An education in Irish music and dance

The Irish are world-renowned for their spirit, which is reflected through their traditional music and dance. There are unique opportunities in Irish music and dance on offer in the country’s higher education institutions.

Historically, the university is a place where musicologists talk about classical music - if you want to play classical music, you have to go to a conservatoire and if your interest - whether academic or performance focused - was in any other music or dance then college or university wasn’t the place for you. Happily, over the past few decades, this situation has changed, with institutions accepting pop/rock and folk musics (and to a lesser extent dance), as acceptable areas of study and performance in higher education.

Nowhere has this trend been more predominant as in Ireland, where traditional music and dance have long had an international performance profile. Originally the arts practices of predominantly rural, working-class populations, they have spread throughout the world with waves of emigration from Ireland and have been particularly adept at adapting to new performance contexts and absorbing aspects of other cultures. Since the 1960s, Irish bands have been taking forms, instruments, and performance contexts from jazz, popular music and other ethnic traditions while retaining a distinct identity on the stages of folk and world musics.

Theatre and dance students studying theatre and dance in Ireland

“Universities have become an important part of the artistic community for Irish traditional music and dance communities”

A cursory examination of what is often held as the culmination of the success of Irish music and dance - Riverdance - demonstrates this. Much of the music is written in a style heavily influenced by Balkan forms, and its presentation has much more to do with Broadway or the West End than the west of Ireland. Irish dance is intermingled with tap, flamenco and other modern and ethnic forms. Irish music and dance are successful traditions, with a huge community of amateur and professional artists performing and competing on a world stage.

Mirroring this has been the developments of programmes containing or focused on Irish traditional music and dance at universities and institutes of technology in Ireland.

The initial leader in this development has been University College, Cork which has had a Lecturer in Traditional Music since the 1920s, but it was the work of composers and performers Sean Ó Riada and Mícheal Súilleabháin in particular that ensured traditional music an essential role in the music curriculum there. Since then, traditional music, both in academic study and performance, has become an important part of the music degrees offered by the Institutes of Technology in Waterford, Dublin and Dundalk and nearly all the university music departments offer modules in traditional music studies. The University of Limerick is the only third level institution to offer a full undergraduate programme in Irish Music and Dance, as well as graduate programmes concerned with the academic study and performance of both.

Universities have become an important part of the artistic community for Irish traditional music and dance communities. Students meet, bands form, questions about creativity in current and past practices are asked and a lot of fun is had. An important part of such institutions are the students that come from abroad, from émigré communities or from other music and dance practices, who help us gain new perspectives and develop creative ideas that any artistic practice needs to survive, particularly in today’s fast moving world.

Written by Niall Keegan
Irish World Academy of Music & Dance
University of Limerick (Ireland)