#MiseFosta shines light on dark side of traditional music

Éilis Murphy appearing on RTÉ’s Prime Time special (Photo: RTÉ)

In recent weeks a series of posts have appeared on social media platforms under the hashtag #misefosta (#metoo) calling out various forms of sexual abuse – including assault – within traditional and folk music in Ireland. In many cases the authors of the posts have recounted incidents they have experienced directly themselves while in some they are reporting incidents involving others.

I was 15, he was older…He kept putting my hands on him and I kept pulling away. Afterwards he laughed again and saud “you finally made a fella come” I stopped playing music…I was too scared to go trad things anymore.

Tara Nic Giolla Seanain

…The day of ‘innocent’ arse-grabbing, boob groping and ‘innocent’ trying it on ‘for the craic’ HAS to stop.

Edel Fox

I too was subject to grooming and predatory behaviour from our Irish male musicians. Seems we all have been, but no longer will we be.

Áine Tyrell

…the next thing I knew it was violent sex. I couldn’t stop him. I was shell shocked.


While this renewed focus on abuse has generated many expressions of solidarity with the victims from men as well as women, the campaign has received an additional boost from its coverage on RTÉ Television’s Prime Time programme which aired on Thursday, July 24. The impact of the programme was undoubtedly heightened by the courageous testimonies of Éilis Murphy and Edel Ní Churraoin who outlined their personal experiences of assault.

When Éilis’s assailant denied any culpability, she faced an impossible choice: either she could withdraw from the music which was such an important part of her life; she could report the incident to the GardaÍ with little confidence that it would reach a just outcome and considerable fear that her own reputation within the traditional music community would be negatively affected; or she could remain silent. In the end she remained silent, believing that this was a once-off incident and that the man concerned would not represent a danger to other women. However, Éilis learned recently that at least two other women had been sexually assaulted by the same man.

In a further incident when she was nineteen Éilis was complimented by an older well-known musician in his sixties who suggested that he might be able to put some teaching work her way. A short time later she received a text message from him asking if she was interested in “fooling around.” She replied that the invitation was inappropriate. The teaching work never materialised.

Singer-songwriter, Karan Casey (right), one of the co-founders of the FairPlé campaign for gender justice within traditional and folk music, told the programme that the lack of formal structures (within the community) procedurally made it more difficult for a woman to report something (or indeed for a man to likewise). “And we all know each other,” Karan added. “So that makes it tricky.”

The complication caused by familiarity was amplified by Edel Ní Churraoin (pictured left) who explained that frequently within traditional music you not only become acquainted with other musicians but also with their families. Edel was prompted to share an early experience in her career in traditional music after reading a post outlining a sexual assault suffered by a teenage traditional musician.

When Edel was fifteen she had an encounter with an older musician – in his sixties and well-regarded – who grabbed her hand and thrust it down the front of another man’s trousers. Shocked and confused, Edel confided in a close friend and then decided to bury the incident for fear that disclosure would mean that she would be required to give up the music she loved.

“We didn’t really talk about those things at the time,” she said. “Also this person was well-known and I was coming into the traditional music scene. So I felt that if I had told somebody…I would have had to stop going to sessions – possibly to protect me (and they might have been right to make that decision). But at no point did it enter my mind that he would face any kind of repercussions.”

These older sexual predators within traditional music who believe themselves to be untouchable have earned a nickname from the younger female players – déithe beaga: small gods. But as Edel Ní Churraoin warns, no matter how much of a career you may have built for yourself, if you hurt people in this predatory way,”you are not untouchable!”

While the #MiseFosta movement has brought renewed focus on the issue of sexual abuse and assault within traditional and folk music, it has featured before in 2018 as part of the wider FairPlé campaign for gender justice. At FairPlé’s Rising Tides conference in Liberty Hall, Dublin in September 2018, Pauline Scanlon gave powerful testimony about her own experience as the victim of sexual assault as a touring musician.

And in the subsequent anonymous survey conducted by musician, composer and sound engineer, Dr. Úna Monaghan, sexual assaults of varying degrees of severity were identified by a number of respondents. Of the 121 accounts collated from 83 respondents, 9% described a sexual assault, 13% highlighted incidents involving sexual harassment, 17% reported sexual innuendo and comment with 59% outlining experiences of broader gender bias – as well as examples of pay disparity, under-representation, exclusion from consultation (especially in group settings), commodification and so on).

The online survey conducted by Úna Monaghan (pictured right) was one of many initiatives undertaken by FairPlé campaigners to disprove the doubters who maintained – some to this day – that gender inequality is not a real issue within traditional and folk music – either because it is ‘ancient’ history, or it only affects a small number of professional musicians.

However, it is clear that traditional music’s struggles with gender discrimnation and sexual assault are neither relics of a distant past nor matters of concern to a small ‘elite’ group of professional musicians.

These are serious issues which continue to blight the traditional and folk music community as a whole – male and female, young and old, paid and unpaid. It is not enough to look the other way or to make excuses: victims of discrimination, abuse and assault – especially younger people at the start of their journey in music – need to feel that the standard response to their plight will not be disbelief and that the default reaction will not be close ranks around the déithe beaga. Men – no less than women – should take a stand and call at unacceptable behaviour from the outset.

Pauline Scanlon (Photo: Colin Gillen)

Other Reactions:

Pauline Scanlon

Pauline Scanlon posted this response to the Primetime Investigates piece:

In 2018 a group of us started FairPlé to address the systemic inequalities within our sector. This was no easy feat. It took time from our paid work, our families and for periods took a toll on our mental, physical and emotional health. It was an uphill battle, we were gaslit, we were privately and publicly attacked but we persevered. We began our journey in the shadow of the Belfast rape trial and with the referendum on the 8th amendment looming, it was such a difficult time to be a woman in Ireland but it made us strong and it brought us close. I am so proud of all we achieved. A report on the work we did to effect change can be found on our website, http://www.fairple.com. I think it made a difference and if nothing else, perhaps it contributed to an atmosphere where the latest wave of young women coming forward could feel that they might be heard.

These young people give me a lump in my throat when I think about them. I have spoken with some of you on the phone and some I have never met, but fair play to you and thank you. You have achieved in a few weeks what we haven’t through our whole careers. People will tell you that you are “doing it the wrong way” or that “social media isn’t the way to go” but you need to make the changes how you see fit for your time and your generation and hopefully we will all learn something from you…and also..show me another way. We have stood in front of rooms full of ‘influential’ people at seminars and panel discussions and shared our experiences of harassment, assault and abuse but it didn’t and won’t have the impact that you are having now as the excellent Primetime piece proves.

Why do we as a society insist that in order for women to be believed we must lay bare our experiences and trauma so vulnerably?

It is beyond brave for women to come forward with their stories, it is traumatising and re-traumatising and I’m sure the vast majority of women would rather deal with it privately. We are coming forward publicly so we can tackle the culture that encourages, allows and accepts this behaviour. The extent and seriousness of these assaults can’t be lost on anyone at this stage, they have been laid out for us all to see and to take in. Women should not have to do this to be believed, yet here we are.

To the amazing and talented women who decided long ago not to keep going in music, it is no wonder, it’s really hard and you’ve had to put up with an awful lot of shit. We are pitted against each other a lot which can lead to a competitive atmosphere on occasion. I have been unkind in my professional life and I am sorry for that. I have also been on the receiving end of unkindness, but I understand it and I don’t care… it happens so rarely and in the main I have found my female colleagues to be overwhelmingly supportive and sound despite everything.

Women, please know that it is absolutely NOT a meritocracy. I am NOT saying that brilliant artists don’t deserve all the success in the world, I am saying that the system and culture is stacked against women and minorities as the recent #misefosta movement and the gender disparity in Irish radio report highlights.

In order to create inclusive, healthier and safer environments the balance needs to be addressed. Women and minorities of all kinds need to be in positions of cultural, professional and political influence to enact systemic, grass-roots and lasting change. Please support this positive action going forward. If we really want to fix this we need to join the dots and look at it holistically. Now is our chance to look at the structures and systems of inequality that nurture, protect and encourage abusive behaviour. Musicians and industry folk alike need to make responsible choices so that women can be safe, flourish and take part equally. One woman is more important than all the music combined.

Women and men, if none of this has been your experience, if you haven’t witnessed or experienced any sexism, misogyny or abuse within the community please know that the collective experience of many many people is validation and should be enough for you. Stop telling us when we advocate for ourselves that it is all in our heads or that our motivations are sinister and self-serving, this is part of the problem. Don’t be suspicious of us because that’s how we’ve all been raised to be. We need to stop attacking and penalising women for trying to achieve equality in all areas of our lives.

The issues of abuse, harassment, sexism, gender balance, access, festival billing, radio-play, the gender pay gap, abuse of power, conscious and unconscious biases are all inextricably linked. If you see someone trying to address or advocate for any of these things, know that it is part of a whole picture and attacking, ridiculing or silencing these endeavours further contributes to an atmosphere where women feel they cannot come forward and report crimes or fix the inequalities in their lives. Surely nobody wants this?

Misogyny is a human pyramid with frequent everyday sexism being the foundation that props up the more serious incidents of assault, rape and Femicide at the top. In order to seriously tackle the stuff at the top of the pyramid we must take on the foundation too. We need to firstly acknowledge that sexism and misogyny exists within our community and get comfortable calling it out when we see it happening. It goes without saying that we need to nurture people to be able to do it for themselves also, but it can be really really hard and as it stands you can get punished and further marginalised for doing it.

My thinking around all of these issues is always evolving and shifting. I am learning every day and the group of people at the heart of #misefosta have taught me so so much, thank you for that. We all say and do ill-considered things in our lives from time to time, we take stances and form opinions that we then change, this is good, change is good. It is important at this juncture for people to evaluate and to re-evaluate how they feel, think and behave in respect to these matters. I am sure we can stand united in saying that we must not tolerate any form of violence against women and we support women who wish to come forward. What we must now do is be active in creating an environment that encourages and supports this cultural and societal change.

The women’s movement is re-igniting throughout the arts, it’s time for some joined up thinking and action.

Na Píobairí Uilleann

Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU) strongly condemns the reported sexual abuse and discrimination in the recent RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme. We praise the courage of those who came forward and spoke out, and we support their actions in doing so. NPU is an inclusive organisation and we aim to provide a safe environment for all to enjoy and participate in the Irish traditional arts with zero tolerance towards abuse of any kind.  NPU implements an artistic policy along with a child protection policy. We actively promote fairness, transparency and diversity in our engagement with performers of all ages and backgrounds.

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