A life on the fiddle helped to make dream gig a reality

March 23, 2007

Irish folk music has always been close to Martin Dowling's heart, so much so that he married a flutist and honeymooned in Ireland on the proceeds of a couple of research grants.

And now Dr Dowling, the son of Irish parent who emigrated to the US, has landed his dream job. He is just a few months into his post as lecturer in and researcher of Irish traditional music at Queen's University Belfast.

Such a position seems a long way from Dr Dowling's beginnings. He was brought up in Wisconsin and studied economics at the University of Chicago.

The turning point came in his final year, when he took modules in Irish literature and history. His literature tutor knew that a fellow student needed a fiddle player for a band and introduced them.

The fellow student was Michael Donaghy, who founded the celebrated Irish group Samradh Music, edited the Chicago Review and became a noted poet.

Dr Dowling's parents were not particularly musical, but they encouraged their children in traditional Irish music and dance; he had played the fiddle for his sisters when they performed Irish dances in shopping malls and nursing homes. But when I was doing that in Chicago "I discovered how little I really knew, and made up my mind that really what was required was an extended stay in Ireland", he says. He returned to Wisconsin to study with the prominent Irish historian James Donnelly.

"My idea was to get a research grant and to study history by day and music by night. It did turn out very well. Along the way, I married a woman who played the flute, and we had our honeymoon in Ireland on the back of a couple of research grants."

The couple moved to Ireland permanently in 1993, and his dual career as a social historian and musician came together last December when he gained his current position at Queen's.

"I've only been in post for a month, and there's no template or structure in existence, so I'm really developing the whole thing from scratch," he says. He is creating modules on the development of the aesthetic form of traditional music, the evolution of style and technique on various instruments, and the composition of new music. "I'm literally just a few weeks ahead of the students. But it's a good form of stress."

He will also develop a taught MA that promotes archival research, fieldwork with musicians and performance. Queen's School of Music and Sonic Arts already offers programmes in performance studies, but Dr Dowling says there are crucial differences between preparing for a career in a string quartet or an orchestra and the more unstructured world of traditional music. "Only a very small number of traditional musicians make their living exclusively from it. This is not about creating the next Boys of the Lough or Chieftains - there isn't that kind of structured career path."

One area Dr Dowling may investigate is the status of music during the Troubles. The Protestants and the Catholics of Northern Ireland had long played similar instruments and in similar styles, and the song tradition spanned both communities, he says. But Dr Dowling believes that during the Troubles Protestants became more isolated from music, which grew increasingly bound up with Irish nationalism.

In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, traditional music is being promoted as a common inheritance. "We've begun to realise that despite the many problems of expressing oneself culturally during the Troubles a large body of Protestants and Catholics carried on singing and dancing and playing, and in more healthy circumstances things are coming together more."


I graduated from the University of Chicago (BA, Economics, 1982) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (MA and PhD, 1994)

My first job was in the Cudahy Tanning Company, in Cudahy, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. I operated machines that prepared cow hides for sale to leather goods companies.

My main challenge is bringing traditional music into the context of higher education in a way that enhances what happens within the tradition itself.

What I hate most is the subjection of the arts and the humanities to instrumental, bureaucratic ends.

In ten years, I hope to have published a history of Irish traditional music, released a recording of my best fiddle playing and have begun to enjoy the achievements of my two sons as they enter adulthood.

My favourite joke is always the last one I've heard. Here it is: What's the difference between an Australian boomerang and an Irish boomerang? When you throw an Australian boomerang, it comes back. When you throw an Irish boomerang, it never comes back, it just keeps singing about coming back.

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