We all know that De Valera’s vision of a Gaelic utopia manifested itself as a bit of a psychologically terrifying clusterfuck. Here, Síofra Gallagher looks at the cultural wing of his endeavours, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Society of the Musicians of Ireland), the organisation entrusted with promoting traditional dance and music since 1951, and asks the question: has Dev’s cultural wet dream become a crusty old wankstain?
Before we look at this question, it is important to note that Comhaltas (that’s pronounced co-al-tis for any heathens out there) is a large part of the reason that Irish music is so popular today. And that’s probably about the only good thing we can say about it.
You know that stereotype of emotionally and sexually repressed uber-conservative Catholics at a ceilidh dance? That’s Comhaltas. Or rows of expressionless children reaming off tunes like robots on Diazepam, with no real understanding of what they are doing or why they are doing it? Comhaltas.
Of course music is a perfectly noble and healthy pastime for kids, especially the ones who aren’t into sports. But much like the Gaelic football and hurling clubs which provide an enjoyable and positive pastime for young people and their communities around the country, the petty politics, family allegiances and questionable financial arrangements that go on behind the scenes would be enough to make Charlie Haughey cream himself. And that’s what we’re going to take a look today.
Even a cursory glance at Comhaltas will raise a few eyebrows. The head of the operation – who incidentally doesn’t play any music and has shored himself up as Director-General since 1968 – is one Labhras Ó Murchú (born Larry Murphy in 1939, he changed his name by deed poll in the 1950s, presumably to lend himself more Gaelic credibility). His other jobs include senator and Fianna Fáil politician. At least, he was a Fianna Fáil politician until he resigned in 2010 over the passing of the Civil Partnership Bill.
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, he quit his job in protest at gay couples being given legal recognition. Not surprising considering the organisation took a publicly pro-life stance in the 1983 abortion referendum, and that Ó Murchú’s right-hand man is none other than Seamus Mac Mathuna, father of Niamh Ui Bhriain of Iona Institute/Youth Defense fame, and husband to Una Bean Mhic Mhathuna, the mentalist who screamed “Go’way you wife-swapping sodomites” at victorious Divorce Referendum campaigners in 1996.
There’s also the fact that one of the sponsors of the 2014 All-Ireland Fleadh (this is the Super Bowl of traditional Irish music competitions in Ireland, and is run entirely by Comhaltas) in Sligo was Shell Oil. All the more offensive when you consider the close proximity of the Fleadh to Rossport in County Mayo, where the local community has been terrorised, brutalised and intimidated by Shell’s operation there for over a decade. Thankfully, after public uproar, Comhaltas were sharp enough to remove Shell from the list of sponsors and return an undisclosed sum of money.
Undisclosed sums of money are a running theme with these people too. Larry has publicly declined to disclose his Comhaltas salary when pressed on the matter, and back in 2009 there were various parliamentary debates regarding the lack of transparency with the funding they received, with ministers citing figures between €5 million and €7 million. Olivia Mitchell TD said at the time, “This kind of secrecy surrounding public money is unacceptable and particularly so when the organisation is headed up by an elected representative of the ruling political party. It is a pity that it takes a change in legislation to enforce the kind of transparency that is in everyone’s interests.”
More financial wrangling and power mongering were evident in 1998 when Comhaltas entered into a deal with IMRO, the music rights organisation, in relation to the Copyright Bill. Originally Ó Murchú had been steadfastly opposed to the bill, but had a surprising change of heart when it was agreed that Comhaltas would receive a special “blanket copyright licence… to cover all official Comhaltas centres and events,” as well as €63,500 annually from IMRO and a €32,000 subvention for the Brú Ború venue in Tipperary, run by none other than Larry’s wife Una Ó Murchú.
The nonsense continued in 2002 when Larry, with the help of Minister for the Arts John O’Donoghue, tried to push through a bill that would establish a new body, outside the framework of the Arts Council, that would provide funding for the traditional arts. No prizes for guessing who would have been in charge of that. Thankfully the Bill wasn’t passed, after vehement opposition from various quarters, including some scenes at the Dáil when a crowd of traditional musicians including Christy Moore, Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, fiddler Paddy Glackin, flute player Harry Bradley as well as representatives of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Na Píobairí Uilleann (the piper’s club) and others, gathered to hand in a petition.
There was another massive controversy in 2007/8 when the Clontarf branch of the organisation was disbanded. This after 15 years of concerts, raffles, auctions, donations and grant chasing to raise €11 million to house the world’s biggest Irish music centre. The building was taken from them at the last minute and is now officially under the control of Comhaltas, while the branch, now functioning under the name Ceoltóirí Chluain Tarbh, conducts its affairs in a local school and has to pay to enter competitions nationwide, as well as being forbidden to use the word ‘Clontarf’ during these competitions.
The formal statement from the branch says that they are “incensed” by the “bullying and intimidatory tactics” of Comhaltas HQ, and that they were denied any chance to make their case directly to the organisation, or the chance to make an appeal. It also states that “all requests by the branch to meet representatives of HQ to try and resolve the difficulties were rejected.”
So there you have it folks, another fossilised Irish institution with a despicable money-hungry shitbox at the helm, still functioning under the warped Freudian notions at the back of De Valera’s repressed Catholic mind.
And that’s before we even get started on what they did to the music.
Illustration by Redmonk.