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Music-making on an island


SOUND WAVES Rory McCabe at Roonagh Harbour with his native Clare Island in the background.

Áine Ryan

IT may have all started with his granny’s polkas and reels on her accordion, or as a little boy listening to sessions in the pub downstairs, but by 1998 the music was being played in a sheep shed on a cliffside on the edge of the ocean. That is where the Big Fat Mamas were born.
Eat your heart out, Van the Man and Robert Zimmerman.  
Fast-forward to a locked-down January day in 2021 and Clare Islander Rory McCabe was  defending his PhD thesis in the digital hub in Clare Island’s community centre.
Its title is ‘Will you meet me on Clare Island? Music-making, islandness and ethnography in a small island community’.
Over to you, Rory.
“In the dissertation I refer to the Saw Doctors in passing but the quote is more of an allusion to modern Irish culture and a modern Irish imagining of island life. For a long time, the imagery of Irish islands was tied – or popularly imagined – with cultural nationalist tropes. So from the outset I wanted to set the tone of islands as spaces that are fully connected to modern life.”
Which Clare Island clearly is – with its state-of-the-art digital hub, subsidised ferry services and vibrant community.
McCabe’s research is fundamentally an ethnography or description of his islander experience  and how music is an essential but evolving social and cultural thread binding community.   
“Growing up during the 1980s and ’90s, my personal outlook was shaped by the social and economic changes taking place in Irish society and the infrastructural and technological developments on Clare Island. It seemed that the experience of island life was reorganised at numerous levels: technology and infrastructure increased connection to the mainland and decreased reliance on the local; daily life relied more on non-community actors; tourism began to dominate summer social life; and so on.”
Growing up over a pub, shop and post office at the Quay, the gateway to the island, must have been a significant influence too?  
“Yes, absolutely, my outlook was further shaped by the family home and business. As the site of the local pub, shop and post office McCabe’s was synonymous with the social and commercial life of the community. It was also one of the main venues for music-making on Clare Island. So growing up I experienced the island as a continual space for change but saw community as a constant. Not just community as an abstract idea but as a real-time space for social interaction. Growing up in the bar I saw music as part of the process of community gathering or of presenting to itself. Music was ever-present in some form, live or recorded.”

Music as identity
From an early age, McCabe observed how music was ‘a special type of activity’ and could see ‘it was a powerful social tool for social bonding’.
“Through music and dance the idea of community became a visible grouping happening in the here-and-now,” he explains.
So with this natural curiosity and academic acumen, and armed with his guitar and mandolin and a reservoir of sessions, McCabe pursued an MA in Ethnomusicology in 2012.
This ultimately led to his initial thoughts for a PhD.
“Basically, I wondered could the island experience and community on Clare Island be described through music. I already felt that music-making was one of the few social activities where the community was visible in real time. Could an island identity – the lived experience – be examined through music-making?
“My goal at the start of the PhD was to develop a history of music-making on Clare Island during the 20th century and couple that with an ethnographic account of music-making in the present. My interest was on music in the public domain – spaces where islanders join face-to-face in real-time community. By focusing on the structures and settings of music-making within the community, my aim was to describe island life in the 21st century.”
Of course, as an islander, it was important for him to represent all this from an island-centred lens, and he was perfectly placed – even advantaged – to carry out an ethnographic study.
This advantage was enhanced by the fact that he had played with his singer-songwriter brother Niall and friend Olof Gill with the Big Fat Mamas on all sorts of stages over the years, and later with the Mad Macs, a trad-infused rock band with the brilliant island box-player Michael McNamara.   
“From my perspective those different musical genres and cultural flavours seemed to naturally fit together. Trad, rock, or whatever were musical tools to support the atmosphere of the social gathering. Good music was music that engaged people regardless of genre. Other islanders might have different opinions based on aesthetic principles but I always accepted that music depended on the listener. And in the island setting the listener – local or visitor –  was always part of an interactive social group,” McCabe continues.

New possibilities
Echoing but rephrasing what anthropologist Robin Fox said in his wonderful book on Tory Island many years ago, he observes that in this particular context of music ‘islanders are willing to adopt and adapt whatever new tools emerge which might support island life’.
“So the musical sounds – while very important – are almost secondary to their social function. But also, newer genres and technological innovations are at times suited to the limited human and structural resources of islands – so, for example, we don’t have 120 piece orchestras and concert halls on the island,” he says.  
So for this academic islander, there had to be a certain irony to being in a lockdown, not of the meteorological type, and defending his PhD – a Viva Voce or oral test – in the recently established digital hub in the island’s community centre during January?     
“For me, choosing to live on Clare Island was always a series of compromises: one could be close to the natural environment, but then inevitably distant from urban centres for arts and culture; island living provided strong community bonds but reduced the opportunities to meet new people.
“But the broadband hub is both a symbolic and tangible representation of newer possibilities for islanders. Digital technology builds virtual bridges to mainland spaces even upending the primal dominance of the sea in daily life. Resources such as this allow the possibilities of remote working and connection to the cultural and intellectual marketplace. This is a new trend in island life, one that has the potential to affect major social and economic changes over the next generation.”
Like his late granny May McCabe, who came to the island in a currach from her Inishbofin home in 1939 to tap out the melodies of morse code in the post office, Rory McCabe’s seminal study ensures the music lives on.