Sep 14, 2012

Of nimble spirit and nimbler feet

Update: I got an A on this paper!

Friends, my posts may be a little sparse for a little while...because unfortunately, I opened my bag this morning to discover that my laptop has a crack in the corner of the screen that has rendered it useless. Repairing it will run me at least 100 euro, so I'm making calls and shopping around to see if I can find a rental or something to at least tide me over until I find a more lasting solution.  In the meantime, Teresa graciously lent me her laptop so I could back up my files onto her flash drive, and finish/submit a paper that is due this evening to Prof. Jenkins.  And after I submitted it (a few minutes ago), it occurred to me that you all might be interested in reading what I wrote for him.  The prompt was something along the lines of:

How would you, based on your experience of Galway during the past few weeks, define Irish music?

The session was about to end, but anyone could tell that no one was ready to wind down quite yet.  A few college-aged spectators were swaying dangerously close to the bar, offering the musicians slurred shouts of encouragement.  The fiddler, in particular, was a true artist; the mischievousness of her ornamentation made it clear that she was the kind of musician who feels the tune in her bones.  So when she raised her instrument to lead into the last song, she was met with the exuberant whoops of a crowd that clearly welcomed her leadership.  Just as I wondered if I was finally getting a glimpse of “the craic”, the man and woman in the booth beside me laid their pints down and proceeded to have a dance-off…right in front of me.  It was drunken community, but community nonetheless.  This, I decided, is Irish music…or what it does to people, anyway.

That merry night at Taaffe’s lies in stark contrast with my other experiences of music in a group setting – neither of which involves the community[1] necessary for good craic.  One of these is the frat-mosphere (which, depending on the amount of smoke in the house, can sometimes become a literal atmosphere.)  Consider your run-of-the-mill Union frat at 1 am.  By that hour, the crowd’s usually thinning out, but only because most are either blacked out or making out.  Sometimes, you do find a few students swaying by the keg, offering shouted obscenities to no one in particular.  And when the DJ starts to transition into more mellow music, he usually doesn’t receive much of a response…primarily because his patrons are too sloshed to care.

And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum: the classical music concert.  Don’t get me wrong – this music is admirable in its own right, but at a classical concert, there’s never as much dancing in the aisles as I would like to see.  It’s more often the case that a glance around me reveals at least five people sitting so still, they could be asleep (or comatose.  I mean, why would you spend time and money to hear a mazurka if you’re just going to meditate to it?)  And in that pause after the final cadence, I sometimes hear the occasional whistle of appreciation, but am more accustomed to polite, restrained applause.

I offer you these last two scenarios as descriptions of what Irish music most certainly is not.  So, then, what is it?  Nuala O’Connor asserts in Bringing it All Back Home that Irish music is the music of a people longing for home, for the familiar, for a fierce and cherished identity.  According to her, it’s the music of an exiled people reaching for a “country of the mind” (12).  It’s an elegant definition, but one that’s too stylized for my taste and too far removed from my own experience.  I invite Ms. O’Connor to spend an evening at Taaffe’s, where the alcohol is a means to an end, not the end in itself (as it is at a frat).  I invite her to tear herself away from lyrical analyses long enough to see the updated picture.  Maybe it’s because I’ve only been in Galway for two weeks, but I haven’t yet heard that hunger she so eloquently describes.  I haven’t yet seen those pangs for a culture lost.

What I have heard and seen, though, suits me far better, and this is the heart of Irish music: pure, unadulterated revelry.  If you do nothing else, consider the dancing!  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a frat, where the dancing is more of the shamelessly-mashing-bodies-together variety.

Irish music is defined not by what it is, but by what it creates – namely, the gay abandon I saw in those dancers, and the general devil-may-care attitude that seemed to saturate the very air at Taaffe’s.  Irish music is no expression of displacement or oppression; rather, as Irwin describes in In Search of the Craic, it’s a celebration of pride and belonging, of nimble spirit and nimbler feet.  Instead of socializing you to either passively observe the music or ignore it altogether, the Irish encourage you to join in…and their music makes it easy to do so.

[1] Communitas (as defined by Wikipedia, anyway): “an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness.  Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together.”  To me, community is best defined as people experiencing life together.

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