 1986, 1996; Coleman 1996; Curtis 1994; Foy 1999; McCarthy
1999; McNamara and Woods 1997; Connor 1991; Canainn 1978; Giollin 2000;
hAllmhurin 1998; Shields 1993; Smith and Silleabhin 1997; Vallely 1999; Vallely and
Piggot 1998; Williams 1996; OConnor 2001). Furthermore, most scholarly writing regarding
culture attests to the role of women in carrying on cultural traditions. Interestingly, in the case of
Irish traditional music, men have been the main bearers of the tradition, as musicians and as
collectors, especially in its earliest formation and today in its most recent evolution, and
particularly in the case of instrumental music produced in sessions.
Although the history of Irish music in Ireland can be traced back to the early Brehon
Laws7, and there is evidence that the earliest musicians, particularly the pipers, attained
significant social status as music makers for the elite of the country, several decisive historical
events have been instrumental in the development of the practice, as it currently exists. In the

Many of these musicians have become famous as a result of the publicity theyve received after being
featured in some literary work, but most are musicians who have made it on the local, regional, national
and international music scene.
7
Ancient laws that, among other things, granted special elite status to harpers and Bards.

evolution of the music and its practice, the policies of King Henry VIII, his daughter Queen
Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell as well as the devastation and subsequent Diaspora as a result of
The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, or the Potato Famine as it is often referred to by non-Irish)
had a decisive impact on Irish traditional music.
As the first English monarch to declare himself king of Ireland, King Henry VIII realized
that the musician wielded significant social and political power. Consequently, he decreed that
harps and organs be destroyed. In 1533, he suppressed the activities of the pipers and singers
because they were spreading Irish disposicion and conversation among the English gentry (
hAllmhurin1998: 24). Elizabeth I carried on her fathers effort to curb the cultural autonomy of
the rural population by passing a number of decrees aimed at curtailing the influence of music
makers. She pronounced that all discovered bards and harpers be executed. However, instead of
lessening their power, according to hAllmhurin (1998), these decrees only served to bolster
the role of the musician as a custodian of native culture and to reinforce the power of music to
represent a distinct Irish identity (25). In 1649, Oliver Cromwell went even further in his attempt
to eradicate the subversive elements in rural Ireland. His brutal resettlement of native Irish to
Clare and Connacht was designed to separate them from incoming Protestant settlers while at the
same time deny them access to their Catholic allies on the European mainland. Thousands of Irish
men and women were sold into slavery and indentured service in the West Indies, and musicians
were among the unwanted masses that were exported out of Ireland ( hAllmhurin1998: 29).
Ironically, the event that was most decisive for the preservation of the music was the Great
Famine. Between 1845 and 1855 Ireland was changed forever. One million people died from
hunger and disease while it is estimated that over two million emigrated. As Nuala OConnor
writes, For the first time large numbers left the Irish-speaking areas in the west, which had been
very badly hit (30). Of all these migrs, perhaps 350,000 were Irish speakers, most of which
relocated in the United States. These major social upheavals might have rendered the music
completely obsolete, as indeed, was the intention of the Tudors and Cromwell. However, over the

years, the opposite effect took place. Emigration carried the music and its practice well beyond
the kitchens of rural cabins and crossroads of Ireland into the pubs of London, Manchester and
Liverpool and the concert halls and recording studios of the U.S. ( hAllmhurin 1998) only to
return to the pubs of Ireland then reverberate back to the U.S. (OConnor 2001).
From 1815 to the years of the Great Famine, the majority of Irish immigrants were
similar to those who had previously arrived in the 18th century: they were primarily from Ulster
and were mostly Presbyterian and Anglicans. But by the early 1830s, Catholics began to exceed
the Dissenters and Anglicans combined. The resulting stereotypical image of the Irish, who were
in reality varied in social class, religion and language, was the result of the change in the
character of immigration brought about by the Famine. From the time they first began
immigrating to about 1850, Irish Protestants were known in the U.S. simply as Irish. The
distinction between Irish and Scots-Irish was the result of the great influx of Irish immigrants
during the Famine years when the earlier immigrants from Ulster insisted upon differentiating
themselves from the more recent arrivals (Ignatiev 1995: 38-39).
While the music of the earlier Scots-Irish immigrants who had settled in Appalachia
merged with the music of the wider American culture (OConnor 2001:38), the music of the 19th
century Irish immigrants retained a vitality of its own. The Irish-Catholics that had arrived in
North America were the first major European unskilled ethnic group to settle in a land where they
found much discrimination. There are an abundance of songs that reflect that discrimination
(OConnor 2001). In fact, it was in part the music and stage shows of Tin Pan Alley that
solidified for decades the image of the Irish in the eyes of the American public.
Until An Gorta Mor, for years the traditional music of Ireland was maintained within its
rural heartlands, remaining strongest in those areas where the Irish language itself retained a vital
presence (Wallis and Wilson 2001:4) Obviously, the Famine had grievously decimated the rural
population and with it, its musicians and bearers of the cultural tradition. This fact was not lost on

music collectors and cultural preservationists like George Petrie, nor on the cultural nationalists
who emerged to lead the nascent nationalist movement in Ireland.
Imagining Authentic Ireland
The nationalist movement in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries
profoundly influenced the course of musical development in Ireland. As Joseph Ryan (1995)
boldly contends, nationalism is the crucial determinant on the course of music in Ireland in the
past two centuries (102). One of the foremost institutions to advance nationalist ideals was the
Gaelic League8. Although its claim was to be nonsectarian and apolitical, Douglas Hyde, its first
president, was an upper class Protestant. Its aim was to build a national identity by reconstructing
a traditional and authentic Gaelic past. The last remnants of the true Ireland, according to
the Gaelic League, was to be found in the rural, pristine culture of the peasantry, particularly in
the West of Ireland where Irish was still spoken and old customs and traditions endured ( Laorie
1999). One musician echoes this same sentiment today:
We are those lucky enough to have stumbled over this treasure trove. The really lucky ones among
us met some of them; the ones that grew up with the music, heard it from an early age,
apprenticed themselves to it, played it into the early hours of the morning at the house and
crossroads dances and on their cuairts and then went home and milked the cows. Many of them
were forced by circumstance to leave home and dig tunnels, build houses, lay pavements and all
the dirty jobs others didn't want, and because they took their music with them, many of us
got a chance to hear it first hand. The more talented of us took it up and became good
exponents, but those of us who couldn't, confine ourselves to listening, thinking and talking
about it. The more cautious among us were happy with it as it was, but some of us
decided to improve it by squeezing it into places it wasn't designed to go. In doing so we
managed to break off some of the more delicate bits; the jury's still out on whether they'll ever
grow back again. The thing to remember is it isnt ours exclusively (no matter what CCE and
IMRO say), were only looking after it for a friend9.

As we can see, the musical tradition is venerated with the same enthusiasm as was generated over
a century ago by the cultural nationalists in Ireland. Interestingly, those musicians referred to
above were probably all deceased by the time this musician encountered the music. Nevertheless,
their traditions vibrantly live on in memory and in living practice through the many musicians
8

Formed in 1893, the Gaelic League, according to Harry White, produced so powerful an identification
between political self-determination and cultural integrity that its impact on the music was absolute
(1995:219).
9
Irtrad music archive on the Internet, November 2003.

who have passed on the tradition to others down the line. But, more than its actual practice, it is
the ideologies that have been generated over the years that sustain the tradition as it stands today,
especially in places other than the island of Ireland. The musicians reference to CCE10 and
IMRO11 are only two examples of the organizations that cement the tradition today in the minds
of the musicians and all the aficionados who patronize the sessions and buy the CDs.
Resuscitation of a Living Tradition
Across the pond, the earliest folk music revival in the United States during the 1830s
transported the folk tunes, songs and dances from the rural plantation to the urban stage
(Rosenberg 1993) and set the scene for the subsequent folk music revivals in which Irish music
played a significant part. The folk festivals that sprang up during the 1920s in the US celebrated
regional, ethnic or national identity, but they also had a commercial public relations dimension
that stressed the idea of a mosaic of cultures while also drawing tourists to hotels in places like
Asheville, North Carolina (Rosenberg 1993). Although the majority of the music produced in the
U.S. came from rural working class people with relatively little education and limited means,
most who collected the music, produced it for the recording industry and who listened to it, then
as today, were urban and suburban middle class people (Rosenberg 1993).
Authentic Ireland thus emerged from its denigrated existence to become the
quintessential expression of Irish culture today. Many cultural nationalists, such as writers W. B.
Yeats, John M. Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory blended the new ideologies of Irish nationalism
with Irish myth and legend (Barthes 1972) to construct a fiction of a people (Hobsbawm and
Ranger 1992) who were tied to a traditional past that was reclaimed for the purposes of uniting
Ireland against its historical oppressors. Douglas Hyde set the tone for the past one hundred and
twelve years when he warned, If Ireland loses her music she loses what is, after her Gaelic
10

Comhaltas Ceoltir ireann, an Irish music and musicians association whose goals are, among others,
to promote Irish traditional music in all its forms and to co-operate with all bodies working for the
restoration of Irish culture (website www.comhaltas.com).

11

See Irish Music Rights Organization at www.imro.ie

language and literature, her most valuable and most characteristic possession. And she is rapidly
losing it (Ryan 1995:73).
Regardless of their ultimate purposes, the Gaelic League was correct in their insistence
that the music of rural Ireland was an important component of rural community life. It had served
for years as the voice of the people, and as a result we have seen that there were many attempts
over the years of British occupation to eradicate it. Now, with a move towards uniting the country
under the banner of nationalism, many cultural nationalists drew on an image of the Irish as a
musical race having a rich musical heritage. Not only was this a fiction of a united people, it
became a fiction of a common cultural heritage as well. Although these cultural nationalists were
aware that such an image belonged to a past age and did not necessarily reflect contemporary
musical or social life, they nevertheless sought to reinvent Irelands musical past. The result of
the revival of traditional Irish culture in its music, literature and language was a firmly
entrenched Irish national consciousness that grew out of the culture of the people, but
ultimately has mostly served the elites and their capitalist ventures. Although almost all of the
people in the Republic of Ireland, once the yoke of British occupation was lifted, reaped the
rewards of emancipation, most of the poor rural farmers, and other laborers, remained poor while
the upper classes continued to prosper.
Various organizations, such as the Feis Ceoil12, were later formed to promote the study
and cultivation of Irish music. The contests of the Feis Ceoil were initiations into the arena of
mass schooling and competitive performance and took the place of art music education in the
public and parochial school systems (Ryan 1995). As such, traditional music assumed new
performance contexts and expectations as it was staged and evaluated by musicians from outside
the tradition. Insiders, the traditional musicians themselves, were not part of the associations
leadership. Even so, these festivals brought traditional music into the domain of public

12

Pronounced fesh keyohl, meaning music festivals. This organization was the precursor to todays AllIreland competitions. Feiss still take place around the country on a regular basis.

10

performance, academic discourse and public debate that continues today in both the Republic of
Ireland and the United States. It solidified the music as one of the key iconic images, along with
its literature, thatch roofed cottages and Guinness beer, representing the people of Ireland,
successfully filtering out other competing possibilities for musical expression (Ryan 1995).
In 1951, Comhaltas Ceoltir ireann (CCE) was envisioned by a group of pipers and
music enthusiasts as an organization to promote Irish traditional music and the establishment of a
great annual festival of Irish traditional music, song and dance. In conjunction with Feis Lr na
hireann13, a Fleadh Cheoil14 would be organized in the town of Mullingar in May. According to
CCEs website,15 although the ordinary people of Ireland loved traditional music, the thousands
of traditional musicians in the country were largely unappreciated in popular social and
intellectual circlesThe aim of the fleadh was to promote traditional music and to arrest the
decline in its popularity. The cream of traditional Irish musicians attending the Fleadh played a
major role in furthering this aim. At the fleadh, traditional style was the criterion, and this has
not changed over the past fifty plus years. Due to the enthusiasm generated through rigorous
marketing and promotion this has become a national festival attended by thousands of traditional
singers, dancers and musicians from all over the world. CCE has now established more than 400
branches in every Irish county, in Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and worldwide in such
unlikely places as Japan, Hungary and Sardinia. Branch membership involves activities including
organizing music and dancing classes, concert performances and sessions16. Contrary to Beckers

13

A Gaelic League Feis, which had been held in the town of Mullingar for many years.
A festival of Irish music, song and dance.
15
www.comhaltas.com
16
As with any formal organization, CCE has suggested guidelines or rules for membership. Among these
are the suggestions for sessions and social activities that revolve around community, family and historical
activities in co-operation with other local organizations like the local GAA;16 educational activities such as
recruiting music teachers who will organize classes in music, song, dance and language for children and
adults, audio and video recordings of local musicians, singers, dancers and storytellers and local songs,
stories, rare musical items. Of course, there are rules for branch administration as well. Branch
administrators and all members must uphold the ideals and objectives of CCE at all times, encourage
branch and class membership growth, encourage participation in Fleadhanna and publicize all branch
activities locally, regionally and internationally through modern technology such as a website. But most
importantly, members must always stress that the branch is part of the overall organisation.
14

11

(1982) formulation that networks of cooperation are necessary to create a world of cultural

production, sometimes there is tension and division within and among the networks. Clearly,
there is some animosity among musicians towards the rigid structuring of the tradition by
organizations like CCE, as we learned from the musicians comment above.
Launching off the efforts of the early Gaelic League and later CCE, other organizations
have formed to promote the music of Ireland in that country as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Irish Music Rights Organization (IMRO)17 is a national organization that administers the
performance rights of copyrighted music in Ireland on behalf of its member songwriters,
composers and music publishers and the members of the international societies affiliated with it.
The function of IMRO is to collect and distribute royalties arising from the public performance of
copyright works. Music users such as broadcasters, venues and businesses must pay for their use
of copyrighted music by way of a blanket licensing fee. IMRO collects these monies and
distributes them to the copyright owners involved. The money earned is known as public
performance royalties. The organization is also involved in the sponsorship and promotion of
music in Ireland by sponsoring a large number of song contests, music festivals, seminars,
workshops, research projects and showcase performances, especially for emerging talent in
Ireland. The main music users in the Republic of Ireland, such as the Irish Hotels Federation, the
Restaurant Owners Association, the Licensed Vintners Association, the Vintners Federation of
Ireland, the Association of Independent Radio Stations and Radio Teilifs ireann, now have
agreed upon tariffs with IMRO. In their online promotional material, IMRO write:
In todays [sic] competitive business environment many businesses are looking at new ways in
which to improve the way in which their businesses operate both in terms of attracting and
keeping customers and also improving the working environment in which their employees work.
Many businesses across all the various business sectors whether it be pubs, hotels, restaurants,
shops, factories, offices to mention a few are finding that one way of enhancing their business
operation is through the provision of music for customers, guests, clients and employees. Music
comes in many forms. It might be a live band or disco in a pub or hotel, background music in a
17

See Irish Music Rights Organization at www.imro.ie

12

shop or restaurant, music on a telephone hold system or in an office or factory area or music used
in gyms for aerobic sessions are just a small sample of the many ways in which music can be used
to attract customers and keep staff motivated and working efficiently. Music is very often used to
create the right atmosphere particularly in the case of restaurants, shops and hotels. Music can also
affect the way customers act when they are in your premises thus for example can be used to
influence the amount of time they spend in your premises.

Interestingly, most Irish traditional music is not, and cannot be, protected by copyright since it is
within the public domain as a long-standing music without ownership by any particular person.
Nevertheless, any business or person that wants to have traditional music in their establishment,
including those in the U.S., must pay these licensing fees to IMRO. Perhaps not surprisingly, only
the musicians who have copyrighted their music18 are beneficiaries of these funds collected
through licensing fees. Musicians who are already famous locally or internationally are the most
likely to have copyrighted at least one tune, and to receive monetary benefits from that work. The
local farmer, plumber, electrician or accountant, who makes up the majority of musicians that
make music in sessions, is among the least likely to have copyrighted any of the music he or she
produces, whether or not he or she has composed a new tune, which is often the case.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Tourist Board (Bord Filte) is active in the promotion
and marketing of traditional Irish music and the musicians as typically Irish.
As one might imagine, their website clearly points to the numerous music festivals taking place
around the island in a conspicuous icon at the bottom left side of the home page. On their
calendar of festivals they state their conviction consistent with their marketing goals. Besides
being a land of astonishing beauty with a long and romantic history, Ireland is synonymous with
music and song. In this interactive website, one can even listen to music from previous festivals
around the island. As one marketing executive recently informed me, there are various marketing
strategies involved in selling Ireland to tourists:
Anytime I included Irish music references in tourism promotional material it was always as a
vehicle to highlight cultural distinctiveness. They were always images related to traditional music
18

It would seem that the music then would fall under the rubric of non-traditional music. However, CCE
and others insist that the newer copyrighted music, if it is composed in a traditional way, is traditional
Irish music. As it would happen, however, almost all the music made at sessions is not copyrighted, yet the
pub owners must pay fees just in case someone does play a copyrighted tune.

13

in its broadest sense. In marketing terms having a USP (unique selling proposition) makes you a
winner. From a marketeers point of view the association of Irish music with pubs is more than
useful. These are perceived as fun places, experiences not to be missed out on. More importantly,
they provide an opportunity for link-selling. Guinness is one of the few Irish brands to enjoy
international recognition in what is now a global economy. Instruments like bodhrans and uileann
pipes add to this mix of music, dance, crack and Guinness! These are images that have
connotations beyond themselves and are pivotal in place marketing. And then, as always, there is
the target audience. Marketing Ireland to Germans is different from marketing Ireland to IrishAmericans. Marketing Ireland to Irish residents is different from marketing Ireland to IrishAmericans. Its got to do with the push pull factor. This changes through time and space. For
example, Irish-Americans born in Ireland have different notions of being Irish than second or
third generation Irish-Americans. All images have two parts, projections and interpretations,
signifier and signified. What the viewer brings to the image in terms of his or her prejudices will
determine the interpretation. Thus people like what they know rather than as is
commonly proclaimed to be the case, I know what I like. And therein lies the problem -- you
feed the myths. At the end of the day meaning is invoked in an image by people acting on their
own interpretation of the image.19

Doolin, in County Clare, Ireland, is purportedly the home of traditional Irish music
since the 1970s, when flocks of musicians descended upon the area in search of the pure drop20
and put the tiny fishing village on the map. Going to their website we find that they, too, have
utilized the now traditional symbolic images of authentic Ireland as their marketing tool:
Doolin has long been regarded the home of traditional Irish music in the west of Ireland. All this
region of county Clare has strong celtic folklore influences and was regarded as a Gaeltacht
(native celtic) area late into the 1970s. Doolin was firmly put onto the global map of Irish
traditional music thanks to the three Russell brothers; Packie, Gussy and Miko. They learned their
musical talent from their mother Annie and then as young men from older traditional musicians in
the area and so inherited the distinctive style and sound peculiar to Clare. The celebration of the
musical heritage and the cultivation of the living tradition of Doolin continues to grow. Foremost
in the traditional music calendar in Doolin is the "Russell Memorial Weekend". This occurs during
the last weekend of February each year and is a festival of musical events organised by the Doolin
Festival Committee.

We can see the use of these timeless Irish images as marketing tools in almost every website
and tourist brochure available. Music is invariably linked to them as one of the most prevalent
icons of Irish culture. For example, Shannons Irish Pub in Tokyo21 has a listing of Irish music
sessions and gigs, and highlights the various famous musicians from Ireland, especially County
Clare, who have played on their stage and in their sessions. Their boast is that they are probably
the most Irish pub in Tokyo. No doubt. But come inside and you will feel as welcome as if you

19

Informal interview, January 3, 2004.


Authentic traditional Irish music, untainted by technology or innovation.
21
http://www.avalon-intl.co.jp/shannons-irishpub/front.html
20

14

are in a cozy Irish cottage. While you are there, the Shannons will serve you the most
authentic and traditional Irish food outside Ireland plus great Irish traditional music and real
Irish craic22. Not to begrudge the Shannons, but one wonders how many Irish traditional
musicians could possibly be in Tokyo at any given moment who might drum up a session, even
once per month, especially since they appear to be in competition with at least one other Irish
pub, the Roundstone23. Most interestingly, the Roundstones website has a link to the Irish Trad
Festival in Tokyo 2004, which is sponsored by Sapporo Guinness and the Ennis Trad Festival
in Ireland. This link between Ireland and Japan is perhaps not as surprising as it might first
appear, however. There have been a number of Japanese musicians traveling and living in County
Clare, where the Ennis Trad Festival is held annually, for at least the past five years. Still, one
wonders who exactly makes up the group of musicians who meet regularly for sessions in Japan.
Heres what we find out when we scroll down a bit further:
The Irish Trad Festival in Tokyo 2004 is probably the biggest festival of Irish traditional music nd
dance of its kind to be held in Tokyo. The festival is designed to introduce Irish culture, such as
traditional music and dance, to Japanese people, and to provide an opportunity for people in Japan
to enjoy an Irish-style music festival. The festival will feature about 20 pub sessions, instrumental
and set dancing workshops, as well as ceilis and a film. The main events of the festival have been
planned by the committee members of the largely successful Ennis Trad Festival, which takes
place the 2nd weekend of November every year in Ennis, Co Clare.Anyone who is interested in
Irish culture is welcome. Musicians who play Irish music are welcome to join all organized
sessions during the weekend. Dancers are welcome to dance in the pubs and to join the organized
ceilis. At the moment, four musicians and a dancer from Ireland have been invited to the festival.
The Ennis Trad Festival is our sister festival, the organizers of which are helping us to make our
festival a success.

In the U.S., the situation is much the same. Irish pubs market their authenticity in various
ways, but mostly it is through the most notable Irish cultural symbols. For example, an eclectic
Irish pub, The Abbey, in Chicago, claims to be a traditional Irish pub featuring live music
seven nights a week, from Indie rock to traditional Irish music. What apparently makes it the
most traditionally Irish is the beer they serve. Chief ONeills on Elston in Chicago invites one to
enjoy good food, a proper pint, the loveliest airs and reels and all the good craic. They feature

22
23

Translated as fun.
http://www.avalon-intl.co.jp/roundstone/e-index.html

15

the finest in local and regional Irish musicians as well as top acts direct from Ireland. Here the
owner is a traditional musician himself and most of the wait staff speak with Irish accents.
The folk music revivals of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. and Britain became
significant marketing tools for the tourist industry, especially in Ireland. Although today sessions
are typically connected with pub culture, music was not universally tolerated, nor were women, in
Irish pubs before the 1960s, and in most places, was not widespread until the 1980s. Marketing
the music and the pubs as two sides of the same coin came late in the development of the
production of Irish traditional music. As Nuala OConnor (2001) and others (e.g., McManus
1994) note, while pub sessions were well established by the late sixties, especially in London,
Manchester and Liverpool, they were generally spontaneous, unpaid and unscheduled events held
entirely at the discretion of the players (OConnor 2001:156).
The network of producers of Irish culture is extensive and the list goes on to include
various cultural heritage centers, magazines and E-zines, the record industry, books, articles and
of course the audience, to mention only a few more than have already been mentioned. The point
is that most use the music in one form or another to promote their products, businesses and
agendas. In order for the music to be significant, there must be musicians to produce it. For the
most part, they are not rewarded for their efforts and the reason lies behind the ideology that
informs what they do.
The Impact of the Commercial Imperative
Today, the practice of linking pub culture with traditional Irish music is quite different
from its earlier counterpart. Significantly, OConnor argues that the association of the music with
pub culture obscures the rationale behind the music because usually it is the commercial
imperative of selling drinks that makes traditional music a marketing tool for the beverage and
tourism industries (2001:156). For the purposes of this study, it is worth quoting her at length:
The music itself is a secondary consideration. Companies sponsor traditional music events, the
performance of which is inevitably bound up with drink consumption and product placement.
Traditional musicians increasingly find themselves struggling to be heard in noisy pubs,

16

competing against ringing tills and conversation. Themed Irish pubs proliferate outside the
country from Beijing to Zurich, complete with authentic Irish dcor, staff and, of course, music.
These are places where the customer is a kind of virtual tourist and where an image of Ireland
and Irishness is presented out of which a market for Irish culture is cultivated, a brand is born
(156).

Once sites of indigenous cultural expression and the thriving and vibrant social life of the
rural communities in Ireland and the immigrant communities in England, the U.S. and Australia,
many sessions (and all the accoutrements associated with them) have now become standardized
and commodified (Adorno 1991) and sold to the consumer as authentic(Benjamin 1945)
expressions of real Irish cultureboth in the U.S. and in Ireland. Technological innovations
and the resultant globalization of cultural production have exacerbated this process in many ways.
Here we can perhaps apply John Bergers (1977) argument that the invention of the camera took
the uniqueness of an image out of its social and cultural context, which in effect, transformed the
image and its meaning. With the myriad of cultural and social transformations along with
technological changes, such as the invention of the phonograph, records, cassette tapes and CDs,
and the amplification and electrification of musical instruments, the music has now become, not
folk music or the music of high culture, but popular music, produced solely to sell in the
marketplace. Its uniqueness has been compromised in the interest of profit. It moves out of its
cultural context into our homes, offices, cars, and is carried with us as we walk to and from our
destinations; it is performed on concert stages and in pubs around the world, and because large
audiences require amplified and electrified equipment, most instruments are not played
unplugged in the old traditional way.
While the efforts of the Gaelic League, the Feis Ceoil, and now the international
competition, the Fleah Ceoil and the relatively new organization, Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann24,

24

The mission of this organization is to promote the Music, Culture and Arts of Ireland at home and
abroad. Their stated objectives are to promote Irish Traditional Music in all its forms; restore the playing
of the harp and Uilleann Pipes in the national life of Ireland; promote Irish traditional dancing; foster and
promote the Irish language at all times; create a closer bond among all lovers of Irish music; co-operate
with all bodies working for the restoration of Irish Culture; establish branches throughout the country and
abroad to achieve the foregoing aims and objects. In actuality, they do much more than this. Through its

17

have done much over the years to elevate the status of these musicians in the national
consciousness, and indeed, illuminated the music itself, the result for the majority of musicians
who produce traditional Irish music has been the reproduction of similar inequalities that were
present during most of the history of the British occupation of Ireland. In fact, relatively few
traditional musicians are paid for their musical performances, while publicans, lodging owners,
the Irish and American tourist industry as well as the beverage industry in both the U.S. and
Ireland rake in the cash generated by these musicians who claim to make the music only for the
enjoyment of playing in community with others. The same can also be said for the vast
majority of musicians who produce the music in pubs in Chicago, although the extent of the
structural inequalities are more limited and take on a different character. Interestingly, however,
few of the musicians that I have interviewed find much amiss with the system, although there
appears to be a burgeoning contingent that are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their lot.
Nevertheless, most appear to be content with the symbolic cultural capital they derive from being
a session musician. Most appear to be blissfully unaware of the cultural hegemony being imposed
on them and see nothing wrong with continuing to produce the music for little or no economic
rewards.
The spread of the tradition across most of the world has fostered a strange
identification with Irish culture as a brand, just as Nuala OConnor noted, that is primarily
based on the production and consumption of a specific cultural product in a particular social
venue, with certain attending cultural symbols. Perhaps unknowingly, through entertainment the
promotion of culture has become a lifestyle for many of the traditional musicians. To enhance this
process, authentic Irish pubs are renovated (in both Ireland and the U.S.) to recreate authentic

educational programs and sponsorship of various cultural productions, such as the proliferation of fleadhs,
for example, Comhaltas claims to encourage the development of artistic abilities in indigenous Irish arts.
Through publications, recordings, summer schools, concerts, sessions, cils, and other recreational and
educational projects, while the movement continues to mould Irish music, song, and dance as powerful,
integral components of community life.

18

Irish pubs for the cultural consumer. In Ireland, this recreation of a cultural artifact is done
primarily to accommodate the influx of tourists who come to Ireland searching for their roots
and the real Ireland they eventually believe they find on the tour routes and pub crawls included
in their itineraries. In the U.S., it takes on a different functionto (re)create an atmosphere of
Irish community and the sociability connected with it. But these re-creations are based on
stereotypical assumption and expectations themselves.
Yet, while there is evidence of various, and sometimes gross, inequalities in these
communities, musicians who feel alienated from their own cultural productions find various
avenues of counter-hegemonic (Gramsci 1972) resistance that serve to preserve their cultural
productions and lifestyles as distinctively their own.
Conclusion
The transition of traditional Irish music from regional cultural productions that provided
entertainment and sociality for the rural and local communities to the production of culture for
mass consumption prompts questions about the intersection of culture, ethnicity, class and
consumption in the age of neo-liberal capitalism. Traditional musicians in session communities
become a commodity as the symbol of Irish culture. Musicians are marketed for consumption as
the music that they produce so that the musician who once played Irish traditional music for his
or her own enjoyment in a communal setting which reaffirmed a social bond and disseminated
cultural traditions and social norms, are now an appendage of the machine. Sessions have
become cultural spaces where global capital has infiltrated to rob the participants of the identities
that the sessions have served to construct in the past. We can see that in very important ways
global capital deprives the session of its traditional nature, transforming it into an inversion of
their intended social and cultural purpose, which is then passed off to the consumer, and, in many
cases, to the participants themselves, as authentic Irish culture.
While dispelling some of the more negative stereotypes, the mass production of
traditional Irish music has created new stereotypical images as well as solidifying those already

19

existing. The networks involved in this cultural production are vital to its success, but more
importantly their marketing tactics are vital to continued profitability. Meanwhile, all but the
musicians are making money, and loads of it. Ireland is arguably now one of the most expensive
countries in the EU; an achievement made possible by the Celtic Tiger economy and price
inflation for tourist goods, lodging and attractions, like the music sessions that are specially
marketed for the tastes, expectations, and assumptions of those who travel to Ireland. As film
director Jim Sheridan told journalist Maureen Dezell,25 Theres been a shift of wealth, and Irish
culture is for sale (quoted in Dezell 2000:213). Sheridan meant his comment to be taken
positively, in relation to the recent focus on the various Irish artistic works being produced and
consumed around the world. However, we can take it literally, as meaning exactly what he says.
The culture is for sale. And we can ask, what does selling culture mean for its producers when
they are the least likely to reap benefits from the products of their labor? In the case of authors
like Frank McCourt or dance performance producers like Michael Flatley and musicians like the
Chieftans or U2, we can note that they have certainly made great economic gains and received
social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1993) as a result of their work, whereas the musicians who
produce the traditional music of Ireland receive little of these rewards. Despite the tendency for
many musicians to ignore the inequalities, many are becoming more aware of their exploitation
and their voices have been raised in opposition.26 As Tom Hayden (2001) thoughtfully writes,
Irish culture should not be commodified or made to disappear under the homogenizing pressures
of a far younger society, the United States of AmericaAs Irish people, we must not allow our
homeland to become only a platform for the multinationals or a heritage theme park (289). Since
selling cultural heritages has become a major economic enterprise for countries around the world,
we must examine what consequences marketing and selling culture has for preserving or losing
cultural heritages and identities.
25

Dezells interview with Jim Sheridan appears in her book, Irish America: Coming Into Clover
Some opposition has appeared recently in op-ed pieces in the Irish newspapers as well as the discussion
threads on the Irish Traditional Music listserve (IRTrad)

26

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