Music has a unique power to connect people from all walks of life. It would be rare to find a community or culture worldwide where music did not feature in traditions, celebrations, or assertions of identity. In centuries past, music and storytelling were entwined, and it featured at the core of communities across the island. Music was not solely a form of entertainment as many see it now. Instead, it was used to share stories, experiences, and emotions and, through this, a strong oral tradition developed that still exists today. Lyrics recounted historical events, folktales and used traditional melodies. In turn, these songs were passed down from generation to generation from memory and incredibly any of these stories and melodies can still be found in the ‘trad’ songs we know today.
Crucially, music also ‘connects you to your own identity’. Here in Northern Ireland, music – as an overt expression of cultural identity – can be equally unifying and divisive depending on the situation. In this week’s blog post we’re exploring the history and importance of music in the communities that make up the North Belfast Heritage Cluster and how they each use music to connect to their own communities and to others.
The history of music and the way it has shaped our Cluster members is perhaps most evident in our religious buildings. Music plays a vital role in religious spaces and ceremonies. Traditionally, hymns and gospels have been used in worship to connect the congregation with God, to express love for God and to fulfil the commandment to worship and praise Him.
Religious melodies are distinctive, not least in the instruments associated with them. Instruments, such as the organ and the human voice, quickly identify hymns and create a distinctive and emotive tone. Today, Belfast Cathedral own the second largest pipe organ in Northern Ireland, commissioned from the world-renowned Durham based firm Harrison & Harrison in 1907. However, the first organist to play on the site was William Ware in 1781, when he became organist for the old parish church of St Anne’s. The organ of St Mary’s Church on the Crumlin Road is similarly historic. It was built by Cramer Wood & Co in London and dates to 1870!
For the Quakers, the inclusion of music in worship has caused some debate. In the early years of the Quaker movement, music was not seen as a way of expressing your faith but instead as a diversion that would take people away from spiritual life. Singing psalms and hymns during worship was considered an empty form that got in the way of God directing worship spontaneously. This opposition to musical instruments and choral singing gradually disappeared during the 19th century, but even today any Quakers do not typically include music in their worship.
Eighteenth and early nineteenth century:
During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Irish musicians developed a concerted effort to document traditional Irish folk music and record rural culture. This movement culminated in what is known as ‘The Gaelic revival’ – the national revival of interest in the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture – in the late-nineteenth century. One such musician was Edward Bunting (1773-1843) who first arrived in Belfast in 1784 to begin his apprenticeship with William Ware, the organist of St Anne’s Church. For the next thirty-five years, Bunting lodged with Mary Ann McCracken in Donegall Street.
In 1792, Bunting was appointed to transcribe the songs played at the Belfast Harper’s Festival, which aimed to ‘revive and perpetuate the Ancient Music and Poetry of Ireland’ and to recover ‘airs not to be found in any public collection’. Bunting’s childhood in rural Armagh had instilled in him a love of traditional Irish music and he journeyed to the remotest parts of Ulster, Connaught and Munster to transcribe traditional melodies. In 1797, Bunting successfully published his first collection of Irish harp music, which included 66 compositions that had been documented for the first time. Two further collections followed in 1809 and 1840. Without Bunting’s work many traditional melodies – typically learned and passed down from memory – may have been lost forever.
Music in Belfast was also influenced by newcomers. On 20th February 1819, Vincenzo Guerini purchased a plot in the ‘New Burying Ground’ at Clifton Street Cemetery. Guerini had arrived in Belfast from Naples via Dublin in 1806. He advertised in the Belfast Newsletter that he taught Italian, piano, singing and would ‘instruct gentlemen in the art of violin playing’. Guerini was also active in the social life of Belfast and the formation of the Belfast Anacreontic Society (a popular gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians founded in the eighteenth century). In 1814, he became the leader of their band. Guerini was involved with the Society for several years and led the Society’s orchestra when it played for the pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s visit to the Exchange Rooms in 1824. Guerini’s musical accomplishments demonstrate the influence of migrant communities on Belfast’s musical offerings.
During the Victorian era, the art of music emerged as a respectable pastime. The North Belfast Working Men’s Club (opened in 1894) was founded on temperance principles which aimed to maintain ‘…social order by providing workers with an alternative to the tavern’. All recreational activities had to promote ‘mental and moral improvement’. Henry Solly, the founder of English Working Men’s Clubs during the 1860s, supported the inclusion of music in suitable recreational activities, stating that ‘they were all aware of its elevating and refining influences’.
One of the most obvious examples of how music is used to celebrate cultural identity is the Orange Order. The annual Twelfth of July parade, which commemorates King William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, is the signature event of the Orange Order’s annual calendar. Clifton Street Orange Hall is the meeting point for several district lodges which then merge in the city centre for the main march to Barnett Demesne. During the march, each lodge is accompanied by a marching band, often a flute band but also be a fife and drum, silver, brass, or accordion bands. An instrument almost unique to these marches is the Lambeg drum.
Popular songs played during the event include Derry’s Walls and The Sash, which is a ballad commemorating King William III’s victory during the Williamite wars in Ireland (1689–1691). Interestingly, the melody on which The Sash is based was taken from My Irish Molly-Oh, a nineteenth-century Irish American music hall song. This example highlights the importance of music in representing different cultural identities whilst equally demonstrating the contradictions in such rigid identities.
The Jewish community first established itself in Belfast during the 1850s by German linen merchants, including the Jaffe family. Music has formed a central role in Jewish life since biblical times and continues today to play an important role in Jewish religious and cultural experiences today. While some elements of Jewish music may originate in biblical times, differences in rhythm and sound can be found among later Jewish communities that have been musically influenced by location. Jewish music has been constantly adapting to new conditions and yet retaining its identity in many widely differing ethnic, social, and religious environments.Jewish music tends to blend unique elements with aspects that reflect the cultures in which Jews have lived, composed, played instruments and sung. There is a variety of different genres of Jewish music, which reflects the different locations the community has lived, including Israeli, Klezmer and Yiddish.
Music also holds an important place in Indian culture. It symbolises India’s diversity in cultural, linguistic, and religious terms and embodies the historical tides that have shaped its contemporary pluralism. Music permeates all aspects of cultural life in India, singing and dancing have a visible role in the home, on the streets, at the temple, at social events and in festive celebrations. Due to India’s vastness and diversity, Indian music encompasses numerous genres and has a history spanning several millennia. The Indian Community Centre regularly organises cultural events to celebrate Indian culture, including traditional music and dancing, and allow the public to learn more about India’s diverse culture. This week is the annual ArtsEkta Belfast Mela festival (23rd to 29th August) which celebrates the diverse cultures and music found across India!
These examples of the different communities migrating into Belfast highlight how important music is in celebrating and maintaining cultural identity and traditions when moving to a new home. t also shows that as communities have moved across the world that their culture and music are shaped by the places that they are living.
Today in Belfast there is a growing emphasis on supporting and promoting local musicians. St Malachy’s College has a reputation for musical excellence and boasts many respected musical alumni, including Kevin Mallon (Conductor and Violinist), Professor Michael d’Arcy (Violinist and Leader of Camerata Ireland) and Peter McCarthy (Musical Director). One of the aims of the Duncairn 174 Trust and the Duncairn Centre is to showcase, support and develop the work of young emerging local artists. This support for local artists was demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic with a weekly virtual cabaret night, which aimed to use art and music to bring happiness to the local community during a period of much uncertainty and, crucially, provide a much-needed lifeline to artists and musicians.
Music continues to play an important role in local culture today. Though musical trends may have changed over the centuries, the significance it holds in our society has not. From the eighteenth century right through to today, we have noted the importance of supporting and preserving traditional melodies and promoting local artists. As the recent pandemic has shown, music still has the power to bring people together.
As an overt expression of cultural identity, music can also be divisive in Northern Ireland. Over time, certain melodies, lyrics, and even instruments have become affiliated with different sections of the community despite common origins. Crucially, while music ‘connects you to your own identity’ it also helps you to connect with others and music continues to play an important role in our Cluster members’ communities today.
 Gwendolyn Woods, ‘Why is music important in every culture’ (https://fghsnews.com/2615/diversity/why-music-is-important-in-every-culture/).
 Mary McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770-1866: a Belfast panorama (Dublin, 1960), pp 57-8.
 Michael Heaney, ‘Bunting, Edward (1773-1843)’ (https://www-oxforddnb-com.queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-3946?rskey=j2yyWu&result=1).
 Richard N. Price, ‘The Working men’s club movement and Victorian social reform ideology’ in Victorian Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (December 1971), p. 122.