Music and social hierarchy in twentieth-century Irish fiction

McCann, Chris
Participating in music provides a highly personal, affective experience, while also orienting individuals within communal practices and traditions. This is especially pertinent for Irish society, in which music, song, and dance have a central place in the cultural imagination. However, music and its symbols are malleable and negotiable as forms of identification. The very culturally encoded understandings that allow music to foster community cohesion also constitute sites of contest, difference, and exclusion. This has implications for social hierarchies of ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and political affiliation. Literature, itself a central element of Irish culture, frequently calls upon music to act in this way. This thesis exposes the ways in which Irish fiction authors of the twentieth century characterise the hierarchical nature of Irish society by means of music, song, and/or dance. The period in question matters because within it the rapid onset of modernity provokes efforts to preserve traditional culture and solidify constructs of the Irish nation. The analysis asks: do the actual musical practices in local organic communities (borrowing Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s phrase) support the assumption that music can reliably represent an entire Irish polity? And, if not, what are the systemic social, political, and economic hierarchies in the twentieth century that create disunities? Although the likes of Joyce, Beckett, or Roddy Doyle are renowned for their employment of music, other writers also show a marked preoccupation with music and its literary effects. Exploring the work of other authors such as Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, or Mary Dorcey (better known for her poetry) illustrates the diversity of musically informed literature in Ireland. The project engages with Irish-language prose and provides the same critical footing as is afforded to that in English, broadening the theoretical frame of reference by including approaches to music, song, and dance that diverge from an Anglocentric perspective. A deliberately interdisciplinary methodology foregrounds music as a communicative act, a means of extending the written word by performing. The concepts of melophrastic ellipsis (for music) and chorophrastic ellipsis (for dance) are advanced to explain how music is embedded in prose such that the reader can “hear”, “see” and “feel” it. As symbol, performance, as narrative turn, music becomes a powerful device at the disposal of prose writers. Ultimately, the analysis in this thesis links sound and symbol, word and world, elucidating the ways that music in fiction affirms and contests social hierarchies in Ireland during the twentieth century.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland