‘The Irish Traditional Music Archive’ by Rónán Galvin (ITMA)


A small parcel arrived recently to the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) from Boulder, Colorado consisting of a CD donation with an accompanying card carrying the message ‘thanks for all you do to document and enliven the music tradition we love’. Without realising, Michael Reshetnik encapsulated, in a heartfelt way, a core function of the Dublin city-based archive. This function was most present on 28th November last when ITMA hosted a Christmas concert featuring the traditional group ‘The Voice Squad’ at 73 Merrion Square, the archive’s home since 2006. Seventy listeners squeezed into the library to enjoy unaccompanied harmonic ballads and carols, not to mention between-song entertainment. It also represented a milestone for ITMA in that it was the first live streaming of an event that was enjoyed worldwide from New York to Indonesia.


The Voice Squad performing at ITMA (28th November 2015)
The Voice Squad performing at ITMA (28th November 2015)


Live streaming was far from the agenda when I first walked through the doors of ITMA as a wide-eyed, open-eared fourteen year old in 1989, at which point it occupied a one-roomed site in what is now the Irish Film Institute on Eustace Street, Dublin 2. Established in 1987, it was officially opened in November 1991 as a national reference archive and resource centre for the traditional song, instrumental music and dance of Ireland. A not-for-profit facility with free public access, its core collections include sound recordings, books and serials, sheet music, ballad sheets, photographs, videos and DVDs.

The ITMA has followed a steady upward path since its foundation in 1987. Under the watchful eye of Nicholas Carolan, founding Director who retired in July 2015, the archive has flourished and matured to the ever-changing requirements of a 21st century resource. ITMA, by its nature, is evolving to meet technological and public demands. As one of its key objectives, it is committed to delivering a user friendly and innovative interface and there are presently over 1 million content items available on-line to the general public.

Several of the twelve staff employed at ITMA are fluent Irish speakers, and most are traditional musicians or singers, not least the new Director, Grace Toland. Her fine rendition of the Eddie Butcher song, ‘Flora’, was highly appreciated by the one hundred or so attendees at the formal retirement party for Nicholas Carolan on 26th September last, held at the ITMA library.

The extensive sound collection held at ITMA spans three centuries, from wax cylinder to digital media and is the largest and arguably the richest of its kind. The earliest recording, captured on wax cylinder is from a Feis Ceoil in 1897. The Rev. Dr Richard Henebry Collection, dating from 1905 are among the earliest field recordings made of Irish traditional song and allow us to hear Irish language singers from more than a century ago. Most of this collection, available on the ITMA website, is from An Rinn, County Waterford and features, among others, the singers Maighréad Ní Néill and Mícheál Ó Catháin. At the other end of the spectrum, ITMA has, since 1994 conducted field recording at Sean Nós Cois Life, an annual Dublin city-based weekend of traditional song in the Irish language. In terms of commercial sound recordings, ITMA holds the full ‘Seoltaí Séidte’ collection of twenty 78 rpm discs, originally issued by Gael Linn between 1957 and 1961. These recordings include performances by solo singers in Irish, from Gaeltacht regions such as Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, Aodh Ó Duibheannaigh and Diarmuid Ó Flatharta.


Sterling cylinder lid (early 20th century)
Sterling cylinder lid (early 20th century)


The foundation of the archive was, and is based on donations of private collections relating to traditional music and song. It is unsurprising therefore, that it holds some gems of Irish language material such as the Prionsias Ó Conluain collection of printed items, mainly in Irish, made throughout Ireland between 1963 and 1982. Collections of individual singers in the Irish language are also held at ITMA, including that of Donegal singer, Néillí Ní Dhomhnaill, made between 1973 and 1978 and Máire Áine Ní Dhonnachadha, the Connemara singer, made from the 1950s to the 1970s. A collection that could be of considerable interest to scholars of early 20th century Ireland is the Oireachtas Library Collection of books and sheet music, with a particular representation of Irish language material. To highlight the range of material held at ITMA, the Pádraig Ó Mathúna Collection captured between the 1930s and 1970s is a combination of scrapbooks, ephemera, photographs, slides and music manuscripts.

Listed above is but a small taste of the Irish language resources that ITMA has to offer. As the archive grows and becomes increasingly accessible to the wider public, we look forward to your visit from Ireland, Scotland and beyond.

De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisléain!

Rónán Galvin
Commercial Sound Recording Officer

See www.itma.ie