Book review: Sounds Irish, Acts Global charts Ireland’s music … – Irish Examiner

One of the more interesting developments in the telling of the many complicated stories of Ireland has been the re-calibration of the academic compass. 

The history of the island since independence is flush with political and military analysis but, over the last 20 years, the country’s social and cultural underbelly has become an increasingly rich source for researchers and historians. 

Tracking the development of popular culture in Ireland — how we sported and played, basically — tells us much about who we are and the distance we’ve travelled.

Despite boxing above its weight in the global commercial markets for decades, Ireland’s on-off relationship with popular music, and the international success of an increasing handful of artists deriving from here, the literature around the how and why is scant. 

In attempting to light up that void, Sounds Irish, Acts Global pitches into a soft middle-ground between good arts journalism and the often over-bloated cloak of academic scholarship. And it’s all the better for that.

In 13 essays it seeks to explain the success of Ireland’s popular music industry, and commendably so for the most part.

Clocking in just under 200 pages, the collection is as efficient and urgent as many of the zesty left-field records it references in its later chapters.

The authors quickly determine that Ireland doesn’t really have a credible music industry at all. 

Instead, as Gareth Murphy argued in a 2015 contribution to The Journal of Music, what the country does have is ‘the musical equivalent of a comptoir, the colonial term for a trading post that facilitates the outflow of raw materials to foreign factories’.

‘Sounds Irish, Acts Global: Explaining the Success of Ireland’s Popular Music Industry’ by Michael Mary Murphy and Jim Rogers

Michael Mary Murphy, who claims the bulk of the writing credits here, knows that trading post well. 

Having spent many years as a talent scout working the international beat, he posits a series of thoughtful arguments, avoiding the usual trip hazards of opinion and nostalgia. 

Ireland consumes and produces global popular music in vast quantities but this hasn’t always been the case and the book is particularly strong in chasing the arc of that development from there to here.

The authors are often drawn — for better and sometimes for worse — to the margins. Murphy recalls the story of Ellen O’Byrne, a New York-based emigrant from Leitrim who became a pioneering label owner in America during the early 1900s. 

He seats her comfortably alongside the hugely influential Cork-born promoter, Denis Desmond, and Louis Walsh, the high-profile impresario from County Mayo, as genuine agents of cultural change emanating from Ireland.

Murphy and Rogers are less confident in other chapters where, clearly restrained by resources and space, they’re often skimming the surface. 

Their critical evaluation of the entertainment circuit that developed in Ireland’s colleges during the mid-1970s — and that provided the initial backroom teams for both U2 and The Boomtown Rats among much else — is welcome. But an obvious lineage to Donogh O’Malley’s pioneering programme to provide free secondary school education in 1966, goes unexplored. 

Rory Gallagher’s scarcely believable story warrants only two references while one of the most pivotal figures in the entire history of popular music in Ireland, TJ Byrne, the formidable manager of The Royal Showband and the man on whom Louis Walsh modelled his raison d’etre — doesn’t feature at all.

But these are moot points for completists and anoraks only. Sounds Irish, Acts Global isn’t without its flaws but Murphy and Rogers have identified a rich seam and one suspects that their work in mining it has only just started.

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