Musicians playing in a pub

Traditional music remains a cornerstone of Irish identity, even as the definition of Irishness has shifted. (Photography by Gavin Clarke (CC BY-NC 2.0))

The multiple meanings of “trad music”

Ethnomusicologist Aileen Dillane, PhD’09, says traditional music remains a cornerstone of Irish identity, even as the definition of Irishness has shifted.

Aileen Dillane was nine years old when she met her first Irish American.

A tour bus had pulled into a café in Templeglantine, County Limerick, her western Ireland hometown. As she walked by, young Aileen watched a vision descend the bus’s steps. A tall gentleman in green chinos and a cable-knit sweater surveyed his surroundings, spotted her, and leaned down to chat.

“Are you Irish?” he asked. Aileen told him she was, and he gave her a friendly pat on the back. “I’m Irish too!”

“And I remember thinking, ‘You are this exotic creature,’ ” she says now. “ ‘Why would you possibly want to be Irish?’ ”

The exchange set off a lifetime of thought about Irish identity—who claims it, who wants it, and why. The beginner piano student, growing up in a center of traditional Irish music, quickly found herself refracting these questions through a musical lens. Three decades and three degrees later, she’s still asking them, as an ethnomusicologist.

As a lecturer at the University of Limerick and in her doctoral studies at UChicago, Dillane, PhD’09, has examined Irish music’s performance and consumption both in Ireland and abroad. In the diaspora and at home, she says, major change
is underway.

As immigrants have streamed into Ireland from Africa and Eastern Europe, and as Irish emigrants have relocated across the globe, there is increasingly “no one Irishness,” she says—but the country’s traditional music has remained a vital soundtrack to multiple definitions of the term.

“Trad music,” as the old-fashioned jigs and reels of the Celtic territories are colloquially known, has long been a powerful patriotic symbol of Irish pride, in Ireland, abroad, and particularly in Chicago. In 2015 the Art Institute of Chicago chose to accompany its Irish-art retrospective, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840, with a musical album, a CD of traditional jigs, laments, and reels.

Memorial statue to Francis O'Neill in Trawlebane, Ireland
A memorial to traditional music preservationist Francis O’Neill in Trawlebane, Ireland. (Photo courtesy Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Committee)

With its green-dyed St. Patrick’s Day river and its famous mayors Daley, Chicago has a unique relationship with its Irish population. The percentage of Irish Americans in Chicago isn’t as large as in some US cities, but their presence looms large. “Unlike their counterparts in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2004), “Chicago’s Irish grew up with their city and exerted influence out of proportion to their numbers.” Dillane’s current book project sets out to explore that influence, with one chapter covering Francis O’Neill, the city’s Irish American police chief at the turn of the 20th century. O’Neill compiled an anthology of 1,800 Irish tunes in his time off from the force. That 1903 collection, Music of Ireland (Lyon and Healy), is thought to be the most significant in the history of Irish music.

Dillane’s book, “Displacing Nostalgia: Irish-American Musical Imaginaries,” has been in progress for several years. She expects it to appear in late 2021—a delay she finds fortuitous, given the changing political climate in the United States since 2016. “My view on the place of Irish music in race relations has changed a lot,” she says. The book explores the ways in which ethnic music has played a positive role for Chicago’s Irish diaspora, but it also reveals a dark side—one she believes has always been there, but that she fears is gaining ground. Amid a rise of white nationalism in the United States and abroad, certain factions conflate “Irish pride” with “white pride,” she says, leaving Irish arts vulnerable to manipulation by those who would use them for exclusionary ends.

What Irish music means to those who love it has always been a guiding question for Dillane. Answering it requires examination of the Irish in America, and in Chicago. (Considering her work on everything from police chief O’Neill’s anthologizing to the global influence of pop star Sinead O’Connor, the book will hardly be the first time that Dillane has trained her attention on the United States.) And though reels being used as a soundtrack to racism is troubling, the development represents one more iteration of ethnomusicology’s universal truth: music changes with the contexts of its listeners.

Dillane performs in Irish music groups when she’s not in the classroom, and she’s seen firsthand the different impacts of her country’s music in different spaces. A well-known tune like “Danny Boy,” for instance, might draw jeers from an Irishman in Ireland but tears from the same person on a visit to Australia. The genre can be many things to many people—so if you’re an Aran-sweatered tourist looking to hear a reel in a Limerick pub, your Irishness is still valid, even if a local wee’un finds it strange.

“People should be allowed to ask for and enjoy what they want, as long as they don’t force it upon other people,” Dillane says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world like that?”

Updated 03.23.2020: Reader Robert M. Ward, the son of alumna Gertrude K. Ward, AM’48, asked Aileen Dillane for “trad music” recommendations, and we thought her answer would be of interest to all.

Thank you for your query, impossible as it is (like asking me to name my favourite child)!  All of the artists I mention below are also on YouTube, so check them out and follow links down the multiple rabbit holes and enjoy that journey.

One of the best ways I can think about limiting my answer to a few CDs is by focusing on Chicago. So here it goes:

  • Local fiddle player, All-Ireland winner, and celebrated composer Liz Carroll has her recordings available online. They are all great. I genuinely couldn't pick one, though I have written about Lost in the Loop and Lake Effect as being particularly of Chicago in terms of performing place and identity. 
  • Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes lived in Chicago for a number of years and started up a musical friendship with Chicagoan and guitarist Denis Cahill. The Lonesome Touch is a beautiful album and is full of what James Cowdery referred to as the neaaa in Irish music, that sense of longing. 
  • Local Chicago band bohola (named after a place in County Mayo) is really good and has numerous recordings under its belt.
  • And if you want to connect with a highly skilled musician and local instrumental teacher, fiddle player Sean Cleland is well worth listening to.

Here in Ireland, I'd recommend the following:

  • Anything from Raelach Records, including Ensemble Eirú, the band featuring the label owner and brilliant concertina player, Jack Talty.
  • Also check out the Gloaming for their compelling band arrangements.
  • This Is How We Fly for their innovative use of percussive dance as part of their contemporary folk music soundscape 
  • All-female band the Henry Girls offers beautiful subtle arrangements and lifting sets. 
  • Finally, as an example of traditional musicians for these unprecedented times that is edgy and impassioned, Lankum will rock your world. 

For more online resources on free recordings from earlier times, including from the early 20th century onward, check out the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. Another good resource is the podcasts from Templebar Tradfest, which I'm currently researching for a three-year project. Finally, the Ward Archives in Milwaukee has a wonderful online collection of music connecting Irish and Irish American heritages.

Happy listening and viewing!