There are some people who view traditional Irish music as a thing of the past rather than an ever-changing and living aspect of Irish life.
There is a proper balance between respecting the music and where it came from and those who passed it on, and for those zealous aficionados of the art form a natural inclination to preserve it while allowing innovation in as well. It lives and breathes with the times that are in it.
And when one undertakes the challenge of trying to chronicle and categorize important people and elements in the Irish music realm it can certainly be a daunting task.
So when Irish music journalist and historian Fintan Vallely published his second edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, his was a voice well rooted in the wellspring of tradition with a contemporary sense of how to produce an “old-fashioned” book in this age of instant information gratification on the Internet.
The new tome was released in late November in Ireland weighing in at 832 fact-filled pages covering 1,800 topics via 4,000 articles illustrated by 300 images.
It contained significant contributors from around the world of Irish music, and is edited by Fintan Vallely, who obtained a Ph.D in 2004 after an illustrious career as a traditional music journalist for The Irish Times (1994- 2000) and The Sunday Tribune (1996-2202).
Born in Co. Armagh and reared in a family of musicians and artists in the North, he began playing the flute in the 1960s, later producing a flute tutor in 1986 as he embarked on an academic and research career at Queens University in ethnomusicology.
Along with another academic musician, Charlie Piggott, and the photographer Nutan, they published a book of essays about musicians called The Blooming Meadow in 1998.
Vallely lectured at NUI Maynooth, University of Ulster, Dundalk Institute of Technology (up until last year) and also Trinity College. He also was one of the key organizers for the Crossroads Conferences in 1996 and 2003 which stirred up some controversy over topics revolving around innovation and sticking to the tradition.
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In 1999 he published the first edition of his Companion to Irish Traditional Music at 478 pages which sold over 5,000 copies and is still in use in many collections and homes (like mine), even though it was destined to be improved upon “as a proof copy” as folk musicologist the late Tom Munnelly humorously observed when Vallely initiated that project.
And improve upon the maiden effort he has over the past few years. Vallely has harnessed an impressive array of 200 knowledgeable contributors who provide personal research, insight and authenticity to the new encyclopedia.
Foremost among those are seminal researchers and teachers like Liz Doherty, Martin Dowling, Terry Moylan, Catherine Foley, Colin Hamilton, Desi Wilkinson, Niall Keegan and John Moulden.
And there are many more with a broad range of specialties, including Dr. Mick Moloney, Don Meade,
Earle Hitchner, Brendan Dolan and Larry McCullough from the greater New York area whose work is cited in the greatly expanded second edition.
Packaged in an impressively organized and laid out A-Z format, there is a wealth of information readily available to the scholar musician or the casual devotee who wishes to sharpen their I.Q. about traditional music.
Laden with precise details, it comprehensively covers aspects of Irish song, dance, instruments, band, storytelling, technology, tunes, styles, composition, organizations and also to the tools of preservation and promotion like transmission, collectors, archives, revival, broadcasting and recording even into areas of English, Scottish and Welsh music and to Europe and the U.S.
Inclusive are 600 biographies of workers in the field of Irish music, including many notable and fabled musicians, of course, but also key commentators and composers.
Enhancing this treasure trove is an extensive timeline denoting pertinent periods of Irish music history.
For any serious fan of Irish music and those curious about its origins, the book will provide hours of edifying enlightenment in an easy to read format and style.
And impressively, if you want to zero in further on any topics, there is a 32-page bibliography of multi-media published sources that can take one further into the topics covered in this ambitious and indispensable reference tool.
The book’s publication owes its existence to the utmost commitment and knowledge of its editor Vallely and to valuable financial and supportive contributions of An Foras Feasa (the Institute for Research in Irish Historical and Cultural Traditions) and the traditional arts sector of Ireland’s Arts Council which issued a Deis grant to help produce it.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (second edition) not only doubles the number of pages from the earlier effort, but it accepts the fact that Ireland’s native and ancient art form has been greatly strengthened by a heightened awareness of its value and also the great advancement in technology and facilities that can safeguard its native origins.
A great deal of current vitality can be sourced to the “good old days” of the Celtic Tiger where funding for the traditional arts helped stimulate a great deal of activity and important research and collection and preservation as well as new work and initiatives.
In that vein the new book has a website, companion.ie, that can help access the research in the book and also the very valuable index (new to this edition thankfully). And there are plans in the works to make it more accessible online and even through apps on iPhones.
This is a book you will want to hold in your hand and refer to over and over again. You will get your money’s worth ($80 U.S.) very quickly once you add it to your library.
It can be obtained through OssianUSA.com (603-783-4383) or through the U.S. distributer for Cork University Press who encouraged Vallely to publish the new edition in larger form. That would be Stylus Publishing in Virginia (www.styluspub.com or phone 703-661-1504). Look for a U.S. launch later on this summer at the Catskills Irish Arts Week where Vallely will be a visiting lecturer and music tutor.