In Armagh 2009

musicians Adam Costa plays fiddle at The Station.

The Blind Piper

The old ways live on

Adam Costa and Noel Lenighan are well into their set of traditional Irish tunes when a young patron of The Northern Bar walks halfway through the door and surveys the scene. He scans his eyes across the crowd of about 15 people sitting contently at tables and, after seeing that only a handful of them are younger than 30, something prompts him to return to the downstairs section of the bar. Maybe it is because he would rather be amongst more people his own age. Maybe he would rather listen to something other than Traditional Irish music. Maybe he was merely looking for the restroom.

Following his path down the stairs, the gentle Irish melodies of the violin and acoustic guitar become submerged in the amplified pulse of American-style pop music. The ambience changes as well. The crowd downstairs is larger in number, younger in age and bathed in a mélange of color that projects from rotating lights. The differences between the two floors of the bar are as marked as those of different worlds.

It would be easy to label this scene a trend, to conclude that the youth of Ireland are breaking from the traditions of their parents and grandparents in favor of something more modern and hip—something that sounds more like Rap or Rock. But that would be inaccurate. A few days later and about 30 miles down the road, at a small music festival, This American sees, or rather hears, something that makes him think Britney Spears isn’t their only fate—their sentence for being young.

photo2Irish musicians participate in a "session" at Castlewellan.

In Ireland there is a term for an impromptu gathering of musicians playing mostly improvised music. It’s called a “session,” and this particular session starts small. There are four teenagers: one girl playing an accordion and three boys playing banjo, fiddle and bodhrán (a type of Irish hand drum). At first, they garner only a little attention, possibly because there is another group of older musicians playing directly inside the bar outside which the teens are playing.

But eventually, the quality of the outside performance makes the music infectious and a crowd begins to form. A few songs in, there are at least 20 people of all ages gathered around to listen. There is even a boy, who looks to be about nine, listening as he fiddles with his cell phone. The group plays without sheet music but still stays together, not stepping on each other’s musical toes. Seemingly without effort, elegant harmonies are woven out of their collective melodies. The energy from the music and crowd draws some of the older musicians out from inside the bar to come play along, but they join in only intermittently, as if they know they are outclassed. They still applaud.

“I find that kids and their parents are making great sacrifices to go to their classes,” says Dara Vallely, director of the Armagh Pipers Club music school and member of musical theater troupe The Mummers. Vallely says he has seen kids convince their parents to drive 80 miles and wait two hours through a class so they can learn to play an instrument.

This isn’t always the case though, explains fellow Mummers member Peter Shortall. “What we’ve found is that kids will get to about 16 or 17, go away from traditional music for two or three years and then you’ll find them coming back.” From there, many go to universities in Cork, Belfast and Limerick to study traditional Irish music. Vallely emphasizes that the resurgence of interest in traditional Irish music is still limited to a small group. “The real traditional music isn’t that popular; it’s not on the TV or radio that much,” he says. The top 100 pop chart support this notion. Out of the top one hundred artists, only five are of Irish origin: U2, Sharon Shannon, Snow Patrol, Thin Lizzy and The High Kings.

Ireland has never been a monolithic culture. Historically the Emerald Isle has been a mosaic: Gael, Scandinavian, Norman, Anglo Saxon and Scotch — mostly by way of invasion. For many, traditional Irish music represents a piece of a larger restoration project. In 1922, Southern Ireland officially seceded from the United Kingdom, ending 800 years of British subjugation. During that time there was a concerted effort to suppress Gaelic culture: literature, sports, language and music—any facet of life that could potentially lead to an assemblage of anti-British ideas. The British weren’t always successful, and when they left Southern Ireland (Northern Ireland is still occupied) the foundation for a cultural resurgence remained.

Whether or not the movement was successful depends on how you look at it. Although Irish is spoken on many television programs and is Ireland’s official language, in 2006 “it was the community and household language for only 3 percent of the population of Ireland,” according to the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The same goes for the music. The old songs are taught in schools and sung in bars but the pop charts are dominated by foreign music.

irishdrumBodhrán, a traditional Irish drum.

“In Irish folklore there is a tale about a blind piper named Thurlough who travels the countryside playing for people who have forgotten the music. It’s a tale that is used as an allegory for the language and music,” says John Crowley, a resident of Northern Ireland. The tale describes the current state of traditional Irish music and culture. Like many aspects of traditional Irish culture, the music may not be in vogue but that’s not to say it has been forgotten altogether. It exists in the weathered fingers of a Dublin street musician. It exists, late in the night, as a raucous sing-along at the pub. It exists in a tin whistle, ready to be played by a bright-eyed student who doesn’t yet know what is “popular.” It travels, and it moves well, through the muddied back-roads of Ireland, carried by a blind piper who plays just loud enough that no one forgets his song.