Living the dream at the ITMA: Liam O’Connor

Liam O’COnnor

The new head of the ITMA seems tailor-made for the role

The appointment of Liam O’Connor as the new Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) has met with universal approval in the traditional music ‘community.’ Liam is an acclaimed fiddle player – with five all-Ireland titles; a TG4 Gradam Cheoil in 2002 and a nomination as Instrumentalist of the Year in the 2018 RTÉ Folk Awards. He is much sought after as a performer and as a teacher.   He is a collector of tunes and a widely respected researcher into the history of traditional music, being recognised as a leading authority on tune collector, P. W. Joyce, and fiddle virtuoso, Tommie Potts, from the Liberties in Dublin. Fluent in Irish, Liam has also served previously on the boards of An Cumann Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society and of the ITMA.

This impressive record of accomplishment is built upon a lifetime of immersion in playing music, studying its history, engaging with other musicians and reflecting on the wider cultural impact of music on local communities and in the wider global context.   Liam says he was born into an archive – noting that his father, the renowned flute player, Mick O’Connor – has accumulated a rich trove of traditional music memorabilia – both audio and visual – which would more than fill a decent-sized house. Surrounded by the music of his parents and his siblings, it was inevitable that Liam would take up an instrument or two. While the fiddle is his ‘weapon of choice’ – ever since he began taking lessons with Dublin fiddler, Séamus Glackin – Liam is also acquainted with the concertina. This under-reported second string to his bow may go some way to explain the rapport evident in his acclaimed duo collaborations with the concertina masters, Noel Hill from Clare and Cormac Begley from Kerry.  

Though a Dubliner by birth and conviction, Liam also retains a special affection for the music of Clare as a result of the many childhood and teenage summers spent on holiday with his mother’s family and their friends. Back then, a young lad from Dublin playing traditional music was still unusual enough to require explanation: “This is Liam from Dublin… but his mother’s from Clare.” Now over twenty years later – following the exponential growth in the number of musicians playing the music and in the size of the audience listening to it, Dublin-born traditional musicians are no longer quite so rare.

Gaelic football, on the other hand, has been especially well played and supported in Dublin in recent years. The young Liam O’Connor was a talented exponent of the game – captaining one of the county’s under-age teams and later the Coláiste Mhuire team in the All-Ireland Colleges Final of Corn na Mac Léinn. The physicality of Gaelic football with its attendant risk of injury did not sit easily with a serious commitment to music. So when Liam had to pass up an invitation from Liam O’Flynn to play again with him – because he was incapacitated by a football injury – it was finally rime to hang up his boots to reduce the chances of missing any more opportunities in music.

By this time O’Connor had already become acquainted with the Irish Traditional Music Archive. At the prompting of Séamus Glackin, he had begun to move beyond simply playing music to find out more about the background to the tunes and to the musicians who played them. So he began to search the Archive for recordings by master fiddlers like Michael Coleman, Johnny Doherty and Seán Keane. A good deal of Liam’s transition year in secondary school was spent in the Archive and from this initial engagement there has grown a recurring and deepening relationship with the ITMA which has, coincidentally, contributed to some of the major milestones in Liam’s musical career.

The title track of his critically acclaimed 2017 album, The Loom, was discovered on a video of Tommie Potts held in the Archive. He also spent over four months in the Archive in 2010-11 on assignment from the Royal Irish Academy to identify over 100 songs in Irish recorded on wax cylinders in 1928-31. And of course, he has recorded 371 tunes from P. W. Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs to be made available through the ITMA’s PORT feature. Though monumental in scale, this project has been a labour of love for O’Connor combining his long-standing interest in Joyce – who has the subject of his two academic theses including his Masters – and his commitment to the use of the latest technology in the transmission of culture.

The online PORT feature enables musicians to learn tunes in their own space and at their own pace by slowing the speed of the playing (without losing pitch) and to repeat a particular phrase in a tune until the learner has absorbed it before moving on to the next. In this way, the learner takes charge of their own learning.   From being a willing contributor, Liam is now in a position to influence the direction of the Archive in line with the Strategic Plan recently adopted by the ITMA Board.

As a Board member, himself, a few years ago, he would often engage in speculation along the lines of “wouldn’t it be great if we could…” – dreaming impossible dreams about how access to the resources of the Archive could be opened up to the widest possible users without risking the integrity and security of its many important collections.Advances in technology allied to the creativity and enthusiasm of the Archive’s staff are beginning to make some of those impossible dreams appear not only possible – but close to fruition. And Liam O’Connor’s excitement, rather like a child in a toy shop, is obvious – and infectious!

Former ITMA Directors: Nicholas Carolan and Grace Toland (Photo: ITMA).

Keepers of the Flame

On the shoulders of giants

As a frequent visitor to the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) over many years – including a stint as a member of its board – its new Director, Liam O’Connor, has a keen appreciation of the work of the innovation and dedication of its staff and volunteers who have built this world-class resource under the direction of his predecessors in the role, Nicholas Carolan and Grace Toland.

O’Connor views the ITMA as the inheritors of a long-standing tradition of collecting and transcribing music that began when the young Edward Bunting was engaged to transcribe music from players at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

This experience ignited a lifelong passion in Bunting – who was followed in successive generations by dedicated collectors like George Petrie, Patrick Weston Joyce, Francis O’Neill, Séamus Ennis, Breandán Breathnach and Tom Munnelly – much of whose prodigious output is now housed within the Archive.

But though some may see collecting music as an end in itself, the Archive’s mission has always been about more than simply preserving music: equally important is ensuring access for current and future generations. Recent innovations around technology are transforming access. O’Connor is especially effusive in his praise for the innovative PORT project initiated during Grace Toland’s tenure as Director to provide an online interactive tune resource. PORT opens up new horizons for the transmission of music – not only in terms of teaching technique but also in terms of the deeper feeling and significance behind the tunes.

Piaras Hoban has been to the fore in applying the opportunities of this technology to the ITMA’s needs.

One avenue O’Connor would like to explore is a tie-in between the PORT facility and the emerging concept of an Artist-in-Residence at the Archive. The latter scheme aims to create a formal arrangement where a recognised practitioner engages with the Archive – either on-site or remotely – to consider the work of particular musicians, genres, locations or themes, as they see fit. An element of the residency could be to focus on a particular tune contained in the PORT database. So PORT users could not only learn a tune – but also benefit from the insights of the artist in residence into any aspects of the tune that has meaning for him/her. Perhaps not quite a masterclass but certainly a valuable exchange between mentor and learner.

As well as supporting greater access to existing resources within the Archive, the use of innovative technologies can also be applied to broadening the scope of the Archive’s collection activities. While there is still an outside chance of a rare find from the distant past, a key focus of the ITMA’s work is to document the present and more recent past in order to ensure there is as comprehensive a record as possible for future generations. With greater participation in traditional music – in terms of players and/or listeners – there is a risk that some areas of activity may be overlooked. Though ITMA staff are extraordinarily resourceful, they have not yet mastered the art of tri– or even bi-location. So another initiative originated during Grace Toland’s directorship and earmarked for further development is the ‘Pop-Up Archive.’ This aims to supplement the ITMA’s existing programme of field recordings of major events by encouraging and empowering local communities and groups to become more proactive in collecting material for inclusion in the Archive, in line with ITMA protocols.

Future Proofing

Conservation without reservation

Widening the scope of the collection process through initiatives like the ‘Pop-Up’ Archive should help to connect the ITMA with areas or groups that might otherwise remain inaccessible or ignored. With the availability of ‘Pop-Up’ Archive interventions, acts of omission from the past – like the under-representation of women in the history of traditional music – would be far less likely to be repeated in the future. This approach would also help to minimise bias – conscious or unconscious – against any music considered to be ‘suspect’ – by virtue of the performers, the instrumentation, the location or any other intangibles that may sometimes affect perceptions.

The ITMA’s mission is not to sit in judgement on developments within traditional music: they are not the trad police! Their role is to collect the “raw data” and make it widely available for others to interpret and analyse. In this sense, it is conservation without reservation. The only constraint on its ability to “document everything” is one of resources – human, physical and financial. Its principal funding comes from the Arts Councils of both the Republic and Northern Ireland.  

Any suggestion of trying to monetise its resources through commercial exploitation has been firmly resisted by the Archive as incompatible with its fundamental ethos in relation to collection and dissemination of the music. It would undermine its core mission in a serious way if future initiatives were to be undertaken with an eye to their commercial potential rather than their intrinsic artistic merit.

Another key element of the work of the Archive is to ensure that material that has already been collected is maintained in as good a condition as possible. The acquisition and cataloguing of a sound or video recording is only the first step for the Archive. Items recorded on old media like magnetic audio or video tape need to be carefully preserved and, whenever possible, copied onto more secure digital formats.

The ITMA’s Digital Audio/visual Preservation Project (DAP) – funded by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as part of the Digitised Collections Funding Scheme – is prioritising those recordings that are most at risk of degradation. So the first step has been to identify a selection of non-commercial sound and video recordings in a variety of vulnerable formats.

A lot of this material is unique and ranges from field recordings made by the ITMA’s staff at festivals and events around the country, to intimate domestic recordings in the homes of some of Ireland’s best-known traditional musicians and singers.

Altogether 1,600 CDs, 280 Digital Audio Tapes, 600 Digital Video Tapes (MiniDV and DVCAM) and 70 Reel-to-reel Audio Tapes were identified. In her latest update during the summer, the DAP project archivist, Fionnuala Parfrey (pictured above) reported that the recorded contents of over 1,400 Compact Discs (CDs) and nearly 200 Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) had been successfully transferred to more secure digital formats and returned to the ITMA – over 21,000 digital files and counting! While the Archive has always taken its responsibilities to past generations of musicians and singers very seriously, it is equally concerned to ensure that it does not disappoint future generations of singers and musicians in securing our distinctive cultural legacy on this island and in a global context.

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