The introduction in the Companion gives a rationale for both its subject and its production. Additionally, however, the addresses given at its launches add considerable supplementary summary knowledge regarding the book's place in the spectrum of not only Irish music itself, but also the broader field of Irish Studies. [photo: Sinéad Neville, Conor Caldwell, Fintan Vallely; pic by Nutan]

The 2011, 2nd edition launch introductions by Prof. Michael Cronin (now of TCD), by Dr. Nicholas Carolan (formerly Director of the ITMA) are two outstanding texts that contribute considerably to the understanding of traditional music and its place in Irish intellectual and artistic culture. [See 2011 launch video and text of addresses]

Those by Dr. Liz Doherty and Dr. Conor Caldwell for the third edition in 2024 build the picture out from there, taking in educational, performance and research advances.The initial formal launch was at The Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, on June 5th, 2024. Subsidiary launches were planned for Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy on July 7th, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare; at the Fiddlers' Green festival in Rostrevor, Co. Down, at 3pm on July 27th, and at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Wexford town.

The Dublin launch addresses:

These can be viewed live on Vimeo link on a documentary film of the event made by Barrie Dowdall; their texts follow.

Liz Doherty [in process]





Sinéad Neville [in process]






Conor Caldwell [in process]


Fintan Vallely

Twenty-five years of ‘the Companion’ —rationale for The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 1999-2024
Launch address by Fintan Vallely, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, June 5th, 2024

[photo by Nutan]

Thank you all for coming this evening. Quite a few of you were here thirteen years ago for the second edition, and some of you attended the first launch twenty five years ago. I feel almost impertinent to have produced a third edition of this book, for, as a neighbour I met on the street last week asked me “But what is there to add to an encyclopedia of Irish Traditional music?”

That perfectly reasonable question stumped me for a few seconds, but the answer is simple: for, on the one hand, there are people researching all the time, revealing previously hidden aspects of the past, and, on the other, the music is not like ancient pottery—it is a contemporary music that is in everyday social and artistic practice. So the picture is ever-changing, like a touch-screen it expands from all sides. And reflecting this impermanence, I recall the words of Tom Munnelly when I first told him about the book in 1996 or 7: “Oh, great! Another dictionary! I suppose the first edition will be the proof copy …”.

The first edition was launched in 1999 in the then most modern artefact of Traditional music imagination - the Ceol centre in Smithfield, a fabulous Aladdin’s cave of didactic technological wonders created by Harry Bradshaw and others. That centre now, however, is only a dim memory, it and its amazing devices have been growing obsolete in silence and darkness in boxes in Cork for the last decade. But unlike them, though also in Cork, the Companion to Irish Traditional music has been an active participant in Traditional music’s society …

So many extraordinary things were said about the actual role of the Companion at its last launch that it is superfluous to repeat them here, but it IS worth remarking that if anyone wants to further or refresh their understanding of the value of literature in Traditional music history, they can still consult the lyrical words of Nicholas Carolan from his 2011 launch address — on video and in print on the book’s website at com ITM dot com. Conor Caldwell has already given some idea of what the book contains, and what is different about this edition, so only a brief summary of its genesis is appropriate for me.

The first Companion was the brainchild of CUP’s then director, Sara Wilbourne, c. 1996, who invited me to edit one of a planned series of ‘companions’ on various subjects. At that time I was reviewing Traditional music for The Irish Times and was also lecturing in it at the National University at Maynooth, for which I had already been assembling an A-Z list of topics for student reading; this list became the basis of the Companion. Articles were requested from those whose knew particular aspects of the music, with some biographies of key figures, most of whom were dead. Instrumental music and instruments, song and dance, were covered, along with related media, issues, history and trends. A bibliography was part of it, developed out of one that had been compiled earlier by Hugh Shields and Nicholas Carolan. There was also a discography, because LPs, cassettes and CDs were then produced largely by established music ‘labels’. Most contributors were themselves musicians, singers or dancers, and all were involved in the day-to-day society of the music. Some of them were those who had already been involved with myself and Cormac Breathnach in the 1996 Crosbhealach an Cheoil conference, and so the Crosbhealach’s span of coverage also became part of the blueprint for the Companion.

Among the first hundred or so writers were Colette Moloney, Gráinne Yeats, Ann Buckley and Ann Heymann who created the historical span, added to by Hugh Shields on ballads and the Goodman Collection, and Éamonn Ó Bróithe with Gaelic song metrics. Liam Mac an Iomaire was a hugely enthusiastic contributor, on Connemara sean-nós singers; Davy Hammond, John Moulden and Frank Harte held authority on ballads, and Séamus Mac Mathúna and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann opened access to Treoir magazines photographs.

Among them all, however, UCD song-collector Tom Munnelly, who launched the first edition, was a particularly supportive and constructive voice, an ally who was also strong on song and on Travelling people.

Thus the Companion’s writers included performers who had also become part of the new academic side of Irish Traditional Music, each of whom subsequently advanced and contributed much to that field in Ireland and abroad. All aspects of the book carried information— including the cover, a painting of the piper Felix Doran. This was because he and Traveller pipers were seen as somewhat the saviours of the instrument, and on account of their constant movement, Travelling people were early transmitters of tunes and songs among the rural poor of Ireland. Also, that painting was by my cousin JB Vallely whose lifetime theme was traditional musicians—he was himself a piper and teacher, and knew the music from inside.

Overall the first edition had c. 300,000 words in 1100 leading articles over its 478 pages, and was jointly published with New York University Press.

Continued demand convinced Cork University Press’s next Director Mike Collins to go for a Second edition in 2011. The basis of the book had already been established, but opinions were informally canvassed from a variety of musicians and academics throughout the country and abroad, and based on their comments many new ideas were taken on. The culture-related material was developed, as was coverage of counties in Ireland itself. Biographies were greatly expanded to include the living, and the discography was dropped, because—by that time—self-production of recordings was the norm, and the internet carried this perpetually-increasing and changing information adequately.

A Kindle digital version of the book was done in addition to the hard copy, and, again, the cover was chosen for educational content—an 1832 painting by the Cork-born artist Daniel Maclise that is the earliest depiction of group playing for a social dance in Ireland, and also the earliest image of the tambourine being played in the music.

That edition was inaugurated here in the RIA too, a proceedings directed by Michael Cronin of DCU, and launched by Nicholas Carolan, founder-director of the ITMA, with music provided by piper Odhran O Casaoide’s students from Dublin Institute of Technology, a symbolic collaboration of the everyday practice of the music with its now-established educational field.

A website was also provided, and the book almost doubled to 832 pages with 1800 leading articles in c. 560,000 words.

That gets us to today, and this third edition, like the Dublin City Council buildings built on the foundation of the second, that had been constructed over the ancient walls of the first. Continuing demand had convinced Mike Collins to go for this, though Covid intervened. The third edition was, however, revived, and all its stages have been marshalled into print over this last two years by Cork University Press’s Maria O’Donovan. As before, opinions were sought from teachers in particular as to what was most and least useful to them, and, out of these ideas certain items were dropped to make space for newer or revised concepts and issues. Among the book’s most significant additions are, as Conor mentioned, the fleadh results and analysis. This was only made possible - fortuitously—through access to the mammoth database work independently and voluntarily done by Kildare fiddle-player Fintan Farrell.

Statistics and analyses were extracted from his 50,000 or so entries by Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw, creating a body of information that is unique to the Companion at this time.

The companion album that is now part of the production, itself grew out of the second edition too, starting as a live performance and CD Companach which has been performed in Ireland and internationally since 2013. And, as before, the cover again uses imagery that comes from inside the music, another of JB Vallely’s evocative works that depicts the more-modern instruments fiddle, accordion and low whistle.
Now with 934 pages, there are 2200 leading articles with almost six hundred thousand words.

So that’s the genesis, and it is appropriate that this launch has been opened by CUP’s new Director Sinéad Neville, for the book marks almost a century since Cork University Press in 1928 published the first major analytical text on Irish Traditional music—A Handbook of Irish Music by Richard Henebry. It is fitting too that the event co-ordinator this evening is Liz Doherty, herself a major contributor to the book, who studied with Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin in Cork, and who has been a leading figure in Traditional-music education and promotion initiatives since the 1990s. So too for the generous formal launching by Conor Caldwell of the University of Limerick, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s IWAMD, a connection that again emphasises the educational value —and function—of the book. And by Conor’s bringing us a group of University of Limerick’s musicians, the whole process is connected back to music performance.

There have been more than two hundred contributors to this edition of the Companion. To the major ones I owe considerable gratitude, among them Liz Doherty, Terry Moylan, Rebecca Draisey Collishaw, Catherine Foley and Catherine-Anne Cullen. To Martin Ryan I owe much for his critical reading and advice on the full interim script, Verena Cummins for a quiet retreat in the music heartland of East Galway to work on the preliminary editing. Many others I have to thank too, not least Sara Wilbourne for her founding initiative, and my own uncle, Charlie Vallely, for a key financial subvention in the early years.

As for the future of the book, well, the need for constant updating inexorably shunts the Companion up into the ether, and so consultations are under way with Liam O’Connor, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, to eventually have all its words linked fluidly to the literature and recordings held by ITMA at Merrion Square.

But for this edition I thank in particular Maria O’Donovan in Cork University Press, Cork University Press itself too for the publishing commitment, and their very patient and music-savvy proof reader Aonghus Meaney.

For this evening, thanks to Liz, Conor and Sinéad, to Barry Dowdall for doing the video recording, to the musicians who took time out to travel with such enervating arrangements and tunes.

And—in the manner of thanking “the parish priest for the use of the hall”— the Royal Irish Academy for hosting the event.

But, in the end, nothing of this scale is produced without support, and so the book owes everything to the astonishing forbearance of my partner Evelyn Conlon, without whose backing it could never have happened.

And that brings to mind the months and years of time that the book has commandeered, and what one of the first-edition writers, Grainne Yeats, said to me when bringing me her article back in 1997: “My God! I expected to find only a very old man doing something like this!”. Well, maybe now, nearly thirty years later, her expectation has been realised …






Aibhlín McCrann wtih the author [Nutan]


Music in the Duke, post event





Martin Gaffney & Norah Kavanagh [Nutan]







Robert Harvey, whistling [Nutan]