Scholar from Galway describes impact of music diaspora

What is thought of as authentic in traditional Irish music often has its roots far away from the Emerald Isle, according to an expert in the art who spoke Nov. 3, 2015 at St. John Fisher College.

Dr. Verena Commins, a lecturer from the National University of Ireland at Galway whose specialty is Irish traditional music, discussed the influence of emigrant Irish communities on the development of the music during the 20th century.

For example, the popularity of certain regional styles, especially from County Clare and County Sligo, probably can be traced to recordings made in the United States in the early 20th century. At the time, recording technology was new and many recordings of Irish musicians were made and published.

But the recordings that became most popular, Commins said, happened to be of musicians from Sligo and Clare playing their local tunes. When those recordings were sent back to Ireland, it helped to spread the regional styles. In that way, what was happening with the development of Irish music in America was influencing the homeland, she explained.


Verena Commins

Similarly, the popularity of traditional pub sessions of Irish players who gather to play and learn tunes has a lot to do with Irish emigres to London shortly after World War II. She said that many Irish people moved to Ireland around then to help rebuild war-torn England.

But for the Irish laborers living in one-room flats, the local pub became like their living room. That is where they would gather to socialize and play their music since there was no room for that in their homes, and such meetings helped popularize sessions back in Ireland when those emigrants returned.

Commins even told a personal story of her own connection to the diaspora, or Irish emigrants living abroad who developed communities that helped to preserve their Irish heritage and culture, because it included her own parents. They were natives of County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast but were among the wave that moved to England after World War II, and Commins was born in the English midlands around Coventry. She later moved back to Ireland and now lives in County Galway, where she teaches.

But she was challenged about her own “authentic Irishness” by her son, who as an 8-year-old wondered why she was rooting for Mayo in an important hurling match when she has never lived in Mayo and was in fact born in England. His comment was one of the things that got her thinking about the way the diaspora affects Irish culture and behaviors at home, she said.

Commins also shared some information and photographs of her own more recent research into monuments to famous Irish traditional players, which she said reinforce many of the ideas about musical influences from the diaspora on the local music scene. She has so far cataloged 80 such monuments, which are concentrated in the west (especially in Clare and Sligo) and often feature musicians whose work was popularized by those early recordings in America.