There was more than a smattering of Northern Irish accents in the room when Nicholas Carolan was given an official send off from the Irish Traditional Music Archives in September 2015.
With Cathal Goan the retired Director General of the Irish Language TV station TG4, and now Chairperson of the University College Dublin’s National Folklore Foundation (an archive that boasts 10,000 hours of audio recordings, 70,000 photographs and 1,000 hours of moving images). Goan’s wife the celebrated singer Maighread Ni Dhomnaill. There were speeches from Dermot McLaughlin and Grace Toland both from Donegal and the main retrospective by Armagh’s Fintan Vallely. There was a distinctive Ulster feel to the evening; indeed Nicholas Carolan, a Louth man is also from that province. Not that there has ever been anything provincial in Nicholas’s work or his vision for an encompassing archive of “the music of the people” and the ITAMS, with is library, sound archives and digital services testament not only to his initial ideas but to the sheer work involved during his career.
Dermot McLaughlin brought us up to speed with ITMA’s history. The archive was mooted in the early1980s and was enthusiastically welcomed by the former Director of the Arts Council Adrian Munnelly and its Chairperson Máirtín McCullough. Dermot commented that Tom Munnelly (possibly the greatest song collector in Ireland in the 20th century ); Breandan Breathnach (the piper and the compiler of Ceol Rince na hÉireann/Dance Music of Ireland, who unfortunately died in 1985 before the archive was established); and the Traditional Arts Officer Paddy Glackin, a one time member of the Bothy band and a man who would become a senior producer for RTÉ Televison, the State Broadcaster “They all had done so much to get the archive established.” Looking across at Nicholas he said “All these people made it happen, but Nicholas Carolan made it work.”
Sheila Preitsche, the current Arts Council Chair, gave a detailed speech, that looked back on Carolan’s contribution but also looked forward to the next chapter in the archive. She took pains to recognise that the work of the archive is a team effort and continues from day to day, saying “We owe so much to the staff and board of the archive, their imaginations, their dedication, their sense of responsibility to our musical heritage and indeed its present and future. The achievements of the archive are here for all to see, the work speaks for itself.”
Looking back to 1987 when Nicholas Carolan and Harry Bradshaw (whose work on re-mastering and digitising the archive of music from RTÉ) she said in Nicholas Carolan, they had found “A visionary and passionate advocate for the archive and a valued partner with the Arts Council and moreover a great teacher. He has taught us what riches lie in our own musical traditions.” She noted that all the staff of the archive is players or singers, such that “a visitor to the archive not only feels welcome but is also amplified by their experience here.”
Fintan Vallely the flute player, encyclopaedia editor, raconteur and wit, was introduced by Dermot McLaughlin to put Carolan’s work into its musical perspective. Fintan began by telling us this would be an “An encomium, a laudatory ode, a formal expression of high praise. Nicholas has made a number of significant contributions to traditional music, at the archive, through his research and writing and his presenting the long running Come West Along The Road series on RTÉ.” This he said was a natural progression as “traditional music is all about transmission”.
He told of an evening when himself and Nicholas, had decided to go for an after work drink in a nearby hotel. They found themselves in a Fianna Fail fund raising event. One senior politician came up to Nicholas greeting him with “Oh the Céilí Man, the Céilí Man!” To which the crowd roared with laughter. Fintan said that Nicholas’ compass went further than Céilí music, it has him steered to all parts of Ireland as well as the USA and the UK.
Fintan talked of the two major questions facing any archive, as recordings may degrade and technology supersede our ability to listen back, how do we preserve what is already in the archive? Secondly, what do we archive in the first place? He said that “Nicholas’ skill has been in preserving what has real value, beyond what might be currently popular or profitable. He has taken the nature of traditional music as his guiding principle. His motto can be summed up as ‘Preserve what can be passed to future players.’”
Before Nicholas was given the floor to speak he was presented with memento from the staff and board of the archive, a beautiful fiddle bow from the atelier Stefan Cunnla. This was greeted by his explosive applause which followed from the packed archive and Carolan was genuinely taken aback with this gift. He paid tribute to Harry Bradshaw and the late Tom Munnelly with whom he shared a vision for what the ITMA should be. He said it had been a “privilege to have been involved with the ITMA over the past 28 years. Where he had interacted with thousands of people directly and possibly hundreds of thousands through my TV work. People who like ourselves who are entranced by traditional music.”
Like all good managers and leaders who have a vision that reach beyond them he said it had always been his plan to leave “an organisation which ran itself, where everyone knew their role.” He was sure that his was the case today. Access is always an issue with any museum, library or archive and he was pleased that many of the the ITMA’s resources are now online and digitised, “allowing access to material any time and anywhere.” Closing his thank you speech he said that although the ITMA “is an important archive of traditional music, it is not traditional music; which is a living culture, created daily around the world. The archive exists to support that living tradition.”
Grace Toland the current ITMA director thanked Nicholas for his many years of service and for his friendship and generosity “which has seen the staff of the archive through so many great days, and also helped them cope with some very sad days too. How proud we are as a team of people to be standing on your shoulders, and by God we are going to do great things!” And by way of accepting the baton for the next round of the track, she sang a song and Dermot McLaughlin and Paddy Glackin ripped into a set of reels.
I left the crowd as they to moved onto a nearby pub to continue the music with a social session. Downstairs in the public library of the archive I noticed two objects on the mantelpiece, one a cylinder phonograph from around 1900, the other an envelope from Tara Records, the outside label said it contained a DAT tape of Liam O’Flynn playing the uilleann pipes. Both bits of kit were cutting edge technology in their time. Now in an era of MP3s, USBs hard drives, SSDs and the Cloud, I could see once an archive has been set up it becomes a stone time rolling down a hill, at each turn it gathers momentum, until it is almost unstoppable. If pop will eat itself an archive has to copy itself every generation, and thanks to the foresight of Nicholas Carolan that process is in hand at the ITMA Dublin.
Photo Credits: (1) Nicholas Carolan & Dermot McLaughlin (by Seán Laffey); (2) Fintan Vallely, (3) Paddy Glackin (unknown).