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Patrimoine culturel intangible : le cas de la musique

Irish Music, An Intangible Cultural Heritage

La musique irlandaise, un patrimoine culturel immatériel
Erick Falc’her-Poyroux
p. 99-106


Cet article aborde les caractéristiques musicales du concept développé depuis 2001 par l’UNESCO de traditions culturelles spécifiques dignes de reconnaissance internationale. Dépassant largement la diaspora irlandaise, l’influence de la musique irlandaise mérite notre attention, malgré sa relative discrétion et le caractère intangible de la musique et de son étude en dehors des cercles musicologiques : l’une des conséquences de sa déterritorialisation progressive depuis plusieurs décennies s’affiche désormais dans la volonté irlandaise de la rapatrier, notamment par l’inclusion sur la Liste du patrimoine culturel immatériel de l’UNESCO de deux instruments emblématiques, le uilleann pipes et la harpe.

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Music doesn’t lie. […] Music is going to change the world next time.
Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stone, 15 October 1970.

  • 1 See the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage on UNESCO website of the Convention for the Safeguardi (...)
  • 2 See “Intangible Heritage Domains in the 2003 Convention” on UNESCO website: (...)

1This article wishes to address the musical characteristics of the concept developed since 2001 by UNESCO of specific cultural traditions worthy of international recognition, of which incidentally Ireland has four, two of them musical: uilleann piping was listed in 2017 and harping in 20191. Unsurprisingly, the concept of Cultural Heritage is defined at length in UNESCO’s official documents: “Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; Performing arts; Social practices, rituals and festive events; Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; Traditional craftsmanship”.2 On the other hand, and rather remarkably, the concept of intangibility is not defined in those same official documents, which is all the more unfortunate as it is quite appropriate for music, the art of playing with sounds. It is even more so for the study of music, since “intangible” derives from the latin verb tangere, to touch, and has taken on the meaning of “which cannot be touched”.

2For reasons that would probably require en entire volume, Irish academics over the last decades have been very slow in paying attention to traditional music: Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s PhD, the first on the study of Irish traditional music, was defended in 1987 in the department of anthropology of Belfast’s Queen’s university.3 Over the last forty years only about thirty-five PhDs have been awarded in Ireland on the subject.4 A general lack of consideration for traditional music can also be felt in the major sociological studies about Ireland over the last three decades: Irish music is mostly absent – or only mentioned in passing – from such remarkable studies as Luke Gibbons’ Transformations in Irish Culture, from Brian Fallon’s An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture, 1930-1960, from Terence Browne’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-2002, from Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall’s The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment, etc.5 And things look even worse in continental Europe, where very few researchers seem to pay attention to the importance of music in Ireland – except Axel Klein in Germany, who works on 20th century “art music”.6

  • 7 See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

3In other words, music is invisible, or rather literally inaudible, in the concert of Irish studies, in France and in continental Europe for the most part. This has led me on numerous occasions to question my own research and its intrinsic value and interest.7 In which case I have been known to think “What’s the point and what’s the use?”. Hannah Arendt’s famous answer to the same question immediately comes to mind: “What is the use of the use?”. But this would obviously hardly be a satisfying answer for us.

4I still believe that music is one of the main gateways to the understanding of Irish history. In particular, over those thirty years researching Irish music, I have become more and more aware of its significance, not only in Ireland, but also among the Irish diaspora, in festivals, in pubs and on the Internet.

  • 8 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Global Irish – Ireland’s Diaspora Policy, March 2015, p. 1 (...)
  • 9 Ibid., p. 17.
  • 10 See Cansin Arslan et al., A New Profile of Migrants in the Aftermath of the Recent Economic Crisis, (...)

5Recent statistics on the Irish diaspora vary greatly depending on the chosen criteria. The official government report of March 2015 itself remained quite vague: “[…] it is believed that there are up to 70 million people around the world claiming Irish ancestry and heritage”;8 “There is no clear evidence to support this figure, but it certainly runs into the tens of millions”.9 In parallel, a 2014 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) report suggested that about 17% of those born in Ireland currently live abroad.10 It will obviously not come as a surprise that Irish music is particularly well established in countries where this diaspora has been active for centuries: England, the USA, Canada or Australia, among others.

6One of the effects of this diaspora is that today all major Western cities (and beyond) have at least one Irish pub, often provided by a turnkey service company like The Irish Pub Company, who have specialised in “Crafting authentic cultural experiences since 1979”.11 Whatever your preferred style of Irish pub, they will build and furnish it for you: gastro pub, Victorian pub, brewery pub, country pub, shop pub, Celtic pub, etc. And most, if not all, of these Irish pubs in the world welcome Irish music sessions organised by local musicians with little or no link with the Irish diaspora.

  • 12 Incidentally, the best uilleann pipes makers have long been non-Irish nationals: Geoff Woof is Aust (...)

7The growing popularity of Irish music summer schools and dance classes outside this diaspora and who play Irish traditional music is thus a more recent phenomenon: in Europe, Asia, South America, etc., most local musicians do not claim any particular Irish ancestry and mostly seek to practice and to perfect their technical skills in music and dance. This has been the case since the 1970s throughout Europe, as explained by Dutch uilleann pipes maker Marc van Daal:12

The town where I live lies very near the Belgium border and being a lover of trad. Music, I visited with great regularity folk concerts in Belgium. […] In 1975 I attended a concert of the, then totally unknown, Folk band Planxty and met Irish piper, a very young Liam O’Flynn for the first time. […] I was addicted to the pipes straight away […], [which] wasn’t quite that simple.13

  • 14 See the very personal account by its founder and director for thirty-seven years: Jean-Pierre Picha (...)

8For the sake of context, it is relevant here to take a look at familiar examples of Irish music beyond the diaspora: in Europe, France and Germany were and remain the first areas of Irish music expansion, with the creation in 1974 of the Irish Folk Festival by Carsten Linde in Karlsruhe. For very different reasons, interest in Irish music in France first started in the West, where Breton musician and collector Polig Montjarret (1920-2003) was the main promoter of cultural links between Brittany and Ireland; this led to the creation of the first Breton-Irish twinning in 1975, between the cities of Lorient and Galway, and to the creation of the Festival interceltique de Lorient in 1971 which remains, to this day, one of the biggest festivals in Europe with over 700,000 visitors every year.14

9These festivals have long been the main providers of Irish music in continental Europe and have turned Irish bands and people like the Furey Brothers, Micho Russell, Matt Molloy or Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, to name but a few, into household names all over continental Europe. From this first wave also emerged musicians like Alan Stivell or Dan Ar Braz, as well as lesser-known but revered musicians such as the Quéfféléant Brothers, Patrick Molard, Jean-Michel Veillon, etc.

  • 15 One of the main consequences for Shamrock was a record deal with a major company, see Shamrock, Mo (...)
  • 16 See Irish Association of Paris website:

10This initial wave of Irish music on the continent then spread to Paris – thanks to Brittany’s own diaspora – and the French capital became a hive of Irish music activity, mainly hosted by a restaurant called Ti Jos and by the Mission bretonne in Montparnasse, an association whose main purpose since 1947 has been to help Breton people in and around Paris. This in turn quickly led to the creation in 1981 of the band Shamrock with Michel Sikiotakis and Emmanuel Delahaye among others – who went on to win the All-Ireland title at Kilkenny’s Fleadh Cheoil in 198415 – then to the creation in 1982 of the Irish Music Center in Paris, followed in 1984 by the creation of the Irish Association of Paris,16 and to the emergence of bands like Taxi Mauve or Hempson, of expert musicians like uilleann piper Marco Pollier, harper Katrien Delavier, and fiddler Christian Lemaître, and many more. Others, like French fiddlers Patrick Ourceau and Philippe Varlet, emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, where they have enjoyed a very successful career teaching exclusively Irish music.

11One of the consequences of this global musical surge beyond the organisation of Irish music sessions all over France was the emergence of electronic exchanges on the Internet: the first and main mailing list called “Irlandetradfr” was created by Dominique Renaudin in 1998 and has since become a Facebook page with over 3,500 subscribers today. Several websites also keep a record of Irish music sessions in France every week, and the list is quite impressive.17

12Most of the big cities in France – and some smaller towns – also have associations dedicated to Irish music and dance with regular sessions. Some of these associations (or sometimes individuals) have embarked on the organisation of summer schools or winter schools in Irish music, and the main ones are, as acknowledged by Irish musicians themselves, as good, if not better, as similar events in Ireland: Celticimes in Albiez-Montrond in Savoie is the most recent summer school and was created in July 2010; in Morbihan the Brittany Winter School of Arzon was created in 2007; and An Seisiún / The Session in Mesquer, Loire-Atlantique, started in 2002. But the most significant of these summer schools was created in 1991 in Dordogne by Claude Fossaert and Philippe Giraud, two French fiddlers. Each July, the Rencontres irlandaises de Tocane attract the crème de la crème of Irish musicians and have seen more than 200 Irish musicians teach Irish music in thirty years.18

13The particular significance of Tocane was also confirmed when the Irish Traditional Music Archive took an interest in 2014, and this unprecedented recognition outside the Irish diaspora was explained by Nicholas Carolan, its then director:

  • 19 Nicholas Carolan, founder and former director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, interviewed i (...)

It seemed a perfect sample of globalisation […], but there wasn’t any documentation. And one of our remits is to document Irish traditional music, […], not just in Ireland, not just among the Irish diaspora, but worldwide because we’re interested in all performers of Irish traditional music wherever they are.19

14All these meetings between fans of Irish music are thus the opportunity for musicians from all over France to meet “for real” – and not only via the Internet – and the main activity during these summer schools is now summed up in a new word, the verb sessionner (shared with French video gamers) encapsulating the long hours of playing the great classics of Irish trad (“When sick…”, “Did you wash…”, “I buried my wife…”), and if possible to learn new rare melodies, until very late into the night, or even into the early morning.

15In an ideal session, where the French musicians are passionate and truly excellent, it is musically very hard for most people to tell a French fiddler or uilleann piper from an Irish one, and you would almost think you were in Ireland. Like in Ireland, these communions of a new age are not without some religious connotations; a high priest – or anchor musician – coordinates the session, and all the attributes of the classical liturgy are present, with songs and recitatives, music and dance, the devotion to the great figures of the past, the ritual of tuning the instruments, the sacred jargon, the tacit communion for the sequence of melodies, the passion of some musicians for the names of the tunes, private remarks and whisperings, the prayers to the waiter, etc. Almost like in Ireland, but not entirely, though: if it were not for the almost complete absence of laughter and loud voices, it would certainly sound like a session in Dingle or Gweedore.

16After a few days and sometimes up to fifty hours of music playing during the week, everyone leaves the town in a state of bliss and ecstasy, determined to improve their technique or expand their repertoire in order to return better prepared the following year, musically and physically.

17Many of those musicians have even become recognised professionals of Irish music in France. Although the groups that last are rare, some are worth mentioning and have made a name for themselves (in alphabetical order): Blackwater, Broken String, Dirty Linen, Doolin, Faolan, Gaolta, Garlic Bread, Poppy Seeds, Shelta, The Boys in the Gap, The Rolling Frogs, and many more.


18But going back to the question of “Why take an academic interest in Irish traditional music?”, I can see at least three reasons.

19First, because music, like any constituent of the popular culture chemistry, is a comprehensive process that has infinitely more to offer to academia than what the ear of the musicologist can perceive, being at the crossroads between art, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, literature and drama, religion, gender studies, or even law, philosophy, geography, psychology, etc. The fields of research in this domain are almost unlimited: each chapter of its history – past or present – could in itself justify a book or a doctoral dissertation.

20Secondly, because it is a reflection on tradition, which is at the heart of the question of intangible heritage, as evidenced in its etymology, from the Latin word tradere – to bequeath or transmit – and therefore at the heart of our everyday life. Traditional music is by definition a deeply rooted process that continually adapts to the context that generates it, which in turn means that working on Irish traditional music implies a reflection on a collective past, but also on our collective future. Many types of traditional music have disappeared over the last two centuries, but not Irish music, on the contrary, and it is fascinating to wonder why and how some traditions disappear and others thrive.

21The original function of social exchanges and bonding within a community of what is now termed “trad music” was transformed from the 18th century onwards into an agent of nationalism, in Ireland and in the diaspora, morphing into something new, before recently spearheading the identity and economic renewal of Ireland, through the music industry, while acquiring and retaining a real function within the country in everyday life for amateur musicians. Again, the role of the Irish diaspora was crucial in its survival. We may now, however, speculate on the future of the music and on the role played by musicians outside the diaspora.

22Thirdly, because there must be some explanation for the fact that, although essential to the understanding of Ireland, it is almost absent from the present academic exchanges and debates in France and in continental Europe. And these reasons must be explored: is the study of music perceived as the preserve of musicologists? Is music too pervasive and ubiquitous to grasp, because it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Is it difficult to define, to quantify, to analyse? Or is it because of a mutual indifference between the world of Irish musicians and academia in general?

23In this regard, I have noticed over the years the interesting gap between two worlds: the Dagda world and the DADGAD world: everyone in our academic circles is well acquainted with the Irish mythological character of the Dagda, while all the folk musicians are well acquainted with the guitar open tuning called DADGAD. But very few people are aware of both, and I feel that living in our bubbles is the perfect recipe for missed opportunities and long-lasting misunderstandings.

24The fact remains that music studies of Ireland in France are literally “unheard” and intangible. In the meantime, what Ireland has achieved is therefore a veritable tour de force: to offer the world a distinctive feature of its culture while retaining a living function for it within its own society. This duality is all the more relevant as, at the same time, this contribution has been reinstated as a validation of its identity by the international community, mostly on the stages of the world.


  • 20 “There is no cultural identity for a very simple reason, which is that cultures are collective and (...)

25Questions of cultural identity have indeed been the subject of very strong debates in occidental countries since the 1990s, and a renewed interest has particularly marked the beginning of the 21st century in France. French philosopher François Jullien recently explained: “Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle pour une raison très simple, c’est que les cultures sont collectives et ne cessent de changer. Une culture qui ne change plus est morte”.20

26We therefore understand that, for François Jullien, cultural identities do not exist because of a fundamental incompatibility between culture on the one hand, which is perpetually in motion and therefore elusive, and identity on the other hand, which is fixed and frozen in time. This might be understandable – up to a point – for some, but it seems to me that identity (like tradition) can and should always be seen as a journey, a temporary conclusion, as Simon Frith explained in his landmark study in 1996:

  • 21 Simon Frith, “Music and Identity”, in Questions of Cultural Identity, Stuart Hall, Paul du Gay (eds (...)

Identity is not a thing but a process – an experiential process which is most vividly grasped as music. Music seems to be a key to identity because it offers, so intensely, a sense of both self and others, of the subjective in the collective.21

27It is therefore important to note that culture is not just about “living together” but about “doing and making together”. And it is precisely this “doing and making together” that constitute the fabric human beings cannot live without:

  • 22 Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, New York, Viking Press, 1961, p. 5.

[…] without tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is – there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future.22

28The consequence of all this for Irish music is that it has become as much the immediate product of Irish culture as a part of the world’s artistic heritage: it is one of the results of the opening of Ireland onto the rest of the world since the 1960s. Some Irish people seeing their music crossing the country’s borders can sometimes feel deprived of a cultural richness that they themselves have helped to create. This is also what some blues, jazz and flamenco musicians must have felt in the past. This is perhaps what some musicians in New York feel today, in the face of the reappropriation of rap music by young people around the world. But like for blues, jazz, tango, rap, reggae, etc. traditions have no owner, traditions and identities are not properties or commodities that can be bought and sold.

  • 23 See Patrik Vincent Dasen, Devenir et être facteur de cornemuse irlandaise uilleann pipes: entre dét (...)

29One of the spectacular consequences of the deterritorialisation of Irish music, however, has been the determined effort at repatriating it, notably with the successful attempts of the – somewhat fragmented – Irish musical world at reterritorialising its music-making creativity and resources via campaigns aimed at securing a place on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for the uilleann pipes and for the harp.23

30On the other hand, one of the great novelties of this early 21st century seems to be the possibility for everyone to choose the identity that suits them. So my contention here is that, not only does cultural identity exist, but over the last decades cultural identity has become more of a choice, not a given. Not only can people choose to be Irish within the diaspora, but they can also make that choice without. Perhaps in the same way the Irish diaspora in the United States or England played a crucial role in its morphing into a 20th century reality, it is perfectly valid to think that its future survival and developments will happen thanks to the extension of the diaspora in as yet unforeseeable directions.


31The aim of this article was twofold: first, to show that, not only is Irish traditional music intangible, in the sense meant by UNESCO, i.e. which cannot be touched. But it is also intangible in Irish studies in France and in continental Europe, probably because it is too elusive and multidisciplinary. It is simply inaudible. Secondly that Irish traditional music in France represents an extension of the diaspora, a choice, and maybe a bridge we should use more often to venture into new territories. And also to build more bridges between two worlds that ignore each other, for the benefit of all.

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1 See the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage on UNESCO website of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage: Sporting traditions are also celebrated, and hurling and camogie were jointly listed in 2018 and falconry in 2021.

2 See “Intangible Heritage Domains in the 2003 Convention” on UNESCO website:

3 Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Innovation and Tradition in the Music of Tommie Potts, PhD thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1987.

4 See,,,,,,,

5 Luke Gibbons, Transformations in Irish Culture, Cork, Cork University Press, 1996; Brian Fallon, An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture, 1930-1960, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1998; Terence Browne, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-2002, London, Harper Perennial, 2004; The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment, Eugenio Biagini, Daniel Mulhall (eds.), Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2016.

6 Axel Klein, Die Musik Irlands im 20. Jahrhundert, Hildesheim – New York, G. Olms, 1996; see

7 See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

8 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Global Irish – Ireland’s Diaspora Policy, March 2015, p. 10, online:

9 Ibid., p. 17.

10 See Cansin Arslan et al., A New Profile of Migrants in the Aftermath of the Recent Economic Crisis, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, no. 160, 2014, p. 41, online:

11 See

12 Incidentally, the best uilleann pipes makers have long been non-Irish nationals: Geoff Woof is Australian, Brian Howard English, Andreas Rogge German, Pat Sky American, Alain Froment was French. There are obviously excellent Irish uilleann pipes makers as well: Eugene Lambe, Pat McKenna, Cillian Ó Briain, etc.

13 See Marc van Daal’s website:

14 See the very personal account by its founder and director for thirty-seven years: Jean-Pierre Pichard, Le Fil – Festival interceltique de Lorient, une grande aventure humaine, Spezet, Coop Breizh, 2021.

15 One of the main consequences for Shamrock was a record deal with a major company, see Shamrock, Mo Cheol Thú, Polydor, 825 577-1, 1985.

16 See Irish Association of Paris website:

17 See the Facebook group for general discussions. Information on all types of traditional music, singing and dancing in France can be found at

18 See;;; The French phenomenon is not unique in Europe, and Italy has some excellent small festivals, including two in Emilia-Romagna: Bobbio, which has been home to a monastery founded by the Irish monk Saint Columban since the 7th century, has hosted the Irlanda In Musica festival every year in mid-July since 1998; and Umberto Bisi created in 2012 the small Éire! festival in Bondeno, held every year at the end of August.

19 Nicholas Carolan, founder and former director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, interviewed in Tocane for the documentary by Erick Falc’her-Poyroux, Tocane: Ceol agus Dordogne, 2017, online:

20 “There is no cultural identity for a very simple reason, which is that cultures are collective and constantly changing. A culture that no longer changes is dead” (interview of François Jullien by Guillaume Erner, L’invité des matins, France Culture, 23 June 2017; my translation).

21 Simon Frith, “Music and Identity”, in Questions of Cultural Identity, Stuart Hall, Paul du Gay (eds.), London, Sage, 1996, p. 110.

22 Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, New York, Viking Press, 1961, p. 5.

23 See Patrik Vincent Dasen, Devenir et être facteur de cornemuse irlandaise uilleann pipes: entre déterritorialisation et patrimonialisation, PhD thesis, Université Côte d’Azur, 2020.

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Erick Falc’her-Poyroux

Nantes Université

Erick Falc’her-Poyroux est maître de conférences à l’université de Nantes. Il a soutenu sa thèse de doctorat en 1996 intitulée L’identité musicale irlandaise, et a traduit ou publié plusieurs ouvrages sur l’Irlande, dont Histoire sociale de la musique irlandaise : du dagda au DADGAD (Oxford, P. Lang, 2018). Il a également écrit un livre sur les Beatles, son autre passion. Il est chef du département des langues de l’École polytechnique de l’université de Nantes depuis 2005, joue de la guitare et de la batterie quand il a le temps et compose.

Erick Falc’her-Poyroux is an associate professor at the University of Nantes. He completed his PhD thesis in 1996 on Ireland’s musical identity, and has translated or published several books on Ireland, including Histoire sociale de la musique irlandaise: du dagda au DADGAD (Oxford, P. Lang, 2018). He has also written one book about the Beatles, his other passion. He has been head of the language department at École polytechnique, University of Nantes since 2005, plays guitar and drums when he has the time, and composes.

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