Rhythms in the folk museum

LAST NIGHT'S FUN by Ciaran Carson, Cape pounds 15.99
A year or two ago, a Co Kerry pub enjoyed a brief notoriety for its topless waitresses. The locals were not really shocked, only surprised that such a quaint, Sixties concept should be expected to catch on now. Karaoke, yes, and Elvis look-alike contests, but for many bemused drinkers bare breasts might have seemed as peculiar and olde worlde as the diddley- iddley strains of a real ceilidh band. Because off the tourist track, traditional music in Ireland, like traditional everything everywhere, has been losing ground.

Last Night's Fun is an attempt to reclaim that territory, or at least to put down some markers. It is a celebration, a memoir, an attempt by an articulate aficionado to share his pleasure in a great musical genre. In many places it succeeds. If anyone can explain the wild, heartstopping joy of these intricate, ever-changing yet repetitive rhythms, Ciaran Carson can: his exceptional gifts as a poet have you clapping and laughing with the swing and twist of his perception. Turn the page, though, and a listing of names and parts may drive the ignorant reader to tap an impatient foot at the stuff of a true obsessive.

Carson loves it all - the cliched and mawkish as well as the creative and one-off. He writes with an apostle's admiration for the people, places and lifestyle of this musical scene. Like all cults, it is proud of its totems. Food in the form of the Ulster Fry (which can include up to eight different fat-saturated breads) is sacred; cigarettes and strong drink de rigueur. Pedantry is welcomed, and the author can match any musical reference with ten more. The "folkie or young fogie" Carson spent the Sixties learning his craft: the way one man might play his fiddle with a cigarette burning down between his fingers, or the players' various body languages which signify a move on to the next piece. Later, he married Deirdre Shannon, from that family of traditional musicians, and they have played happily together ever since.

There is an innocent, Father Ted quality about all this, as well as a tinge of regret. Is it deliberate? It is hard to believe that the ironic intelligence which won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry with the coruscating Belfast Confetti does not bring a colder eye to the culture of traditional Irish music. Carson argues well against the growth of folk museums, the way the things of Ireland's past are being suffocated by preservation. Yet when remembering a Belfast childhood and his hurling stick (an emblem of nationalism), does he not regret the way the Gaelic League and the Catholic Church kidnapped Irish language, music and games after independence and, in an attempt to preserve their purity, allowed their charges to wither too long in the tower? Or is the growing interest among Northern Irish nationalists for all things traditional due to exactly those factors: an attraction to their narrowness, marginality and minority status?

And there is something attractive about that sub-fusc life. Carson writes wonderfully about arrivals in strange towns, the search for a friendly venue, the long evening's consumption until a sign is given and "the fiddle player, maybe, looks with feigned uncertainty at the case beside him. He takes it on his knees and snaps the catches open like you might undo a baby's Babygro." Then slowly, gradually, the music comes together like a "mountain road winds up and up ... till you hit the plateau and you see how far this road extends; now you're on a steady rolling level, it's as if the road is taking you, not you taking it." Sometimes there are women playing alongside. Yet those nights which slide into dawn with fry- ups, poitn and damp overcoats sound very male, a solidarity plucked from an earlier, more repressed Ireland; light years from the after-hours promise of the jazz or rock music scene. Little wonder that the author so often finds himself playing in competition with the next-door disco.

He seems unconcerned. The music lifts him above any cross-cultural difficulties and confirms his membership of an exclusive club. There is scant mention of the Troubles, only an ironic memory of a long-ago Twelfth of July when the Taig child snuck into the local Orangemen's Field and wandered about in "a sort of paleface stockade, and we were Indians". Years later at an army checkpoint, an Irish-speaking nutcase hitches a ride to Donegal in Carson's car. We are not told what they talked of; it was enough that the stranger's "dislocated" chatter came in the first national language. Like me, readers from de Valera's Ireland may feel a shiver of deja vu. There is more to this great cultural tradition than a masochistic push against every tide. And, in an age of "Riverdance" and themed Irish pubs, unless Carson can explain his obsession as something more than the love of hoary old men and a perfectly fried egg, he may soon find it consigned to brief tourist seasons on the edge of the sea.