Grace Toland: The Irish Traditional Music Archive & The Inishowen Song Project

published under CC-BY-SA license


In 2008 the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) began publishing digitised materials on its website. Digitisation and web publishing provide the archive with a means of giving world wide access to a selection of its extensive sound, print, video, still image & manuscript collections. To-date the ITMA Digital Library contains 3,839 digital items – sound, print, images, videos & interactive music scores - with accompanying metadata, PDFs (where possible) and brief contextual essays. ITMA's digital metadata is harvested regularly by Europeana and made available via the portal. In 2011, a local Donegal development organisation, the Inishowen Traditional Singers' Circle (ITSC) approached ITMA with a proposal to use its Digital Library to host local audio & video field recordings of traditional singers and accompanying material. With Leader funding The Inishowen Song Project (ISP) was completed in March 2013. The ISP microsite now gives free searchable access to 524 audio recordings, 75 videos; images/info on 157 singers and downloadable PDFs of 599 songs.

The following text gives an overview of ITMA's Digital Library and a case study on the Inishowen Song Project with its structure, content and potential as a resource locally and internationally.



ITMA, Dublin
ITMA, Dublin ©ITMA

Since its foundation in 1987, the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) has grown to become the largest collection in existence of materials relating to Irish traditional song, instrumental music and dance. Its premises, an historic Georgian house in the heart of Dublin, hold the physical collections of sound recordings, printed items, manuscripts, still and moving images, and digital files, reflecting the contemporary and historical output of the traditional arts. A relatively young organisation in archival terms, ITMA, has concentrated on collecting the significant multimedia materials of Irish traditional music, and to make a representative collection of the traditional music of other countries. These are preserved securely for present use and for future generations through appropriate archival storage and increasingly by digitisation. A central database holds catalogue records for all the media in the collection and is populated by ITMA staff with specialist knowledge of the traditional arts. The collection is open free of charge to anyone with an interest in Irish traditional music, providing reading, listening, viewing facilities as well as copying within the limitations of copyright law.

Printed Items Images Manuscripts Sound Recordings
Printed Items Images Manuscripts Sound Recordings


ITMA online

ITMA has had a web presence since 1994, but increasingly since 2008, it has embraced the potential offered by web technology, digitisation and social media to extend access beyond its physical premises to a worldwide audience. With this in mind, in 2011, it launched a major re-design and upgrade of its website to give access to: a Digital Library with enhanced audio output and visual display; a Web OPAC; interactive learning scores; a Recent Publications & Acquisitions listing; an online shop, and direct access to social media and other information. Web analytics and social media statistics have endorsed ITMA's belief that collectively combined, its physical and virtual collections are improving the quality and breadth of access to Irish traditional music resources.

ITMA website home page ITMA Public Access Room
ITMA website home page ©ITMA ITMA Public Access Room ©ITMA

While visiting 73 Merrion Square gives full access to the richness of the collections, the website aims to provide a taster of all the media, and indeed enhanced access to some elements of the collections. In its Online Collections selections of digitised materials from its audio, video, image, manuscript and print collections are made available. Uploaded on a bi-monthly basis, the user can choose to browse thematic playlists, galleries and printed collections with contextual notes, or view items individually with accompanying metadata. Interactive Scores provide users with the ability to see and play back traditional music scores from historical collections in lots of user-friendly ways, providing an ideal learning environment. The Online Collections now contain 1000+ sound recordings, 370 videos, 4,500+ interactive scores, and 1000+ images.

ITMA Online Collections Toland image 9
ITMA Online Collections ©ITMA ITMA Interactive Scores ©ITMA


With its experience in digital curation becoming increasingly visible, ITMA was approached in 2012 by a local traditional music organisation, the Inishowen Traditional Singers' Circle (ITSC) with a proposal to digitise and host online field recordings of traditional singers from Co. Donegal. Over a period of two years, and with funding from Leader, the Rural Development Programme through Inishowen Development Partnership ITMA & ITSC co-operated to create a new digital template, The Inishowen Song Project: a unique 2,000-item online microsite presenting 250+ traditional singers, 600+ songs of the Inishowen Peninsula, Co. Donegal, and incorporating digital sound and video recordings, books, photographs, transcriptions of song texts, and metadata for each item.


Inishowen Song Project home page

Inishowen Song Project home page ©ITMA



Inishowen peninsula

Inishowen peninsulaCC
BY-SA 3.0

The Inishowen Peninsula, in Co. Donegal is an area with a recognised rich tradition of unaccompanied traditional singing in the English language. With the song legacy of aging singers in danger of being undocumented, local song collector, Jimmy McBride, began a programme of field recording in the 1980s to capture singers and songs at a pivotal point in the life of this oral tradition. He recorded singers on audio cassette and video in their homes, local pubs and at the annual Inishowen International Folk Song and Ballad Seminar. He published two song collections, lectured, and broadcast using examples from the collection, and made individual copies of recordings for performers and researchers. Access and widespread knowledge of the recordings remained limited until digital technology provided the means to make a local collection available on a national platform. Jimmy McBride's generosity in handing over the collection to the Inishowen Traditional Singers' Circle and the Irish Traditional Music Archive was instrumental in achieving this aim.

Singing Session

Singing Session in Brass Rail Bar, Buncrana, Inishowen Co. Donegal, March 1991 ©Ken Garland



The process

The audio cassettes, videos, published books, and photographs were moved to Dublin and digitised in-house by ITMA staff. The audio cassettes were converted to wav files, tracked, and converted to web friendly MP3s. Printed song collections were scanned as high resolution jpegs, converted to low resolution jpegs for viewing online and then to PDFs to allow users to download the publications. Images were treated similarly with high resolution jpegs reduced to web friendly versions to view online. The digitisation of the videos was outsourced and .mov files were converted to MP4s and uploaded to the ITMA YouTube Channel for online viewing. Metadata was created for each audio and video track, including titles, performers, place, date and time of recording. Specialist fields were populated with international song indentification data ie Roud numbers. This 'linked data', created and maintained by Steve Roud and available online via The English Folk Song and Dance Society, allocates a unique number to link songs which while differing in title and local interpretation are in essence the same song. In this way, the local repertoire from Inishowen was linked with existing sources and placed within the wider English language ballad tradition across Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. Staff listened to the individual recordings and transcriptions were made of the 600 songs in the collection, added as metadata to the individual record and made available as PDF downloads. Biographies of 200 singers were written and photographs attached to create a rich picture of the community.

The digital objects were uploaded to Amazon (AWS) and metadata entered in the ITMA Content Management System, Expression Engine. In the design of the microsite ITSC and ITMA worked together to ensure the Inishowen material could be searched and explored as a unit or as part of the overall ITMA Online Collections. Singers, songs, videos and publications were chosen as the homepage access points allowing listings and relationships to be established. Audio and video playlists provided another browsing aspect and were created from the order of songs in the published books. Jimmy McBride had a third publication in pre-production and it was decided to make this available as a digital publication available to download as a PDF. The aim overall was to present the digital items in context for users at a variety of levels while respecting the performers and the tradition they represent.


Using the Inishowen Song Project

Each singer has a page with his/her songs listed and linked to either the audio or video performance. A photograph and short biography are provided, and relationships with other singers in the Project are hyperlinked in the description. For example, Charlie McGonigle (James Eoghain) is linked to his brothers, sisters, wife and children who are all singers and can be heard on the site.

Inishowen Song Project

Inishowen Song Project ©ITMA

By selecting one of Charlie's songs, e.g. Castle Gardens, the user can listen and read the words on screen,

Inishowen Song Project

Inishowen Song Project ©ITMA

And view the accompanying metadata, including the hyper linked Roud number previously discussed. The song is also linked to its Playlist.

Toland image 15

Inishowen Song Project ©ITMA

Alternatively the song title Castle Gardens can be selected from the alphabetical listing of songs and the user is brought to the sound or video recording Toland image 16

Inishowen Song Project ©ITMA

The published song collections are now made freely available to view online and to download as PDFs, as are the individual song texts from the listening page.

Inishowen Song Project Inishowen Song Project
Inishowen Song Project ©ITMA  


Impact of the Inishowen Song Project

The Inishowen Song Project has gained local, national and international attention as a resource for singers, music researchers, and the general public and at a variety of levels of engagement.

For many local singers and their families, it has provided the first opportunity to hear or see the field recordings and for many grandchildren the opportunity to hear and see their grandparents sing.

Songs from the Project are now being relearned by a new generation of singers but transmission is no longer limited to geographical or temporal factors. Local children are learning songs, singers in Germany, the United States and Dublin are learning songs, all sourced online.

Locally it has impacted in endorsing the reputation of the local singing tradition, providing demonstrable evidence of what can be described as intangible heritage. Many of the songs and singers recorded and made available online would have remained unknown and undocumented in either text or recording. It has made a tangible resource from an aspect of cultural heritage which has until now been hard to 'describe' without open access to the actual sound and video recordings.

New recordings, images and information have been received from other singers, family members and collectors, and added to the microsite.

It has been especially important in establishing a new digital curation and funding model for the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Small organisations such as ITSC can avail of the expertise and platform which ITMA affords, rather than creating expensive once-off sites which may not prove sustainable in terms of technology or data entry. For this reason in 2014, the Góilín Traditional Singers Club in Dublin successfully sourced Arts Council of Ireland funding to create the Góilín Song Project providing access to 700 songs and 250+ singers from across the island of Ireland. Both Song Projects are contributing to ITMA's growing international reputation as a single access point for information on English language traditional song. Both ITSC and the Góilín Traditional Singers Club benefitted by their material being included in a wider contextual model and from the exposure gained from being part of the ITMA network. The model was also used to curate information about one of Ireland's most important figures in the study of Irish traditional music, P.W. Joyce. Working in collaboration with the National Library of Ireland and Dublin City Archives, the microsite makes available his published and manuscript works, and also reformats these traditional resources as Interactive Learning Scores.

It has been cited in a number of publications of both popular and academic interest and was at the centre of a forum on digital song transmission From Granny to Google, along with Tobar an Dualchais (Scotland), Library of Congress (USA) and the Joe Heaney Archive (Ireland) in 2013.

It provides a new resource model for researchers other than traditional printed text and sound recordings. It exposes researchers to richer metadata and provides opportunities for crowdsourcing and data enrichment on an ongoing basis. Previously undocumented information about song writers has been especially useful.

The Inishowen Song Project Tour is visiting 4 third-level educational institutions across the island of Ireland as well as the Irish Traditional Music Archive in February 2015. Funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, the project will be presented to music students as an audiovisual presentation but will also include live performances from contemporary traditional singers from Inishowen. The tour hopes to increase knowledge and use of the site as well as contributing to participation in traditional singing.

The Inishowen Song Project will continue to grow and develop with new functionality and content being added. Plans include: an educational app; interactive maps; timeline; thematic listings; increased crowd sourcing projects; addition of new recordings, including video interviews, and an online videocast to introduce users to the Project and to help them navigate and use the resources available. Digital technology and the expertise of the ITMA allows the Inishowen Traditional Singers' Circle to look forward to a rich partnership which will see the Inishowen Song Project continue to grow and develop in the coming years.


About the Author

Grace Toland

Grace Toland has been working as Librarian in the Irish Traditional Music Archive since 2007. As a practising traditional singer, this position is a happy marriage of work and her passion for the traditional arts. Her role in ITMA is to monitor and advise on the full range of information processes, from accession to storage, description to user access, that are associated with a multimedia archive. With this remit comes active involvement in multimedia digitisation, metadata standards and web publishing. Grace has been a key player in bringing to fruition The Inishowen Song Project, a new contextual microsite dedicated to Donegal singers and songs. With a great belief in accessibility and information sharing, Grace liaises with Europeana and other agencies to develop networks and platforms to share Irish traditional music with the widest audience possible.

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