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Irish Traditional Music and the Great Recession: Living and Working in the Irish Arts Sector after 2008


Ireland’s entry into an €85 billion bailout agreement with the tripartite entity known as the “Troika” (IMF-EC-ECB) in 2008 placed the Republic of Ireland under obligation to undergo a comprehensive economic adjustment program between 2010 and 2013. The reforms that followed from this period led the country on a characteristically neoliberal policy trajectory involving significant transformations in Ireland’s national arts infrastructure. This dissertation draws upon eleven months of fieldwork in Ireland and over forty interviews in order to examine how the recession and subsequent adjustment program affected the livelihoods and working conditions of Irish traditional musicians.

As part of the resulting analysis, I explain how the process of structural adjustment led to severe cuts in the public subsidies available to traditional musicians and reoriented national policy further in line with art commodification. This involved a shift from a traditional European model of arts funding, in which the principal support modality is direct subsidy maximization, towards a more American arts funding model, emphasizing the need for artists to act entrepreneurially and to deepen engagement with the private market. The Great Recession also involved heightened attempts among policymakers to leverage traditional music and other Irish arts towards foreign investment and tourism revenue. These dynamics deepened the gap between core supports for traditional musicians and expenditure on cultural programming intended to market or “sell” Ireland abroad.

This dissertation synthesizes the above observations towards three general commentaries on neoliberal structural adjustment and its impact upon Irish musicians. First, I argue that Ireland’s structural adjustment process exemplifies what Naomi Klein (2007) has called “disaster capitalism,” a term she uses to describe the phenomenon in which economic crises are seized upon as opportunities to deepen neoliberal policy within various societies. Second, I argue that the expansion of neoliberal ideas into the domain of the Irish arts was principally facilitated by late 20th century ideas about the “creative economy,” which augmented state interest in traditional music as a means to develop foreign investment throughout the recession. Lastly, I draw upon Karl Marx (1990 [1867]) and Marcel Mauss’s (2002 [1925]) writings on value to show how Irish traditional musicians experienced structural adjustment in terms of a “devaluation” of Irish arts.

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