THE ASSOCIATION between Irish traditional music and gender disparity mightn’t be the first thing you think of when you hear the uilleann pipes play, but recent research by Dr Úna Monaghan suggests that the scene regularly “privileges the contribution of men” over women.
Dr Monaghan herself is an accomplished trad musician, composer and sound engineer, and discovered over the course of her research – carried out at Cambridge University between 2018 and 2019 – that a significant proportion of other experienced female musicians have faced regular discrimination, sexism and ostracization throughout their careers.
In a paper published in Ethnomusicology Ireland titled ‘121 Stories: the impact of gender on participation in Irish traditional music’, Dr Monaghan compiled anecdotal evidence and witness testimony from over 80 Irish traditional musicians.
As is common in such spaces, some female musicians spoke to Dr Monaghan about their fear of vocalising their experiences, such was the culture of misogyny they faced.
“An agent… baulked when he heard I was getting married,” one woman said.
“He said I needed to let him know if I wanted to have children.”
Another musician – an accomplished fiddler – spoke of how her male colleagues would use her as a ‘prop’ in order to give their group a more modern feel.
“At one gig… my fiddle [was] unplugged so I was basically miming throughout the gig,” she said.
“It was humiliating.”
Yet another musician told Dr Monaghan about how a male tutor had suggested she participate in a competition as ‘eye candy’ for her group, as many of the judges were reputed to be men.
Across the board, there were reports of being subjected to ‘sexual innuendo’ and of being labelled, ‘fiery or a battle-axe or a handful’ when trying to defend oneself against abuse.
Most women in the workplace will recognise this exact problem over a range of industries, and sadly it isn’t uncommon to hear reports of being alienated from a ‘boys' club’, inappropriate behaviour manifesting in sexual harassment, or being made to feel uncomfortable by male ‘banter’.
A staggering eleven of the 83 responses to Dr Monaghan's study detailed explicit sexual assault, and a further sixteen recounted sexual harassment.
In one instance, a musician spoke of her horror when her manager stuffed a wad of cash down her bra ‘in full view of everyone’ after she had requested payment.
Ultimately Dr Monaghan found that, “Although the complexity of this issue makes it difficult to define and address, it does mean that everyone is in a position to help bring about change.”
69 of the respondents to Dr Monaghan's research were women and 72 regarded themselves as experienced or expert musicians, indicating that the problem has been around for many years and is long overdue a reckoning to bring it into the 21st Century.
Overall, around two-thirds of respondents were from Ireland.