Playing with the Heart: Maura Burns, Maintaining Ireland’s Musical Spirit.
Maura Burns has played many roles in her life. She
has been a wife. A nurse. A mother. A midwife.
But on the day she walked into the Sneem hotel to teach a group of American students how to sing and dance in traditional Gaelic style, it was clear that one her most treasured roles was that of musician.
As she waited for her husband to conclude his introduction, she sat solemnly with legs crossed and hands folded. Her eyes were severe, her mouth, a hard line, and the graceful wrinkles of her face seemed to tell an unknown story to the American students. At last, her husband gave her the floor and her demeanor changed completely. Maura’s eyes lit up, her lines dissipated with the stoic aura, just moments ago, she projected. She picked up her Concertina as she spoke. Her fingers caressed the key unconsciously as she told the students of its, and her, history. Maura was in her element.
Since she was “knee high,” Maura was surrounded by traditional Irish music. Her mother,
father, siblings, and friends were all talented musicians. Growing up, Maura Burns honored her melodic surroundings by becoming an accomplished player of several instruments. Her most prized and loved instrument, though, is the Concertina.
In the little town of Blackwater, in County Kerry, Maura’s family owned the only dance hall. The music was provided by her family and their friends. Every few weeks they would arrange a party for community, whose members would come from “far and wide” to dance and laugh the night away.
In the remote southeast Irish villages, people live in the solitude of the mountains with acres spread between them. Other than the occasional trip of errands, music and dance were their only chance to interact with one another. They came to dance. They came to listen. And they came to fall in love.
Music and dance were the main source of entertainment when Maura was a young woman: “People would talk about it [dance parties] a week before, talk about it a week after, then get ready for the next one” she said. The Irish people’s lives revolved around this communal connection.
Being that the community members were not in constant contact, the dance hall allowed them to maintain a communal camaraderie, which otherwise would not have been there without the monthly celebrations.
Yet, even this entertainment endured persecution. The town’s Priest would chastise the tumultuous uproar of song and dance, barging into the dance hall in order to stop the celebration. Many times, drunk on Guinness and gaiety, the community would dance around the Priest in circles. Maura recalled her father questioning the priest’s priorities: “Aren’t these people better under the light then out by the fences and the barns [in the dark and silence of the night]?” he said. Despite religious persecution, their spirit continued to thrive, and so did Blackwater’s little dance hall.
However, in present day, this spirit has diminished greatly. Before the advancement of technology, each town had distinct musicians with distinct musical styles. A player from Sneem and a player from Blackwater could play the same tune but quite differently. These similar differences added to the culture, to town identity, and the communal spirit of each village.
Traditional Irish music, Maura conveys, is “really the history of our country, the expressing of our culture, that keeps communities together”
Music was played with the heart-not the hands. Maura recounts that music was played with the musicians’ heads in the clouds, and the dancers feet on the ground- instead of by sheet paper or rhythmic beat counting: “I grew up with music and dance as one,” she continued, “musicians and dancers held a unique communication with one another:” their songs- Ireland’s ancient history, their dances- the celebration of it.
Maura did not learn her instruments through sheet music and grueling hours of repetitively practicing scales. it was played by her ancestors, passed down naturally to the ear by the consistent outbursts of melody in her kitchen, by fires, and on the streets of Blackwater. Music was contagious, when she was a girl, and most everyone (excluding priests) had caught the fever.
Maura believes that the introduction of the media brought forth the downward spiral of the Irish musical spirit. Replaced by its most malicious enemy: structure. She remembers that when competitions arose, dancers tried to get noticed on the television or radio, and started imitating other dancers, instead of dancing for joy. And like music, it had become one monotonous rhythm. One repetitive dance.
Because the two are so intimately connected, Maura feels “it (the new structured dancing) killed the music.” She firmly believes music once told the many stories of Ireland, even if it was only one song, because every song was played differently, with a village’s distinct background and history blended into it. Now, with a set guideline to music, one tune delivers one message, and nothing more. “The music has started to loose it’s soul.” Maura reflects sadly.
Nevertheless, this spirit, although not thriving as it once did, stills plays out in modern Irish society. It may not be spoken of three weeks of each month, but traditional music continues to claim thousand’s of hearts through festivals. Communities and tourists alike, travel far and wide in celebration of Ireland’s history and their own souls.
The elders and young ones, of rural towns, such as Sneem, still gather around camp fires, or in pubs, to rejoice in the joyful polkas and the haunting melodies, singing and dancing their past and their uncertain futures.
Although she is no longer in Blackwater with her family and their little dance hall, this spirit still holds Maura’s heart too. Maura loves to play, more so now in her elder years in Sneem, than in her youth, for she neither plays out of obligation to her family, or the need for a steady income.
She allows herself to be lost in the music-just because- “Batt [husband] would come in at midnight and I would still be playing, he would say ‘you are still up?!’ I often loose track of time when playing. I get lost in the music” Maura chuckles.
Maura played by her mother’s death bed. She played by her children’s cradles. She played well into the night. Every moment that could be afforded-she played, all the while never concentrating on the next note, or the next finger placement, but the chords of her soul.
Maura has passed it down to her children, as her mother and father had done with her, as she hopes her children will do with their own. So that her children and grandchildren will eternally keep Ireland’s history, community, and spirit alive with the strokes of their fingers echoed by the beat of their hearts, as Maura has done for many years before them.