Is music the answer to culture wars?

14 Sep 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Sep 2017

Music brings people together ...

Brendan McAleer, Regional Director of Ulster Comhaltas explains how he is trying to turn the cultural war on its head.

In a year which has seen the Irish language feature at the centre of political debate in Northern Ireland, with division between the Sinn Féin and the DUP as to whether or not we should have a stand-alone Act on the issue, it might be difficult to see how culture and language can heal divisions.

But our organisation has been working on the ground to bring communities together and develop a shared narrative between those whose identities might be seen to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly in the current political context.

Established in the 1950s, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, or Comhaltas as it is more commonly known, simply means Gathering of Musicians of Ireland. Our  mission is to preserve and promote traditional music and culture. The organisation is run as a not-for-profit, and it provides affordable music classes to the young and old across its 69 branches in Ulster, as well as further afield with branches as far away as Russia, China and South America.

Traditionally attracting more members from Nationalist communities, Comhaltas has been working to engage with non-traditional audiences, including those from Unionist communities who may not have had much interaction with Irish traditional music and culture.  Whilst some funding has come from the Executive Together: Building a United Community, which has delivered real engagement across the community, the organisation has put cross-community engagement at the heart of its new Strategic Plan, set to be launched in coming months.

Comhaltas has played a key role in providing low cost music classes to people across the North, and for many years, our focus has been on building capacity within local branches. Our simple yet effective strategy across our volunteer branches has been working, but we believe we have a bigger role to play,  not just in promoting music and culture, but in bringing musicians from different cultures together to learn and share tunes.

What we knew, was that many musicians, some from a band background, some from Irish trad, were often playing the same tunes to different tempo, lyrics or titles. And so whilst our participants came into this project to learn from each other’s’ traditions, they found that much of these traditions are actually very similar.

The success of this made us think about how we could build on the shared narrative. We approached the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association NI Branch (RSPBANI) to see if they would be interested in working with us in partnership, developing a strong, common platform on which to promote shared cultural heritage in a confident and creative way, which no one should fear.


The RSPBANI and Comhaltas share a lot of similarities, at both organisation and volunteer level, and have teamed up on previous collaborations. We have now identified a programme of work for the incoming year to further the collaboration and training offered by each group to build capacity and give a voice to the shared narrative.  

As an organisation, we wanted to challenge ourselves not only to promote these values, but to live them, and to make it a central part of our engagement strategy.

We could have done these things as “one-offs” or as one aspect of the overall strategy, but by not incorporating it into a wider approach, we not only miss an opportunity to promote music and culture, but we miss the opportunity to use it to progress real and genuine reconciliation.”

What is the shared narrative?

Irish traditional music in Ulster contains a large number of Highlands, flings, Schottishes, rhythms which all originated in Scotland, and this is especially true of traditional music from Donegal. Specific tunes that have become part of the traditional music repertoire across Ulster, but which originated in Scotland, include The Atholl Highlanders, a jig as well as reels such as Mrs MacLoud’s Reel and the Shetland Reel. When we look at some of the shared tunes that exist within both traditions, there are many examples. Perhaps one of the most well-known tunes within the Orange culture, “The Sash My Father Wore” is the best example of this, as it was based on an older song called “My Irish Molly O”.


The more we understand and let people know this history, the more we can open up to a wider culture.


But what does this look like?

One example of how Comhaltas are living the values they espouse was the recent John Kennedy Weekend which took place in Ballycastle in tribute to a musician who embodies the ethos of celebrating and incorporating our shared cultural experiences.

Kennedy, now in his 89th year, is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer, who is accomplished on a range of instruments, including the flute, accordion, tin whistle, fife and fiddle, and is as at home playing in a band on the 12th July as he is competing in the All-Ireland Fleadh. 

John has taught both community marching bands as well as at Comhaltas branches over the past 50 years, and his commitment and love of music has brought closer engagement across the Irish music and unionist band traditions, teaching a new generation of musicians about their shared culture. 

A weekend of music and culture was held in honour of “the bard of Cullybackey” in recognition of John’s role in bringing people together, and his passion for traditional music. Events included a talk on the role of Protestants in preserving Irish traditional music, music taster sessions with Ballycastle High School and Cross & Passion College, as well as music workshops at St Patrick’s and St Bridget’s Primary School on flute, harp, uillean pipes, fiddle and traditional singing.  

Some of the work Comhaltas has delivered has been supported by the Executive through T:BUC’s CEOL programme. The project, which stands for Community Engagement, Outreach and Liaison, operates across Northern Ireland to improve community relations, develop a deeper understanding of shared culture and help breakdown mistrust which may have developed within and between sections of the community.

We believe there is an opportunity to extend this out much wider by encouraging a collective partnership approach to key organisations with a strong presence in communities.

Organisations like ourselves who are part of the fabric of communities can be positive influencers, but we need more support. Comhaltas is run primarily thanks to the commitment and dedication of a large number of volunteers, but if we want to extend the net and realise the potential of the organisation as a force for reconciliation then there must be investment from government.

We believe that the draft Programme for Government is an opportunity for organisations like ours to truly show the role we can play, not only in promoting the cultural arts, but in developing a more shared society. Often, talk of this can seem somewhat contrived and aspirational, but we genuinely believe that key to breaking down institutionalised barriers and mindsets is to meet people on their own terms – whether that be music, bands, or dancing.

In the midst of a rather bleak political outlook, perhaps it is time for society to lead politicians and inspire them to be brave and ambitious for the future. No-one has anything to fear from culture and language, and we believe that creating genuine partnerships of equals in learning, understanding and respecting different identities will ultimately show that we have more in common than that which divides us.



Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.