Did Irish jazz survive and thrive, beyond Ireland’s 1934 Anti-Jazz Campaign?

Jazz in Ireland, as in many parts of the world, has been afflicted with a controversial history. From the earliest days of its hybrid introductions in 1920s parish dance halls, it attracted the ire and ridicule of suspicious church leaders, government ministers and community elders. This exotic new genre, transmitted by musicians travelling back and forth between Ireland and the US, where the burgeoning jazz genre was developing, posed a threat to the narrative of Irish revivalist nationalism and cultural Catholicism which the new Irish ‘Free State’ wanted to promote.

I have researched the early period of jazz music in Ireland; its reception by the government and the ‘Anti-Jazz movement which had emerged by the early 1930s. I have sought to understand the political and social context of the time when the first mention of ‘jazz music’ appears in historical records and have researched several Irish musicians of note, spanning the period from the earliest jazz-influenced dance-hall players, to session musicians who began to attract international notice in the 1950s and 60s, to the scholars of the latter period who teach new generations of Irish jazz musicians today. The aim of my research is to understand the impact of the anti-jazz movement in Ireland, which saw the broadcasting of jazz suppressed for decades after its initial launch and how in spite of this, the evolution of jazz took place.

The period following the formation of the Irish ‘Free State’, in 1922, was one of political and social turmoil. Ireland had been under British rule for some 800 years and the transition to Irish rule caused considerable debate and concern over what it meant to be Irish. However, music played a key role in Irish identity and culture and had traditionally been a fixture of Irish public and private life (Johnson 1995:48).

After the Famine of the 1840s, in which millions died or were forced to emigrate, there had been a dramatic decline in the spoken Irish language. By the latter part of the 19th century, the situation was so dire that a cultural revivalist movement was formed, called the Gaelic League. The Gaelic League tasked itself with preserving Irish culture and heritage, with Irish music being a key priority. The new government in 1922, focussed on its nation-building project, wanted to control the population by using the narratives of Irishness and cultural cohesion. It was around this time that a dramatic shift towards extreme Catholicism and conservatism began in Ireland. (Hogan: 2010: 58).

In this context and against a backdrop of a violent civil war between opposing political parties, there began a new and often extreme phase of protectionism and suspicion of all things ‘foreign’. It was in this setting that a paranoia began to manifest itself against a perceived threat posed by unsupervised dancing of any kind in the social gatherings of young Irish people (Duffy 2009: 2). It was also this time, in the early 20th century, that enormous technological changes were taking place and Irish people had access to radio, recording and cinema like never before (Stanley 2018: 233).

The growing hysteria around jazz in the 1920s and 30s reached a climax in 1934, when on New Years’ Day, the Anti-Jazz Movement took to the streets of Limerick for a protest, an event at which the Finance Minister, Sean O’Ceallagh, was criticised by the speaker for “jazzing the soul of the nation away” (Stanley 2020: 231). However, Ireland was not unfamiliar with ‘foreign’ music. The first exposure Irish audiences had of African-American music was much earlier, with the travelling American shows of the 19th century being a somewhat regular visiting feature, but the links between minstrelsy, ragtime and jazz are often downplayed in historical narratives (Evans 2108: 6)

To understand the bizarre attitudes to jazz when it first arrived in Ireland, it’s constructive to examine the socio-cultural environment of the time and the almost perfect storm the arrival of ‘the Jazz’ created. The idea of jazz as ‘foreign’, or a colonial, exotic influence, was a message powerfully delivered by the church and state in Ireland from the 1920s onwards. The new state leaders were anxious to rebrand Irishness and an oppositional structural narrative formed between Irish catholic virtue and the dangerous and sensual elements of jazz. This narrative appealed to politicians of the time, who promoted an Irish dance called the Céilí (pronounced kay-lee) as wholesome, virtuous and nationalistic. Foley explains the Céilí was a hybrid Scottish-Irish dance form, reimagined to represent a nationalistic ideological agenda from the late nineteenth century onwards, for a culturally unified Ireland (Foley 2011: 43).

This kind of protectionist nationalism nurtured essentialist ideas of Irishness in opposition to all things different and jazz was condemned in explicitly racist terms as the “hectic pleasures of the dance hall…negroid importations, earthy, sensual and devilish” (Dr McNamee, Bishop of Ardagh, cited in (Hogan: 2010: 71).

The prevailing negative attitudes to jazz also directly impacted the broadcasting of national radio station, 2RN which had been inaugurated in 1926. The passing of the Dance Hall Act in 1935, as a direct response to the Anti-Jazz Movement, saw a government mandate banning any form of jazz to be broadcast of the national radio service. This effectively, closed off a significant proportion of Irish society from exposure to jazz, a situation that persisted for several decades. The Dance Hall Act made it illegal to hold dances without a permit; and one would not be issued to jazz musicians. However, despite this, a grassroots jazz movement continued under the surface in Irish society. In a topography which made it difficult for police to navigate dark, country roads by bike, many jazz house parties took place where the music was transmitted and disseminated between musicians and their audiences. This was largely in keeping with the Irish custom of keeping music performance and aural tradition in the home (Ó hAllmhuráin 2005:17).

There are several notable figures in the history of Irish jazz, although there are limited resources available about several of them and much of their histories have been orally transmitted down through generations. Many also emigrated and assimilated into their host country’s music scene and brought their Irish musical sensibilities with them.

Jazz guitarist, Louis Stewart (1944 – 2016), is a very influential figure in Irish jazz, who appeared on the scene in the 1950s, releasing several albums and courting international acclaim. Many consider Stewart to be the first ‘real’ Irish jazz musician and one of the best guitarists in the world. He turned down a scholarship to Berkeley University in the 1960s, preferring to raise his family in Dublin. He was a regular Sunday session player in the historical JJ’s club in Dublin. JJ Smyth’s was considered in Dublin as being the historical “representative of the mainstream jazz scene”. (Evans 2016: 107)

Ronan Guilfoyle (b 1958) is another highly influential character in Irish jazz; a contemporary of Stewart and a fellow guitarist, he is the founder of the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin and is currently Director of Jazz Performance at DCU (Dublin City University).

The earliest known recording of Irish jazz is in the possession of Guilfoyle, a performance of On the Sunny Side of the Street and Honeysuckle Rose 78 rpm disc released in 1949 by the label, the Irish Recording Company. Musicians featured included alto saxophonist, Kevin O’Doherty (who went on to be a mainstream band leader in the 1960s and became known in the Irish vernacular as ‘King of the Sax’), pianist Niall Nelson, Paddy Walsh on string bass and Darryl Burrowes on drums. In 2019, its first public playback was streamed online to an audience of jazz scholars and fans, as part of the first ‘Documenting Jazz’ conference in Ireland.

Guilfoyle has promoted the idea of Stewart being the first ‘real’ jazz musician in Ireland (Evans 2016:5), an assertion Evans rejects as “part of the narrative that values jazz as an art form equal in cultural stature…such as literature and classical music”. He argues, instead, that the evolution of jazz in Ireland, as elsewhere, has occurred in tandem with other forms of popular music and often without clear dividing lines. (Evans 2016: 5).

There are evidences of the presence of jazz practitioners in Ireland from as early as 1918 (Evans 2016:7) although they would have played music that perhaps might not be easily recognised as ‘jazz’ today. The Southern Syncopated Orchestra had a residency at the La Scala theatre in Dublin from 1921 and has the special place in Irish jazz history of being the group that brought Sidney Bechet to Europe (Evans 2016: 9).

Indeed, the study into Irish jazz is offering up a boon for modern musicologists, particularly in the area of the gendered Irish legacy of jazz; a problem not unique to Ireland. While there are few women who have been documented in Irish jazz, there are some remarkable examples.

Josephine Alexandra “Zandra” Mitchell (1903-1995) has started to attract the interest and attention of jazz historians. She was the first female professional saxophonist in Ireland, who played with Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins. Mitchell, a Dubliner, toured Europe extensively during the 1920s and 30s with bands including her own Baby Mitchell’s Queens of Jazz, eventually settling in Berlin, where she remained for the duration of WW2. Returning to Ireland in 1949, she lived as a recluse in a family home in the north of Ireland, where she died in 1995. While I was unable to find any audio records of her playing her instrument, a small number of accounts and photographs exist. Mitchell’s life and music is discussed in just one scholarly source, which references Irish jazz women of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, respectively:

“While this summary of jazz in Ireland does little to change the near absence of women in documented Irish jazz history, I do wish to bring attention to the stories of women such as Josephine Mitchell, Ismay Browne and Bridie Howitt.” Evans (2016: 19)

Modern scholars are starting to investigate Mitchell’s music and life story, with a number travelling to the remote village where she lived the remainder of her life, to speak to her surviving friends and view her lovingly preserved instruments.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is such a dearth of scholarly information about Mitchell and her contemporaries in Ireland. It’s only been in recent decades that jazz has become widely embraced in Irish culture, largely due to the free transmission of music on the Internet.

It is my view that despite the organised efforts of church leaders and parliamentarians, which continued well into the 1960s and beyond, jazz was ultimately embraced in Ireland and has evolved from its beginnings in the local dance halls of Irish parishes, to nurture generations of musicians. A revival of jazz interest and academic scholarship in Ireland also offers opportunities to research and document Irish jazz history.

There is a thriving jazz scene in Dublin and around the country today, as well as leading jazz performance courses at the Irish universities, but it is difficult to quantify how much the musical landscape has been affected because of the earlier ban on jazz. In the first instance, it could be argued that a lack of exposure in the mainstream, due to the suppression of the transmission of jazz on national airways, must have affected the process of learning by osmosis that musicians tend to undergo. The actions by the church and state had, arguably, a profound effect on the perception of jazz in Ireland, but it’s not clear – at least yet – what the legacy might ultimately be, because of this interference with the freedom of musical expression in Ireland. As with other areas of Irish nationality and culture, jazz can be viewed as a musical expression of resistance and resilience for the Irish people. It is my view that the new curiosity of Irish people towards their own jazz history will provide a fertile plain for research and collaboration, musically, academically and socially.

Dani Malone


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