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MUSIC/ The Tongue of the Soul

Commentary by John Waters on Irish music, the great expression of the soul of the Irish people, both in its joyous dance tunes and in its laments that capture Ireland’s calamitous history.

Irish cross in Cork Irish cross in Cork

The great Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher used to talk about music as a language that never ceased speaking inside him. It was on one continuous loop in his heart, expressing something that he could never speak. All he could do was keep playing as much of it as he could catch. Perhaps all music is indeed a continuous line of consciousness, which emanates from some deep memory of some perfect place but has become fragmented in human reality, a clue concerning the decoupling of mankind from the divine.

Music carries with it something of the hidden, the mysteriousness, the puzzles that define us. A succession of notes seems to emerge from, and penetrate to, places in the human being that are unreachable by words, rendering audible the deepest nature of human memory, consciousness and desire.

Certainly, there is something about Irish music that suggests that it comes out of the soul in an almost continuous whirl of quasi-variation and near-repetition, as though seeking some perfect formulation to explain something otherwise incomprehensible. To hear a great fiddle or box-player driving a melody into what appears to be its umpteen permutations is to become aware of something approached in oneself, something being circled, wooed, defined by shapes carved in sound.

The great musics of the world have grown out of these dualisms: dread and promise, tears and laughter, dark and light. Music seems to emanate fundamentally from the sorrow of mankind, from his sense of exile, loss and longing.  This includes the joyous dance music as much as the plaintive lament, for one is a reaction to another, an attempt to imagine that which sorrow describes as an absence.

Irish music is a rich treasury of passion, energy and intensity, but also tends towards extremes: on the one hand the exuberant dynamism of the jigs, reels and hornpipes; on the other, the plaintive lamentation of the slower airs and sean nós singing, in which the sorrows of Ireland’s calamitous history have been recorded and, in the care of a master musician, can be recreated at will. In between, there is very little: a broad open space in which, in different circumstances, some kind of a normal folk tradition might have evolved.