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Archival Airwaves: Recording Ireland for the BBC

In 1947, Brian George, the head of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Central Programme Operations, hired Séamus Ennis to help record traditional music throughout Ireland. Ennis was ideally suited for the task. Born in Finglas, North County Dublin, Ennis had become renowned as a uilleann pipe player, a talent inherited from his father, James.[1] Ennis’s musical aptitude was matched by his scrupulousness as a collector. Over the previous five years he became one of the principal fieldworkers for the Irish Folklore Commission. Ennis’s rapport with source musicians was a vital asset to George, himself a singer who hailed from Donegal. Having long envisioned the broadcasting service as a leading collector of folk song and music, George hoped a strong yield of Irish field recordings would persuade the BBC London headquarters to invest in systematically recording all of Britain and Ireland. 

To that end, the Irish recording trip succeeded. According to the founder of the BBC Sound Archive, Marie Slocombe, the roughly one hundred recordings from Ennis and George’s trial project “confirmed the belief that much material of interest to broadcasting, as well as of scientific folklore value, still remained to be recorded, even in these over-urbanised islands.”[2] Following another Irish pilot venture in 1949, the BBC launched an ambitious five-year recording project in 1952 supervised by Slocombe and George, the Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme.

As Slocombe’s recollection indicates, the Recording Scheme was not only concerned with broadcasting field recordings of endangered oral practices—songs, music, folklore, and dialects—but also amassing them into a sound archive. Though diffusion and preservation are hardly contradictory aims, their conjoining nonetheless troubles the qualities most associated with radio: simultaneity and ephemerality. Cultural histories of radio often invoke these qualities to underscore the medium’s uniquely elusive history. In the preface to their seminal A Social History of British Broadcasting, for instance, Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff attribute the radio’s transience to its archival dearth:

There is an inescapable paradox at the heart of this project of which we have been acutely aware all along—our object of study no longer exists...The fleeting, unrecorded character of early radio seems obstinately to resist the possibility of historical reclamation.[3]

Such caveats about the inaccessibility of radio’s early history are understandable, particularly in modernist studies. Pre-recording programs was costly and technologically infeasible during the first two decades of broadcasting, which was mostly delivered “live.” Even when broadcasting institutions recorded their programming, they could display an indifference to conservation.[4] In 1936, Slocombe, then a summer relief secretary at the BBC, was instructed to discard a pile of lacquer discs the broadcasting institution had begun cutting since they allowed immediate playback. Slocombe was astonished to find among them “a talk by Bernard Shaw, a talk by H. G. Wells, a talk by Asquith, Churchill, Lloyd George, Chesterton.”[5] Concern that invaluable cultural resources were being obliterated inspired Slocombe and Lynton Fletcher, the Head of Recorded Programmes, to build the BBC Sound Archive.

Yet even accounting for the paucity of early recordings, the extent to which radio studies is impaired by the medium’s irrecoverable past can be exaggerated.[6] Moreover, a necessarily oblique textual approach to radio broadcasting—typescripts, listener reports, program guides, production notebooks, etc.—has the benefit of guarding against an assumed immediacy to the aural environments through which programming was transmitted and the varied listening practices by which it was received. Indeed, beyond adding another medium to modernist studies, radio scholarship has been especially attuned to how media are not siloed essences, but comprise mutable, often antagonistic, relations.[7] In being forced to analyze fragments across both sound and written archives, radio scholars have disturbed persistent notions of medial transparency and stability, demonstrating how mediated access to a cultural object is not always a deficiency.

This article, however, advances a different conceptualization of radio archives, which have primarily been discussed as secondary sources rather than cultural artifacts in their own right. The difficulty of accessing the radio past remains a critical problem, but focusing exclusively on access limits the radio archive’s function to documenting broadcasting activity.[8] Yet as the BBC’s Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme illustrates, sound archives were also primary components in radio production.[9] Attending to how broadcasting institutions collected material external to them reveals radio archives not as passive repositories, but as reconfigurations of material both recorded directly from “the field” and remediated from established archives. Broadcasting institutions often developed a symbiotic relationship with external archives; studios gained more material, and archives had a public venue to advertise their holdings. But the remediation of archival materials to broadcasting institutions also involved numerous personalities and institutions across Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Caribbean, and the United States, to name several, with different conceptions of “folk music”. Combining regional, national, and international interests within and outside the BBC, the Recording Scheme exemplifies how radio archiving was an active site of repositioning over national and regional attachment, the political purpose of folk music, criteria of authenticity, and listener appeal.

Séamus Ennis’s involvement in the Recording Scheme, especially, illustrates how radio archives were multifaceted formations. Ennis’s unmatched authority on Irish folk music and song put him at the crossroads of numerous institutions, including the Irish Folklore Commission, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and Columbia Records, all of which converged at the BBC with different interests in recording and archiving Ireland. Working at the intersection of different archival formations, Ennis was involved in all capacities of radio archiving as a field collector, scriptwriter, broadcaster, and, at times, source musician. In demonstrating the interlinkage of broadcasting and archiving, Ennis’s work at the BBC underscores that archiving was a constitutive activity in radio production.

Fig. 1. Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis playing the uileann pipes and singing, c. 1952. Photo by George Pickow. Image courtesy of Ritchie-Pickow Archive, James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland Galway.

In more closely examining the productive role of radio archiving, I build upon recent Irish literary criticism that explores the reciprocal development of late modernism and broadcasting. In The Wireless Past, Emily Bloom argues that from the 1930s Anglo-Irish writers W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett all developed distinctive “radiogenic aesthetics” on the BBC both to revitalize Irish bardic traditions and to use the transnational medium to reconceptualize their public audiences and invent new formal practices.[10] Whereas Bloom advocates a practice of “close listening,” Damien Keane’s Ireland and the Problem of Information focuses on the intermedial recirculation of literary writing within a broader field of communication during the perilous conditions of the Second World War. Keane locates late modernism not within the perspective of cosmopolitan writers, or the declared supersession of national boundaries, but within the “motivated crossing of borders,” particularly through radio transmission and reception.[11] Though Bloom’s and Keane’s studies have different geopolitical scopes, with the former concentrating on bilateral relations between Britain and Ireland and the latter expanding those relations across the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and Ethiopia, they both show how transnational broadcasting complicates how modernist literature is categorized and periodized. More specifically, they challenge the critical tendency to divide post-independence Irish literature into two oppositional modes—traditional domestic writing and exilic modernism—that turns on assumptions of Ireland’s seclusion from the world.

At first glance, Séamus Ennis may seem an unlikely figure to further explore modernism’s continuation over the airwaves. Yet Ennis’s involvement in radio archiving exemplifies the persistent reciprocity of modernist literature with cultural anthropology, primitivist discourse, and documentary aesthetics. After delineating the institutional and aesthetic dynamics of radio archiving in both the field and studio, I show how those dynamics informed John Cage’s Roaratorio (1979), to which Ennis contributed in the capacity of collector, musician, and singer. An aural reimagining of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), the paradigmatic text of high modernism, Roaratorio was also the outcome of radio archiving practices at the BBC. In delineating Ennis’s work in both demotic and avant-garde cultures, this article calls for adding the radio to the “archival turn” in modernist studies, which has concentrated most heavily on textual collection (literary anthologies, small magazines and written university archives) and visual assemblage (private art collections, museums, and galleries).[12] Along with expanding the scope of archival practices, this article further demonstrates how postwar modernist renewal was mutually shaped by the politics and collecting practices of folk revivalism.

The BBC, Field Recording, and Archival Cross-Sections

The BBC was not alone in amassing a radio archive of traditional music and song after the war. In fact, in 1947, the same year he accompanied George on his pilot recording trip, Ennis was hired to collect and introduce traditional Irish music for Radio Éireann, before transferring full-time to the BBC in 1951.[13] That both broadcasting institutions simultaneously invested in collecting oral materials in part reflected advancements in mobile recording. With Seán Mac Réamoinn, Ennis joined Radio Éireann as an Outside Broadcast Officer, equipped with the recently acquired Mobile Recording Units, that is, trucks loaded with acetate disc recorders.[14] Far less cumbersome than the previous battery-powered units, the new machines returned higher quality recordings from all over Ireland to the broadcasting studios in Dublin.

Additionally, the BBC acquired EMI midget recorders used during the war for reportage and correspondence. Roughly the size of a gramophone, these disc-cutters were much lighter than the recording vans used to gather actuality, or sound bites, during the 1930s.[15] Along with the EMIs, Ennis and the other main fieldworker for the Folk Dialect and Recording Scheme, Peter Kennedy, began using prototype magnetic tape machines, which Radio Éireann and the BBC introduced into their production in the mid-1950s. Though initially plagued by technical problems, this new equipment enabled unprecedented recording across Britain and Ireland.[16] 

Broadcasters often contrasted the benefits of mobile field recording to the detriments of the studio. Whereas the latter transposed participants to an artificial setting where sound was manipulated on a control panel, the former involved collectors gathering material in situ, i.e., the natural habitat of a source sound. The organic associations of “field” resonated with the Folk Recording and Dialect Scheme’s bias toward recording in isolated rural areas, where authentic oral traditions were ostensibly insulated from modern communications. Such romanticized notions of village life had been established during England’s folk-song revival in the early twentieth century, especially by its most prominent collector, Cecil Sharp.

The BBC’s Recording Scheme reintroduced this revival by collaborating with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Formed in 1932, the EFDSS merged the Folk Song Society (1898) with the English Folk Dance Society (1911) Sharp had founded.[17] Both Slocombe and Kennedy were members of the EFDSS, the latter having close family ties to the organization.[18] Though the BBC’s Recording Scheme did not unreflexively adopt all the dispositions of the earlier revival, the association of authentic folk song with the impermeability of rural life did guide its collecting during the so-called “Second Revival.” Hardly confined to the EFDSS, the desire to access a pre-industrial past was a defining feature of the broader folk movement in Britain.

Contrary to idealizations of mobile field recording as uncovering an undisturbed past, however, little of the material gathered by the Recording Scheme was actually “discovered.” Regarding the folk music added to the BBC Sound Archive, Slocombe acknowledges, “it is doubtful if any new song (i.e. unknown to previous printed or private collections) was unearthed.” “What the collection does offer," Slocombe continues, “is a fairly representative cross-section of folklore survival in the area covered during the middle decades of this century” (“The BBC Folk Music,” 12). This sound archive was not constructed ex nihlo, but through the remediation of already established field sources who could be tracked down and re-recorded. In this sense, Slocombe’s “cross-section” maps less a 3-D cultural topology of Britain and Ireland and more a mediated field of prior archival formations. Far from comprising a repository of oral recordings gained through fresh encounters, the Recorded Scheme reconfigured numerous extant archives, each with their own criteria of authenticity, systems of classification, and territorial attachments.

This last point is salient when considering Ennis’s collecting for the Recording Scheme, which largely drew from the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) archives. Established in 1935 by Éamon de Valera’s first Fianna Fáil government, the IFC systematically preserved Irish music, folklore, and storytelling. Although it was initially intended to run for five years, the tireless lobbying of the IFC’s Director, Séamus Ó Duilearga, prolonged the Commission until 1970, when its holdings were transferred to University College Dublin.[19] Hardly characterized by academic disinterestedness, the IFC sought to resuscitate the oral traditions it collected, a project coextensive with national formation. Indeed, the first president of the IFC was Douglas Hyde, a leading figure of the Gaelic Revival. Hyde’s stated aim to “de-Anglicise Ireland” exemplifies how recovering the Irish-language was intertwined with the momentum for Irish nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century.[20]

In the following decades, the IFC’s concern with linguistic and cultural preservation became increasingly urgent. Appraising the rapid decline of the Irish language, Ó Duilearga dolefully compared his preservationist efforts “to watching a house burn and stated that he was trying to rescue pieces of furniture from a burning mass.”[21] Given the IFC’s priorities, it is not surprising that Ennis, who began collecting for the IFC in 1942, was instructed to concentrate on the remote Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas) of western Ireland. Ennis would spend most of the next five years in Connemara, County Galway, especially in Carna, a small area west of Galway city. The ethnographic excavation of western Ireland has often been parodied and criticized. Diarmuid Ó Giolláin observes that despite the Irish language being very much a minority one, two-thirds of the material the IFC collected was in Irish, reflecting the institution’s fixation on a prelapsarian Gaelic culture.[22] Such criticism is warranted, especially when levelled against the antiquarians, literary revivalists, and state officials who idealized the impoverished communities in western Ireland as a spiritual fountain of authentic Irishness.

That being said, Ennis’s IFC field diaries index not romanticized curiosity but a long-lasting intimacy cultivated with his sources. This is most evident in Ennis’s friendship with his most prolific informant, Colm Ó Caodháin, from whom Ennis transcribed and recorded over two-hundred songs, tunes, and folk tales.[23] Hailing from Glinsce, a townland in the County Mayo Gaeltacht, Ó Caodháin had acquired a vast repertory of songs from his grandfather, Tomas. Ennis’s own musical talents warmed him to Ó Caodháin, and his field notes brim with details of them planting cabbages, digging potatoes, fishing, and exchanging tales and music. Though most of Ennis’s field notes are matter-of-fact descriptions of his location, the weather, and the songs and tunes he has collected, they become far more expressive when referencing Ó Caodháin, as registered in an entry during the summer of 1943: “Colm is a man who is rough and hearty in his ways, but he could sit in company at a grand feast, say in the President’s residence without embarrassment...I was sad leaving him and look forward to seeing him again” (Going to the Well, 85).

Fig. 2. Séamus Ennis taking notes from Colm Ó Caodháin in Glinsk, Co. Galway, 1945. Image courtesy of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Ennis’s close interaction with his field sources was necessitated by having to transcribe collected airs and lyrics into musical notation by hand. Ennis did occasionally secure one of the Ediphone machines shared among collectors, but its weight often rendered it impractical; the IFC’s lack of motor cars required Ennis to travel on bicycle. Even when Ennis had more frequent access to an Ediphone in his last two years at the IFC, its use was supplementary to transcription. For economy, Ediphone cylinders would be shaved for reuse in the field, and one of Ennis’s first tasks was transcribing cylinder recordings at the IFC headquarters in Dublin. As such, the process of collecting field material was neither passive nor strictly sequential. To assist Ennis, Ó Caodháin would listen to Ennis sing back to him what he had transcribed and make appropriate changes when needed.[24] Thus, when Ennis began recording for the BBC with Brian George in 1947, he was in a sense remediating in reverse. Having used sound recording to supplement textual transcription during his work for the IFC, Ennis now worked back through his manuscript archive to make sound recordings for the BBC. In fact, one of the first sources George and Ennis recorded was Ó Caodháin.

Given that the BBC held a copyright for all recorded folk music and song in its sound archive, the remediation of sources from the IFC into the BBC attests to the persisting power dynamics between Britain and its former colony. The inclusion of Ireland into the BBC’s Recording Scheme was especially conspicuous, as Ireland had just asserted further national independence by ratifying the Republic of Ireland Bill in 1949, thereby severing its ties to the Commonwealth. Postwar Irish independence entailed not only political but also communicative differentiation. During the 1940s, de Valera envisioned an Irish short-wave station to be implemented for diplomatic purposes.[25] De Valera’s interest in a high-power station was partly motivated by experiencing subordination to British facilities during the Second World War, when all international broadcasts from neutral Ireland, including to the United States, were routed through London under the scrutiny of censors.[26] By incorporating Ireland’s cultural holdings into its broadcasting archive, the BBC Recording Scheme could be understood as imposing the supposed organic bonds of the “British Isles,” intensified at the moment Britain lost its colonies in rapid succession. In this context, Tom Western emphasizes how the BBC’s Recording Scheme “worked to sound the nation in the post-war moment” by rendering sound congruent with territory: “The moral geography of the nation was authorized through sound, binding audience, public, listening, citizenship, landscape, and polity together.”[27]

Institutionally, however, the BBC included diverse personnel, not all of whom sought to reproduce over the airwaves the “geography of the nation.” As Bloom stresses, the BBC and Radio Éireann frequently collaborated on programming, and “[t]here were a significant number of Irish producers, writers, actors, and musicians within the BBC who shaped content in ways that may not have always represented the national interests of the broadcasting company.”[28] Nor was Irish divergence from the BBC’s geopolitical mission necessarily straightforward. After all, Ennis and George entitled their pilot radio program Songs from the Four Provinces, demarcating a united Ireland pre-existing the partition of Northern Ireland. Though many in the BBC were hardly galled by such sensitive distinctions, an inattentiveness to them could jar with the BBC Northern Ireland (BBC NI) regional service that carefully, at times neurotically, distinguished itself from both the Irish republic and the cosmopolitan “Englishness” of the London BBC.[29]

The range of political interests within the BBC could result in hostility but were as often handled with negotiated practicality. During the Recording Scheme, one of the BBC NI’s chief music collectors, Sean O’Boyle, helped Kennedy intensively record Northern Ireland. Yet neither Ennis nor O’Boyle dogmatically laid claim to the territory they were assigned. In fact, they collected in both parts of Ireland when allowed, occasionally in collaboration. Even absent such nonpartisan cooperation, the BBC did not always consider sound interchangeable with polity.[30] For instance, both Ennis and O’Boyle recorded the young singer Kitty Gallagher in Donegal. Though part of the historic Ulster province associated with Northern Ireland, Donegal remained in the Irish republic after partition. Even so, the BBC, Radio Éireann, and BBC NI all regularly broadcast recordings and sound portraits of Gallagher, each emphasizing different qualities of the region from which she hailed. These multiple framings of an Irish singer exemplify Christopher Morash’s comment that the transnational possibilities of radio led to “new competing senses of Irishness that were no longer bounded by the coastline of the island.”[31] The BBC sound archive, then, did not simply reflect or appropriate Irish culture; rather, it was a site where “Irishness” was rearticulated by diverse institutional interests.

Fig. 3. Brigid Tunney and Paddy Tunney singing for a BBC recording session outside their cottage in Beleek, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, 1952. Image courtesy of British Library Board and Topic Records, Peter Kennedy Collection, MS Mus. 1771/1/PR0097.

So too with British culture. Acknowledging its tendency to conflate “Britishness” with “Englishness,” the BBC restored the regional services, including BBC NI, suspended during the war. The reimplementation of the regional services provided more autonomy to the regional stations and further encouraged them to contribute more programming to the Home Service. Kennedy collaborated with numerous field collectors to retrieve recordings from other national regions, including Wales and Scotland.[32]

Beyond comprising a range of national and regional positions, the Recording Scheme afforded opportunities for transnational enterprises. This was most apparent in the involvement of the famed American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who advocated for the Scheme. After collecting valuable recordings in the deep South with his father John during the 1930s, Alan became the Archive of American Folk Song’s “Assistant in Charge” at the Library of Congress, which he and his father used as platform to broadcast thousands of interviews and songs they collected throughout the United States. After the Second World War, Lomax was a galvanizing force in both the British and American folk revivals through concerts, radio shows, and commercial recordings. Lomax was offered his most ambitious project when Goddard Lieberson, the President of Columbia Records, commissioned him for a global recording venture to be distributed through eighteen one-hour LPs.[33] Relocating to London in 1950, Lomax regularly broadcast for the BBC, introducing British listeners to African-American folk music in acclaimed series such as the Third Programme’s The Art of the Negro. Concurrently, he worked on his Scottish, English, and Irish volumes with Kennedy, Henderson, and Ennis, respectively.

Simon Potter has cautioned against characterizing the BBC as a monolithic institution, stressing how it “was, and remains, a large, complex and contradictory organisation, employing people from and in all parts of the UK and from many other countries. It was never likely to generate a uniform or unchallenged interpretation of its nation-building duty.”[34] The Recording Scheme not only indicates the varied territorial and political positions inhabiting the BBC, but further serves as a reminder that archival concentration does not necessarily entail consolidating extant power relations. Far from London subsuming the unmediated sounds of peripheral locations, the Recording Scheme involved multiple archival formations seeking reproduction. At the same time, as illustrated by Séamus Ennis’s remediation of sources and materials from the Irish Folklore Commission, each archival formation could be resituated in different regional, national, and transnational configurations.

Reconstructing the Field Across the Networks

Slocombe recalls that while supervising the Recording Scheme from London she instructed the collectors to keep two considerations in mind: “First, is it authentic from the folklore point of view? Second, is the sound produced likely to be acceptable for broadcasting?” (“The BBC Folk Music,” 5). Just as collectors always considered broadcasting suitability as they scoured the countryside, so too were writers and engineers preoccupied with how to reconstruct “the field” in the studio. Broadcasters across all three BBC networks implemented after the war—the Light Programme, the Home Service, and the Third Programme—created elaborate soundscapes of the collector’s fieldwork by adding studio effects to the folk music stored in the radio archives. A strange blend of ethnographic documentary and sonic experimentation, this programming illustrates the mutual influence of the three networks. This is not to deny the aesthetic distinctiveness of each network, which, much to the chagrin of former Director-General John Reith, distributed genres according to audience segmentation (the Light “lowbrow,” the Home “standard,” and the Third “highbrow”). Yet noting the networks’ reciprocal influence expands the scope of postwar radio modernism beyond isolated Third Programme dramas, asking how postwar radio modernism relates to adjacent forms of popular and folk cultures. Attending to radio archives demonstrates the interpenetration of ostensibly distinct aesthetic modes in postwar programming.

Such flexibility within the BBC aesthetic hierarchy owed to “folk music” being ill-defined. Often connoting a rudimentary art form with popular appeal, folk music’s declared authenticity also differentiated it from crass entertainment and made the genre appealing to anthropology, ethnography, and musicology. Given that the numerous archival formations involved in the Recording Scheme had conflicting politics and notions of authenticity, the sound archive birthed highly varied radio programming. This variety is apparent in how programming sought to reproduce for listeners the aural environment from which the music and song was extracted. Equally apparent is how the different networks reused one another’s content and studio techniques, as evident in the programming of Séamus Ennis, who readapted material across all three networks.

One method of reconstructing the field for broadcasting involved collectors describing a source and location before sharing samples of field recordings. Ennis and Kennedy took this approach on their curated program, As I Roved Out, which showcased material from the Recording Scheme. Beginning in 1953, and running intermittently for five series after, As I Roved Out was broadcast at 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings over the Light Programme. Following the “portrait” model of radio documentaries, each installment of the series opened with a detailed profile of a source singer. As David E. Gregory notes, “The collectors’ field reports had to stress human interest—the colourful personality of the informants, their amusing stories, the acquaintances of the local environment, and so on.”[35] For instance, in the first program, titled “Mrs. Makem’s Kitchen,” Ennis recalled meeting Amos Becket, a folk-singer he recorded in Buckinghamshire, and Kennedy described the singer Sarah Makem’s home in Keady, Armagh.[36] Following these descriptions, Ennis and Kennedy played a sample of Becket and Makem’s recordings sent from Slocombe’s archives to the studios.

The amount of time allotted to unaccompanied field recordings, however, was noticeably brief, often edited down to a mere thirty seconds. This brevity reflects the Light Programme’s orientation toward popular song and entertainment. Indeed, Harold Rodgers, who produced the program, conceived As I Roved Out as a variety program, aware that the Sunday morning audience might not be receptive to unadulterated folk singing. As with the popular program Country Magazine that preceded it, As I Roved Out employed a chamber orchestra that arranged instrumentals of the recorded songs. The composer, jazz musician, and music critic Spike Hughes acted as the program’s compère, often leading orchestral reprises. The program further added a vaudeville flair by playing commercially recorded big-band music as well as recordings by the famous Irish tenor John McCormick. Particularly later in the series, as the skiffle craze peaked in Britain, the program incorporated band music to enliven the field recordings.

As I Roved Out’s mixture of tradition bearers with mass entertainment reflected the postwar British folk revival, a left-wing movement that generated organic music from “the people” connected to past traditions. Indeed, As I Roved Out charts Ennis and Kennedy’s own rising statuses within the folk revival. The program regularly featured Kennedy’s band, the Haymakers, and Ennis sang from both his own repertoire and songs learned in the field. Ennis’s prominent role in BBC folk programming, notably Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl, and Peggy Seeger’s landmark Radio Ballads series (1958–64), offered him critical contacts; both MacColl and Seeger regularly appeared on As I Roved Out. Ennis’s radio exposure also led to his commercial recordings and participation in major folk events, such as the first Newport Folk Festival in the United States.[37]

Several source singers featured on the program also received commercial acclaim. Sarah Makem, Harry Cox, Frank McPeake, and Fred Jordan were all frequently recorded for both preservationist purposes and commercial distribution during the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps most striking was the commercial rise of the street singer and banjo player Margaret Barry. Described by Fintan Vallely as performing “all popular, as opposed to ‘traditional,’ songs of her time,” Barry was adept at reprising songs she heard on record, “her taste reflecting attitudes of street singers everywhere” (The Companion to Irish, 57). After Lomax completed his recordings in Ireland, he brought Barry to London where she made many popular commercial recordings with the fiddler Michael Gorman. Barry’s rising fame landed her performances in both Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. As I Roved Out, then, exemplifies the radio archive’s dual function as preserver and propagator, whereby field sources and the studio singers are fused in a mutually authenticating tradition.

Fig. 4. The “As I Roved Out” radio team, Peacehaven, Sussex, England, 1953. From left to right: Peter Kennedy, Marie Slocombe, Séamus Ennis, Bob Cooper, and Brian George. Image courtesy of British Library Board and Topic Records. Peter Kennedy Collection, MS Mus.1771/1/PR0260.

While the Light Programme fueled the folk revival by commercializing field recordings, the Third Programme used the sound archives to construct stylized ethnographic soundscapes. And whereas the Light programming emphasized the persistence of the traditional songs and music retrieved from the sound archive, the Third dramatized their imminent extinction. Nonetheless, both networks, often drawing on the same archival material, sought to reconstruct the field location for listeners. Beyond having the collectors describe their fieldwork, the Third Programme spliced innovative studio effects with recorded actuality, so that the listener could imagine accompanying the collectors on their recording expeditions.

A notable figure in this strain of programming was W. R. (“Bertie”) Rodgers, a Northern Irish poet and former Presbyterian minister, whom Louis MacNeice recruited to the Features Department in London. In 1947, the same year Radio Éireann and the BBC launched their recording projects, Rodgers wrote and produced a feature series for the Third Programme entitled The Irish Storyteller and subtitled “A Picture of a Vanishing Gaelic World.” Running until 1951, the series incorporated numerous recordings of Gaelic songs and stories as well as excerpts from Rodgers’s notable interview with Peig Sayers at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. A famous Irish seanchaí (a bearer of “old lore”), best-known for her autobiography, Peig, Sayers had been recorded hundreds of times by the Irish Folklore commission since 1938. Many of her stories were recorded in Machnamh Seanmhná (“An Old Woman's Reflections”), translated by Ennis in 1962, and introduced by Rodgers.[38] As with Rodgers’s introduction to Machnamh Seanmhná, The Irish Storyteller mournfully chronicles how oral traditions are on the brink of obliteration:

And so from age to age and generation to generation the wonder-stories, fairy-tales, and sagas have been passed on by word of mouth, by-passing the pencil and the pen. A vast literature kept by unlettered people—the unwritten library of Europe. But the stories are vanishing. The roads and railways that run into the distant glen have taken away its ancient way of life.[39]

Ó Duilearga, who introduced six programs in The Irish Storyteller, also echoes this rhetoric. Voicing nostalgic loss, however, could be heard as advertising local exoticism. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, for one, derisively referred to Rodgers and Dylan Thomas as creating “bucklep”: romanticized depictions of a fading world that offered nostalgia to metropolitan audiences.[40]

Such “bucklep” manifests in Rodgers’s Third Programme feature on 30th May 1950, Bare Stones of Aran. Located on the western seaboard of Ireland, the Aran Islands had long been idealized as a spiritual reservoir of undisturbed peasant culture.[41] In 1934 they gained widespread international interest, and tourism, following Robert Flaherty’s film documentary Man of Aran.[42] Rodgers embarked to the islands to record ambient sounds, music, and speech for his program. As he did not speak Irish, Rodgers sought the assistance of Ennis, who had previously gathered transcriptions and recordings from Aran in 1945. Ennis, however, was unavailable, so Radio Éireann recruited Proinsias Ó Conluain, an avid promoter of the Irish language who collaborated with Ennis on many recording trips.

Though this was joint venture, the BBC and RÉ were not entirely aligned during their Aran recording trip in 1949. According to Dierdre Ní Chonghaile, “Ó Conluain focused on the traditional way-of-life while the BBC producers focused on a variety of sound effects (including cattle being transported from shore to ship, the ship’s horn, an ass braying, etc.), folktales and religious activities, the latter two of which were subjects close to Rodgers’s heart.”[43] Even so, Ó Conluain and Rodgers recorded about twenty traditional Irish songs to be incorporated into both the program and the sound archives at both institutions. Following a second trip to the Aran Islands in 1950, Rodgers recruited Irish-speaking actors from Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, the national Irish language theater in Galway, for narrative roles he scripted for Bare Stones of Aran.

Rodgers conceived Bare Stones of Aran as a travelogue simulating the journey he undertook. As narrator, Rodgers describes his own subjective impressions as he explores the islands. For example, the listener hears the creaking of oars near the mobile recording unit as Rodgers describes the women and girls he spots on the strand and the men transferring cattle to boat upon arrival to the island: “How shy they are, and how they seem to melt like shadows at a stranger’s approach...The men in grey and indigo vests are urging the despairing beasts into the sea.”[44] Often employing this poeticized language, Rodgers spliced his narrative with dramatic dialogue by the Galway actors, studio sound effects, and material recorded on site during Rodgers’s expedition, including choral music at Mass, a prayer in Irish, lilting, songs, and accordion music. Despite contrasting the naturalness of mobile recording with the artificiality of the studio, BBC programming like Bare Stones of Aran required extensive studio work to conjure an audial experience of the environment from which material was recorded. Thus, although field recording and studio effects on the control panel were often framed in antithetical terms, the simulation of unmediated oral transmission owed to, indeed inspired, advances in sound engineering.

This last point is borne out in Ennis and Lomax’s collaborative program The Stone of Tory (first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1951), a bizarre assemblage of genres that combines the Light Programme’s popular folk revivalism with the experimental soundscapes of Third Programme documentary. Ennis and Lomax wrote and produced the program at the end of their Irish recording trip for Columbia’s first LP volume of A World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Concurrently, Lomax wrote and produced a regular stream of BBC programming. On February 12, 1951, he appeared in the second part of D. G. Bridson’s series for the Third Programme, Traditional Ballads, and the following day he recounted his experiences collecting for the Library of Congress on the Home Service, Adventures in Folk Song.[45] Lomax conceived The Stone of Tory as complementing this programming by sharing with listeners the songs and music he and Ennis had recorded in Ireland.

Yet The Stone of Tory can hardly be described as an audio travelogue. Where Rodgers’s Bare Stones of Aran combined recorded actuality with sound effects, dialogue, and music typically heard in radio drama, Lomax and Ennis’s program blurs the distinction between fiction and documentary altogether. Subtitled “A Ballad Opera from the West of Ireland,” The Stone of Tory draws on an idiosyncratic radio genre that has received little critical attention: the ballad opera. Bridson first conceived of radio ballad operas during the Second World War in order to cultivate positive relations between British and American audiences.[46] As with the eighteenth-century English stage entertainment from which its name derives, radio ballad operas combined scripted drama with vaudeville, commentary, and popular folk tunes and songs. Heading the Folk Archive at the Library of Congress as it was converted into a defense institution, Lomax collaborated with Bridson on numerous ballad operas from the other side of the Atlantic. The first of these, The Man Who Went to War, was not broadcast in the United States owing to a union dispute but was over the BBC Home Service. Written by Langston Hughes and featuring Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, and Ethel Waters, it was wildly popular, Bridson recalls, “being heard by millions on its first recording alone.”[47]

When Lomax arrived in London after the war, he reunited with Bridson, who encouraged the BBC to support his recordings in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Stone of Tory recalls Lomax’s wartime ballad operas, with one critical exception: rather than splicing his field recordings into their program, Ennis and Lomax opted to bring the sources directly into the studio for the program’s production. This was a novel undertaking. Previously, field recordings were sent to the studios for actors to sing the source material, were incorporated into programs following an introduction by collectors (As I Roved Out) or were used to reconstruct the collector’s field encounter (Bare Stones of Aran). By contrast, The Stone of Tory brought rural source musicians into the Royal Irish Academy of Music. One was Kitty Gallagher, whose song recordings, as noted above, had previously been integrated into BBC and Radio Éireann programming. In the studio, these source singers performed alongside professional singers, including Ennis, a full orchestra, and a cast recruited from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.[48]

Among these stage actors was Walter Macken, the first Artistic Director of An Taibhdhearc, from which Rodgers had hired actors for Bare Stones of Aran. Also recruited was Eileen Crowe, a major Abbey actress who performed in many of Sean O’Casey’s plays in the 1920s and was gaining recognition as a film actress. In 1949, she appeared in David Miller’s Top O’ The Morning, starring Bing Crosby, and immediately after The Stone of Tory began work for John Ford’s The Quiet Man, filmed in Ireland and starring John Wayne. This commercial aspect of The Stone of Tory elicited criticism from IFC collectors, not least for its presentation of Irish oral traditions through stereotypes and sentimentalism. As Robin Roberts, Lomax’s folk-singing partner and recording assistant, recalled: “At some point Alan decided that he and Seamus should collaborate on a ballad which Seamus [Ennis] would play the non-Irish speaker from the mainland...[and] I play this island girl who spoke only Irish. There was many a bent eye over that.”[49] In actuality, neither Roberts nor Lomax had any fluency in Irish.

The Stone of Tory’s plot is loosely based on an incident in 1884 when a British gunboat, the HMS Wasp, shipwrecked off the coast of Tory Island. The gunboat was transporting a party of court officials, bailiffs, and police to Inishtrahull, the most northerly island in Ireland, to evict those who had failed to pay rent. In Lomax’s script, the British gunboat arrives on Tory Island, also off Donegal, and seizes the islanders’ livestock. Following local legend, Lomax’s script centers on how the so-called King of Tory Sweeney turns the curse of the island’s magical stone against the gunboat.

In his field diary, Lomax acknowledges the play is “a sort of phoney stage Irish setting for the songs.”[50] Indeed, the islanders in The Stone of Tory are reminiscent of some literary revivalist depictions of the Irish peasantry, such as Moira, the blind oinseach who casts a “widow’s curse” on Sweeney when he informs on the islanders to the police.[51] At other times, the script leans on Victorian stereotypes of the “Paddy”; numerous scenes involve drunken buffoonery and fisticuffs. In one cringe-worthy moment, Sweeney says: “We’ll hide our pigs and cattle before dark. Then tonight we’ll have a ceilidh in my house and when the peelers come we’ll be so full of poteen they’ll think we’re a bunch of savages and leave disgusted” (“The Stone of Tory,” 11).

The plot, however, is largely a backdrop, albeit an often offensive one, to showcase the singers that Ennis and Lomax recorded. Although no surviving record of the original broadcast exists, the program’s script reveals the extent to which it draws on their field recordings. For example, one character, Sheila, sings several lullabies (“Dance to Your Daddy-O,” “What Would You Do?”) that Lomax and Ennis recorded from Elizabeth Cronin in County Cork. The Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band play a number of tunes (“Connla Croide,” “The Lark in the Morning”) during a celidhe in Sweeny’s home. Maire O’Sullivan also performs songs recorded by Lomax and Ennis, including “An Cailin Aerach” (“The Airy Girl”) and “The Fairy Lullaby.” Virtually all of these tunes and songs would be included on Lomax’s Ireland LP, released in 1955.

Although the source material in The Stone of Tory can be dissected by consulting its typescript alongside the Ireland LP, it would have been difficult for listeners to distinguish the field sources from the actors and professional singers. Moreover, many of the source singers were not only accompanied by an orchestra, with occasionally the entire cast joining in for the chorus, but also by sound effects added to the Dublin recording once it was sent to the BBC studios. As the magical Tory stone summons a storm to destroy the departing British gunboat in the ballad opera’s climax, Gallagher begins keening—a traditional form of vocal lament that Lomax and Ennis recorded from her and included on their LP as “Keen for a Dead Child.” The script indicates how her keen was blended with instrumentation and sounds of the rising storm:


KITTY:           (Screams and begins to wail.)


                          AND COVERS HER KEEN)

MUSIC:          (BAGPIPE SEGUES AND CONTINUES UNDER). (“The Stone of Tory,” 39)

In its sonic compression of music, sound effect, and keening, the scene epitomizes the interconnections between field recording and studio production as multiple archives consolidated in the BBC. Moreover, it demonstrates the mutual impact of the different networks despite their aesthetic differentiation. The Stone of Tory clearly adopts elements of light fare folk populism from the Light Programme as well as immersive audio documentary techniques, such as splicing and cross-fading, from the Third Programme. At the same time, the Recording Scheme and the folk programming dramatizing its recordings contributed to the demand for stylized localism. This is evident in a number of subsequent acclaimed radio dramas on the Third, including Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), which guides the listener around a fictional Welsh fishing village, and Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall (1957), set in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock.

Radio Modernism: Alan Lomax’s Library and John Cage’s Roaratorio

Ennis and Lomax’s Ireland LP for the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music documents the interrelations between radio programming and field collecting during the 1950s. The conception of the series as a library clearly derives from Lomax’s previous work for the Library of Congress, whose sound holdings had long established a symbiotic relationship with NBC’s radio network. A relatively early application of the LP (“long-playing”) record, which could hold far more recorded material than previous discs, the Ireland album could itself be considered a radio archive in multiple ways.

First, the LP registers the numerous institutions and interests that converged at the BBC to embark on field collecting. Distributed by Columbia Records, the LP retains a commercial element by featuring songs and artists who had become popular on the radio. This is most apparent in the inclusion of Margaret Barry’s “She Moved through the Fair,” a song tirelessly played over the airwaves and a staple in the British folk revival. Yet this commercial appeal is offset by a concern with ethnographic preservation. The LP credits both the Irish Folklore Commission and Radio Éireann for lending recording equipment to Lomax and Ennis. In the liner notes, Lomax adopts the IFC’s language of urgent salvaging: “The scientists in the Irish Folklore Commission feel a special urgency in their work, for they see an entire culture traced on the sands of the western beaches. They must recover what they can, before the next wave washes the beach smooth of the old words.”[52] The LP contains a number of Irish-language songs by sources previously collected by the IFC, including Elizabeth Cronin, Maggie McDonagh, and Ennis’s favorite, Ó Caodháin. Finally, the LP includes five tracks that were recorded not by Lomax, but by George and Ennis on their pilot expedition for the BBC’s Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme.

Second, the LP documents the reciprocity between field collecting and studio broadcasting that brought all these institutions together. This is particularly evident in the inclusion of Ennis on the LP. Ennis, in fact, is by far the most represented musician, appearing on seven of the album’s thirty-four tracks, which include him piping “The Bucks of Oranmore, “The Woman of the House” and “Were You at the Rock” and singing several ballads, such as “Whiskey in the Jar” and “The Banks of Roses.” In an article reviewing the first fourteen albums of the Columbia World Library project, “Girdle ‘Round the Globe,” the American record producer, field collector, and jazz aficionado Fredrick Ramsey finds “the results” of the album series to be “generally happy, with a high degree of success maintained,” but complains that “where folksingers are not available to perform a given item, singers of folk songs (here, Seamus Ennis) are employed.”[53] At issue is not the musical aptitude of Ennis, whom Ramsey describes as “a fine, undefeated singer,” but the extent to which he is outside the milieu of the songs he sings: “for versions of some of the songs, we are one step removed from their source” (“Girdle ‘Round,” 30). Similar criticism was leveled at other “singers of folk songs,” such as MacColl and the singer and actor Isla Cameron, both of whom heavily feature on the English and Scottish volumes of the LP series. Beyond indicating concerns over authenticity, Ramsey’s distinction between sources and professional singers points toward the frequent blending of those roles over the airwaves. In his overlapping capacities as a collector, performer, and source, Ennis himself illustrates how the mutually determining processes of sound preservation and broadcasting both produce authenticity and give rise to anxieties over its loss.

Finally, the Ireland LP became canonical in its own right, exerting immense influence on the trajectory of traditional Irish music, catalyzing additional LP commissions and radio plays. JoAnne Mancini has referred to this type of LP format as a late form of “anthological modernism,” in which American collectors such as Lomax, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Harry Smith used “the development of technologies for the inscription and containment of authenticity.”[54] In assembling the heterogeneous recordings retrieved under the auspices of broadcasting institutions into a sound anthology, the Ireland LP authorized them as a definitive archive.

Jeremy Braddock argues that “the collection”, broadly construed but including the archive and the anthology, is both a “paradigmatic form of modernist art” and, qua practice, a means “of social and cultural intervention.”[55] The relationship between modernism and Lomax and Ennis’s Ireland LP, much less the radio programming discussed above, may appear oblique, even under the much-expanded rubric of modernism. Yet the ongoing influence new collecting practices had on modernist practice manifests in one of the final radio projects Ennis collaborated in before his death in 1982: John Cage’s Roaratorio—an Irish circus through Finnegans Wake. Commissioned by Klaus Schöning for West German Radio, Cage’s radio piece is a cacophonous sonic translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, first broadcast in 1979. Where Joyce’s Finnegans Wake typifies high modernist practice through its virtuosic rewriting of collected materials, Cage’s Roaratorio epitomizes how modernism was revivified during the postwar period through the audial repurposing of the radio archive.

Cage had been fascinated with Finnegans Wake since the 1930s when he read its serialized installments in the magazine transition under the title "fragments from Work in Progress.”[56] The avant-garde composer’s choice of radio for his adaptation was fitting. Scholars have established how the radio informed Joyce’s compositional method in Finnegans Wake, notably the text’s polyvocality, rapidly switching voices and songs, and interleaved narratives.[57] Radio, too, played an important role in the reception of Joyce’s work. Despite Joyce’s own frustrated experiences with the BBC, talks by figures such as E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, and James Stephens introduced Joyce’s notoriously complex work to a public audience.[58] Ennis himself participated in a 1958 program, Lots of Fun at Finnegan’s Wake, broadcast in 1958 on the BBC’s Third Programme. Alongside James Stephens reading excerpts from Finnegans Wake, Ennis, joined by the folksingers Cameron and Dominic Behan, sang numerous street ballads Joyce wove into his text, including the eponymous “Finnegan’s Wake.”

In Roaratorio, Cage intensifies the interfusion of text, music, and sound in Finnegans Wake through a tape montage of multiple recordings. First, Cage recorded himself reading the “mesotics” he had begun extracting from Joyce’s text since the second of his five Writings through Finnegans Wake. Unlike an acrostic, which runs down the left margin, Cage spelled out “James Joyce” down the middle of the text’s column.[59] Williams Brooks aptly describes Cage’s recordings of himself reading the mesotics as a “kind of Sprechstimme,” an intonation “which trails through the soundscape like a voice borne by the wind, not quite intelligible.”[60] To create a soundscape for his reading, Cage catalogued sounds mentioned in Finnegans Wake under such categories as “Thundercaps,” “Water,” “Wails,” “Laughing and Crying (Laughtears),” “Guns, explosions,” “Farts,” and “Bells, clocks, chimes.”[61]

Cage then consulted Louis Mink’s A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer, which listed all the geographical locations mentioned in the text by page and line. In order to retrieve sounds from their locations, Cage reached out to multiple institutions around the world, including universities, radio stations, sound labs, and even NASA. The majority of sounds collected, however, were his own field recordings from Ireland. Klaus Schöning recalls Cage returning after a month of recording in Ireland, accompanied by the producer John Fulleman and his wife Monica: “On 15 July they cropped up again in Paris as arranged, loaded down with hundreds of sound-recordings from Skibereen to Ballyhooly, from Dublin Bay to Connemara” (Cage, Roaratorio, 21).

Cage added one final element to his composition: recordings of musicians Ennis, Joe Heaney, Paddy Glackin, Matt Molloy, and Peadar Mercier and his son Mel.[62] As with the other sounds Cage collected for Roaratorio, the individual recordings of the Irish musicians were inserted through chance operations over 16-track machines in the experimental Paris sound institute, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acostique/Musique (IRCAM). Cage’s incorporation of Irish folk music into his radio work recalls the long history of modernism—one thinks here of Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky—reusing, or more negatively appropriating, primitive elements for new artworks and compositions.

Yet as Cage always emphasized in his interviews and writings, the musicians had complete control over the music they selected, which they sometimes altered during later stage performances of the piece. That the musicians cannily selected their material is especially reflected in the choices by Heaney, a famous sean-nós (unaccompanied “old style”) singer from Carna, an Irish-speaking village in Connemara, County Galway. One song he selected is the lullaby “Cúnla.” Dating back to at least the fourteenth century, the Irish-language song involves a comical courtship, in which a seducer tirelessly advances on his love interest, first tapping on the window pane, then stoking the fire, then tickling her toes, then pulling the blanket off her. The song’s playful nonsense lyrics, as well as its hint of sexual transgression (Heaney was conceptualized as playing the part of Earwicker), rendered the song apposite for Roaratorio.

As significant as the collaborative nature of Roaratorio is how the radio archive undergirded their collaboration. This is borne out by the collecting and broadcasting history of “Cúnla” prior to Heaney singing it on Cage’s piece. As with much of his repertoire, Heaney learned “Cúnla” from his second cousin Ó Caodháin, Ennis’s informant when he worked for the Irish Folklore Commission. In 1947, George and Ennis made a historic recording of a young singer from Connemara, Mary Joyce, singing a version of “Cúnla” that they shared with listeners for the first time on their program Songs from the Four Provinces. Ennis further popularized the song through a radio portrait of Joyce on As I Roved Out, highlighting the importance of the recording’s acquisition by the BBC archive. The warm reception of her recordings on the radio encouraged Lomax and Ennis to include the Joyce recording from 1947 on their Ireland LP.

As mentioned above, the Ireland LP had a canonizing impact; its seminal importance is reflected in Heaney and others incorporated many songs from it into their performance repertoire.[63] On Heaney’s influential album The Road from Connemara (1964), recorded for Topic Records by MacColl and Seeger, Heaney sings a version of “Cúnla.” Later, the Chieftains, the Dubliners, Planxty, Christy Moore, and Gaelic Storm all recorded different versions the song. Indeed, Ennis himself would frequently perform the song, including call-and-response renditions of it with Heaney, which alternated between Irish (Heaney) and English (Ennis). Though Cage’s Roaratorio is primarily associated with the extreme contingency of elaborate chance operations—a chaotic cosmology of sounds from everywhere and nowhere—Heaney’s selection of “Cúnla” was not simply a matter of randomness or artistic choice. Along with the collaboration itself, the song’s inclusion was an outcome of the interrelated developments of folk collecting and broadcasting experimentation during the postwar era. As both a repository and site of artistic practice, radio archiving mediated the reincorporation of sound, from the written notations in Ennis’s Irish field notebook to the multitrack mixing in a Paris sound lab.

Commenting on Heaney’s collaboration with Cage on Roaratorio, Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire detect an “irony”: the “two supposedly opposing strands of the Irish cultural revival, the modernist innovative literary stream in English, and the traditional, allegedly backward-looking Gaelic one could meet and blend happily without ire in this seemingly chaotic work.”[64] As William’s and Ó Laoire’s qualifiers suggest, however, this irony is only ostensible. Their biography details how Heaney was at the core of the folk revival in Britain and the United States, where he had been exposed to the performing arts scenes of the 1960s during his job as a doorman in Manhattan, eventually becoming a star in his own right by the late 1970s.

Beyond the extent of cultural exposure, however, the involvement of Ennis, Heaney, and other Irish musicians in a reimagining of Finnegans Wake registers the durable relationship of folk collecting and modernism as late as the 1980s. Radio archiving plays an important but overlooked part in this relationship, challenging the conception of radio as an ephemeral medium, however much might be inaccessible to us now. As scholars continue reconstructing how postwar broadcasting revived modernism across institutional and national contexts, attending to radio field recording and archiving can further contribute to, and even complicate, our understanding of modernism as an archival practice. 


[1] Surprisingly, no book-length biography of Ennis exists despite his enormous impact on Irish music. For a brief overview, see Christopher J. Smith, “Why Séamus? Séamus Ennis, Traditional Music, and Irish Cultural History,” Journal of Music, September 1, 2002.

[2] Marie Slocombe, “The BBC Folk Music Collection,” Folklore and Folk Music Archivist 7, no. 1 (1964): 3–13, 4.

[3] Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, vol. 1: 1922–1939: Serving the Nation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), xii.

[4] In the 1930s the BBC acquired the Blattnerphone, a formidable steel tape recorder, but it was primarily used to rebroadcast programs in different time zones over the newly implemented Empire Service rather than to record broadcasts for posterity. Of course, not preserving radio programming could owe to exigent circumstances. During the Second World War, for instance, the necessity of rebroadcasting wartime news resulted in systematic recording, yet discs were often destroyed after their intended reuse. For more on this, see Asa Briggs, History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: vol. III: The War of Words: 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 326–28.

[5] Quoted in Seán Street, The Memory of Sound: Preserving the Sonic Past (New York: Routledge, 2015), 118.

[6] Acknowledging the difficulty of recovering the “aural phenomenology of live broadcasting,” Matthew Feldman, Henry Mead, and Erik Tonning further assert that characterizing the radio as “ephemeral” downplays the vast holdings of the BBC Written Archives Centre (Matthew Feldman, Erik Tonning, and Henry Mead, eds., Broadcasting in the Modernist Era [London: Bloomsbury, 2014], 3). One danger, however, in relying on the written archives is that they can concentrate one’s analysis on canonical writers and their scripts without consideration of radio production or sonic context.

[7] For instance, in analyzing the intermedial anxieties between periodical culture and radio broadcasting, Debra Rae Cohen argues that the BBC’s weekly publication, the Listener, demonstrates how “the new media system was itself distinguished by contestation, fissure, and eruption” (“Intermediality and the Problem of the Listener,” Modernism/modernity 19, no. 3 [2012]: 569–92, 572). Radio studies has thereby participated in the broader re-examination of modernism within a competitive media landscape. Most vigorously, Julian Murphet argues that literary modernism itself should be understood as “a sedimented trace-history of the competing media institutions of the moment” (Multimedia Modernism: Literature and the Anglo-American Avant-Garde [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 3).

[8] One pressing concern is that, barring a visit to the British Library in London, the general public has limited access to archival scripts and recordings. Ian Whittington urges broader access: “Significant foundational work must be done to bring these documents to a wider audience, whether through the publication of scripts, through the release of audio recordings, or through newer, digital modes of archival preservation that combine audio and textual information” (Ian Whittington, “Radio Studies and 20th-Century Literature: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Remediation,” Literature Compass 11, no. 9 [2014]: 634–48, 644)

[9] In this respect, the Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme was not novel. Since the 1930s, the BBC had begun incorporating “actuality” (sound recorded on location) into their features. Select transcription discs of these field recordings contain valuable historical soundscapes of everyday life. Ian M. Rawes’s website London Sound Survey compiles digital sound files of BBC actuality recordings during the 1930s, including excerpts from Lawrence Gilliam’s groundbreaking program about hop-pickers in Kent, ‘Opping ‘Oliday (1934). See “The Origins of Actuality Sound on BBC Radio.”

[10] Emily C. Bloom, The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 4.

[11] Damien Keane, Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014), 8.

[12] For an overview of how the archive has been used and conceptualized in modernist scholarship, see Finn Fordham, “The Modernist Archive,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, ed. Peter Brooker, Andrzej Gąsiorek, Deborah Longworth, and Andrew Thacker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 45–60.

[13] Originally called Radio 2RN when the Irish state broadcasting company was established in 1926, it was renamed Radio Éireann in 1937, and in 1966 Irish radio combined with the new television service as Radio Telefis Éireann. Under the station’s first director, Séamus Clandillon, Irish traditional music was prominent in the broadcasting schedule. Especially impactful was the composer and brief music director of Radio Éireann, Seán Ó Riada, whose combination of traditional music with modern orchestral techniques galvanized a revival of Irish music during the 1960s. For the definitive study, see Richard Pine, Music and Broadcasting in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts, 2005).

[14] Fintan Vallely, ed., The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd ed. (Cork: Cork University Press, 2011), 559–60.

[15] Hugh Chignell, Key Concepts in Radio Studies (London: Sage, 2009), 46–47.

[16] David E. Gregory notes that 1953 was an especially difficult year for the fieldworkers. Kennedy “sometimes resorted to his own machine” when the BBC recording equipment malfunctioned, and he was particularly displeased with the “first tape recorder supplied by the BBC engineering department...a very heavy reel-to-reel machine made by EMI which was both unreliable and unsuitable for field recording” (“Roving Out: Peter Kennedy and the Folk Music and Recording Dialect Scheme, 1952–1957,” in Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-creation, ed. Ian Russell and David Atkinson [Aberdeen: Elphinstone Institute, 2004], 221).

[17] For the political struggle behind this merger, see Arthur Knevett, “The merging of the Folk-Song Society and the English Folk Dance Society: Amalgamation or takeover?” Folk Music Journal 11, no. 1 (2016): 6–26.

[18] Kennedy’s mother Helen Karpeles served as the Society’s Honorary Secretary from its inception to 1922, and his father, Douglas, succeeded Sharp as the Director of the English Folk Dance Society from 1924–1961.

[19] For a comprehensive account of the Irish Folklore Commission’s personalities, institutional policies and collecting methodologies over its thirty-five-year span, see Mícheál Briody, The Irish Folklore Commission 1935–1970: History, Methodology, Ideology (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2008).

[20] Douglas Hyde delivered his address on the “Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland” in 1892 to the Irish Literary Society; its warm reception inspired the formation of the Gaelic League the following year. In his address, Hyde advances cultural nationalism as the driving force of Irish separatism, claiming that Ireland “is and will ever remain Celtic at the core.” (“Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland,” in The Revival of Irish Literature: Addresses by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, K. C. M. G., Dr. George Sanderson, and Dr. Douglas Hyde [London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894], 117–61, 159). 

[21] Séamus Ennis, Going to the Well for Water: The Seamus Ennis Field Diary 1942-1946, trans. Ríonach Uí Ógáin (Cork: Cork University Press, 2009), 2.

[22] Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity, Identity (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000), 141.

[23] See Ríonach Uí Ógáin, “Colm Ó Caodháin and Séamus Ennis: A Connemara Singer and His Collector,” Béaloideas 64/65, no. 1 (2006): 270–338.

[24] See Ríonach Uí Ógáin, “Colm Ó Caodháin and Séamus Ennis,” 291.

[25] The inter-party government that succeeded de Valera in 1948 scrapped the short-wave scheme, in part because the station failed to attain a satisfactory wavelength. Nonetheless, the substantial funds earmarked for the scheme had a transformative impact on the station. Maurice Gorham, a prominent Irish journalist for the BBC who became the director of Radio Éireann in 1953, recalls: “As a direct result of the shortwave project Radio Éireann gained—and never lost—a proper news source, a Symphony Orchestra, a Light Orchestra, staff script writers, outside broadcast officers, and among other things, a professional repertory company. The Irish broadcasting service never had it so good.” Maurice Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1967), 161.

[26] Beneath the vocal animosity over Irish neutrality, Britain and Ireland entered into a realpolitik cooperation kept secret from their domestic populations. For a discussion of this secretive and coercive “benevolent neutrality,” see Donal Ó Drisceoil, Censorship in Ireland, 1939–1945: Neutrality, Politics and Society (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996).

[27] Tom Western, “Securing the Aural Border: Fieldwork and Interference in Post-war BBCAudio Nationalism,” Sound Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 90–99, 90–91.

[28] Emily C. Bloom, “Channel Paddlers: 1950s Irish Drama on the British Airwaves,” Éire-Ireland 50, no. 1/2 (2015): 45–65, 47.

[29] See Rex Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland, 1922–1994 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1984).

[30] The BBC regional services were always mediated by multiple, at times conflicting, imperatives. Damien Keane notes: “It is...important to distinguish BBC regionalism, as a position within a broadcasting field, from either the cultural regionalism or political regionalism into which it frequently has been collapsed by critics. For all its de-centralized autonomy, regional policy at the Belfast station was ultimately subordinated to central control from London, and it was precisely this limitation that enabled it to serve as a countervailing force to more ‘local’ regionalisms” (“Contrary Regionalisms and Noisy Correspondences: The BBC in Northern Ireland circa 1949,” Modernist Cultures 10, no. 1 [2015]: 26–43, 28).

[31] Christopher Morash, A History of the Media in Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 130.

[32] Both Kennedy and Ennis would record Scotland with the guidance of Hamish Henderson, a committed leftist and Scottish nationalist who co-founded the School of Scottish Studies in 1951. Henderson was often critical of the regional BBC for not attending to authentic Scottish traditional music: “Indeed Henderson states in a letter to the Glasgow Herald newspaper that the broadcast he made in June 1953 was, ‘the first programme of Folksong by natural singers which the Scottish BBC has ever put on.’” Timothy Neat, Hamish Henderson: Poetry Becomes People, Vol. II (Edinburgh: Birlinn Litd, 2009), 35.

[33] Lomax’s world recording was also driven by exigency. As the Cold War escalated, many New Deal folksingers, broadcasters, and entertainment notables who played a prominent role in US propaganda during the Second World War were marked as subversives. Lomax himself was listed in a pamphlet issued by a group of ex-FBI agents, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television (1950).

[34] Simon Potter, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 7.

[35] David E. Gregory, “Roving Out: Peter Kennedy and the Folk Music and Recording Dialect Scheme, 1952–1957,” in Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-creation, ed. Ian Russell and David Atkinson (Aberdeen, UK: Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, 2004), 218–240, 223.

[36] Recorded by Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle, Makem’s rendition of “As I Roved Out” became the program’s theme song.

[37] In 1959 Ennis left the BBC and moved back to Ireland, recording his first album of songs and tunes, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, for the American label, Tradition Records.

[38] The following year, Mary O’Farrell, who starred as Mrs. Rooney in Samuel Beckett’s radio play All that Fall (1957), read excerpts of Ennis’s translated Machnamh Seanmhná over the Third Programme.

[39] Original typescripts of The Irish Storyteller are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). The excerpted quote was broadcast on June 13, 1948, and catalogued in PRONI as D2833/D/3/1.

[40] For a broader discussion of stereotypes in Irish-themed Third Programme features, see Clair Wills, The Best are Leaving: Emigration and Post-War Irish Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 149–52.

[41] The Irish Literary Revivalists were especially enchanted with the Aran Islands; W. B. Yeats would direct John Millington Synge there to compose The Aran Islands (1907), a work alternating between ethnographic description and Synge’s feelings of cultural loss.

[42] In 1952, Rodgers honored Robert Flaherty in another series, Irish Literary Portraits, which ran until 1966 and employed innovative technique of splicing together interviews to create conversational profiles of Irish writers, including W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.

[43] Dierdre Ní Chonghaile, “Séamus Ennis, W.R. Rodgers and Sidney Robertson Cowell and the Traditional Music of the Aran Islands,” in Anáil an Bhéil Bheo: Orality and Modern Irish Culture, ed. Nessa Cronin, Seán Crosson, and John Eastlake (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2009), 67–86, 76.

[44] A copy of the original broadcast of Bare Stones of Aran is held in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Northern Ireland under reference number 783.

[45] John F. Szwed, The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax (London: William Heinemann, 2010), 275.

[46] The Ministry of Information initiated reciprocal and collaborative programming upon discovering that sympathies for the US were marred in Britain by negative perceptions of Americans as racist, arrogant, and selfishly motivated to enter the war at a late hour and assume all the credit. See Siân Nicholas, The Echo of War: Home Front Propaganda and Wartime BBC 1939–45 (New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), especially 172–78.

[47] D. G. Bridson, Prospero and Ariel: the Rise and Fall of Radio, a Personal Recollection (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971), 111. Other popular ballad operas included The Martins and the Coys (1946) and The Chisholm Trail (1944), both of which were scripted by Lomax’s wife, Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold.

[48] Prominent actors from the Abbey Theatre helped bring about a renaissance of Irish drama, folklore and storytelling when they were recruited in 1947 as a broadcasting company, the Radio Éireann Players. For more on this, see Eileen Morgan-Zayachek “Losing their Day Jobs: The Radio Éireann Players as a Permanent Repertory Company,” Theatre Survey 46, no. 1 (2005): 31–48.

[49] Robin Roberts, “Recording in Ireland with Alan Lomax,” The Historic Series: World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Vol. II: Ireland (Cambridge, MA: Rounder Records, 1998), CD.

[50] “British Isles, 1950–1958,” The Alan Lomax Collection, AFC 2004/004: MS 07.03.22, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

[51] “The Stone of Tory: A Ballad Opera from the West of Ireland,” May 20, 1951, “The Alan Lomax Collection,” AFC 2004/004: MS 04.02.43, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 34.

[52] “Introduction and Notes,” Irish Folk Songs, The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, vol. 1, ed. Alan Lomax and Séamus Ennis, (New York: Columbia Records, 1951), LP.

[53] Frederick Ramsey, Jr., “Girdle ‘Round the Globe,” Saturday Review, February 12, 1955, 30–31, 30.

[54] J. M. Mancini, “‘Messin’ with the Furniture Man’: Early Country Music, Regional Culture, and the Search for an Anthological Modernism,’” American Literary History 16, no. 2 (2004): 208–37, 210.

[55] Jeremy Braddock, Collecting as Modernist Practice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 2.

[56] Cage would compose numerous pieces inspired by Finnegans Wake, including The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) and Nowth upon Nacht (1984).

[57] For a discussion of radio’s impact on Joyce’s style in Finnegans Wake, see Jane Lewty, “‘What They Had Heard Said Written’: Joyce, Pound and the Cross-Correspondence of Radio,” in Broadcasting Modernism, ed. Debra Rae Cohen, Michael Coyle, and Jane Lewty (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009), 199–220. See also James A. Connor, “Radio Free Joyce: Wake Language and the Experience of Radio,” in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, ed. Adelaide Morris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997): 17–31.

[58] It would not be until October 5, 1946 that the BBC broadcast a recording of Joyce reading excerpts from Finnegans Wake; interestingly, it would be directed to India via the Empire Service, a network Joyce often parodied in the Wake.

[59] Cage imposed an additional rule in Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake to cut down the text to 41 pages: no syllable could be repeated to express the “J” of James.

[60] William Brooks, “Roaratorio Appraisiated,” (1983) in Writings about John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 223–24, 223.

[61] See John Cage, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, ed. Klaus Schöning (Koeningstein: Atheneum Verlag, 1982). Along with a catalogue of sounds, the edited collection includes interviews with Cage, a concordance of places where sounds were acquired, detailed instructions of Cage’s chance operations (“I-Ging”) applied to narrow down the number of sounds, and a complete score of Roaratorio.

[62] Peadar Mercier, who had previously played the bodhrán (an Irish frame drum) for the famous traditional band, the Chieftains, recalls that Cage had been put into contact with him through Ciarán MacMúthana, the head of traditional music at Radio Telefís Éireann. All the Irish musicians were recorded individually in the studio, save for Ennis, whom Cage recorded at the Willie Clancy Festival in County Clare. See “Introducing Roaratorio, Cage, Cunningham, and Peadar Mercier with Peter Dickinson,” CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage, ed. Peter Dickinson (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006), 223.

[63] In fact, many of Joe Heaney’s performance standards—The Rocks of Bawn, The Banks of the Roses, She Moved through the Fair, John Morrisey and the Russian Sailor, and Soldier, soldier, will you marry me now?— appear on Ennis and Lomax’s Ireland LP.

[64] Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire, Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 184.