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Toner Quinn: ‘There has been a thaw around issues of Irishness, but now we see a hardening again’

The Journal of Music’s editor has turned a selection of his writing over the past 23 years into the formidable What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, somebody once said. It might have been Frank Zappa. Or Elvis Costello. Or possibly David Byrne or Brian Eno. But, much as it makes for an internet-friendly maxim, the remark doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Certainly, the many readers of the Journal of Music would attest to the value of music writing, particularly when it’s overseen by the provocative, never less than challenging Toner Quinn.

He founded the journal 23 years ago – it now lives online – and has edited it ever since. He has just gathered a formidable collection of his pieces into a book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, and Other Essays. Is the intellectual environment healthier than it was when he started out?

“Creating a deeper discourse around music is as challenging now as ever,” he says. “It never gets easier for the Journal of Music to create a discussion around something – and to bring about a deeper public discussion around music you need to be consistent over time.

“Is it healthier today? We are more empowered, for sure. We can create our own rich micro-discourses, whether on the Journal of Music or through other platforms, and reach audiences worldwide – the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s Drawing from the Well video series is another good example – but to what extent does all this activity impact on the national media and the national conversation in Ireland? I’m afraid I think the discourse on music is still rather thin. So that has not changed, and I still find that very frustrating.”


What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music is a richly textured, all-embracing compendium. Reflections on the late accordionist, broadcaster and contrarian Tony MacMahon sit alongside interrogations of Irish music education, Arts Council policy and our need to take more seriously the views and work of those who don’t cleave to the received wisdom of what Irish music is or can be.

“In the early days of the Journal of Music we definitely talked a lot about music and nationalism, because we were in the very early days post the Good Friday agreement,” Quinn says. “There has definitely been an intellectual thaw around issues of identity and Irishness – at least we thought so; and traditional music completely opened up as an art form in the 2010s – but now we see a hardening of the walls again as regards identity.

“At the end of the book, little did I know when I was writing about Sinéad O’Connor – about the need for more intellectual curiosity, the need to listen to the dissenters and engage with them – that a few months later there would be an outbreak on the streets because people didn’t feel they were being listened to.”

Quinn is at his best when he combines his musician’s insights with his innate curiosity about how we relate to Irish music and what it signifies for us and about us. His piece on MacMahon is a masterclass in rigorous scrutiny of traditional music.

“I worked with Tony MacMahon in RTÉ,” Toner says. “He was definitely fuelling the imaginations of young musicians like me when I started off. He challenged us intellectually. I don’t think I ever agreed with Tony on that much at all. It was all about the discourse.

“Today we don’t have the debates around traditional music that we may have had 20 years ago, that is true. There has definitely been an opening up, but we’ve still had a lot of discussions lately about support for traditional music and record labels and things like that. There may be lots of different discussions going on. It doesn’t mean that they’re all connected.”

When I started writing, in my early 20s, I was trying to understand Irish traditional music and the role of music in Irish society. Whenever I would have discussions with people, the debate seemed to be closed down pretty quickly

Collecting so many well-argued pieces in one place underscores the heft of Quinn’s writing. His piece on Martin Hayes brings the listener and reader straight to the heart of what the music of the Co Clare fiddler is all about.

Quinn credits the internet with fuelling a dramatic shift in the velocity of conversations such as this. “Technology completely opened up the art form,” he says, “because there was this sharing of information in a way we never had before. As social media reached a critical mass, suddenly you had this extraordinary sharing of information, and you could see just how much music was happening around you, all the time. That’s when it became impossible to keep up with everything that was happening. So all of that sharing of information means that it’s a lot harder for people to make hard, fast statements about music.”

Quinn is never more engaging than when he questions the essence of traditional music.

“When I started writing, in my early 20s, I was trying to understand Irish traditional music and the role of music in Irish society,” he says. “Whenever I would have discussions with people, the debate seemed to be closed down pretty quickly. I found it very hard to have a productive discussion about what was happening, because we just seemed to paint ourselves into corners.

“So I found that, over time, I had to strip this music back so that I could start to think about it clearly. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t content to not engage with the ideas around me. Everyone had a different idea about what Irish music was. So I asked myself, ‘What am I actually doing when I play music? I’m just expressing human emotion.’ That idea was influenced by John Blacking, the ethnomusicologist. Once I stripped my own music back like that, it allowed me to turn to all this other music that I thought I didn’t understand, and I could use it as a starting point.

“All these people are just expressing themselves, and they’re all part of small communities and large communities, and that’s how I could take this open, all-embracing approach in the Journal of Music. And being part of a community was influenced by Desmond Fennell’s book Beyond Nationalism, which questioned why we were thinking about these hard borders, that we were just a group of communities. That was what gave me a starting point.”

When you’re writing, particularly in Ireland, it’s in our nature to be conservative in our compliments

Quinn writes passionately about how we value spontaneous performance in the community (think of the fleadhs, of the Willie Clancy Summer School), of how the passing-on of music is stitched into the music’s DNA, and of how everyone is learning all the time, so young musicians have a status unique to Irish traditional music.

He turns a mirror on ourselves, and while that can sometimes be uncomfortable, it’s also a welcome challenge to the status quo. Like the late Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who founded the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, Quinn prods us to consider ideas we may never have imagined, luring us deeper beneath the skin of the music.

That’s what writing is all about, something he learned very early in life.

“When you’re writing, particularly in Ireland, it’s in our nature to be conservative in our compliments,” Quinn says, reflecting on the gamble he took when he first set out. “So you never really know what impact your writing is having in practical terms. I learned as a child from both my parents, who were writing themselves, that you can be writing in your room, but once your words go out there they can go far, and they can have an effect in ways you can’t imagine.”

What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, and Other Essays, by Toner Quinn, is published on Tuesday January 30th