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EU Month of Culture Spotlight: Ireland

As part of the European Month of Culture in May 2016, we focus on scholars from European Union member states who have conducted research at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.

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Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, Alan Lomax Fellow

Deirdre Ní Chonghaile - Anne Burke a ghlac

Deirdre Ní Chonghaile was the 2012 Alan Lomax Fellow in Folklife Studies at The John W. Kluge Center. Photo courtesy the scholar, used with permission.

Alan Lomax was America’s foremost documentarian of American and world folk music. Though Deirdre Ní Chonghaile was awarded the fellowship that bears his name, she arrived at the Kluge Center in 2012 to study another, lesser known American ethnographer: Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Sidney was born in California in 1903. Originally a music teacher, for 21 years from 1936 to 1957 she recorded a wide variety of music in the U.S. and in other countries, including Canada, Ireland, Iran, east Pakistan – now Bangladesh – and throughout South Asia. Toward the end of her life, she donated her papers to the Library of Congress.

Ní Chonghaile had a special connection to Sidney: in Ireland, Ní Chonghaile’s uncle Seán Ó Conghaile taught some Irish to Sidney. In fact, a postcard that Seán sent to Sidney is in the Library of Congress collections.

Sidney’s first efforts to record overseas were in Ireland. In the summers of 1955 and 1956, she created up to 11 hours of recordings, extensive notes and photographs in the west of Ireland, specifically in the Aran Islands and in Conamara. According to Ní Chonghaile, her Irish work forms a small but significant part of Cowell’s field recordings and writings.

Ireland detail

Map of Ireland. Image courtesy the CIA World Factbook. Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ei.html

Why did Sidney go to Ireland? In 1955, she and her husband, the avant-garde composer Henry Cowell, planned a summer lecture and concert tour of Europe and the Middle East. They began their trip with a holiday in Aran because they wanted to reconnect with Maggie Dirrane, the star of the movie “Man of Aran,” whom Henry had met in New York in 1934 during the Broadway premiere of the film. The Cowells arrived in the largest island of Inis Mór and stayed in the guesthouse of Ní Chonghaile’s grandparents. They soon discovered that Dirrane’s son, John, and others had never been recorded. Within a week, Cowell had borrowed an EMI tape recorder from the BBC. Over 12 days, Sidney recorded 16 single-track tapes in Inishmore—around 70 songs, mostly in Irish and a few English ones. And in 1956, when she was granted funding by the Rockefeller Foundation to spend seven months studying music in the Orient, Sidney began that trip by returning to Ireland and recording 16 five-inch double-track tapes in Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Carna on the mainland.

The folks in Aran called Sidney “The Yank with the Box,” a reference to her being an American with a recording device. This was the title of Ní Chonghaile’s lecture at the Kluge Center. Upon first arriving in Aran, Sidney recorded almost everything, but she later took a special concern in the old style of solo singing, describing its interest thus: “It has been something of a surprise to me to find that the voices of many Irish peasants, like those of beggars and boatmen in Italy, are really surpassingly beautiful by cultivated concert standards. Although they may sing nothing but songs from the oral tradition, in the old, curving vocal style, very surprising from a fellow in hip boots digging peat in a Conamara bog.” Sidney clearly found beauty and excitement in recording the music of Aran. But she also intended to document the musical connections between Irish traditional music and American folk music. She wanted to document such connections for an American audience, because, as she wrote, “The music lies very close behind much of the folk music of the United States.”

Ireland map

Map of Europe with Ireland highlighted. Image courtesy the CIA World Factbook. Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ei.html

A woman in the male-dominated field of folk music collecting, Sidney Robertson Cowell’s work had been marginalized over the decades, but Ní Chonghaile has helped to bring her contributions to light. Ní Chonghaile’s research on Sidney and Aran folk music featured in her PhD thesis, “’ag teacht le cuan’ : Irish traditional music and the Aran Islands”, and will be published in her forthcoming book on music-collecting in Ireland. Sidney’s recordings and Ní Chonghaile’s research are two of the ways that the culture of Aran continues to be preserved.

Learn more about Ní Chonghaile’s work:

Related Links:

Additional posts in this series:

More about the European Month of Culture can be found here or on social media at #EUMC2016.

Check back later this week for the final post in this series.

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