'Obsession' with trad music leads to launch of a new book

Colette Sheridan talks to Cork-based Jessica Cawley about her new book on traditional Irish music. 
'Obsession' with trad music leads to launch of a new book

Jessica Cawley, author of newly published book 'Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician' which is being launched during the Cork Folk Festival.

 American musician and outreach teacher, Jessica Cawley, originally came to Ireland for six months to check out the traditional Irish music scene. 

Fifteen years later, she is still here, living in Blarney with her GAA- mad Corkonian husband and two young sons. 

Jessica, from New Hampshire, is 'obsessed with trad music'. 

"I started my obsession in the US where I was a musician," she says. "I play the saxophone and was raised in the jazz tradition. But I was drawn to Irish trad music which is huge in the north east of America. There are sessions pretty much everywhere. 

"While my family didn't play Irish music, it wasn't hard for me to find it."

The author of a newly published book 'Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician' which is being launched during the Cork Folk Festival, Jessica plays the flute, the tin whistle, the piano and is learning the banjo. 

As well as her love of traditional music, she also "fell in love with the musical culture here. It's not just the tunes but everything that goes with it; the stories, the craic at a session and the camaraderie."

There is also a drinking culture associated with trad music as much of it takes place in pubs. 

"It can be associated with drink but to me, it transcends that," Jessica says. 

"In this time of Covid when pubs were closed, traditional music is still very much a part of my life. I don't drink now. 

"When I had my two children (Declan aged 5 and Rory aged 3) I couldn't really go to the pub and enjoy the music. As I matured with the music, I don't really see it as being (linked) with drink but it's definitely there."

Jessica's book, which she researched and wrote for her doctorate thesis at UCC, covers the tradition of calling around to people's houses to play music.

"The pub sessions only came about in the 1950s," she says. "But traditional music is way older than pub culture. It has been happening in kitchens for centuries. What I liked about the lockdown is that it brought music home. 

"It came full circle. People are playing trad music in their homes but it's different now because people are making Tik Tok videos. But it is still in the home. It has come back to its roots. 

"There is a massive underground movement of music that is not visible now but it's very much alive in Cork."

These days, Jessica doesn't have the free time to hold music sessions in her house. 

"With the kids and all my friends having kids, it's more play dates at the moment."

Because it's an academic tome, Jessica's book is very expensive - about €100. But it will be made available in libraries, she says. 

"A lot of the students at UCC would be reading it. While it's an academic book, I think it's really down to earth because a lot of the research took place in the Corner House, Sin É and festivals. The book is not about making money for me. It's almost like a living history. I interviewed twenty-two musicians, some quite famous."

They include Mick Daly, Matt Crannitch, Martin Hayes, Conal Ó Grada, Connie O'Connell, Lisa O'Sullivan, Michael O'Sullivan and Joanne Quirke.

The book "bestows honour on the musicians who told me their life stories and their relationship with trad music. They were very generous in helping my research. A couple of the musicians I interviewed are really elderly so it's about capturing a moment in time. The book was a ten year research project. I tried to interview a range of characters from county to county and from different generations. Some are in their eighties and even nineties now. You can tell in just one snapshot how Irish society has changed."

One of the interviewees is fiddle player, Connie O'Connell, from Cill na Martra, who was born in 1943 and still teaches music at UCC. 

"He learned all his music off the radio. But when radio is live you might just hear one tune and you'd have to memorise it instantly. You might never hear it again. So Connie's ear and his memory is about twelve times better than mine. 

"He told me what was involved in listening to the radio when he was younger. There was no electricity so people had to go to the local town to get the batteries charged. There would be two huge cells, a wet one and a dry one. They'd carry the batteries back. So it was an hour-long process just to turn on the radio. 

"I just pop on YouTube and can hear a tune instantly. That difference was really interesting to me. 

"If you go back 200 years, people didn't have radios. That puts it all in context. And yet we're still learning the same tunes. That is kind of nice. There's a consistency there."

Jessica is currently working for Music Generation, funded by U2 and the Ireland Funds. She does outreach teaching in Farranrea, Knocknaheeny and Togher. "We go to all the places that lack musical instruments and we provide them. It's really nice interesting work."

There have been "incredible changes in music education here. Music Generation has played a big part in that. Since I've moved here, there has been great progress made in teaching music. Before, you had to go to a private teacher."

Jessica also runs Club Ceoil Blarney and her eldest son will start learning music there this year. 

Clearly, Jessica has enthusiastically embraced Irish culture.

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