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.
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.
…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 posted this response to the Primetime Investigates piece: