Maire Nic Domhnaill Gairbhi: A Traditional Music Journey 1600 – 2000: From Erris to Mullaghban

Jennifer Byrne wrote this for Roots & Branches.

If anyone should know enough about or be capable of writing a comprehensive book on the traditional music of Connacht and South Ulster then surely it must be Maire Nic Domhnaill Gairbhi. Born in Co. Roscommon, later moving to Dublin where she was secretary for the Board of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and a member of St. Mary’s Traditional Music Club, she has been involved with and surrounded by music from her childhood, the memories of which form the basis for several parts of the book.

It is not easy to deduce who the target audience for this book might be. The introduction states, “being from Connacht I realised that this province has always been the ‘poor relation’ for quite a long time. But in areas (…) there have been hidden cultural activities down through the years in the midst of poverty, hardship, oppression and neglect.”

This statement, combined with the title, suggests then that the aim of the undertaking might be to trace or document the wealth of music within this otherwise largely neglected area. The book certainly achieves this, but to the detriment of the reader. With painstaking detail, Nic Domhnaill Gairbhi lists thousands of names and places, often in a seemingly random order which is extremely difficult for the reader to follow. She uses what seems almost like a stream of consciousness technique, and, frankly, it doesn’t work. Paragraphs are pieced together nonsensically, a perfect example being the following: “I have always felt that the local history of all tunes is very important. It gives body to the music and we can rejoice or mourn for those whom the music is built around. In 1893 when the Gaelic League was formed people became aware the knowledge of the language was very important to collectors of our music. Sean-nos singing is generally unaccompanied.”

There are elements of value within this work. The old tradition of caoining, or keening, which has now all but died out in Ireland, is discussed in memory form in the third chapter. It is compelling to read of this tradition about which so little documentation exists. I also found fascinating the description of ordinary men and women singing as they worked. She paints an idyllic image of the ubiquitous nature of music, song and dance in Ireland at a time when there were no concert halls, no organised forms of musical entertainment other than what naturally emerged when groups of people came together. Another tale that might, to modern readers, seem somewhat quaint and comical was the distaste with which the clergy held the use of drums, and the effect this had.

I must admit, this book was intermittently a chore to read, and took quite some perseverance at stages. The literary style is very dry and fragmented when, particularly given the nature of the topic, it could have been anecdotal and entertaining. Maybe at this point someone will realise the potential for a book which tackles traditional Irish music from a slightly alternative angle, a book which does for Irish music what Banning Eyre’s *In Griot Time* has done for the music of Mali.

(Drumlin Publications, 2000)  

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