I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).
Some fine instances to be heard on this blog, setting forth from Ciaran Carson‘s brilliant Last night’s fun, include Ask my father and Boil the breakfast early; and under More Irish fiddlers, Women in early Irish music, Indian and world fiddles, Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes, sean-nós.
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Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.
Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.
So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.
The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).
The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!
Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.
While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):
Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.