Recently, I had the privilege to do an interview with the acknowledged Irish traditional-folk singer, ethnomusicologist, and educator, Niamh Parsons about traditional Irish folk music, the current state of it, and how the Irish government made efforts to keep the Irish musical heritage alive in the last 30 years.
Throughout her career, Niamh has performed with a wide variety of artists, and has appeared at nearly every prestigious folk festival on either side of the Atlantic. As a member of the traditional Irish band Arcady, she sang on their Shanachie recording Many Happy Returns. She once appeared before US President Bill Clinton and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Washington; and, joined Grammy Award winner Paul Winter for an album and a summer concert in New York. As a journalist, I feel lucky getting a chance to have a discussion with her about the musical and cultural heritage of the Emerald Isle.
Aron: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I sing traditional songs – and sometimes folk songs – the difference for me being folk songs are usually written more recently – “traditional songs” are over 70 years old apparently. I would consider myself an Irish traditional/folk singer.
Aron: What is your very first memory of Irish folk music having an impact on you?
Niamh: I’ve been singing from the age of 2, so my parents tell me, and I have an early image of singing in the car with my Dad and my older sister, on long trips to Co. Clare in the west of the country where my mother is from. We always sang all the way to Clare and I remember it vividly. So from an early age, traditional unaccompanied songs interested me – but I wouldn’t call them “folk songs”, I would call them “traditional songs”. My mother’s area is full of Irish traditional music, and during summer holidays, we would hear a lot of music and would be brought to various sessions in pubs in the area, and would hear music, songs and both my parents danced, so we learnt how to dance too. While my first memory is singing in the car, the impact has been life long. As I grew up I became interested in story songs, old or new, and developed a mixed repertoire of traditional and folk songs.
In your bio, it is stated that you have been singing/performing Irish folk songs but you also have been doing ethnomusicological research and collecting Irish folk songs since the beginning of your career.
Which one is more important to you? The ethnomusicological work or performing those folk songs in public?
Niamh: The research has gained my interest over the years, probably from meeting some wonderful collectors of songs, and just being interested in the origins of old songs – As I get older, I am doing a lot of teaching and mentoring of singers, so I wanted to know about origins of songs I teach. But performing these songs is more important to me, however I usually know as much history as possible of the songs I choose to sing.
Aron: In the last couple of years, Dublin has been rapidly becoming a multicultural hot-spot. Do you think multiculturalism affects the popularity of Irish folk music? If so, is it a negative or positive impact?
Niamh: Yes I feel that there is a positive impact from multi cultures in not only Dublin, but all over Ireland. There are many non-Irish born musicians playing music, and many non-Irish born children learning music – I think it is very positive and I’m sure the impact will grow over time, as people integrate into Irish society. It will be interesting to see what fusion music will be like in years to come. Also with more cultures living in Ireland, they become interested in the traditional music of our country, so therefore the home audience is growing.
Aron: Has the popularity of Irish folk music decreased or increased since the 1990s? How do you see it?
Niamh: Yes I feel it has become much more popular. When I was growing up, many Irish people didn’t listen to traditional or folk music. Popular music, classical music, and country music were played on the radio, with very little folk/traditional music. When I started my career over 30 years ago, I began touring outside the country, as it is much more popular elsewhere e.g. USA, UK, Europe, Australia, Japan, etc. However since the 1990s, there are more bands, more individual musicians and many more festivals in Ireland and beyond, so there is a bigger appetite for the music these days.
Aron: As an experienced singer and teacher, how do you see it? Has the Irish government made efforts to preserve Irish folk music and keep it alive in the last 30 years?
Niamh: The Irish Government has not really made too much of an effort to preserve Irish folk/traditional music in my opinion. However it is being preserved by individuals and groups, and in archives, for example The Irish Traditional Archive ITMA.com – the Pipers Club NPU.ie – Harp Ireland and many Arts/Cultural centres. Funding is given via the Arts Council, however the funding also covers all the Arts, Painters, Sculptors, Actors, Writers, Musicians of all genres, so very little gets to the Irish Traditional music. A lot of funding goes to Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Comhaltas.ie for teaching music, and Fleadhs etc.
Aron: What are these policies? Which sectors have been supported by them? Tourism, education, the culture sector, or all of them?
Niamh: The Arts Council funds individuals as well as through a variety of venues e.g. ITMA got funding for various projects. There is funding available for collaborative projects but it is difficult to get funding because one has to tick all the boxes, and have innovative ideas about projects, and this funding does not cover every day costs of being a musician. Culture Ireland has also funded musicians for the likes of flights to tour other countries. I would say Education funds colleges for individual bursaries for projects, as well as overall Folklore teaching but I would not know much about that. Tourism, while benefiting from the music in the country, the hotels, the pubs, the festivals, etc. don’t actually fund much as far as I am aware but again I would not have much information on that.
Aron: Did the Irish Government make efforts to help the culture sector in Ireland during the Coronavirus crisis? Did folk musicians, music venues, and folk music festivals receive enough aid to get by and keep Irish folk music going in a post-covid era?
Niamh: In Ireland at the start of the Pandemic, the whole country was offered what they called PUP – Pandemic Unemployment Payment, because many lost their jobs. Self employed people like musicians applied and were given a weekly pay which lasted for a few months and then it was dropped by a third but is still being paid. There are calls to create a pilot scheme for a Universal Basic Income for the Arts – whereby musicians and other artists would not have to sign on the dole, and have to be available for other work which is very demeaning as musicians/creatives spend years honing their craft. However it is debatable as to whether the Irish Government will support this kind of project. In my own situation, my tours were cancelled, my audiences no longer existed, and I had to apply for PUP, which I receive but it is very small, however I also teach online. The Government are doing what they can for workers but not distinguishing between musicians and other workers. And another thing is the fact that many of Ireland’s musicians are not professional, but would play in pubs at night for a fee, which would supplement their usual earnings, and as there are no pubs open, there are no sessions. I see this situation staying the same for another year, because pubs pay musicians to play so they can attract people into the pub, but social distancing will be a problem. Hotels/pubs will not earn enough to justify paying musicians for sessions.