Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jane Sugarman

Subject Categories



Diaspora, Ethnomusicology, Ireland, Musical Community, Nationalism, Traditional Music


This dissertation examines Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (The Irish Musicians' Association) and its role in the politics of Irish traditional music communities. A revivalist organization founded in 1951, Comhaltas today is an educational and activist organization whose mission includes the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music. Its numerous programs--from local music classes to a national festival drawing thousands of participants--intersect at some point with the musical lives of nearly every Irish traditional musician. Because of this widespread activity, Comhaltas interacts, often contentiously, with many of the different musical communities through which Irish traditional musicians define themselves both publically and privately. These include local communities defined by parish, family, or geography; a national and/or nationalist "Irish music community"; and international communities enabled by diaspora, technology, and travel.

Through methodologies including archival research, participant observation, and ethnographic interviews, this dissertation argues that an understanding of Comhaltas' activities can inform current ethnomusicological understandings of the concept of "musical community." Based on existing literature and my own research, I have chosen to define musical community as the musical performance of collective selfhood. My definition is based on three main themes that appear frequently in research on musical community, including my own: plurality and multiplicity, individuality and collectivity, and process and change. These themes highlight the nuanced ways that musicians "perform themselves into" (or out of) various collectivities over time, often contradicting public extremes of discourse associated with these communities. Chapters cover Comhaltas' role in Irish cultural policy debates and defining a national(ist) traditional music community, the Comhaltas branch and the role of place/geography in local musical communities, Comhaltas' impact on the teaching and transmission of traditional music and community, Comhaltas in the United States, and the clash of performance and community at Comhaltas' annual All-Ireland music festival. In each of these areas, the intensely public and activist nature of Comhaltas' mission makes questions of identity and cultural politics explicit, challenging musicians and others to define and reevaluate their relationships, statements, and performances. This tension, in turn, demands an understanding of musical community acknowledging that it is flexible, porous, and evolving.

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