London: Routledge, 2022. xi + 290 pp.
In the impressive Music, The Moving Image and Ireland, 1897 – 2017, John O’Flynn looks to “document the considerable involvement of many Irish composers, performers and other music personnel in a variety of screen productions from the early 20th century” (1). The ambitious work spans 120 years of cinema and screen history, assessing music from selected Irish-themed and Irish- (co-)produced films. In analysing these two major strands of screen music – Irish-themed and Irish-produced – O’Flynn is concerned with how sonic markers of nationality and ethnicity, whether projected as homogeneous (and/or homologous) or contested, contribute to the potential meanings afforded by screen productions (3). O’Flynn notes that Music, The Moving Image and Ireland, 1897 – 2017 “interprets multifarious influences, approaches and resources in its overview of scores and soundtracks that relate to and/or are created in Ireland” (5). In his ambitious effort to interpret these multifarious influences, approaches, and resources, O’Flynn is often repetitive in his overview of scores and soundtracks. Nonetheless, these instances of repetition ultimately serve the principal aims of the work.
O’Flynn remarks that Music, The Moving Image and Ireland, 1897 – 2017, has three specific aims which determine the structure of the monograph. The first of these aims is to map out the field of assessment by bringing together perspectives and case studies of music created for or reused in international Irish-themed screen productions and in national cinema and TV (6). The first part of the book, “Irish Themes on Screen and in Sound”, comprises three chapters that explore the considerable number of Hollywood, British and continental European composers commissioned to score for Irish-themed features throughout the 20th century, on subjects ranging from diaspora/emigration to history/politics to cultural and literary themes (8). The first of these chapters “The first half-century: From silent newsreel to narrative sound film” offers an intriguing insight into the “extent and significance of music for Irish-themed productions from silent and early sound features to the golden eras of Hollywood and British film industries” (38). Of interest in these early chapters is O’Flynn’s observation that the recycling of a “limited repertory of song and dance tunes perpetuated stereotypical representations of Irish musicality” (ibid.). In the third chapter, O’Flynn broadens the interdisciplinary scope of the work by examining “Literature-to-film adaptations and music”. From a structural perspective, the chapter feels out of place, but it nonetheless offers a fascinating snapshot of various screen adaptations of Irish literature. An example being Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s adaption of plays by Seán O’Casey: respectively, Juno and the Paycock (1930) and The Plough and the Stars (1936). As evident in his existing work, such as The Irishness of Irish Music (2009) and “‘Other Voices’ in Media Representations of Irish Popular Music”, O’Flynn’s capacity to draw from multiple methodological approaches enhances his overall analytical scope. This is certainly evident in this chapter, albeit with the central line of assessment adopted being musicological. Of note, O’Flynn provides the reader with a glossary of the musical terms used in the work, thereby facilitating a broader and informed readership.
A secondary aim of the work is to interpret a history, specifically, to consider material and ideological contexts underlying developments in domestic production or the lack thereof; to explore interrelations between music, film and national narratives (or counter-narratives); to consider the role of music in Hollywood and British productions based on Irish subjects; and to appraise music and sound design in modern and contemporary Irish cinema (6). Part two of the book, “Perception and Production from Within”, focuses on associations between music and the moving image that primarily emerge from productions filmed in Ireland and Northern Ireland, spanning the many political, economic and social changes experienced across the island from the 1920s to the millennium. A particular highlight, this section begins with the fourth chapter “Sounding nation and culture on screen”, which is broken up into several parts that offer a fascinating insight into state-sponsored information films. Understandably, O’Flynn focuses much of his analysis on the use and/or uses of music in these films, but the section also serves as an intriguing insight into agricultural, industrial and tourist films. The section on Northern Ireland tourism films is notable as O’Flynn outlines the complicated politics of “sounding” the Northern Irish tourist sector during times of increased violence. The chapter is followed by “Soundtracks to Ireland’s troubles”, a chapter that “embraces the legacies of earlier centuries of colonial rule across the island, and more recent economic and social problems” (112). A highlight of the chapter is an assessment of Heinrich Böll Irland und Seine Kinder/ Children of Éire (1961), a soundtrack comprised of contemporaneous folk and popular music that is positioned as a stark contrast to the iconic Seán Ó Riada’s orchestral scores for his Gael Linn trilogy (123).
The third part of the book, “Cinematic and Musical Developments”, examines the 1970s through to the 2010s. In the three final chapters that make up this section, O’Flynn charts evolving approaches to soundtracks for Irish-based narrative film and TV with many filmmakers directly or indirectly critical of contemporary Ireland (9). As noted, Music, The Moving Image and Ireland, 1897 – 2017 is repetitive in points. This is particularly evident in this final section as soundtracks and composers who were previously assessed are re-evaluated in line with emerging themes. Another chapter highlight is found in this section, with chapter eight “A plurality of genres” offering an informed assessment of music-themed documentary productions. The chapter also focuses on 21st century Irish composers who integrate traditional, classical, and other styles in orchestral scores, a point of analysis that, although intriguing, may have been better positioned alongside chapter six’s chronological assessment of Irish composers. The final chapters examine some mainstream cinematic releases and the waning involvement of Irish concert composers in soundtracks. O’Flynn partly attributes this waning to the “increasing involvement of traditional and popular musicians and the ubiquity of compilation tracks” (238). Interestingly, he highlights Sinéad O’Connor’s consistent presence over three decades of Irish-themed soundtracks, positioning this presence as a result of O’Connor’s considerable artistry, but also notes that it raises the question of Irish popular music’s continued associations with moving-image productions.
In all, Music, The Moving Image and Ireland, 1897 – 2017 is a major publication that reinforces O’Flynn’s position as an important voice in Irish music and film studies.
O’Flynn, John (2021) ‘“Other Voices” in Media Representations of Irish Popular Music’. Made in Ireland: Studies in Popular Music edited by Mangaoang, Áine, O’Flynn, John and Lonán Ó Briain. London: Routledge, 2021, pp. 154-169.
_____ (2009). The Irishness of Irish Music. London: Routledge.