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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy