Sean Laffey at the Celtic Cafe

The Sean Laffey interview comes to us courtesy of Alfredo De Pietra, Music Column Editor of the excellent Keltika Magazine of Italy. Click here to go to Alfredo's bio page at the Celtic Cafe.

"Keltika is a monthly magazine sold in all Italian newsstands since 1996 and very popular among the many Italian lovers of Celtic music and culture. Every issue comes with a compilation CD from the best international Celtic artists. To give you a comparison, it is something like Folk Roots in England, but the Folk Roots cd is only twice a year, whereas with Keltika every issue comes with a CD. In this way everyone who buys the magazine can read about (and listen to) the various artists featured on each issue - something very similar to the software shareware magazines with CD-rom attached. But Keltika doesn’t cover only music. Half of the magazine is involved with the history, the social development, the culture, the art of all the regions and nations with a Celtic heritage. And not many know, outside of Italy, that also a big part of Italy – the northern regions – is partially Celtic in origin."

Recently the CD included with the magazine was none other than a special version of the work of Sean Laffey's photography project "Imagine an Ireland." This not-for-profit venture by the Editor of Irish Music Magazine features not only images of Ireland, but music tracks by 28 Irish groups... click here for the page at Sean's site showing all the CD covers of the artists. Great stuff!

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Imagine an Ireland… an island where all could live in peace…

These are the first words that appear on the monitor of our PC when we put Imagine an Ireland, a great, innovative multimedia project by Seán Laffey, in the CD-ROM drive. Words of hope, words of peace... enthusiasm and serenity are the sensations we get while looking at, and listening to, this really special work.

We encountered Imagine an Ireland just by chance, some months ago. We had reviewed the 2002 Traditional and Folk Music Directory, published in Dublin by the prestigious Irish Music Magazine, for the Italian Celtic magazine Keltika. IMM seemed rather surprised by an Italian magazine reviewing their production, so they asked for some copies of Keltika. Some time thereafter we received the congratulations of the Editor of Irish Music Magazine, Seán Laffey, who proposed to us to do a review of his CD-ROM production, Imagine an Ireland.

Laffey, coming from an Irish family living in the United Kingdom, was born near Manchester, in an area of the city referred to as “the Irish ghetto.” He studied at Wolverhampton University, where he succeeded also in organising concerts with such important musicians as Ultravox and the blues duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee.

Seán has been involved with Irish music for the last 25 years. Even if he doesn’t seem to follow completely the directions of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí na hEireann, he directed their “Clár for the Munster Fleadh,” and last year he was the President of the Cashel Cultural Festival.

Laffey is a musician too: he played with the famous Liam Clancy, and was also – together with the band Liam at the Point – on the famous Irish TV “The Late Late Show.” In the summer of 2000 he was at the Breton festival of Brest with Tony Canniffe and John Wall in the formula of the trio Lusty & Strong. In 1998 his documentary The Last Windjammer Boy was the start of the Hull 700 festival. Two tracks with the band Warp Four were chosen by the French Record Company Chasse Maree for an international Celtic music compilation.

In parallel with his musical activities, Seán directs the Castlelake Consultancy Ltd. agency specializing in multimedia and photography. The CD-ROM Imagine an Ireland was produced by Castlelake Consultancy.

Imagine an Ireland was born in the summer 2002, as a multimedia gallery of more than 250 photos in B&W, taken by Seán himself. The pictures are accompanied by a soundtrack of good (very good!) Irish traditional music, and the artists featured were also chosen by Laffey.

The CD-ROM plays on the contrast between the images of the amazing scenery of the Emerald Isle and the reality of the best Irish traditional music, played today not only in Ireland, but also in German theatres and French pubs; in the great American festivals and in the Irish bars of New York and Boston.

The CD-ROM Imagine an Ireland is in some ways a catalogue – a multimedia catalogue – of the gallery, and contains hundreds of chosen photos, that come along with 28 tracks (as .mp3 files) of Irish music. The tracks are not only from musicians who live in Ireland, but also some who live in Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and the United States. In some cases they are immigrants (or sons of immigrants), but in others they have absolutely no familiar bond with Ireland.

We could ask ourselves the reason for such a concept. Why an image of Ireland with photos and sounds recorded elsewhere? How real are these icons of the Irish experience today? And must this music necessarily be identified with the “place” Ireland? As often it happens, nothing is certain, and the answers to these questions are (also!) in our mind and personal experience.

Imagine an Ireland (the multimedia gallery) was presented in some important festivals of Irish music, in Ireland (Cashel Heritage Festival, July 2002), Canada (Ontario Celtic Fair, August 2002) and in the States (Milwaukee Irish Fest, Wisconsin, August 2002). Further details about Imagine an Ireland can be found at

The collaboration with Seán Laffey for the realization of a special multimedia issue of Keltika for St.Patrick’s Day, 2003 offered us the possibility of a long interview, covering many aspects of today’s Irish music scene and Sean’s activity as Editor of the most important magazine of Irish music in the world.

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The Interview

Sean, let’s begin with your work as Editor of the Irish Music Magazine: How long have you been involved with Irish music? How did you happen to get interested in it?

I first became involved with IMM in 1995, when Media Representation Services, the advertising agency for the Magazine, took me on as a consultant, to develop the UK and European elements of the magazine... I was educated in England and ran folk clubs at University, as well as being involved in the Festival scene and appearing with my bands “Jenkin’s Ear “and “Clameur” at folk clubs and festivals in the UK and Brittany.

The Ad agency took over the Editorial side of Irish Music Magazine in 1997 and I was appointed Editor, a job I have been doing since.

Are there any difficulties in publishing a magazine specializing in Irish music in Ireland? Are there any other such magazines, and if so, what are the differences with IMM?

Let me begin by saying there is no difficulty in finding stories, there are hundreds, if not thousands of musicians, each with a fascinating story to tell. The main difficulty is commercial; chiefly securing decent shelf space in retail shops. We are competing not with other music publications but with lifestyle- and fashion-based magazines which take up the bulk of store space. Most of these periodicals are imports from the UK and they are able to use TV and Film stars as cover pictures to sell the magazines. So we do best in specialist music shops and in the larger magazine stores.

In Ireland there are very few competing music magazines, there is HOT PRESS which has been around for over 20 years, very popular with the under 30 age group, but has never been a wholly music-based magazin. It covers sports, lifestyle and culture, so it isn’t a direct rival to us. Another magazine that has a similar slant to IMM is “TREOIR” from the Comhaltas organisation, it covers the Fleadhs (music competitions) and is for subscribers only, so in short, when we can get on news stands we have a pretty free run of it.

What is the “general philosophy” of IMM?

We take the music and the musicians seriously, and we make sure the editorial balance of the magazine is given over to interviews with the players and the music makers. We say the mag is the “Definitive Voice of Irish Music--Worldwide” -- that’s because we let the musicians have space to explain how and why they are making music.

We look at Irish and Celtic music no matter where it is being made, so we are not parochial, and I believe this eclecticism is one of our major strengths.

What is the situation of this kind of specialized press in the world, in your opinion?

There is a great need for this kind of magazine. traditional and folk music is very much a niche activity, and if the music is to prosper, it needs a number of media outlets. TV and Radio are ideal, of course, but there is space for printed work that is reflexive, funny, opinionated, informative, robust and regular. As the music reaches into new territories and garners a non-ethnic audience, specialised press has a duty to gently educate the fan base. I don’t advocate we should be full of arcane rhetoric or bombastic polemics, but the music deserves to be shown in its historical, cultural and sociological contexts, and you can’t get all that from the liner notes on a CD.

What do you think about our magazine, Keltika?

I was very impressed by the general standard of editorial sweep and the visual quality of the magazine; I love the packaging and the fact that you carry sample CDs with every issue. tthat’s something we would like to do with Irish Music Magazine, but our print run is too large to make it truly economical. I also like the holistic approach you take in the editorial, including all aspects of culture and contemporary Celtic life in the magazine.

Now, let’s go to Irish music in general: Is it possible for an Irish musician to live only off of his/her music? I ask this because I think that the average level of Irish musicians is very high, but the Irish music market does not seem so “large”…

Well at the last count, by Fintan Vallely for the Univerisity of Ulster at Derry, there were said to be over 2000 people making a living in Ireland from traditional music, and that includes University and College teaching, research, the record industry as well as performing and making recordings, but no matter how you break it down, the numbers working in this area are bigger than the classical music industry in Ireland.

As far as the “gigging” musician is concerned, there are very few folk clubs, listening venues or festivals to sustain a fully professional circuit in Ireland -- there are just too many excellent players chasing a finite number of venues. Consequently, many of the most ambitious will tour abroad, with the U.S. and mainland Europe being the major destinations. However, since 9/11 it has become very difficult to set up tours in the U.S., and we would now recommend that artist get a U.S.-based agent or manager to handle the bureaucracy.

Considering the market for Irish music, well it is now worldwide, and there is an extensive, if somewhat loose and uncoordinated, live scene, both in the informal sessions and Irish pubs. In the larger markets like Germany, Holland and the U.S., there is also a well-organised and well-attended performance circuit.

The Internet has changed the face of traditional music, making it far easier for bands to market themselves and provide their fans with albums and merchandise. Some artists like Andy Irvine and Kieran Goss are using the technology to its full potential, with fan chat rooms, technical specifications for sound engineers, press kits and biographies online for the media. All this makes the job easier for overseas promoters who need to build up audiences to make tours financially viable.

Please tell us something about the relationship of Irish music with education and “power” in Ireland.

Historically, traditional music and certainly song has had immense power and influence in Ireland, as a colonised people, denied a fully independent education system and with the native language systematically attacked, music played a very important role in sustaining Irish culture. It did become, in many cases, an impoverished shorthand for the factual complexities of Irish history.

On its own terms, only relatively recently has traditional Irish music been given the educational status it deserves. It is still poorly and patchily taught in schools where the classical music curriculum dominates (because school curricula are inherently middle class and traditional music has been perceived as a peasant music, although many of its best practitioners are actually middle class). I can think of at least four Medical doctors who play professionally and there are a huge number of players who are graduates.

At third level, there are now a number of degrees that can take excellent players on to higher levels of musicianship and also help develop a range of skills that are essential to a modern professional (such as recording techniques, business planning and also education). Only this year has Limerick University opened the first BA programme in Traditional music, Dublin. Cork and Belfast do offer Traditional music but only as part of a wider Bachelor of Music degree.

In terms of power, traditional music has a certain cachet when it comes to formulating political ideology in Ireland. There is a long history of playing the language and culture card in formulating political policy, and as recently as the last electio,n there was a ministry for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (the Irish speaking areas). The new Fianna Fail administration (conservative right-wing Republican party) has re-shuffled ministries and Music is now with Arts, Sports and Tourism. On the one hand this is good because it acknowledges that there is a strong Irish music movement that is NOT linked to the language, conversely it might also mean that the cultural importance of the music becomes subsumed in a drive towards a commercially-driven agenda. The minister in charge is from Kerry, the most tourism pro-active county in Ireland.

Lastly, to add a layer of political confusion, an Arts bill is currently going though the Dáil (parliament), and formulated during the last administration, so doesn’t dovetail with the new arrangements. If the bill is passed without reform, it will establish a separate funding body for traditional music. This has been roundly condemned by the majority of people involved in traditional music. Firstly, because it will “ghetto-ise” the music away from general arts (and in turn lead to a decrease in the venues available for the music). Secondly, because it will result in un-needed competition between traditional musicians who will be chasing a finite budget on perhaps spurious grounds. (Hence my editorial on the Pinocchio effect – performance might come with strings attached, and if it doesn’t, musicians might have to “gild the lily” in formulating proposals. In both situations, the true nature of the music suffers). Thirdly, the legislation has been driven through by Senator Labhras O’Murchu, who is also Director of Comhaltas Ceoltoir, na hEireann (the self styled “Association of Irish Musicians”), and many in traditional music see this as another attempt to bolster the legitimacy and power of CCE.

Minister O'Donoighue rejected the controversial Section 21 of the Arts bill on December 12th, stating that it was divisive and he saw no reason to separate Traditional arts from all other forms of Art in Ireland. This change of thought on the bill came after considerable lobbying from Traditional arts organizations and the media, including an Editorial in Irish Music Magazine and a delegation of Traditional musicians to the Oireachtas (house of parliament). It was a particularly bad day for the Minister, having to give up Section 21 and losing the bid for the 2008 European soccer championships.

In your opinion, is it right to talk of “Celtic music”, or is “Irish music” more appropriate? In other words, are there many points of contact with the music of other Celtic regions, or are the national features actually underscored?

Some would see the term Celtic Music as being devoid of any true musicological connection or coherence; it being a marketing gimmick to lump music from the Celtic countries together. However, there are some strong inner connections in the Celtic countries, so Irish and Scots music are very close, because they shared a similar culture, language and economy for many years (there was a regular interchange between Northern Irish and Scottish musicians for centuries). Then there are related immigrant traditions in North America, such as the Gaelic communities in Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, and there have been Celtic influences both from Maritime Canada and New England in the Acadian music of Quebec. Irish session music in the USA is also conservative as is Scots music in Nova Scotia, which means these are often the best places to hear old style authentic music.

American Country music has some Celtic Character in that many (but certainly not all) of its folk song and dance music history comes from “Scots/Irish sources.” I have heard Americans lump all British Isles music together as “Celtic” which is profoundly untrue, as a great deal of English Music is Germanic in character. But cultures are not static, and one interesting example is the rise of “Bush Bands” in Australia. In the early '70s, when Irish musicians met up with Australian Folk singers, a new kind of Australian Celtic music developed. To the detriment of true Australian folk music, which was Anglo-German, reels, jigs and Irish style polka replaced the Waltzes and Versovianas of the Australian settlers.

The Celtic countries of Brittany, Asturias and Wales have had less cultural contact than Ireland and Scotland so their Celtic music is farther apart and more local.

Is Irish Music changing these days? If so, what are the main differences with the music of 20-30 years ago?

Sessions are now dominated by reels and jigs and there are few musicians today who will play marches, polkas, hornpipes, slow airs, barn dances and song tunes. This is a direct consequence of the Comhaltas competition system which has favoured the playing of Jigs and Reels in a predominantly Sligo style; it has become a sign of musical machismo to master this repertoire and now too many sessions are dominated by it. Song has suffered too over the years, with very few Irish songs being sung in sessions.

Commercially Irish music still harks back to the golden days of Planxty and the Bothy Band, the two groups which established the modern ensemble mix for traditional music. Over the past few years, bands like Danú, Dervish and Altan have perfected this formula. At the same time as the level of musicians ship has increased, there has been a tendency to mix styles and bring in other musical idioms, the most successful modern practitioners being Lúnasa , Solas, Coolfin, Flook and Michael McGoldrick.

The late '90s saw a trend towards more “pure drop” authentic playing, particularly with fiddlers. Martin Hayes, Maeve Donnelly, Brian Conway, Brian Rooney and Oisin MacDairamada, these are all players who have gone back to the roots of the music.

What’s your opinion about Riverdance? Surely many outside Ireland have discovered Irish music due to this show… but is it Irish traditional music?

Riverdance is a complex phenomenon. I’m not sure how many who go to the show have discovered Irish music through it, how many have gone back to source players like Morrison, Coleman, Rowesome, Kimmel and so on. Riverdance is NOT traditional Irish music, but it has some strong connections.

Riverdance came out of the American popular musical tradition, which itself has a strong Irish thread running through it. The Broadway musical was invented by Ned Harrigan, an Irish-Canadian. Stephen Foster, a Scots/Irish-American left a body of influential songs. Chauncey Olcott was a huge Irish star of 19th-century American vaudeville, and Irish shows became the lingua franca of American entertainment after the Civil War. The Irish were the first Catholic, non-English-speaking, immigrants to the U.S., and their musical culture was captured by Chief O’Neill of the Chicago police in a series of tunes books he published in the early 1900s. This is the legacy Michael Flatley inherited as the son of Irish emigrants in Illinois.

Add to that the music for Riverdance, which came from Bill Whelan, who was the piano player with Planxty -- he was influenced by the Balkan dance music that Andy Irvine played in Planxty -- there are connections everywhere. So it is not traditional music but it fits into the spectrum.

Do you think that regional styles are important today in Irish music, or are you going more and more to a “common, national” style and repertoire?

Regional styles are important, as they carry a more or less undulated style and repertoire from the past, and yes, they are less distinct now than before. The competition circuit acts against local styles, as does the vast numbers of CDs on the market. But regional styles do exist: Donegal, Sliabh Luachra, Clare, East Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim -- all have distinct repertoires and styles, so anyone who wishes to collect the music or learn to play it can do so. Sessions, on the other hand, have tended to become a levelling experience.

Overseas there are regional Irish styles that are discernable to the astute listener. In the UK, there are distinctive styles in London, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Liverpool. In the U.S., there are regional variations from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. These in general reflect where the music came from in Ireland. For example, Manchester music would be from Connaught, whilst Philadelphia had a large immigrant population from Donegal.

What is your opinion about an Irish music which is more and more open to the ethnic music of other regions? Do you feel more “purist,” or do you like these innovations?

When well done with taste, panache and humour, they can add much to the music. Flook, Michael McGoldrick, Solas, Eileen Ivers and Susan McKeown have all done exciting things with ethnic influences, but these are players who live in multi-racial communities. I think this amalgamation has been less successfully accomplished by Irish-based bands, chiefly because it has been difficult for them to recruit authentic ethnic musicians in Ireland.

What is your opinion about New Age music and its relation to Irish music?

Derivative nonsense, mainly -- I can’t understand the appeal of listening to badly-written songs that you can’t understand, and that are sung to an unchallenging and unmemorable backing track. It misses the point of communication in my opinion. I see it as a kind of warm security blanket. It is the “Mills and Boon” of folk music as far as I am concerned.

What do you think about foreign musicians who play Irish music?

I’m all for it. Some of the best players have been “foreign,” and I don’t really like the term because it misses the mark on Irish music -- I tend to prefer to use an insider/outsider dichotomy. The music is often stronger in immigrant communities than it is at home. Ed Reavy, the great tune writer, spent all of his adult life in the U.S., and was, in effect, a foreigner, but was from inside the culture. Kimmel, as well, was an American Dutch but was musically, if not culturally, an insider. If musicians can play with authenticity, it doesn’t matter where they are from.

Does the interest for Irish traditional music in Ireland go side by side with a similar interest in Celtic culture, as often, for instance, it does here in Italy?

That is generally not the case, chiefly because the best players learn very early, from the age of 4, before they become interested in the wider Celtic culture. I guess that the majority of Irish musicians have never come across the folk tales and cultures of Wales, Scotland and Brittany. The music is enough in itself without having to look for wider connections.

How are the relations between Irish musicians and record companies? It seems that more and more often Irish musicians try to produce their albums themselves.

With a population of less than 5 million, there isn’t a huge market for traditional music, and home-based sales are relatively low, hence there are few Irish record labels with large catalogues and extensive distribution chains. This economic reality and the general ease of making a recording have allowed Irish musicians to take an independent path, which is the road to almost breaking even. There is also an inherently Celtic psychology at work here, where individual prowess and flair is often at odds with the more considered and calculating corporate world.

How do you explain the worldwide success of Irish music? Probably it's the most popular traditional music in the world, at least outside its country of origin.

The music really has everything, it is emotional, uplifting, sad, happy, funny, invigorating, complex, yet accessible, mysterious and ethnic, it can appeal to nearly all tastes.

Its success is closely tied to the Irish Diaspora and inevitably to the American music experience. From the start of the recorded music industry, Irish music has been there, it has always used the best technology of the day to promote itself, and has kept pace with the changing social condition of the Irish. It has never suffered the fate of becoming an antiquarian music, and it has kept itself traditional -- a music that renews itself at every playing.

It is part of the matrix of ideas which is described as “Irish Craic,” something which I am sure Italian readers will be able to grasp very readily. Ireland is in the Anglophone world, but is the only country in that confederation to be Catholic, it has this strange sense of spirituality (which is harnessed by New Age music) and a freedom of individual expression that is outside the pale of Anglo Saxon culture, and I guess for many people around the world it is accessible on an emotional level that is easily understood. The music doesn’t hide its feelings; it comes in like a welcome friend, and it has a rare and raw honesty which is infectious.

Do you play music?

Yes, very badly, I play bodhrán and bouzouki and can bang out a few tunes on the banjo and tin whistle. I don’t have the time now to practice (three small children and an editing job leave only a few hours for sleep each day!), and I’ve forgotten most of what I used to know. Readers can judge for themselves as I’m singing on the Warp Four track, The Banks of Newfoundland.

Going finally to Imagine an Ireland: What was the inspiration for this project, and what is the philosophy of this CD-rom?

I’ve been taking photographs for about 38 years. When I was 7, my uncle gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera and the basics of a Black and White dark room, and I’ve been hooked since. Run on 35 years and I found myself doing interviews for IMM and visiting gigs, so I naturally took along my camera. Last year I collected around 300 of these photographs together, scanned them digitally and presented them in a gallery in Ireland, the U.S. and Canada.

The title, Imagine an Ireland, comes from the immigrant family/community experience, where the notion of the old country is mediated through images and music, which at best is a stylised view of reality and at worst a gross oversimplification. I use digital techniques to take out a lot of detail in the pictures, to focus the viewer’s attention on a few key elements, in the way that immigrants condense their experiences and expectations into manageable snapshots of a bigger (often painful) reality.

I suppose the inspiration came subliminally from my father, who died recently. He remembered Ireland from the 1950s and had a good store of songs that were sentimental renditions of emigration. When he sang, the old accent came through as if he had never left at all. Luckily he came back over about two months ago and was delighted to see how much progress had been made over here in 50 years.

Please tell us something about the music coming with the CD-rom: how did you choose these artists?

Every month I get dozens of CDs in for review at Irish Music Magazine, and most are from independent artists who may not have distribution deals or, in fact, may not be based in Ireland. Last year when I was putting the photo-gallery together, I thought it would be a good idea to offer space on the CD-ROM to these artists who had so impressed me in the past, to help them reach a wider audience, and also to show people that there is a huge pool of Irish and Celtic talent from around the world. So I called them up and “sold” then space on the album. Simply, I let them have a track for around €120, and all the money I made went into manufacturing discs and in setting up the gallery in the U.S. and Canada. The artists chose their own tracks, so they are the ones they are happiest with, or the ones that show off the band in the best light. I couldn’t believe the response I got from the artists -- they were all so positive, and the process of selecting tracks and arranging licences went very smoothly indeed. I‘d also like to thank all the team at Spectra Photo in Listowel Co. Kerry, who gave me permission to use the screen-saver program.

Any future projects of this kind?

Well the Imagine an Ireland gallery is still active, and the CD-ROM is about a quarter the size of the full gallery, so if any Celtic Festivals would like to run it, just send me an e-mail (click here.) At the moment I am planning to take it back in an updated form to Milwaukee next August and to Dallas, Texas for their Irish Festival in March.

I am also working on a “Singer Songwriter” CD-ROM, along the same lines, but featuring some of the original talent that is now emerging from Ireland. There is a boom in song writing and in acoustic clubs for this type of music. This will probably be aimed at the American market, maybe Nashville or the South By South West Music Convention in Atlanta. And in the back of my head there’s an idea forming to do the same for Maritime music (which is another passion of mine).

Sean Laffey's personal site is at: and Irish Music Magazine is at:

Interview: Alfredo De Pietra
Feature: Bernadette Price
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

Sean Laffey
Sean Laffey, Alfredo De Pietra

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