University of Limerick
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Irish performing songwriters in creative practice

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posted on 2023-01-20, 14:17 authored by Denis Martin Toomey
The performing songwriter has emerged as a significant figure in contemporary Irish culture. With its eminent musical history, Ireland has cultivated some of the most internationally respected musical artists of recent decades. Despite an increase in scholarship which examines the “singer-songwriter” and the “songwriting process”, the contribution of the Irish artist has received scant attention. My thesis critically examines the Irish performing songwriter and wider mediated discourses surrounding their creative practice. Independent of genre it considers the musical and cultural underpinnings of contemporary Irish songs. It is an investigation largely informed by way of a grounded theory in ethnography. Specifically, the lived experiences of Ireland’s performing songwriters are explored and evaluated through field studies, songwriting workshops and the interrogation of artefacts including song texts and recordings. Findings indicate that creativity presents as processes of “becoming” and “being” practitioners. “Becoming a performing songwriter” equates to the “developmental stage” of creativity— mini-c to little-c. During this stage, artists present as socio-emotional practitioners engaged in “everyday creativity”. It is a contextual phase consistent with Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) where the play element of culture is considered critical. “Being a performing songwriter” on the other hand constitutes “purposeful play”, a more formalised practice, predicated on “artistic discipline”. This stage presents as a socio-musicological dimension, oriented towards song composition. Songwriting emerges as a “stage and componential process”, from little-c to Pro-C. As a “work” orientated practice, it is evident that songs are largely realised within personalised micro-environments. My investigation is supported with ethnographic vignettes and reflective practice on memorable songwriting processes. My dissertation culminates in a grounded theory model of the songwriting process comprising temporal, environmental and musicological factors. Despite the uniqueness of each of the artists as practitioners, there is some consistency in terms of their modus operandi. A noticeable dichotomy exists however between the “agency of musical traditions” and “being a contemporary voice”. Citing “Irish melody” as the most distinctive feature of Irish songs, some practitioners depict an underlying consciousness of what they term “Irish blues”. Accession of an individual voice presents an interesting conundrum for a twenty first century artist as the emphasis of a traditional culture is by nature, not individually focused. Although the figure of the performing songwriter suggests an artist who writes exclusively original material, in reality, songwriters are actively engaged in hybrid practices which include the unification of disparate sources and reinterpreting existing material. As their practice evolves, they also become more amenable to co-writing activities. It is concluded that the Irish performing songwriter is an artist of autotelic disposition, engaged in the “freeplay of hybridity and cultural mixing”. In doing so, they are uniting people to create something of social and cultural significance, hence continuing the practices of antecedents. While a grounded Irish musical tradition may certainly be viewed as a privilege, much of the performing songwriter’s labour involves conscious effort in re-encoding their creative practice.



  • Faculty of Science and Engineering


  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Fernström, Mikael





Department or School

  • Computer Science & Information Systems

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