March to a new tune

The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture
April 7, 2000

It is timely for the editor of this book to remind readers that "there is more to Irish culture than poetry, drama and fiction" and for him to include as cultural indicators headwords such as "abortion", "Baptist church" and "electrification, rural", which "were rarely considered as such until recently", even though I want below to register a severe regional reservation. Timely because this expansion of culture in the minds of Irish cultural historians is just getting under way and will have enormous repercussions generally, and perhaps in long-term political arrangements specifically.

It is in this register of cultural enlargement that the Companion pleases and surprises. Granting the fairer-than-fair crack of the whip Irish literature has been given, ten authoritative columns on "architecture" by Frederick O'Dwyer are just and rewarding. One wonders, though, why the equally enlightening "art 1913-23" and "art, contemporary", with plenty of column space apiece, are allotted no illustrations while all of the Companion 's 12 photographs are under "architecture". (Could permissions costs explain this entirely?) And what became of art before 1913? If "penal laws" and "plantation" warrant headwords, why not this? Or, for that matter, fiction after 1830 - "fiction to 1830" is taken good care of. Nevertheless, a volume that attempts to do belated justice to the cultural importance of "Waterford glass", " Titanic ", the "Royal Black Preceptory", "mathematics", "Bob Geldof" and "photography", among a host of other topics, deserves our admiration.

Irish music fares even better than art and architecture, for there are no fewer than 46 edifying columns by diverse hands on topics ranging from "music associations" and "music education" to "music sources" and "musical instruments". This is a serious and welcome cultural redress, and Irish musicians and musicologists are now in the editor's debt. There are also several lively columns on "popular music", but followers of traditional Irish music will be disappointed that their enthusiasm has apparently been an editorial casualty, vanishing along with a twin volume that the editor tells us in his introduction was abandoned, The Blackwell Companion to Gaelic Culture in Ireland ; jazz aficionados have a right to blow their cool.

The Irish Dixieland and New Orleans jazz movements, which began in Belfast at the end of the second world war (s.v. "Emergency"), have been of enormous cultural significance, especially in Northern Ireland. Jazz and even classical musicians in Ulster (for example, James Galway) sometimes learned their instruments in brass or silver bands that in the summer season led Orange marchers: these bands, too, have been a part of Ulster culture and warrant separate treatment.

An unmixed and instructive pleasure of the book is the retrieval from the archives and specialist histories of noteworthy cultural figures. As it turns out, many of these are composers or conductors: from Brian Boydell and David Byers to Havelock Nelson and Sir Charles Stanford. But there are numerous others in a variety of disciplines and activities, though it is odd to find "Ferguson, Howard" (pianist and composer) but not "Ferguson, Harry" (inventor and engineer) save as a passing reference under "aviation". Still, welcome it is to read Roy Johnston's entries on "industrial revolutions" and "technology", which will help in their small way to tilt the cultural balance in Ireland away from rural romantic nationalism towards global reality.

But compilations such as this, however instructive and entertaining (and this is both), really should indicate the cursory treatment of Northern Ireland in their titles. The entries under "abortion", "censorship", "contraception", "divorce", "sexuality" and "women, position of" necessarily relate shabby histories that go a fair way to explain the force of Ulster unionism, the refusal of northern Protestants to accept the rule of a society and form of government that were responsible for these histories. The writer of "censorship" rightly indicts anti-Englishness and Catholic morality but uses Great Britain as the counter-example when it should be the United Kingdom. Ulster under Stormont had its repressions too, but nothing comparable to those recorded under the above headwords. "Women, position of" should have been re-worded "women in Eire, position of" if the absence of Northern Ireland in its purview (one clause in nine columns) is not to be called disgraceful. This familiar bias is so natural among southern commentators as to be almost excusable. The authors of the entries for "libraries" and "labour and trade union movement" show a far greater knowledge of the whole island.

This geographical-cum-political reservation aside, the Companion is a bounteous compilation, from which students and casual readers alike will emerge with a far healthier idea of what has constituted Irish culture in the modern era. The editor is to be warmly thanked for his pains; he has racked up the man-hours on a project that in single rather than double-column format would exceed 1,000 pages and has come away with a book that is indisputably readable in study, library or bedroom.

John Wilson Foster is professor of English, University of British Columbia, Canada.

The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture

Editor - W. J. McCormack
ISBN - 0 631 16525 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £75.00
Pages - 686

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