Archive in Focus: The Irish Traditional Music Archive

This month’s Archive in Focus blog explores the fantastic work done by the Irish Traditional Music Archive to collect material from all over Ireland. Archivist Maeve Gebruers discusses the work undertaken in the archive and their wide-ranging collection.

The Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) is the national public archive and resource centre for Irish traditional music, song and dance, and the globally-recognised specialist advisory agency to advance appreciation, knowledge, and the practice of Irish traditional music. Established in 1987 it is funded by the Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. ITMA’s collections are housed in 73 Merrion Square, Dublin, courtesy of the Irish Office of Public Works.

ITMA is a registered charity, with a staff of 11 full-time and part-time employees – the staff are selected because of their involvement in the traditional arts, both as practitioners or having a keen interest in the area. This influences greatly the way the archive works and engages with those interested in traditional music.

Fig. 1–3 Méabh Meir, singer – Danny Diamond, fiddle player – Irene Martin & Dan O’Connell, dancers

The guiding principles that inform what ITMA does are the pillars on which all archives are built. To collect all the significant materials of Irish traditional music. To preserve the materials collected indefinitely for present use and for future generations. To organise the materials and information in the collection and finally to make available as widely as possible the ITMA collections.

The ITMA collections are most definitely multimedia in nature reflecting how traditional music is ‘recorded’ in sound, print & image. ITMA collects all historic and contemporary formats.
The collections are acquired in a variety of ways including donation, copying, purchase, and by staff recording. Sound recordings include cylinders, 78s, SPs, EPs, LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, standard and DAT cassettes, CDs, and digital files. Printed items include ballad sheets, chapbooks, sheet music, song collections, instrumental and dance collections, music and contextual studies, reference works, periodicals, and ephemera such as programmes, catalogues, postcards, leaflets, posters and newspaper clippings. Visual items include prints and drawings, photographs and negatives, microfilms, video cassettes, DVDs and digital files. Also collected are manuscripts (music manuscripts, card indexes, research notes, letters, lecture scripts and typescript theses) and small artefacts such as badges, coins, statues and trinkets. Some musical instruments are held for the information of users. In recent years ITMA has acquired the personal papers of significant traditional musicians and researchers including virtuoso uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn (1945–2018) and harper, singer and Irish harp historian Gráinne Yeats (1925–2013).

Fig 4. Multimedia Collections at the Irish Traditional Music Archive

As well as the physical collections ITMA has a large holding of born digital material, including large volumes of digital surrogates created as a result of years of digitisation work carried out on our analogue audio/audio-visual collections, as well as our photographic and print collections. Our digital collections have grown to a size of just over 97+ terabytes. ITMA has invested large sums of public money in the creation and digitisation of collections and has been acutely aware of the importance of preserving this investment long-term. The long-term digital preservation of these files is a huge challenge for ITMA and creating the infrastructure to preserve a growing digital collection is now one of our key priorities.
ITMA is currently working with a company called Arkivum in the UK who are providing the organisation with a managed digital preservation and public access solution. The Arkivum Perpetua system is a fully-hosted, managed and integrated digital preservation and public access system, using open source Archivematica and AtoM services, coupled with Arkivum’s data safeguarding service.

Fig. 5 ITMA/Arkivum Digital Preservation Case study

ITMA works in a hybrid environment, we are an archive but we are also a library. We have two cataloguing systems in place a cloud-based Library Management System Soutron and an archival catalogue AtoM. Our catalogues contain very rich metadata particularly with regards to tune and song titles. We catalogue all media to content level in-house resulting in a database containing almost one million content items

ITMA makes its collections available in a number of different ways, first and foremost by making the materials accessible at our premises but also through hard copy publications, running events, lecturing, promoting our collections on social media and where possible making our collections available online.

Digital Library
ITMA has always been eager to explore and exploit technology since going online in 1993. ITMA’s digital library has been growing since it first went online in 2008. Due to copyright restrictions what is presented online is only a very small proportion of the collection.

Digital Exhibitions
A model which ITMA adopted under the digital library umbrella, were microsites, The Inishowen Song Project and Goilín Song Project are two such early examples. These sites are collaborative in nature and are an opportunity for ITMA to give context to large bodies of related material. In more recent years ITMA has developed an exhibition template which replaces the old microsite model. More recent exhibitions include: A Grand Time: The Song, Music and Dance of Newfoundland’s Cape Shore; Dusty Bluebells: Children’s Songs & Rhymes collected by Hugh Shields (1929–2008); and Furls of Music: The Michael McNamara Sound Collection.

Fig. 6. – Homepage of the digital exhibition Dusty Bluebells

International Image Interoperability Framework
Much of Ireland’s traditional music was collected in the 18th & 19th centuries and written down in manuscripts, some of these manuscripts were deposited in libraries and others are still held in private hands. ITMA is working with institutions and individuals to digitise these important music collections and make them available through our website. Working within the IIIF Framework (International Image Interoperability Framework) ITMA is providing the user with high definition access to these manuscripts. Two such examples are the ITMA/Trinity College Dublin James Goodman (1828–1896) manuscripts project, launched in 2016 and the Stephen Grier (c.1824–1894) manuscripts project, launched in 2019.

Fig 7. Morgiana in Ireland, jig. Stephen Grier Manuscripts. Book 5

The investment made by funders in digitisation programmes over the years has enabled ITMA’s digital door to remain open through-out this pandemic. The dissemination of digital collections has been extremely important during the past year. ITMA’s field recording programme began in the early 1990s and since then we have recorded annually at traditional music festivals and events all over the island of Ireland as well as in the UK and North America. All festivals were cancelled due to the pandemic. Using the richness of ITMA’s digital archive of field recordings, staff worked with festival organisers to fill the void left by these cancellations by providing archival recordings of past events which in turn were showcased at virtual festivals.
For example the Willie Clancy Summer School, Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school, held annually since 1973 in memory of the uilleann piper Willie Clancy, was cancelled for the first time in its 48 year history. In July 2020 ITMA streamed online 11 programmes of selected Highlights from ITMA Field Recordings made at the instrumental, song and dance recitals spanning 36 years of the summer school. This, and many other similar projects run during the pandemic, have resulted in a million views on ITMA’s well established social media platforms in 2020!

Concertina player Cormac Begley performing at the Willie Clancy Summer School, 2017

ITMA looks forward to re-opening its “physical” door in the coming months and welcoming visitors to its premises in Merrion Square where ITMA offers, free of charge, guided reading, listening and viewing facilities to its collections. In the meantime “follow” ITMA on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up-to-date with all our projects or head over to the website at

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