Gender Disparities in Irish Traditional Music
This Women’s History month, it's important to recognize important parts of history and culture where women have been excluded and underrepresented.
Irish traditional music utilizes different tunes and instruments to cultivate a sound of togetherness and national identity. Music has been a main form of expression on the island for many years, but this practice has been historically exclusive and discriminatory. Irish music, from Blood and Thunder bands to trad sessions, has almost exclusively been performed by men.
There were many factors that prohibited the inclusion of women in celebrations of Irish music. Most of the instruments that characterize the sound of traditional Irish music were seen as “masculine” and therefore unfit for women to play. For example, accordions were cheap and easy to play so therefore they were to be played by women. A lot of this music was performed in pubs which for many years were not socially acceptable for women to go into. Women lacked the access and resources to join these bands. Instruments and uniforms were expensive and women were expected to stick to their domestic roles. Societal and gender roles historically acted as barriers for women to participate in the performing of Irish music.
Blood and Thunder bands are percussion dominated marching bands that march in parades. Women have marched in these bands before, however women typically follow the band like groupies either to support their boyfriends or to seek out a boyfriend in the band. The tradition of women and the performing of Blood and Thunder Bands cemented a gender role for these bands which further excluded women from actually being able to join and perform in these bands.
Few women were allowed to participate in various expressions of Irish music, but usually because they knew a man in the musical group who was able to get them in. It was said that the few women that were able to join a musical group were not even viewed as women by their peers, but as “honorary men.” Many female musicians in session bands noted that they had to drastically change their behavior from the men’s while performing because they would be seen as provocative and would not be taken seriously. Even as women made their way into these musical groups they were still seen as subordinate to their male peers and not allowed to behave the same as their male counterparts.
Women were unwelcome in pubs where trad sessions took place, so many took to creating their own trad sessions in their homes. These so-called ‘house sessions’ allowed women to perform trad session music without the judgment and supervision of men. Occasionally men were invited to join but they were not able to take over the session as many did during pub sessions.
Though Irish traditional music has moved farther away from these oppressive gender roles over time, it is still imperative to recognize that the historical gender disparities in this cultural expression still have lasting impacts to this day. Learning about these historical gender disparities can help us to understand and acknowledge the history of sexism in music.
O’Shea, Helen. 2005. The Making of Irish Traditional Music. Cork: CUP. Chapter 5: “Lovely Girls and Good Men: Women and the Fraternity of Irish Music”.
Radford, Katy. 2001. “Drum Rolls and Gender Roles in Protestant Marching Bands in Belfast”. Ethnomusicology 10(2).