A music blog from Ireland.
International Womens’ Day. In some respects, just another by-line to print on calendars. In others, a well-deserved chance to highlight the differences between the genders. Personally, I’m not pushed. I see myself a person, defined by more than biological fact. I don’t need a special day to remember pioneering women like Fanny Wright and Emmeline Pankhurst, or Emily Dickinson and George Eliot, long-dead girls whose actions live on and make my life that much more enjoyable today. I don’t need to know my limits or check my skirt before I leave the house because I wear the trousers round here. It’s a fact I am thankful for.
When looking at Irish music however, I realise this day stands for something after all. Where are the women of years gone by? Not just those who broke out beyond the Irish Sea but here at home, revered and venerated like the Traditional saints? It is in fact a very sad state of affairs…from Turlough O’Carolan’s first blind strums in the seventeeth century all the way to The Dubliners and Chieftans kicking up their heels, though there are many rich anecdotes of fine Irish musicians, where are the women of that era? Seriously right, the only female cut from similar cloth is Mad Mary, that wacky old broad who danced circles ’round her rosary on O’Connell Street. Which just about sums it up. Thankfully from the Seventies onwards things in Ireland started changing a bit.
Fast forward thirty years and things have changed a lot. Women are free to sing, dance and perform any way they like. Jobs in music or construction are gained on merit, unisex jeans have replaced kilts and shawls. To reflect this and hopefully introduce a new light on that tired ‘there-are-only-three-women-in-Irish-music’ slant, and as a nod of my uncovered head to those grand dames who threw their hands in the are because they just cared too much, I’ve quickly skimmed through some females in Irish music. It doesn’t really matter if they’re remembered in thirty years’ time, as long as we recognise them now.
There were few females in the media when the editor of the Atlantic published a famous letter in 1858, Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet? He then went on to publish Emily Dickinson’s work and ultimately made literary history. Today, music media is certainly heavily populated with women. Personalities like Michelle Doherty and Una Mullally present local music to the public on television while big radio stations weigh in with soft-voiced DJs Edel Coffey, Jenny Huston and Sinead Ni Mhorda. There are many more outlets available to pursue passions and interests than ever before and some multi-taskers manage to juggle their own independent shows with writing commitments like Lauren Murphy and Aoife Barry. The national music press is equally strong with the hard-earned skills of Tara Brady, Sinead Gleeson, Tanya Sweeney and Shilpa Ganatra, while newcomers Celina Murphy and Lisa Hughes have begun to branch out on new shoots of their own. Artistically, Loreana Rushe and Ruth Medjber have shot and snapped alongside the brawniest photographers at large scale concerts, yet it’s never struck me that they’re working in a man’s world. It’s only music and they’re just people good at their job, and to that effect, I guess I’ve taken the joys of this profession for granted.
Though I haven’t had time to do more than glance over it, this article suggests that women were distinctly shunned from the traditional Irish music sessions. It’s not hard to imagine then that the national love affair with imports came from women who sang along to popular radio numbers as they went about their daily chores. It all seems so stultified and boring compared to the scene we know now. You can check the listings or just wander in to a pub or club to hear live music and the chances of a woman’s involvement in the gig, whether she’s the promoter, performer or sound engineer, is high.
Though the ranks of women in Irish music have swelled, we are known through the world for doe-eyed divas who live on royalties from their bygone adolescent lamentations. Though The Chalets (now part of Talulah Does The Hula) enjoyed some early success, twenty years is an astonishing gap without a major breakthrough for an Irish female, more so considering the wealth of recent offerings; Cathy Davey, Rebecca Collins, Valerie Francis, Lisa Hannigan, Nina Hynes, Carol Keogh, Lauren Guillery, Maeve Cheasty and Maykay in their respective bands You’re Only Massive and Fight Like Apes…just some of the strong, talented women making music on these shores. They do so on creative whim and will, driven to produce because it’s who not what they are. Gender is not a selling factor, there are no tits or arses, costumes or autotune. And for what it’s worth, it makes you realise there’s a respect and decency afoot, in that we have too many fine ladies to suffer slags gladly.
Niche and underground bands, despite the Internet emancipation, are generally under-represented, success stories revolving around creative practice and innovation within small cultural circles. Sometimes there’ll be a breakthrough, an Aphex Twin or My Bloody Valentine who stops everyone in their tracks but expectation is low. With little money or attention, the music that doesn’t quite fit is left to blossom unhindered at its own rate without the pressure of courting publicity. With something for everyone who goes looking, this point is where the music gets a bit special; it’s universally compelling, regardless of sex or location. Angkorwat and Ilex are as promising in the world of digital composition as in Dublin venues and the same can be said for Catscars‘ Robyn Bromfield and the haunting voice of Katie Kim. For the alt bros from Atlanta to screaming punks of Los Angeles we can counter with hip sisters like Blasterbra‘s Anna, Logikparty‘s gravel-larynxed Benni and Estel‘s eminent Sarah Shiels, women shaded with creative depth. I cannot cover all the women, though I’d love to try. New arrivals in the form of Vengeance and the Panther Queen, Cixious Ghost and Danielle Harrison only add to the growing sense of excitement that this is just the beginning of a very bright new streak.
So to all the baby-machine music makers out there today, have a good one. Make some music if you like but there’s no pressure. It’s your day, after all. I’m sure all those silent women from years of Irish music would just want you to enjoy it.
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