I’m a female Irish traditional musician from county Galway, and have played in sessions around Galway city for a decade. Sometimes I’m one of the ‘anchor’ musicians (paid by the publican to start and lead a session so they can schedule a trad session at a certain time for their punters). Sometimes I just go along to a pub session to play for fun. I’ve played in most of the pubs at one point or another, and with many different musicians.
Liz Coleman holds a doctorate in Physics from NUIG, and is also an excellent fiddle-player. She did a small study where herself and her partner went to all the sessions in Galway in one week, January 7th – 13th 2019, and noted the gender of every player. Out of the 65 musicians they observed playing in the sessions, 57 of the musicians were men.
As Liz observed, ‘[This is a] temporally and regionally limited sample’. But her findings accurately represent my experience of gender balance when playing sessions in Galway, and all over Ireland, for the past decade.
Why does there seem to be such a considerable gender imbalance in the trad sessions in Galway?
I posted an excerpt from Liz’s research on social media; one suggestion was perhaps “[female musicans] are just fewer in number”.
It’s difficult to gain data on how many Irish traditional musicians there are in Connacht, and their gender. However, there’s three sources that can give us a clue: results from the Fleadh, the Leaving Cert. music exam, and university admissions.
Let’s look at the number of adults (over 18 category) who competed in solo, duet, or trio instrumental categories last year. The county Fleadh has no barriers to entry, so let’s ignore those entrants – they could have been playing jazz, for all we know. But a musician who has won 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their county Fleadh is definitely an active Irish traditional musician who has reached a basic level of proficiency in tune-playing.
The county Fleadh give an even more telling picture when we look at all age groups: overall, significantly more girls qualified for the Connacht Fleadh than boys, with 424 girls qualifying in the categories under 12 to over 18, as compared to 319 boys. The gender imbalance was most pronounced in the 15-18 category, with 71% of the youngsters who qualified for the Connacht Fleadh being female.
But maybe this was a freak year? Surely there’s not usually 424 girls of all ages playing trad to a provincial level?
Actually, I think it’s likely this is the norm, as the trend of female over-representation is reflected in general music education.
The Leaving Certificate Music curriculum includes trad, classical, jazz and pop. Every year since records were published, girls studying music at Leaving Cert. level have dramatically outnumbered boys. in 2018, 78% of the students who did the Leaving Cert. Music exam were female. That means there’s currently almost 4 girls to every 1 boy in a school music classroom.
Not everyone who plays trad enters the Fleadh, or does music for Leaving Cert. Ergo these numbers are a subset of the amount of people who play trad in Connacht. However, they tell us that at the exact point Dr. Coleman collected her data, there were at least 44 adult women who were proficient trad players in Connacht. The stats also imply that it’s highly likely more girls than boys learn to play music. They tell us significantly more teenage girls than boys choose to study music in school and enter music competitions. So why were there only 14% women playing in the pubs that week last January?
Let’s say what everyone’s thinking: maybe more little girls learn music, and more girls enter the Fleadh, but maybe adult female musicians just aren’t good enough to play in a session?
Firstly: in the majority of sessions, you don’t have to be a brilliant player to participate. Sometimes the stars align and everyone is ‘flying’, but in general, you just have to:
- ask if you can join in
- play at a sensitive volume
- be able to play around 40 common tunes to intermediate standard.
The 44 young female adults who have won 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their county Fleadh in Connacht have definitely reached a standard whereby they could play in a session in Galway city.
Secondly: at senior level, 7 of the women who qualified for the Connacht Fleadh proceeded to the All-Ireland and won first prize in their competition at national level. That means that of all the people from Connacht who proceeded to national level and won first in the the All-Ireland last year, 41% of them were women. This is exactly in line with the national average:
last year, 41% of all senior instrumental champions in Ireland were female.www.una.ie/all-ireland-fleadh-results-2018
The trend of girls achieving an exceptionally high standard of music performance is amplified at Leaving Cert. music level, where girls don’t just outnumber the boys, they slightly outperform them: in 2018 4.7% girls attaining an A, grade, compared to 3.2% of the boys.
So not only are the vast majority of female musicians good enough to play in a session, lots of them are exceptional musicians. So why are women not playing sessions in Galway?
Well, maybe women who play music don’t want to be professional musicians, or maybe they don’t like performing in public.
But the statistics suggest otherwise: there’s one undergraduate course in Ireland in Irish traditional music and dance – the B.A. in Irish Music and Dance in the University of Limerick. To date, of the 250 students who have graduated from this course, 63% are female.
UL also offer a masters degree in trad. Many musicians choose to initiate a performance career in the Irish traditional arts by doing this specialized postgraduate degree. Since 2003, 267 trad musicians have graduated from the MA in Irish Traditional Music in UL, presumably with professional development as their goal. Of that 267 graduates, 157 are women. So 60% of the people who have consciously decided to pursue Irish traditional music performance at a professional level are female.
So where are all these female trad music graduates? They’re not playing sessions in Galway; maybe they’re focusing on concert performance instead.
I’ve just analysed the concert line-up at the Fleadh for this year. Of the 145 instrumental musicians named in the programme, only 25% are female.
It is not my intention to bash the Fleadh – this male-oriented gender balance is typical of Irish traditional music programming. Ireland’s second biggest trad festival, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, had a line-up of 38% females this year.
In fact, all this data shines a positive light on the competitions in Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann: they seem to be an accessible platform for young women to perform instrumental music. When doing this research, I remembered a conversation with a female professional musician years ago: she confided in me that winning an All-Ireland title on her instrument gave her the affirmation, and a kickstart, to ‘go pro’.
However, this is the current situation: 41% of the 2018 senior All-Ireland instrumental champions are female, but only 25% of the instrumental musicians who got a gig at the 2019 All-Ireland Fleadh were female. At least 43% of the adult trad musicians in Galway are female, but only 14% of them are playing in sessions.
Is this a problem? If it is, what’s causing it? How can we change it? My purpose in doing this research was to get some clarity for myself. I thank Liz Coleman for raising this issue; I hope for respectful, constructive discussions on this subject, where we all check our privilege, and really try to listen to one another.
But right now, I’m off to play a few tunes. The best of luck to all competing and performing at the Fleadh. Here’s hoping there’s a warm and welcoming attitude towards everyone there, regardless of gender.
 2018 Leaving Certificate Music, Higher Level: https://www.examinations.ie/misc-doc/BI-ST-55538710.pdf
2018 Leaving Certificate Music, Ordinary Level: https://www.examinations.ie/misc-doc/BI-ST-62521982.pdf