8th May 2021
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Úna Monaghan: 121 Stories Of Gender Imbalance In Irish Trad Music

Úna Monaghan: 121 Stories Of Gender Imbalance In Irish Trad Music TheatreArtLife
By Michelle Sciarrotta

Irish musician Dr Úna Monaghan has published a research paper outlining the gender imbalance within the Irish traditional music scene. Belfast-based Monaghan is a musician, composer, sound engineer and academic and undertook the research while studying at Cambridge University.

121 Stories: The impact of gender on participation in Irish traditional music.

The recently published paper’s Abstract explains:

“This article reports on findings from an open online call in 2018, for experiences relating to gender in an Irish traditional music context. 121 anonymous responses were received from 83 people, mostly women. A thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) resulted in the identification of two main themes to describe ways in which gender affects participation in Irish traditional music: systems, causes and examples of gender inequality, and personal experiences of the effects of gender inequality.

The research demonstrates that the mechanisms and structures of the Irish traditional music scene continue to privilege the contribution of men. More generalised societal sexism is present in traditional music contexts and affects participation for women. Impacts of gender are found to be current, complex and longstanding; are present in all contexts in Irish traditional music; affect children and adults; and are not confined to the professional sphere.

The study also revealed a range of attitudes to the discussion of gender in Irish traditional music. Some implications of the work are discussed in the final section.”

Dr Monaghan outlines her own experiences, both as an individual musician, and as part of the collective conversation that drew her to research this topic; she cited that after twenty years as a working musician and sound engineer she had encountered much sexism and misogyny, and felt that although many feared speaking out, the parallel feminist movements were prompting debate on a global scale. In particular, a 2018 campaign entitled FairPlé was specifically advocating for gender balance in Irish traditional and folk music.

Monaghan invited participants to share their experiences of a time when they ‘perceived gender to be an issue’ in an Irish traditional music context and to submit any other relevant comments.

The results showed that ‘the mechanisms and structures of the Irish traditional music scene privilege the contribution of men’ and that women are given less respect than men. Additionally, themes that cross over into many different musical genres were highlighted, such as instrument design that can make music less accessible, with one flute player noting:

The current traditional instrument design was based around larger hands (men’s hands mainly); it’s discouraging that this tradition is so reluctant to accept different designs to be more accessible for more people.

Other examples include female flute players either being advised to get smaller (and quieter) flutes to suit their hands when they would have liked to buy a standard one, or being told the solution was to practise more on a standard instrument, when they wanted to buy a smaller design of flute to suit their smaller hands.

Respondents highlighted ways in which conventions associated with certain instruments in the tradition create assumptions that restricted their potential, both when they were children and as adults. Some instruments such as the uilleann pipes or guitar were experienced by respondents to be mostly played by men, and women players of these instruments reported feeling greater pressure and scrutiny:

I am so fed up that it is so frequently assumed that I will be a bad guitarist because guitar is ‘not a woman’s instrument’ (#104).

Or, they endured repeated assumptions that they played another instrument, sometimes with uncomfortable remarks, and always at a cost to their energy, development or enjoyment.

A lack of opportunities for women was also found from the study, with stories of missing out on work due to attitudes towards women, in particular:

I have been told a male musician was chosen over me as the project involved gigs away from home. Since the project was just two musicians, he didn’t want to travel with “a young girl” (I was hitting 30 at the time) as “people might talk”. (#102, female experienced musician, 25-34)

As an independent artist, self-managed, I was pleased to draw the interest of a promoter who was enthusiastic about the prospect of setting up gigs. However, this didn’t transpire—and for that I don’t blame him in the least as I understand how the market works—and that demand makes bookings. His feedback, though, was harder to digest— which is that people don’t want to pay money to see girl singer songwriters. (#69, female experienced singer, 45-54)

Other similar experiences included:

Singing Circles are also part of traditional music. Love them but virtually all jokes/funny stories told by men over 55 involve women being fat, belligerent, hairy or expensive to keep. (#101, female intermediate singer, 45-54)

After a year or two, the other girl on the gig politely said to him that she had a couple of new tunes that she would like to try out, to which he responded, ‘this is a pub and people really need to hear music with BALLS in it, I’m horsing it out here, we’re grand’. (#70, female experienced singer, 35-44)

Some reported a lack of outward recognition of women’s contribution generally, in both professional and non-professional spheres:

Just want to mention my lack of recognition when playing in a room full of men. They get the props, I get nothing. (#36) and

The women are often marginalised at best and abused at worst. (#19).

Additionally, respondents reported bullying, experiencing a “boys’ club” or “laddish” behaviour, and in some cases a veiled threat, or apprehension about challenging a man’s behaviour in an Irish traditional music context. In two instances it appeared that respondents became an outlet for a man’s frustration, suffering some form of punishment because they were a successful, skilled or talented woman.

The responses show women’s appearance and clothing is scrutinised, affecting their participation at all levels of Irish traditional music. Nineteen responses contained an instance of appearance being prioritised over musical ability:

After I had sang a song during a session, a male fiddler said that I was the hot blonde version of another female singer (#1).

This also affected women’s access to work in traditional music, and was particularly evident in the context of Irish dance stage shows, where musicians for such shows were chosen on the basis of how they looked.

Lasting results from the paper

Dr Monaghan acknowledges that the demographic information from the participants surveyed shows little gender or racial diversity and is not demonstrative of intersectionality as it ‘overwhelmingly describes the experiences of people who identify as white men and women’ and that more work is needed to hear about the experiences of minority groups.

Monaghan summarises her research, ending the publication by stating:

“When considering the implications of the findings, although the complexity of this issue makes it difficult to define and address, it does also mean that everyone is in a position to help bring about change. Many roles and stakeholders arise in these testimonies, including but not limited to: teachers, camera operators, session leaders, production companies, instrument makers, promoters, well-known musicians, managers, musical families, booking agents, the media, bar owners, band members, and sound engineers. Nineteen responses mentioned existing traditional music organisations who hold power in this area. Several respondents stated the need for men to take action, and to work together with women to effect change, including to overcome instances where “men do not act for fear of other men” (#119).

Those who have the greatest effect of all are peer musicians and listeners–those who listen and play alongside the survey respondents. It is only when these stories are viewed collectively can we begin to understand how they intersect with culture, society, race, politics, class, gender, specific events, general experience over time, sessions, history and performance. It is only then that we can begin to take steps towards making Irish traditional and folk music a more welcoming place for everyone, with better equality of opportunity.”

View Dr Monaghan’s full study as PDF here.

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

Accessibility At The Smith Center Series: Part One

James “Fitz” FitzSimmons Interview: The Boys In The Band On Netflix

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