Martin Walton: Irish popular song
Martin Walton, Dubliner, music, Ireland
Historically, music printing and publishing in Ireland have been more concerned with satisfying demand for Irish and other music than with the promotion of works by indigenous composers. The first record of music printing specifically in Ireland dates from 1686 and rose to a peak in 1820 when more than twenty music printers, publishers and sellers operated in Dublin.
From the early 1920s Walton’s and An Gum served the burgeoning demands of post-independent Ireland by publishing much Irish music, particularly arrangements, a practice continued by numerous other publishers up until recent times.
Martin Walton (1901-1981)
Martin Walton, a Dubliner, became involved as a teenager in the movement for independence, and at fifteen took part in the Easter Rising of 1916. He was interned at Ballykinlar Camp in Co. Down, and formed and taught the camp orchestra there. During his imprisonment he was involved in discussions about setting up an Irish School of Music under an Irish Government with some musical and other fellow internees.
On his release Walton worked as secretary to Senator Martin Fitzgerald, but he never lost sight of his musical ambitions. He also worked as a violinist and musical arranger for cinemas and, with a combination of musical knowledge and business acumen, began laying the foundations of what would become, and still remains, a successful and extensive range of commercial music activities. In 1924 he established the Dublin College of Music in North Frederick Street and began a retail music business there.
A gold medal violinist, he founded Waltons Music Shop in Dublin. From humble beginnings, he had started teaching from a small room in 4 North Frederick Street, supplementing his teaching earnings by playing violin and organising orchestras around Dublin for the silent movies. During the 1920s he began selling violins and other instruments and in the 1930s, began publishing Irish songs and music. By the 1950s he had started the famous Glenside record label and the much-loved Waltons music programme which always finished with the words: “If you do feel like singing, do sing an Irish song”.
As the North Frederick Street shop became more and more established it also became a mecca for visiting emigrants who would buy all the new music publications and carry them to areas of Irish settlement throughout the world, and especially to Britain and the United States.
Waltons is now in its third generation as a family run business. The Walton family, together with the Castle Hotel, decided to restore the fine terrace of five Georgian houses. It is also the home of Waltons Music Store, a name synonymous with Irish music and Dublin’s vibrant Irish music culture.
Set in the city’s busy thoroughfare, Castle Hotel and Waltons is a place where visitors to Dublin can savour the unique atmosphere of traditional Irish culture that Martin Walton first started to create in 1923. His sheet music with lyrics of Irish songs decorates the walls and rooms of the hotel and a coloured harp is a feature set in the paved entrance to this most historic building.
Irish popular song
The history of Irish popular song in the English language is not a very long one. English was only in the process of becoming the language of common currency in Ireland during the eighteenth century and it only became dominant in the second half of the nineteenth. But in spite of its relatively recent origins an enormous body of Irish popular song was created during these two centuries and the twentieth century.
The writers of the songs were aiming at an increasing English-speaking constituency within Ireland, and also at an audience in Britain and, especially after the Famine, at a large audience in the United States. Their motives were mixed: personal, cultural, political, and commercial.
The first major writer of Irish popular songs was the poet and musician Thomas Moore (1779-1852), a Dublin grocer’s son who was one of the first Catholics to attend university, and who belonged to that English-speaking professional world which began to emerge in Ireland with the abatement of the Penal Laws.
Moore published his commercial and critically successful Irish Melodies, a ten-volume series begun in 1808 with an additional supplement in 1834 that established him as the national poet. They were popular also in translation throughout Europe. Samuel Lover (1797-1868), a Dublin contemporary of Thomas Moore, was famous in the Ireland of his day as artist, author and songwriter. He wrote some 300 songs and many librettos and musicals. He toured America and England with ‘Irish Evenings’ … pleasing his audience.
More successful over time than Samuel Lover and many another nineteenth century professional song writer was the political group of songwriters associated in the 1840s with the Young Ireland movement and its newspaper The Nation. Led by Cork born poet and cultural nationalist, Thomas Davis (1814-1845), they rejected the languishing melodies and the cloudy rhetoric of Thomas Moore’s patriotic songs and replaced them by vigorous martial tunes and plainer, more direct lyrics designed to appeal to a mass audience, that set the style for patriotic ballads for the next seventy or eighty years.
Not all political popular songs however are Green. There is a very substantial body of Orange song, most of it written in the nineteenth century, and a lot of it is still seen as relevant to the politics of the twentieth century. It too is generally literary in language and has a history of publication in print, but it is not represented in the Walton publications which contain in song the views of mainstream nationalism.
A CD of ‘Glenside Irish Classics’ 2004 by Waltons (Publication Dept.), Dublin, contains a musical history and Selected Songs, with printed lyrics, from the Walton’s Radio Programmes. It recalls the once most famous sentence in Irish music:
“And remember, if you do feel like singing, do sing an Irish song”.
Ita Marguet, August 2008
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a visit to Dublin with a brief stay at Waltons Georgian house hotel, June 2008.