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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 6:33 am 
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I'm beginning a research project on Chief O'Neill. I was in ireland last week and met with the very gracious Nicholas Carolan, author of the only extant biography of O'Neill, who patiently endured my rambling questions at a long lunch at the Shelbourne hotel.

If I may beg your indulgence, what is the place of O'Neill's collection in the world of ITM? I've browsed it for basic tune settings the way I'd use "the session" website. It's obviously a fascinating and important record of late 19th/early 20th century Irish folk music.

It seems to me that most people in Ireland learn tunes face to face? And outside of ireland, or specific communities of people devoted to irish music, people learn via Youtube, the internet, and recordings by professional or famous players.

Would a young student in Ireland be expected to have a copy of O'Neill?

In the world of Jazz, which I know much better, everyone will be expected to at some point have a copy of "the Real Book," a collection of lead sheets for "standard" tunes. Does O'Neill's collection function in that way? Or has it been totally replaced by digital media?


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 7:30 am 
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I think first and foremost you should shake off your experiences of the jazz world when you come to this. Look at Irish music and how it works at its own merit. It's a different place. Take it as you find it.

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Would a young student in Ireland be expected to have a copy of O'Neill?


Not at all. Students are not expected to own books. Most 'students' will learn young and absorb the repertoire of the musicians around them, family, peers, musicians they come into contact with. At some point some may look at books to acquire repertoire, or recordings. But students are expected to play music, have it in their head and under their fingers, not in their library.

That said, I think it would be hard to over-estimate the importance of O'Neill's collection. Especially during the last century it was a very important source of music. Stories abound of communities of musicians working their way through the book. Postman Hughdie Doohan in Kilmaley, able to read music, playing through it and the other musicians picking up what he played by ear. Or the East Galway musicians, having gone through the book desperately asking themselves what tunes they were going to learn next, which resulted in the mtaking turns at composing tunes for the group to learn (and in turn creating a lively local tradition of composing music).

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the only extant biography of O'Neill,


'A harvest saved' is not quite the only thing ever written about the Chief though. Breandan Breathnach wrote fairly extensively about him for example. Caoimhin Mac Aoidh's book on James O'Neill gives a few nice insights in the times and work methods the collection grew out of.

It is probably good to place O'Neill's works in context. More, and more extensive, collecting work has been done since. Breathnach collection is of immense value, the three volumes published in his lifetime were/are extremely influential and so are the two volumes published posthumously (with thousands and thousands of tunes collected by him not published at all).

And over the past, say, twenty five years a flood of other collections have been published that have all been influential in one way or another. There' a bit of a fashion/trend thing in that too, a lot of people seem to feel they have to be seen playing a few tunes from Goodman's, for example. But composer-collections, regional collections, single player collections, archive/manuscript collections, they all play a part these days of increased availability and easier access.

So, there's a multitude of sources (musicians always trying to find good tunes few other people have, which then snowball as soon as they are 'out'). O'Neill's works have a place in all that, among all the other stuff.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 8:25 am 
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I read an essay/article this past year, which I thought was written by Nicholas Carolan, about collections of music as part of the tradition (specifically about the Goodman collection actually). The summary of it was that there are a lot of collections out there, but just as in MrG's anecdote about the postmaster, it's fewer numbers of people who read or get tunes directly from the collections, compared to those who learn through oral transmission. He was giving the example of tunes from the Goodman collection - there are a lot of people playing these tunes who have learned them through the "traditional" means of transmission, rather than from the collection.

PB+J wrote:
what is the place of O'Neill's collection in the world of ITM?

It still has a very important place in the tradition. Actually, it's collections, and it's useful to understand how these were created, and compare the differences. They're still a source for tunes, but many of the common tunes are not played exactly how they're written down in his books.

PB+J wrote:
It seems to me that most people in Ireland learn tunes face to face?

Even in Ireland many people learn through recordings, hearing things in concert, sessions, and so on, as well as lessons.

PB+J wrote:
Would a young student in Ireland be expected to have a copy of O'Neill?

No.

PB+J wrote:
In the world of Jazz, which I know much better, everyone will be expected to at some point have a copy of "the Real Book," a collection of lead sheets for "standard" tunes. Does O'Neill's collection function in that way? Or has it been totally replaced by digital media?

It doesn't work that way at all, and never has - it's not a collection of lead sheets or "standard" tunes at all - it's a collection of whatever tunes O'Neill could remember, have others remember, or find. It is a great resource for finding interesting tunes. It hasn't been totally replaced by digital media, but that question is a bit misleading because there are digital copies of O'Neill's books, and I don't really consider them to be distinct (same content, same resource). There are a LOT more resources that are also much more readily accessible than there were. They've supplemented, not replaced, each other.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 8:43 am 
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that question is a bit misleading because there are digital copies of O'Neill's books, and I don't really consider them to be distinct (same content, same resource). There are a LOT more resources that are also much more readily accessible than there were. They've supplemented, not replaced, each other.


There is a problem with the catch all phrase of digital media. Several problems actually. But first the problem you already mention, the digitised versions of old collections, not only O'Neill's but any number of historic collections available via ITMA, the Source or in Scotland Tobar an Dualchais, among others.

Then there's recorded material, old, new in many forms curated by ITMA, NPU and other organisations. And there's the big heap of crowd sourced material on thesession, youtube and all that, from the sublime to the ridiculous, unfortunately, quite a bit of the latter.

I sometimes think there's just too much of it to take in. But I'll take a good tune wherever I find it.


I'll add to the mix, for your consideration, something I find very important: immersion. When you're around music or in a musical environment music will soak into you and a lot of tunes are learned that way. There will be an awful lot of tunes you heard many times without them registering. Then, at some point you hear someone playing a tune and that instance makes you take notice. By the time you sit down to learn it, you realise you already mostly have it. In my own experience it's the best (and possibly most common) way of learning tunes. They come to you when you're ready to learn them and tend to stick much better, and come to life more readily, than tunes learned from books/written sources. They, as is often said, come in on the wind.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 9:19 am 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
I sometimes think there's just too much of it to take in. But I'll take a good tune wherever I find it.

Yes!

Mr.Gumby wrote:
I'll add to the mix, for your consideration, something I find very important: immersion. When you're around music or in a musical environment music will soak into you and a lot of tunes are learned that way. There will be an awful lot of tunes you heard many times without them registering. Then, at some point you hear someone playing a tune and that instance makes you take notice. By the time you sit down to learn it, you realise you already mostly have it. In my own experience it's the best (and possibly most common) way of learning tunes. They come to you when you're ready to learn them and tend to stick much better, and come to life more readily, than tunes learned from books/written sources. They, as is often said, come in on the wind.

Also, very much yes!


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 12:58 pm 
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Thank you all very much for the replies. It's very helpful.

My interest is as a historian of the US, not strictly as a musician, though there is a lot of overlap. I want to get a sense of how the O'Neill collection contributed to and continues to contribute to irish traditional music. I can't quite get that by immersing myself in the ITM scene in Washington DC today, though there are lots of knowledgeable people who I plan to interview.

Most of Breandan Breathnach's books are hard to find in the US, but I have the book on James O'Neill on order, thank you.

Collections like this do interesting things--they're a collection of tunes but also have a quality of bringing into being the thing they describe, if that makes sense. O'Neill seems to me to be not just collecting tunes, he's imagining Irish culture and re-presenting it to Ireland and the world. It's also interesting how he stands sort of in opposition to an existing stream of political songs and sentimental commercial songs that spoke to irish nationalism--songs from Moore but also songs like "the Wearing of the Green" or "the Boys of Wexford" or "Boolavogue." O'Neill chose to record the dance tunes and mostly the non-political tunes, which makes sense given his career in the police.

It seems to me--and please tell me if I'm off base--that O'Neill helped invent "irish traditional music" as a thing separate from rebel ballads and commercial songs, which were well established in the US as "irish" in vaudeveill and soon on records and cylinders


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 1:19 pm 
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Quote:
Breandan Breathnach's books are hard to find in the US


I was particularly thinking of his biographic article in Dal gCais of 1977. I have all Dal gCais issues digitised (I'll see if I can dig that up). It's also in 'The Man and his Music' (which, if still in stock, can be had from Na Piobairi Uilleann : pipers.ie).

If you are not just interested in O'Neill's musical life his memoir 'Chief O'Neill's sketchy recollections of a life in Chicago' is probably a must read.

The whole ballad and rebel song thing is something different altogether, probably not worth to pursue in connection with O'Neill. O'Neill didn't invent that separation.

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Last edited by Mr.Gumby on Fri Sep 14, 2018 1:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 1:20 pm 
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Be sure to get copies of his various writings, not just the music collections (of which there are five). Irish Musicians and Minstrels and especially Irish Folk Music give some interesting insight into how he saw what he was doing. I just finished reading A Sketch Recollection of an Eventful Life, which is essentially an autobiography, but one devoted to his work on the police, primarily.

There's been a ton of research done, already, for what it's worth, so definitely read up on it.

Quote:
O'Neill helped invent "irish traditional music" as a thing separate from rebel ballads and commercial songs

I don't really think this is accurate, on a number of fronts. I don't really think O'Neill invented anything, although there's perhaps some merit in looking at how his definitions and/or preferences might have shaped the music that came later. Was Irish traditional music a thing separate from ballads and vaudevillian music? Or was it something that even needed to be separated (ie was it already pretty well understood to be distinct)? Is it even really a separate thing now, is the instrumental side of things just one facet of traditional music? Ultimately the answer to all of these is likely to be "it depends on how you look at it" or "to some degree, maybe". He had strong opinions about what Irish traditional music was and wasn't, but the question is, were they unique to him?


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 1:32 pm 
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You probably need to be aware of in depth research by for example Jim McGuire of Chicago and the work into the sources of O'Neill's music by Paul de Grae, both mostly unpublished as far as I know. You're not the first raking over this ground.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 2:00 pm 
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I do have, and have read, all of O'Neill's published works.

Also I'm well aware I'm not the first person to go over this ground--you never are, really. Historical research always starts with reading what other people have had to say about a subject. That's where I am now. The next step will be looking at contemporary accounts, what historians call "primary sources," which includes O'Neill's papers and any papers/archives of contemporaries. Much of this has already been covered--Carolan's book is very well researched, and "Sketchy recollections" is well documented. It will be a long project.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 2:00 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
You probably need to be aware of in depth research by for example Jim McGuire of Chicago and the work into the sources of O'Neill's music by Paul de Grae, both mostly unpublished as far as I know. You're not the first raking over this ground.


Thanks! I don' think I'm the first raking over this ground


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 15, 2018 8:13 am 
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It is interesting to see how the Chief cobbled together his collection, his own work collecting but also is blatantly taking from all sorts of existing collections, un-apologetically naming and renaming tunes, putting parts of different tunes together to create new, longer, tunes (Derry hrnp, Old Grey Goose etc) or making up parts where he couldn't remember the original and doing it quite well too in a lot of cases.

At the same time, he missed music from whole swathes of the country because the geographic spread of his informants was limited. He stayed in the Feakle area on a visit to Ireland and got some tunes there that are in the book. I knew a piper/fiddler of the older generation (born ten years after O'Neill's visit) who knew some of the people who met O'Neill (and had many of their tunes) and according to him there were an awful lot of tunes the Chief didn't get at all. In fact a lot of tunes from the area were never collected or published (or at least not at the time).

But it is what it is and his work remains valid and valuable.

Ged Foley wrote about O'Neill and East Clare : A curious connection

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