A few friends of mine have died recently and, while each loss leaves an ache, one
of them was an extra-special individual - Tom Munnelly, a friend of 40 years.
Tom just loved - and I cannot stress that verb strongly enough - he LOVED Irish
traditional music and song. So much so that he devoted most of his life into its
collection, collation and, most important of all, its preservation. No boreen
was too small, no hill too high - if Tom thought that there was a song to be heard
(or pint to be drunk or crack to be had!) at its bottom or top, he was there with
his battered recorder. The amount he collected, from some of the most unlikely sources
imaginable, was both phenomenal and prodigious. According to Fintan Vallelly's mighty
tome A Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Cork University Press, 1999, Tom was
responsible for around 18,000 catalogued entries in (mainly) folk song but also in
poetry and folklore, including some 1500 recorded tapes from 1971 onwards which is
now considered to be the single largest and most comprehensive collection by any one
individual in the history of the genre.
I have copied below an obit from The Guardian
listing his achievements and while it is factually correct and sincere, it slightly
misses out on the humanity of the lad himself. Yes, he was fastidious in his research;
yes, he was precise in the way he honed his eye and ear for the nuances of the performed
music. But Tom was fundamentally one of the most entertaining individuals you could
ever come across in a country full of blarney-kissers. While the piece below lists
his academic (or not!) achievements, Tom himself hated the pomposity of the platform
where some scholars of late have tried to elevate and diagnose to death the simple
music of the peasant. For him, music/song was about crack and crack was 'life' and
'death' and everything in between. Warts and all, no prisoners taken. And, from this
base, he gloried, as we all did, in his put-downs of the more anally retentive of
the folk 'academics' as described above. An observation Tom made a few years ago
is a case in point. There is this extremely opinionated, but gifted, accordion player
whom everyone knows and both respects for his music and despises for his arrogance,
with the latter taking precedence. He was rumoured to have a tumour but thankfully it
proved not to be life-threatening. Tom's comment, when asked about the aforementioned's
state of health, was, 'Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the
tumour's not malignant, the bad news is that the rest of the f***ker is'.
Brenda and I called to see Tom and Annette towards the end of the Willy Clancy week in
mid July when he was quite ill but still seeing visitors. Typically, he was in the best
of form while my good lady and I were somewhat restrained due to the seriousness of his
condition. Nonetheless he kept us entertained for the while we were there until the next
bunch of callers, of which there were hundreds. I can't even imagine where he got his
energy from to welcome the myriads of well-wishers who called to see him. His courage,
in the face of death, was awesome. The funeral which was, several months previously,
preceded by a live 'wake' during which Tom himself officiated at his own impending
interment, remarking at one point in the proceedings that 'the only thing missing was
the 'box' in the corner'(!!), was sensitive, beautiful and the most brilliant crack -
just as he would have wished. He will be sorely missed. Hugs and handshakes to
Annette, his wife, to his sons, Colm and Tara, and to Eadhaoin his daughter.
Anyway, the Guardian's piece is worth reading if even to get a clue as to the depth
and breadth of Tom's achievements. Perhaps Finbar Boyle, one of BelfastFolk's
contributors, who worked on the collating end of Tom's fieldwork for many years, would
be kind enough to give us a few words on his knowledge of, and his collaboration with,
Tom in their seminal work in the Irish Folklore Commission.
A leading authority on traditional Irish songs sung in English
Thursday September 6, 2007
Over the last 200 years, Irish traditional music and song have been noted
and published by dedicated collectors, working mainly among ordinary people in
rural areas of Ireland - and, in the case of Francis O'Neill, with Irish
immigrants to America. A major focus of the collecting was instrumental music,
and there has also been a fascination with the songs sung in the Irish language.
Many people might assume that, by the late 20th century, there would have been
little folk music left to collect from the oral tradition. Yet the largest
collection of traditional Irish songs sung in English was made in this period,
by Tom Munnelly, who has died of cancer, aged 63.
For more than 30 years, Tom was employed as a folk song collector, but arguably
one of his most important singers, John Reilly, was recorded before this, when
Tom was still collecting privately, in his spare time. Reilly was an Irish Traveller
living in poverty in County Roscommon when Tom first met and recorded him in 1965.
It was the first time that the ballad The Maid and the Palmer had been collected
from oral tradition for 150 years, and never in Ireland. Reilly called it The
Well Below the Valley, and thanks to Tom's collecting, the song was given
international exposure when it was recorded by the Irish band Planxty, whose
singer, Christy Moore, also recorded several other Reilly songs, such as his
version of The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.
Tom was born in Rathmines in Dublin and educated at Clochar Road technical
school, before starting work in a knitwear factory at the age of 15. His interest
in folk song started at scout camp and then in the hostelling organisation, An Óige.
He started collecting songs to enlarge his repertoire - there were precious few
published collections of songs available at the time - and acquired a tape recorder.
Soon, he came to prefer the tradition, rather than revival singers such as the Dubliners.
In 1969, Tom's enthusiasm and rapidly expanding knowledge led to him becoming
research assistant to DK Wilgus, professor of Anglo-American folk song at the
University of California, Los Angeles. The following year Tom founded - with his
mentor, Breandán Breathnach, an authority on Irish dance music - the Folk Music
Society of Ireland, and he served on the committee until his death.
In 1971, Breathnach persuaded Ireland's department of education to establish a
national traditional music scheme, and Tom became its first full-time collector
of folk song. Four years later, the scheme was merged with the department of
Irish folklore at University College, Dublin (now known as the UCD Delargy Centre
for Irish Folklore and the National Folklore Collection), and, in spite of his
lack of formal academic qualifications, Tom became the department's folk song
collector and lecturer.
In 1978, he moved to County Clare to devote more time to his fieldwork. Still
employed by UCD, he based himself in Miltown Malbay, where the great uilleann
piper Willie Clancy had lived until his death five years previously. The Willie
Clancy school - a week-long celebration of Irish music, dance and song with
concerts, workshops, lectures and pub sessions - was already established in the
town, and in 1978 Tom became its chairman. He founded the Folklore and Folk Music
Society of Clare in 1982, and for its first nine years organised all the lectures,
and later started the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing.
In the mid-1980s he was a member of the Arts Council of Ireland, during which time
it established the Irish traditional music archive. Tom served as the first
chairman of the archive's board, and continued as a board member until recently.
All the while, he continued to travel Ireland collecting folk songs. One of the
most prolific singers he recorded, Tom Lenihan, lived just a few miles outside
Miltown Malbay, and Tom Munnelly also recorded his wealth of lore and custom.
A double album of songs, with an accompanying book written by Munnelly, was
released in 1995, entitled The Mount Callan Garland: the Songs of Tom Lenihan.
A typical tactic in a new village was for Tom to ask in the pub about local
singers. But not all pubgoers were interested in old songs, and increasingly he
found and recorded singers in their own homes. For example, one of his best,
Michael "Straighty" Flanagan, was almost missed after inquiries at the pub drew a blank.
John Reilly was not the only Traveller whom Tom recorded. "Singers are so
easy to find among travelling folk," Tom once wrote, and an album of his field
recordings, Songs of the Irish Travellers, was released in 1983.
In all, Tom recorded, indexed and transcribed more than 20,000 songs as well
as a considerable amount of folklore - a lasting testament to his tenacity,
as well as to the continuing tradition. He was generous with his time and
knowledge, a recognised authority and staunch advocate of unaccompanied traditional
singing. His enthusiasm for his subject - and his humour - shone through whenever
he was invited to lecture.
Tom contributed to a range of periodicals including Dál gCais (the Journal of
Clare), Béaloideas (the Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society) and the relatively
new Journal of Music in Ireland. He did not confine his writing to Irish publications,
but also contributed to England's Folk Music Journal, the publications of the International
Ballad Commission and the internet magazine Musical Traditions.
Last June, Tom received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland at
Galway for his services to Irish traditional music. A festschrift, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran:
Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, was published just a few months before his death, with a
distinguished list of contributors. In the introduction, the director of the Irish
traditional music archive, Nicholas Carolan, described Tom as "an iconic figure in
the world of traditional music".
Tom leaves a wife, Annette, who supported him in all his work, two sons, Colm and
Tara, and a daughter Éadaoin.
· Tom Munnelly, folk song collector and archivist, born May 25 1944; died
August 30 2007