Stories, Research & Projects
I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?
Folklore is a product of a people’s culture. Stories and songs are passed through generations to preserve the previous impressions of a community. These can be melodies, ideas, rhythms, stories or movements. Dancing and singing are age-old human pastimes. They are timeless. By participating in the traditional arts here in Ireland, we can share a moment of community with our ancestors (the people who lived here before us). Though removed in time, we are connected by place. A song can act as a time machine; or, as composer Michael McGlynn has said, songs exist “out of time”.
One of the reasons we enjoy the traditional arts relates to our constant search for identity. We crave a connection to people whom we perceive to be similar. Through the traditional arts, we can connect with people who are absent, who are gone, who have said what they wanted to say. By singing folk songs, we can feel a connection with such people in the past. Often, we pursue this connection backwards in time while ignoring or suppressing the social need to engage with others in the present, who might live and work and move around us every day.1
When we see artworks from another era, we can begin to imagine the culture of those peoples through their works of art. Therefore, we can have a more complex and personal understanding of the people. If these people come from our own place, we often feel we can better understand ourselves. Lore also has a narrative power when it takes the form of story and song (but can also be abstract) in that it allows us each to have an interpretation and thus add to the story as it is passed onto the next recipient. In this way, we are contributing to our own story, our own identity.
If we can participate in our own folklore, we are creating it in community with others. In practice, the artist constantly views the world around herself and, through imagination and a process of digesting the events of the day, produces work that represent the time she lives in. This way, the artist encodes the experiences of her own time. If we participate, we can also be a part of this process of encoding our own culture, actively making our own traditions.
On this point, I’d like to lay out a few of the fascinating ideas I’ve come across in my recent studies of philosophers John Dewey (“Art as Experience”, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.) and Maxine Greene (“Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts, and social change”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.).
It’s not that easy to participate in works of art - especially contemporary art forms. In the 1930s, Dewey wrote about the energy a person needs to apprehend art. It is not enough to merely walk through a museum. To have an aesthetic experience requires a personal commitment, an emotional and personal conviction, an effort to identify with the artwork. Maxine Greene refers to this as a “mind-opening” effect. Only when we ask questions of ourselves can we be receptive to a piece of art, a song, a painting. Greene believes that art opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. She advocated for “aesethic education” as an approach to open the minds of those people living at the margins of society, in order to present new possibilities for them of imagining new ways to exist in the world.
If so, we need certain things before we can engage. We need a reason to engage. We need a physical space in which we are comfortable enough to relate to the artwork, on our terms. It’s difficult to force people to connect to a performance if they are initially disinterested or disengaged; this may be as a personal response to the ideas presented, the space being used, or indeed the form being employed (ballet, sculpture, folksong).
Identity & the Other
Dewey writes that artworks can help us to appreciate and understand “otherness” and people who are outside of (or marginalised from) our own society. Dewey described art as “a continuity of experience” between people from different worlds; through a felt, imagined connection of individuals removed in time and place. Art can therefore be the source of a relationship with someone or something unfamiliar (a culture, person, idea). After an artistic experience, we can learn to see with someone else’s eyes, to hear with her ears.
In “Philosophy of Right”, Hegel wrote that each of us gains validity and finds satisfaction in others. In this way, we are very much social creatures. Hegel describes how individuals (the “particular person”) actually need others to accomplish their goals - whether in the context of work, friendship, family or love.
In his writings on civil society, John Keane reminds us of the inherit tensions of a pluralist, multiculturalist society. So we are presented with a picture of contemporary society as necessarily social yet inevitably conflicting.
Dewey wrote that “[moralities] are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order”. I think this means that rules and standards can become engrained in culture to the extent that they end up being outdated. However, Dewey believed the artist can generate meaning in the world beyond the evidence we can actually observe (eg. generalised ideas of right and wrong).
An artist’s ideas about the future come from her “imaginative vision”; in Dewey’s words, “change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor” to real-life changes.2
Representation Through Art
So we as citizens can unleash our own imaginations as to what might be possible in our own worlds. Museums play a important role in this process in providing a hushed atmosphere for personal reflection on artefacts and artworks. Of course, lots of people don’t feel comfortable in museums, so we must ask: for whom are such institutions a barrier to seeing the world in a different way?
In recent decades, artists have accepted that, by experiencing art in a more comfortable atmosphere, the audience is more open to the ideas within. Otherwise, when artists are obsessed with more traditional modes of cultural dissemination, people who are deemed to be uneducated/uninitiated can feel excluded from the process.
Thus, an “authentic invitation” can disentangle an artwork from the prestige or prejudice of its context. This is very important for any artist, or any innovator attempting to introduce a new idea to any audience. So how can we extend this authentic invitation? How can we engage citizens in a genuine dialogue about human values? Dewey believed that art gives us the capacity to sympathise, to identify with others beyond a relation to the past, and can serve as a way to see and imagine possibilities in the present (as well as the future).
By this reasoning, music could be seen as a powerful approach to fostering ‘community amongst any group of people, especially people who are already connected by place.
1) I think we choose to sing these songs because there’s a security in that distance, and this temporal abstraction keeps us safe. Although the function of traditional music in Ireland is highly social, we operate in a modernist society; one in which “hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”, Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1944). Perhaps the cultural shift that occurred in Europe throughout the 20th century, alongside the boom in interpersonal technological relationships, has rendered incompatible our own understanding of social function of traditional music and song in Ireland today. Of course, to appeal to contemporary audiences, the traditional arts must evolve although this might seem to contradict a purist’s idea of tradition.
2) The infrastructure of statehood illustrates one model of conflict management on a large scale. An authority chooses its citizenry, which it protects with laws and international norms. If there are citizens, by definition there must be non-citizens. The state owes little to no obligation in law to these alien non-citizens. The state may act as it wishes towards stateless individuals, who exist without an authority to defend them. For citizens to retain the legal protection they enjoy, they/we must abide by the rules and laws of the state. If not, they/we risk ex-communication. In recent history, this has been documented in Guantánamo Bay and in refugee “camps” (so-called as per Giorgio Agamben’s theory on homo sacer) constructed at Europe’s borders.
This blog was published on the Musicians Without Borders website this week about my first training course on the Music Bridge programme in Derry in January 2016. Click the quote to read the full article.