Women in early Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Kenny

Before the 1970s, women’s role in the transmission of traditional Irish music was only sporadically on public display. This lacuna, common around the world, is made good in

She went on to develop these themes in her book Trad nation: gender, sexuality, and race in Irish traditional music (2020).

Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).

In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.

Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.

Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:

Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.

More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.

Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.

The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:

 Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.

Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!

From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.

The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.

O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:

Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.

A 1912 story:

The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.

If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.

By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.

Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.

Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:

I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.

As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.

Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.

For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.

Farr

Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911­–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.

Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.

As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.

In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:

And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”

As Slominski comments,

Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.

Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.

Here’s a short film:

* * *

Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:

Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:

and the first part of a documentary:

Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.

Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.

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