The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, General Editors, Harry White & Barra Boydell. University College Dublin Press. 2013. Pp. xxxiii + 1145. ISBN 978-1-906359-78-2, Hardback 2 volume boxed set.
This ambitious publication has been a long time in coming and aims to cover what is a very wide subject. On the whole it succeeds with over 2000 entries covering both specific musicians and Irish Music in general. The individual entries range from paragraph length notes, mostly by a single contributor, to short mini articles with multiple contributors and is completed by an extensive index of the main text.
There are however some notable omissions and while it seems unfair to carp at what is a groundbreaking work which can be refined when updated with further editions; it leaves an uneven quality about its production. For example, while Robin Morton gets a passing mention in connection Cathal McConnell and the formation of the group Boys of the Lough, he does not appear to merit an entry in his own right. While Noel Murphy who did much in the 1960's introducing Irish music into the growing English Folk Club circuit does not get mentioned at all.
Piping is well covered in regard to both the modern players and their immediate past generations but possibly because something had to be left out to avoid pipers totally dominating the pages it is disconcerting that no mention is made of a number of the more 'historic' pipers like Courtney, Fitzmaurice, Murphy and Gandsey. On the other hand when it comes to the harp there is a much better balance between the number of entries for modern players and their historical forebears along with the general historical background in which they performed. However the critical approach which should be the standard in a work of this stature slips in one or two places by repeating myths which should have been buried long ago.
For example, in the general section on the Irish Harp and again in the specific entry for Ruaidhri Dall O'Cathain it is stated that his 'tuning key inlaid with gold, silver and precious stones' was presented to his later namesake Echlin O'Cathain (pages 465 and 748). Since Lord MacDonald, the original owner of that harp key is firmly on record in a letter he sent to Boswell giving his own version of the event in which he clearly did not regard the key as having belonged to the earlier O'Cathain, nor regarded it as having any real monetary value, that surely should be treated as the primary version. Likewise, while the entry for Ruaidhri Dall O'Cathain for whom there is no real contemporary evidence makes the passing reference to Echlin O'Cathain, the latter, who does have a solid evidence base, should surely have justified a full entry of his own. The contrast in critical approach is exemplified by the entry for Rose Mooney which does carefully note the conflict between the accounts of Arthur O'Neill and Edward Bunting concerning the date and circumstances of her death.
There is one further curious omission regarding the names for the various stringed instruments. While the Gaelic terms Crot and Tiompan get their own specific entries and also appear in the more general text, as far as this reviewer can tell having read right through from A to Z, Clairseach as a specific name for the harp is no where to be seen. However in an edition which represents the collective work of some 239 contributors the general editors can be allowed some lapses in what has been a mammoth undertaking. Apart from the intrinsic value of the various entries an additional factor is that each one is provided with a bibliography and where relevant, a discography which makes things easier should the reader wishes to pursue the subject further.
The Encyclopaedia comes as a two volume boxed set and can be ordered online directly from the publishers website, which also, unusually, has an apology for the cost of the postage. Perhaps confirming that it is literally a very weighty tome in both senses of that description.
24 October 2013