Friday, May 13, 2016

The Traditional Nexus Hypothesis (Teanga, Ceol agus Tírdhreach) - Irish landscape, language and music

For a couple of years in the 1980s I worked in several of the Irish National Parks collecting insects. Month after month I tramped around these landscapes—they are humanized areas, and yet remain relatively undeveloped and wild.  This work inspired my first research paper, Additions to the Inventory of Irish Chironomidae (Diptera) with Declan A. Murray. By the by, the insects of these parks also inspired my first tattoo, though this was quite a while later.

At that time I regarded the Irish language with mild disdain. My father at one point when we were still quite young proposed that we speak as Gaeilge at home. With him we did not agree (an dtuigeann tú?) Besides I was a middling scholar in my youth and never got the hang of the language. I had more interest in Irish music, but my tastes inclined more towards artists like Christy Moore, Scullion, Paul Brady and so on. I knew very little about traditional music.

In recent years I have developed a feverish interest in Irish music—my spare time is devoted to the tin whistle. I also have a taste for the language although admittedly I have little time to devote to it.

All this is a preamble to saying that recently I’ve  been preoccupied by these three interests: the traditional landscape, traditional language, and traditional music. Here’s the thing: the overlap in these three arenas appears not only to be a mental phenomenon, there is also a geographic overlap: these days where you find one you find the others. The music, language and landscapes flourish together. The map here shows national parks and Gealtacht areas (regions in Ireland where the language is still spoken in daily life). I don’t have a convenient map of the areas for excellence in traditional music; indeed music is the most mobile and diffusely spread-out of the three, but several areas of Co Clare, Connemara in Co Galway, Co Donegal, Co Kerry, Co Cork that are adjacent to the parks or at least to wilder landscapes are epicenters for traditional music.

I’ve been turning over this concordance in my mind in recent weeks speculating about this (literal) co-incidence. More than just a spatial concordance though, I’m hypothesizing that these are mutually reinforcing aspects of the land and culture. The land influences the language (no surprises here but Irish is very rich in terms for aspects of nature), and perhaps the music. In turn the language and music, can influence that way in which people regard the landscapes in which they live and work.  I’ll formulate this a little more precisely in the coming weeks. I call this the Traditional Nexus Hypothesis -  (TradNex for short!)  All this is, perhaps a commonplace conjecture. I recall similar themes emerge in Barry Lopez’ work. The part that interests me most, though, and something that I’ve not heard much on it how the sounds of the landscape influence language and music especially. Last year I started doing some recordings of the landscape and of traditional music to probe the links.  Stay tuned as they say.  Or, fanacht tiúnta, as they say.


  1. As a sort of extension, it'd be interesting to see what happened/s with (Scots-)Irish immigration to Appalachia, and how musical forms changed/adapted to new landscapes and languages.

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