A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.

Anthony McCann. 2010. “A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.” Ethnologie Française 41:323-341.


In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became public fulcrums for contention, debate, and conflict. At the heart of this were two media events: Riverdance, a broadway-style dance production based on “Irish traditional dancing”, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, that offered an overview of “Irish traditional music”. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses. First, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community. What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function.


A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition.”

A Tale of Two Rivers

In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became notoriously public fulcrums for debate, and at times even vicious conflict, at least where music was concerned. This period heralded what BBC’s head of music programmes dubbed an “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music” [MacRory, 1995 : 8]. At the heart of the storm were two media events: the dance show Riverdance, which first exploded into consciousness in 1994, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, first broadcast in 1995.


The most internationally-famous catalyst for debate about “tradition” in Ireland in the mid-1990s was Riverdance. On the 30th April, 1994, the seven-minute interval entertainment for the Eurovision Song Contest stole the show. It was watched by an estimated 300 million viewers.[i] The impact of Riverdance was enormous, and has been documented elsewhere [e.g., Wulff, 2007; Ó Cinnéide, 2002]. Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that: “It became customary to talk of Riverdance as an act of reclamation, a taking-back for popular entertainment of a form that had been prettified and stultified” [O’Toole, 1996 : 149]. There were at least three ways in which Riverdance could be seen in this light: first, as transgression against rigid ideologies of cultural nationalism; second, as an act of transgression against rigid sexual mores in Ireland; third, as transgression against “tradition”.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of a distinctly cultural, rather than political, nationalism in Ireland. In sport, music, and song, highly-regulated and regulating forms of bodily practice came to be designated as symbols of a pure Irish national identity (usually meaning ‘not-English’). This also happened in dance.  From local dancing classes to All-Ireland and World competitions, organisations such as the Irish Dancing Commission established complex regimes of authority, authenticity, and control throughout the twentieth century [see Wulff, 2005, 2007; Hall, 2008; Brennan, 1999]. These came to be symbolically represented by the caricature of stiff-backed, stiff-armed dancers with rapid-fire footwork.

Riverdance enacted a clear challenge to the embodied disciplines of cultural nationalism in Irish dance. For most Irish people, from the moment lead dancer-choreographer Michael Flatley leapt to the stage from the wings, the performance of Riverdance presented something radically new and distinct.  Riverdance’s visual legacy was provided by the iconic “eighty-strong chorus-line of Irish dancers liberated from the constraining folk uniforms and rigid upper body posture of traditional dance” [N. O’Connor, 1999 : 171]. Even with the regimentation of the chorus-line, Riverdance was indeed seen by many as liberation, as a triumphant act of transgression against the confines and constrictions of perceived atavism and moral conservatism.

Challenging the strictures of cultural-nationalist bodily prescription in dance could also be an act of transgression against strictures of sexual morality. Throughout the twentieth century, life in the Republic of Ireland was lived within a complex nexus of Catholic Church, State prescription, sexual morality, and cultural nationalism, whereby moral purity was, for many, inscribed into the project of national identity formation [Smith, 2004; Ferriter, 2009].

Riverdance served as a catalyst for at least symbolic transgression. The producers of the show didn’t shy away from suggestions that Riverdance was just plain sexy, claiming: “Of all the performances to emerge from Ireland in the past decade – in rock, music, theatre and film, nothing has carried the energy, the sensuality and the spectacle of Riverdance – The Show” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. Choreography and costume for Jean Butler, the female lead, conformed readily to the standard expectations of a feminine role within the cultural-nationalist imaginary – pretty, delicate, twirly, balletic. What was different, though, was that Jean Butler and the other female dancers were dressed to be feminine and sexy; poise and balance, leg and lace. The male dancers got leave to perform as masculine and sexy; strength and vigour, control and speed. So what if the binaries of gender and sexuality within cultural nationalism in Ireland were barely touched; with Riverdance eroticism was raised from the shadows of cultural nationalism to take centre-stage.

Riverdance also became a catalyst for statements about “tradition”. The most blatant and oft-quoted claim in this regard was made by the producer, Moya Doherty: “I wanted to show a modern image of Ireland … not the green pastures. Irish dance is frozen in tradition, and I thought it’s time to thaw it out” [quoted in Duffy, 1996]. With this, the producers of Riverdance placed themselves among the transgressive champions of modernity, modernisation, and urbanity, distinguishing themselves as the sun of enlightenment in the face of undesirable tradition. Yet, the producers also spoke of the show as “drawing on Irish traditions, the combined talents of the performers propel Irish dancing and music into the present day giving it a relevance, which captures the imagination of audiences across all ages and divides” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. So, Riverdance directly challenges tradition, and draws on tradition. To confuse things further, there was also some degree to which Riverdance was itself presented as traditional, as Adrian Scahill has noted [Scahill, 2009 : 70].

The rhetoric that placed Riverdance in an antagonistic relationship with “tradition” seems to have come largely from the show’s producers, from journalists, and, latterly, from academics [e.g., Flannery, 2009]. The level of popular engagement with such antagonism seems minimal.  As was noted at the time, “Riverdance brought a flush of pride and admiration from most musicians, and at worst a shrug of the shoulders from the rest” [Crosbhealach/Crossroads, 1996].

Riverdance drew the limelight, but failed to establish clear terms for debate about “tradition” – it was a song and dance show, not an academic treatise. In discussions about Riverdance, “tradition” became little more than a rhetorical cypher with which people could position themselves with elevated status in an intensely commodifying field, whether in contrast to “tradition” as a negative foil to validate a politics of transgression, or by using “tradition” as a badge of legitimation in contexts where that might prove useful. Either way, the discursive field had been primed.


A River of Sound

The seven-part series A River of Sound [AROS 1995], was produced by Philip King’s Hummingbird Productions, and broadcast at prime-time in Britain, Ireland, and in a shortened version in the United States. An unprecedentedly well-produced series of programmes, it focused on the genre of “Irish traditional music”. Music professor, composer, and pianist Ó Súilleabháin wrote and presented the series (in collaboration with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor), lending it an air of academic authority.

A River of Sound was part documentary, part academic lecture, part music video. It seemed to provide a straightforward introduction to the genre, musicians, and singers of Irish traditional music. It also foregrounded a small group of experimental musicians. The message seemed to be that these musicians, rooted in tradition but moving beyond it, were stretching the boundaries of the art, leading a latter-day avant garde movement in Irish traditional music, under the symbolic leadership of Ó Súilleabháin himself. As if to reinforce this, the series also showcased Ó Súilleabháin’s own compositions in a series of set-piece performances, built around his roles as conductor and pianist.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin used two water metaphors to explain how he himself made sense of the series. The first and most obvious one was the metaphor of the river, which ran as follows: the young experimental musicians are at the head of a river of sound which is the river of tradition which is the river of Irish traditional music. The second was the metaphor of the “Third Stream”, drawn from the jazz writings of Gunther Schüller, such that: the young experimental musicians are on a different course that veers off the mainstreams of Irish traditional music and jazz to form a new river of their own.

The source for the structuring metaphor of the river in A River of Sound is found in the work of Ó Súilleabháin’s teacher, composer Seán Ó Riada. Ó Riada was one of the key figures in the commercial and professional development of the genre of Irish traditional music in the 1950s and 1960s [O’Shea, 2005, 2008]. Ó Súilleabháin made it clear [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995] that the river metaphor in A River of Sound was a direct reference to radio lectures that Ó Riada presented on Raidio Éireann in 1962 entitled Our Musical Heritage [Ó Riada, 1982]. In the introduction Ó Riada states: “You might compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river. Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in, or thrown in, but they do not divert the course of the river, nor do they stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards” [Ó Riada, 1982 : 19-20]. Operating within a nativist, nationalist paradigm that privileged Irish distinctiveness and maybe even Gaelic purity [see O’Shea, 2005 : 1], Ó Riada’s river of tradition flowed with a current that was clear and strong.

Ó Súilleabháin stretched the metaphor of the river further than Ó Riada, pushing it to become more of an analogy, around which A River of Sound was constructed. He outlined the analogy at the 1995 Ó Riada Memorial Conference:

“… the origins of a music are equated with the river’s source; the containment within the riverbanks represents the identity of tradition; the ability of the river to manoeuvre through the contours of the countryside is akin to music’s engagement with non-musical forces amidst social history; the force of the current at different times and places relates to the rate of change manifested at different points in time; the ability of the river to take foreign objects without disturbing its flow reminds us of the process of acculturation, …. And the final moment, when the river flows through the estuary into the ocean, represents, at least in the series A River of Sound, the present process of Irish Traditional Music entering the arena of the emerging idea of World Music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995].

This appeal to the riverness of tradition left Ó Súilleabháin with at least one narrative thread in A River of Sound that clearly championed an avant-garde in Irish traditional music. This came about because of two clear consequences of the river analogy: first, the presentation of “Irish traditional music” as a unified (though not necessarily homogenous) imaginary whole, and, second, the subsequent placing of “Irish traditional music” within a linear historicity, that fostered and facilitated hopes and fears about the future of the music.


A River of Sound provided a forum for many voices. The clearest statement in A River of Sound on “tradition” is offered by Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. Carolan talks about the “tightrope that traditional music walks … between tradition, receiving what you got from the past and adhering to it exactly as you received it, and innovation, taking in new influences that come to you as a person in your time, and that no ancestor of yours, no father, no grandfather, ever received” [AROS, 1995]. Many others use the term “tradition” in the series, but no one else says what they mean. The viewer is left to work it out on the basis of context and implication.

Of all participants in the series, ironically Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin makes it least clear what he understands by “tradition”. For Ó Súilleabháin, the term “tradition” seems to act as a cypher, an emptied category. At no point does he say what he means by the term, but often uses it declaratively, as though the meaning could be assumed as a taken-for-granted given. For example: “Tradition may come out of the past, but it’s in the here and now that tradition exists, and as long as that continues, traditional music will always be a contemporary music” [AROS, 1995]. Without discussion about the meaning (or meanings) of “tradition”, this last statement mystifies and obfuscates. Ó Súilleabháin’s role as declarative narrator and his role as recognised academic make it easy, however, to assume that a meaning has been imputed.

“The Tradition”

There is a more definite sense in which the term “tradition” is used in A River of Sound. Psychologist and broadcaster Maureen Gaffney is the first of those interviewed to use a definite article, “the tradition”, referring, it seems, to an overarching genre classification that includes music, song, and dance: “I was always very struck by performers, that when people would sing a song, I think that’s the part of the music that I like the most, the part of the tradition that I like the most, they would always say where they got it from” [AROS, 1995]. Harmonica player Brendan Power also uses the definite article, but for him “the tradition” seems to mean a canon of style and a body of tunes: “My main interest … is to learn the traditional tunes, … the ones that I like, on the harmonica, but also to compose new tunes that fit into the tradition, but come out of the harmonica and maybe bring some of the influences that I’ve assimilated along the way, so, I try and make new music that still sounds Irish but has also got something different about it” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a sense in Brendan Power’s statement that “the tradition” refers to a way of sounding, a characteristic set of sonic genre markers, a way of playing an instrument. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin sometimes uses the term in this way: “And this came out of an instrument that wasn’t traditional. I began to realise for the first time that between the written note and the sound was where the tradition flowed. And I also began to appreciate that perhaps if I listened to that sound carefully I could begin to construct a traditional way of playing on the piano keyboard” [AROS, op.cit.]. Fiddle player Eileen Ivers also speaks of “the tradition” in these terms of performance style and technique: “I feel very strongly like the real way to get into Irish traditional music is learning the tradition. You can’t come in from outside. You have to understand the rhythm of it, and the simplicity of it, of that rhythm, without putting in all these ornaments, without getting too fancy too quickly” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a confidence within the series, from many voices, that there is such a thing as “the tradition”, a confidence that there is an assumed, stable, and shared meaning. Musicians and academics commonly refer to whatever is meant by “Irish traditional music” as “the tradition”. It is perhaps a confidence trick. In Dan Ben-Amos’ 1984 article, “The Seven Strands of ‘Tradition’,” Ben-Amos cites folklorist Edward Ives, who says that “Students of folksongs have been talking about “the tradition” and how songs either “entered” it, were “altered” by it, or perhaps “rejected” by it for so long and with such confidence that we have come to think of it as something that’s really there, when of course it is nothing but a convenient abstraction” [Ben-Amos, 1984 : 106]. It is also one which undermines critical analysis in Irish traditional music studies, leaving uninterrogated the dubious notion of a singular, indivisible entity as the primary object of discussion and analysis.

Cultural critics in the field of Irish Studies speak openly about “the Irish Tradition”. Claire Connolly has noted that it remains very unusual for academics “to conceptualise a postcolonial Ireland which does not have the singular and indivisible Irish nation as its terminus” [Connolly, 2001 : 308].  I would suggest that A River of Sound similarly relies for much of its effect on the uninterrogated structuring assumptions of a quite orthodox nationalism.

This might seem a little incongruous. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin publicly positioned himself as “post-nationalist”.[ii] The choice of people interviewed within A River of Sound echoes Ó Súilleabháin’s leanings – many of the musicians and singers included in the series aren’t obviously Irish, coming from places like the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, in a clear gesture towards a broad sense of identity within the communities of the so-called Irish diaspora. However, Helen O’Shea’s words ring a note of caution: “Implicit in … popular accounts of the musical achievements of Irish emigrants … is the assumption that, despite geographical dislocation and musical innovation, an essential Irishness remains intact, in both music and musicians” [O’Shea, 2005 : 21-22].

Although not explicit, and at times even disavowed, I would suggest that much of the symbolic power of the river analogy in A River of Sound derives from what I think of as a “phantom nationalism”. When a phantom limb persists in the wake of amputation; the effect of the limb remains as real as ever. To draw a more musical analogy, sometimes singers of unaccompanied song who are used to singing with guitar accompaniment effect a regular rhythm and sporadic breathing style, as if the guitar were still there. This would be regarded by many as stylistically inappropriate for the genre of unaccompanied singing, known more for its free rhythm and steady breathing. Some people have started referring to this as the “phantom guitar” effect. The guitar is not there, but the regularising effects of the guitar persist.

This operates in a very simple way – “the tradition” is frequently used as a direct synonym for the phrase “Irish traditional music” (my emphasis), which clearly relies on at least rudimentary assumptions about national identity and identification. “The tradition”, in this context, arguably always refers to “the (Irish) Tradition”. Of course, the metaphor-analogy of the singular river also does nothing to challenge and plenty to reinforce the singular imaginary of the nation, especially given its source in Ó Riada’s nativist nationalism. The Irish Nation arguably persists as the silent partner of the river-as-tradition analogy. The distinction between abstracted “tradition” and the definite imaginary of “the tradition” is never explained or explored, but it’s a crucial distinction. The notion of “the tradition” is, for me, the key that unlocks the avant-garde narrative that structures A River of Sound.

“Third Stream” or Avant-Garde?

At the Seán Ó Riada Memorial Conference at University College, Cork, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin suggested that “we were seeing the fragmentation of the tradition into three voices” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. The first voice was the mainstream tradition, “a communal tradition par excellence”. The second voice was the popular commercial Irish traditional music forms of the 60s and 70s, which, for Ó Súilleabháin, remained “terribly conservative in their structural elements all the time”. The third voice, a “Third Stream”, was the emergence of a new genre in which musicians were seeking to stretch and even break the musical structures of “the tradition” in a spirit of investigation.

Ó Súilleabháin acknowledged that he had drawn the term “Third Stream” from jazz. The term comes from the work of Gunther Schüller. For Schüller, jazz and classical music constituted “long, separate traditions that many people want to keep separate and sacred” [Schüller, 1986 : 115]. He was keen to recognise the right of musicians to preserve the “idiomatic purity” of both traditions. He was also interested in establishing a “new genre” that attempted to fuse “the improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures and techniques acquired in Western music during 700 years of musical development” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. What was crucial for Schüller, though, was that this new genre, this “Third Stream”, was conceptualised as a separate development, an experiment whereby “the other two mainstreams could go their way unaffected by attempts at fusion” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. Another important dimension of the “third stream” concept was that it sought “to embrace, at least potentially, all the world’s ethnic, vernacular, and folk music. It is a non-traditional music which exemplifies cultural pluralism and personal freedom” [Schüller, op.cit. : 120].

Ó Súilleabháin explicitly claimed to be at ease with Schüller’s sense of “Third Stream”. Ó Súilleabháin used the term to refer to a growing number of increasingly experimental young musicians coming from the contexts and communities of “Irish traditional music”. Many of them were registered as students in university campuses, and had been taught by Ó Súilleabháin, or by students of Ó Súilleabháin. Their experimentation involved exploration of other sounds and genres from around the world, in a classic “fusion” approach, echoing the values of global pluralism and personal freedom that Schüller had championed.

The quintessential musical hero of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream” was fiddle player Tommy Potts (1912-1988). From the working-class neighbourhood of the Coombe in Dublin city, Tommy Potts worked at various times as a plumber, a fireman, and a rent collector. By all accounts an introverted and isolated musician, Tommy Potts’ frustration with regularity, and a desire for what he called “development”, led him to explore alternative structurings of dance tunes, and to incorporate intertextual borrowings from other genres (see Ó Súilleabháin, 1999). Potts recorded his explorations on a series of “experimental tapes”.[iii]

Ó Súilleabháin has, more than anyone, promoted Potts as a radical cause célèbre, a prophetic musical voice. Potts was, in his view: “a rare genius, the ultimate subversive agent, he dismantled Irish traditional music from inside” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. But there is a confusion at the heart of Ó Súilleabháin’s re-presentation of Tommy Potts. He presents two versions of the prophecised future, establishing a tension which highlights the confusions at the heart of A River of Sound.

In one version, Tommy Potts is presented as the precursor, if not originator, of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream”, the forerunner of a musical tradition distinct and separate from Irish traditional music, running parallel to “the tradition”. Ó Súilleabháin stated in 1995, for example, that “Potts generated the philosophical and psychological possibility for the emergence of … the Third Stream” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In the other version, within the river analogy, Tommy Potts is reframed as an avant-garde hero of “the tradition” who “moved the music from its communal base to one of individualism” [Ó Súilleabháin, op.cit. : 177]. In a piece written during the production of A River of Sound, Ó Súilleabháin places Potts as the latest in a line of heroic Irish musical avant-garde iconoclasts over the last three centuries [Ó Súilleabháin, 1994]. In this light, he represents for Ó Súilleabháin the historicist futurity of the avant-garde, an exemplar of “innovation”.

A New World of Sound

Rivers start somewhere and go somewhere. This linear structure supports the avant-garde narrative of A River of Sound; the river becomes an analogy for “Irish traditional music” and “the tradition”. The “Third Stream” musicians were actually at the head of the river, navigating in the spirit of Tommy Potts. To leave us in no doubt that the direction of the entire “tradition” was in question, A River of Sound was subtitled “The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music”. No longer were these musicians just experimental and academically inclined – now they were the future of the music, leaving the past behind in the wake of their transgressions. As Ó Súilleabháin addressed the camera: “this is a time of great transition for traditional music. Out of an old world, a new world of sound is being formed.” [AROS, 1995].

What was this “new world of sound” to be like? In the commercial video release of A River of Sound, edited down to 86 minutes, the answer was made clear by an edit that was not present in the original series [AROS video, 1995]. As Ó Súilleabháin speaks the words “a new world of sound is being formed”, the camera cuts to the performance of the titular musical composition, “A River of Sound”. Composed by Ó Súilleabháin and Donal Lunny, this is the symbolic core of the series from the point of view of performance, and its summary statement in terms of narrative, appearing in the final episode. Its eleven minutes and eight seconds make it at least seven minutes longer than the average time allotted to other musical pieces in the series.[iv]

African Kora players, a man and child, are silhouetted; a Kora is lightly plucked, then both accelerate into a steady rhythm around a central melody. The camera fades to show fiddle player and violinist Nollaig Casey who picks up the melody, which starts to take colours of Irish melodies with a classical music feel. The picture fades to members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Harpist Laoise Kelly takes up the role of the Kora players in the melody, and Casey and Kelly are joined by Brendan Power on harmonica, Evelyn Glennie on xylophone, Kenneth Edge on Saxophone, Mel Mercier and Frank Torpey on bodhráns, as well as co-composers Lunny, on bouzouki and bodhrán, and Ó Súilleabháin, on piano and harpsichord. The melody provides a repetitive groove around which the players improvise with a light jazz feel. The piece ends with the plaintive singing of the African child playing gently on the Kora.

Ó Súilleabháin explained the import of the piece: “As part of the final programme of the television series A River of Sound, Donal Lunny and myself co-composed an instrumental piece that was supposed to have represented in some way a personal view of the river of traditional music meeting the ocean of world music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In a magazine interview, Ó Súilleabháin commented: “I had a poetic notion of a traditional river going into a river of globalisation, estuary and source, etc. It was a mythological thing” [Clayton-Lea, 1995].

The composition “A River of Sound” becomes, in the words of the inlay card of the CD, “a piece of music which signals the position of Irish traditional music as it enters into its third millenium” [AROS (CD), 1995]. These players and this piece are explicitly offered as the representation of the present, or indeed future, of Irish traditional music; commercial and academic performers, performing a newly-composed piece written in a “fusion” genre. That which might have been considered marginal becomes central; that which might have been considered apocryphal becomes representative. Irish traditional music becomes part of the great global sea.

When Ó Súilleabháin first suggested the “Third Stream” notion at the Ó Riada Conference, A River of Sound had already been broadcast. This is important, because if the “Third Stream” had been a foregrounded narrative in A River of Sound, outlining a separatist and somewhat marginal development within Irish traditional music, it would have caused little controversy. Without it, A River of Sound can easily be understood as both a vehicle for avant-gardist claims and as a showcase for Ó Súilleabháin himself, both ushered in under the auspices of a general introduction to the genre of “Irish traditional music”. It is little wonder that A River of Sound caused consternation.

A River of Sound and Fury

As one critic expressed it, A River of Sound “[bred] a disquieting air of confusion and uncertainty as to the future of Irish traditional music” [Corr, 1995]. Many people across Ireland were hurt and angered by the disconnect between what they felt “Irish traditional music” was all about, and what they were seeing represented as “the tradition” in A River of Sound. Some were angered at the suggestion that the experimental musicians highlighted in the series were allegedly to be the future of Irish traditional music. Some felt that this not only showed a lack of respect for older musicians, but for the generations and generations of (mostly unpaid) musicians that had gone before, and to whom the musical “tradition” owed its existence.

In an infamous audience discussion at the end of a The Late Late Show pre-broadcast special to launch A River of Sound, RTÉ producer and musician Tony MacMahon voiced concerns about the series, and about the central “River of Sound” composition. He was shouted down by other audience members. Following the controversy of The Late Late Show, Tony MacMahon received 168 letters and phonecalls from musicians all over the country:

“What really struck me about the tone and content of these letters and phone calls was their frustration, anger and upset. They expressed various degrees of sadness at changes that are taking place in the performance and interpretation of traditional music today, they expressed anger at what they saw as the selling of these changes to impressionable young musicians, they expressed frustration at the media ….” [Mac Mahon, 1999 : 115].

“Tradition and Innovation”

In response to A River of Sound, many took a defensive position in which a clear definition of “tradition” or “traditional” was now required as what they felt the music meant to them was under threat. For many, discursive representation of what they might mean by “tradition” was now necessitated in the face of widely-distributed misrepresentation. Journalist Tom McGurk put it succinctly in his review of A River of Sound: “While it doesn’t matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean” [McGurk, 1995 : 25]. People who were more interested in the non-commercial contexts, communities, and relationships of “Irish traditional music” could and did express what was important to them in and through conversation, among themselves. But most had no recourse to (or, perhaps, no desire for) a media-savvy or academically-validated discourse to represent their interests. This left many with little option but to fall back on emotionally- and ideologically-charged understandings of “tradition” and “traditional”, which had often been tempered by years of rigid cultural nationalism and atavistic morality, as mentioned above.

Ó Súilleabháin offered a confusion of narratives in A River of Sound. Widespread resistance to the avant-gardism of at least one of those narratives primed conversations to slide into the binary terms of an antagonistic “tradition and innovation” debate. It would be easy to see the controversies in terms of a binary opposition between “tradition” and “innovation”, as merely a struggle between traditionalists and innovators [e.g., Moriarty, 1995]. This dichotomy makes little sense, though, without the avant-garde rhetoric which Ó Súilleabháin embedded within A River of Sound. It was an oppositional framework which Ó Súilleabháin was keen to encourage: “The response which the series evoked in some quarters was a direct challenge by the traditional side of the equation to the innovation side”[Ó Súilleabháin, 1999 : 197].

Within the Irish context of the mid-nineties, discourses of “tradition” and “innovation” came to presuppose each other analytically within the circular formulations of the “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music”. “Innovation”, for Ó Súilleabháin, clearly meant university-based, experimental performance practice. Ó Súilleabháin notably used the term “campus-trad” as a synonym for “Third Stream” at the Ó Riada Conference in 1995. The “tradition and innovation” dichotomy, in Ó Súilleabháin’s hands, thus became a vehicle for narratives of modernisation, globalisation, and academicisation, premised, of course, on the eternal victory of “innovation”.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin stated in A River of Sound that “The story of traditional music will always be told by the musicians themselves” [AROS, 1995], while narrating a particular version of that story from a position of academic and media privilege that undermined such a declaration. The critical response to the series indicated that many musicians felt there were also other stories yet to tell, from other perspectives.



It seems to me that neither Riverdance nor A River of Sound provide me with any clear guidance for thinking about “tradition”. I would like to be able to think of “tradition” as a concept with clear critical, analytic potential. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses: first, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community.

What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function. Not only did it not have any clear and stable meaning, but it seemed to operate with most rhetorical power when no meaning was assigned to the term at all. That’s a rather sobering thought for anyone engaged in critical academic analysis.


A RIVER OF SOUND – The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ.

A RIVER OF SOUND – The Beauty and Power of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS video], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ. BBCV 5819.

A RIVER OF SOUND (Various Artists), 1995 [AROS CD],  Audio CD, Hummingbird Productions/Virgin, CDV2776.

BEN-AMOS Dan, 1984, “The Seven Strands of Tradition: Varieties in its Meaning in American Folklore Studies”, Journal of Folklore Research, 21 : 97-131.

BRENNAN Helen, 1999, The Story of Irish Dance, Dingle, Brandon.

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Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN Mícheál, 1996, “Crossroads or twin track?: Innovation and tradition in Irish traditional music”, in Crosbhealach an Cheoil/The Crossroads Conference 1996, Fintan Vallely, Hammy Hamilton, Eithne Vallely, and Liz Doherty (eds.), Dublin, Whinstone Music : 175-197.

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SCHÜLLER Gunther, 1986, Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schüller, New York, Oxford University Press.

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[i] You can see clips of various Riverdance performances online at http://www.riverdance.com/htm/multimedia/video_clips/index.htm. Riverdance is also well-represented on websites such as youtube.com.

[ii] “For a young person growing up in Ireland in the 50s, or perhaps even the 60s, which was a great transition era, very often you felt that traditional music was coming to you in some kind of pack, a package, and it was definitely coloured green, and it was very suspicious” [Late Show, 1995].

[iii] Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin was so taken by this approach that he undertook a Ph.D. thesis examining Potts’ life and music, completed in 1987. Since then, Potts has been central to the development of Ó Súilleabháin’s thinking.

[iv] It is listed as track 8 on the A River of Sound CD.


About Anthony McCann, Ph.D.
Anthony McCann is a coach and consultant. An experienced educationalist and social theorist, Anthony has worked as a lecturer and researcher at the University of California, the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, and the University of Ulster. Anthony holds the positions of Research Associate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Visiting Fellow with the University of Bristol's Graduate School of Education, and Associate of the Center for Emergent Diplomacy in Santa Fe. Anthony lives with his wife Emma and their son Aodan in Holywood, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. You can find out more about Anthony on his website: http://www.anthonymccann.com

3 Responses to A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.

  1. Pingback: Crowdfunding a Dream | Anthony McCann's writings on this, that and th'other

  2. Brenda Lee says:

    Is the series A river of sound available to purchase

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