From An Claidheamh Soluis, June 9, 1906.
A correspondent writes us:
“Now that you have come out of your shell and have been holding forth (very interestingly, if somewhat dogmatically) on such high themes as art, literature, and folklore, perhaps you will go on to give us the benefit of your views on one or two other vexed problems, – say, dancing and traditional music. Some of my friends are haunted by the suspicion that An Claidheamh is not quite orthodox on the dancing question, – a suspicion given rise to less by anything you have said on the topic than by your stony silence whenever it agitates the minds of Gaels. As for the subject of traditionalism, I feel that the pen which wrote the article on ‘Folklore and the Zeitgeist’ could deal with it very sympathetically and illumatingly.”
We are grateful to our friend, but wild horses would not draw from us an editorial expression of opinion on the dancing question. Not that we are without views – we hold views which we might mildly describe as startling; and if ever we conceive a desire to wreck the movement we may possibly give those views to the world in a special number of An Claidheamh, taking a railway-ticket to some remote wilderness on the eve of publication. Then from afar we shall, Bricriu-like, watch with glee the wranglings of the men of Erin. But for the present we keep our own council.
It occurs to us, however, that we might rejoice the soul of Séamus Ó Cathasaigh by writing a little on the subject on the subject of traditionalism with (more or less) reference to the Oireachtas Syllabus. We believe we approach the theme with “sympathy”; we hope we shall prove “illuminating”; and we will do our best not to put our opinions too “dogmatically.” Readers whom we chance to offend will, we trust, transfer their animosity to the correspondent who has drawn us.
The first point that it seems necessary to make is that “traditionalism” is not essentially Irish. One finds a “traditional” mode of singing and a “traditional” mode of reciting in every land in which there is an unspoiled peasantry. We ourselves have heard French, Breton, Flemish, and German traditional singing; ad we have heard French and Breton traditional recitation. The traditional style is not the Irish way of singing or of declaiming, but the peasant way; it is not, and never has been, the possession of the nation at large, but only of a class in the nation. There was traditional singing in Ireland in the days of Cormac Mac Airt; but traditional singing was no more in favour in Cormac’s court than it is in the court of Edward VII. Then, as now, the folk sang in their way, and the “trained” musicians in theirs; just as the folk spoke, ate, dressed, and lived in one fashion, and the gentles and their hangers-on in another.
This is not written by way of decrying traditionalism. Quite the contrary. Its object is simply to put those capable of dealing with the subject from the technical standpoint on the right track, which they have not been on up to the present. They have seen in the traditional style the debris of an antique native culture. We see in it simply a peasant convention, which, in its essentials, is accepted by the folk everywhere.
Of course this peasant convention is not absolutely identical in any two countries. Irish traditional singing, though similar to, is not the same thing as Breton or Flemish traditional singing; it has its Irish as well as its folk characteristics. It is for experts to analyse it with a view to determining which of its peculiarities are distinctively Irish and which are simply due to the fact that it is the art of a peasantry.
We have suggested that there was in ancient Ireland a mode of singing which was not of the people, but was governed by rules deliberately framed by musicians and taught in schools. What that style was we have no means of knowing. It perished when the native culture perished. Only the steadfast folk, with their lowly but beautiful art, have remained to bear witness to the Ireland that was. The professional musician and the professional seanchaidhe passed away in the wake of the Earls. Thus it comes that the only arts which have survived to us from Ireland’s past are peasant arts; just as the only Irish speech which is living to-day is a peasant speech. And those who would build up a great national art – an art capable of expressing the soul of the whole nation, peasant and non-peasant – must do even as we propose to do with regard to the language; they must take what the peasants have to give them and develop it. And this, indeed, is simply doing over again what was done thousands of years ago by the earliest of the professional musicians and seanchaidhes.
We hope that traditional singing and traditional recitation, exactly as we know them, will always be heard in Ireland – by cottage fires in the winter evenings. We would not have them on the stages of great theatres; we would not bring them into the brawl of cities. Not that they are not worthy to be heard in the high places of art; but that they demand for their fitting rendering and their fitting appreciation an attitude of mind on the part both of artist and of audience which is possible only in the light of a turf fire blazing on an earthen floor. They are of the countrysides and for the countrysides; let us keep them in the countrysides. To transplant them were to kill them.
We hope, in the second place, that an art culture distinctively Irish will grow up in the land; and we have indicated the way in which we think it will grow. Our artists (we refer in particular to singers and reciters) must imbibe their Irishism from the peasants, since the peasants alone possess Irishism; but they need not, and must not, adopt any of the peasant conventions. Duly impregnated with an Irish spirit, duly in tune with the soul of Ireland, they need not be afraid of modern culture. They need not hesitate to learn voice-production; they need not boycott Mendelssohn or Chopin. Their art will be Irish because they themselves will be Irish; it will be Irish even though it may be free from some of the eccentricities which (being ignorant) we to-day look upon as most characteristic of the Irish style.
There are three or four singers (all more or less products of the Oireachtas) who have been working on the lines we suggest. Amongst them are Mairghréad Ní Annagáin, Séamus Clanndiolúin, Pádraig Ó Séaghdha, and Sigle Ní Ailgheasa. All these are palpably Irish; not one of them is out-and-out “traditional.” They form, in our opinion, the nucleus of a native school of vocal art; and their method has been to develop that which they have either inherited or assimilated from the folk amongst whom they were born or have lived.
Perhaps the forthcoming Oireachtas will discover a new Mairghréad Ní Annagáin or another Pádraig Ó Séaghdha.