Exploring Irishness through Music

At the Irish Institute of Music & Song, we are passionate about traditional Irish music and culture. Many of our teachers are trained as traditional musicians and we recently launched the online course in Irish Folk Song in which we welcomed students from the USA, England and all over Ireland.

In our Children's Folk Song Series on YouTube, we teach Irish traditional songs for children. So far, we have released 3 videos: Óró Mo Bháidín, Trasna na dTonnta and Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile.

Lots of traditional Irish songs were written at a time when cultural values were different from what's socially accepted in the world today. Therefore, there are songs whose lyrics do not chime with contemporary sensibilities in 2020.

For instance, we recently recorded a video (yet to be published) called Téir Abhaile Riú. In the song, a young girl is told that she will marry a man whether she likes it or not.

Songs like this come from a different era and it's important that we talk about this fact. Just because a song is old does not mean that it deserves to be sung. Absolutely not. A song deserves to be sung if it has artistic merit, whether lyrical, harmonic or melodic.

The songs we choose as part of the Children's Folk Song Series - and the songs we teach - have artistic merit, and when we teach them, we have the chance to explain the story, and the historical or social context in which it was written.

This is one of the most valuable aspects of an education in traditional music. The songs and stories give us a glimpse into the past. By studying it, we can understand and empathise with our ancestors who once lived on this Ireland. We can do this while accepting that Ireland is changing and celebrating the increasing diversity of our Irishness.

On Sunday 7 June, IIMS Director Dónal was interviewed on RTÉ Radio One "Simply Folk", the leading folk music show on the national broadcaster. Dónal's band TRÚ was featured as part of the show's Community Callout and he selected a few folk songs that have inspired the band in recent months.

The presenter also chose to broadcast one of Dónal's songs, the first single from TRÚ's début album. It's called "Jenny Black's Hill" and it's an original song about a witch from Dónal's home town, Warrenpoint in County Down.

In the 1990s, Jenny Black was rumoured to live at the top of the hill Dónal grew up on. When he went to school, teachers would refer to his neck of the woods as "Jenny Black's Hill".

For years, he was too scared to walk the hundred yards to the top of the hill, but eventually he took the reckless decision to do so at the bold age of six.

In local folklore, Jenny Black was known to roam through the old hillside forests of Warrenpoint. Sometimes she would disappear and a white hare would bounce from where she had last been glimpsed.

Sometimes, when you look out over Carlingford Lough, as the moon frames the silhouette of the Cooley mountains - sometimes, a human figure can be seen soaring through the sky in the glassy reflection of the Lough. But on glancing upward to catch her with the naked eye, she disappears again...

Dónal never spoke to anyone about what he saw at the top of that hill. Not his brothers, not his parents. Until now.

Songs and local folklore are ways we can explore our Irishness, rooted in the past, but open to interpretation and evolution. Indeed, stories evolve organically as they are passed on from storyteller to storyteller, singer to singer.

As a centre for musical education with a particular passion for traditional Irish music, we believe the RTÉ Folk Awards have contributed towards changing the public's appreciation and celebration of folk music in Ireland.

Hopefully, the RTÉ Folk Awards will run in 2020 since this year is a crucial year for all types of musicians. Perhaps it will run in an online format with live performances akin to those recorded in the National Concert Hall or the National Gallery as part of Other Voices.

The support provided by the awards would go a long, long way in contributing towards the sustainability of traditional music in Ireland; not only for those artists who receive nominations and awards themselves, but for the greater folk music community.

They also contribute to our evolving sense of Irishness in a time when Ireland's demography is changing, Irish society is changing, and Ireland's role in both Europe and the international community has been affected by global politics.

At the Irish Institute of Music and Song, we are looking forward to further celebrating Irish traditional culture, running our folk song courses, developing the Children's Folk Song Series, and exploring our own sense of Irishness through music.

We are proud to be Irish, we are proud to be Irish artists, and we are excited by creating the Ireland of the future through the power of the arts.

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