When Other Voices - the internationally renowned live music series which broadcasts annually from Dingle in Kerry since 2003 - announced the line-up for the Courage series of live streams, few truly expected the impact and the ray of hope it provided to people and families across Ireland. The series welcomed performances from renowned Irish artists including Fontaines D.C, Lisa Hannigan, James Vincent McMorrow, the folk band Lankum (who’s latest album had, just three months previously, been awarded the Choice Music Prize), and fellow nominee Maija Sofia, to name but a few.
Among the artists with discographies few could match in both volume and quality, was Limerick rapper Denise Chaila, who at the time had yet to release a project, EP or album. Despite the audience's lack of familiarity with her work, it was her performance that stood out from the crowd. Performing live from the National Gallery, one of the country’s most historic buildings, it gave a very visceral and captivating image highlighting the new Ireland.
Yes, Chaila was the only black artist on the line-up, but more importantly, she was a new non-folk female artist being given a stage, a platform, and a chance to perform for thousands across the world. She took the opportunity with both hands. Images of Chaila, supported by fellow Limerick rapper God Knows and DJ Replay, became a symbol of hope when many had lost it. It was proof that as a country, Ireland was changing for the better and becoming a more accepting place for all people, all artists, both male and female alike.
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Historically, Ireland has always had a difficulty when it comes to the treatment of women. Despite women’s participation in both the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence from 1919-1921, the country was very slow to grant women the equal rights they deserve. As the Catholic church became ingrained in both Irish culture and the Irish constitution, women had many of their rights, including the right to work after marriage, withheld.
Since the 1970’s, Ireland has slowly developed into a more welcoming and equal country for both genders. In 1977, gender discrimination was outlawed in the workplace, followed by the lifting of the contraceptive ban in 1985. In 1996, Ireland repealed its constitutional prohibition of divorce. Ninteen years later, the Irish people became the first to legalise same-sex marriage through a public vote.
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As Ireland has grown as a country and as a people, there remains sections of life at which gender parity has not yet been reached. The radio, and Irish female artists' representation on Irish radio compared to Irish male artists, is one such sector. On Irish radio, music created in Ireland is played once to every six plays for international artists, which amounts to less than 15% of all radio play. Of this 15%, the vast majority of music is created and released by men. The leading male artist (Dermot Kennedy) had 80% more radio impact (listeners) than the leading female artist (Soulé).
In 2020, however, Irish female artists took a stand, and in doing so raised over €300,000 for charity.
RuthAnne Cunningham is one of Ireland’s most renowned songwriters, with credits for artists such as Niall Horan, One Direction, Devlin, John Legend, and Britney Spears. In 2018, she began releasing under her own name and released her debut album ‘Matters Of The Heart’ in 2019. She’d realised long ago that representation on Irish radio was an issue. “When I was 17 and starting off in the industry, there weren't many Irish female acts” she explained. “When I ask people to name me a breakthrough female artist from the last ten years they can’t, and I don’t think that’s because the talent isn’t there, I think there hasn’t been enough championing of it”.
In May of 2020, RuthAnne hatched a plan to not only highlight the issue of representation of Irish women on the radio, but to raise much needed funds for the domestic abuse charity SAFE. She began to contact Irish female artists and asked whether they would be interested in recording a cover for the charity. “Women supporting women,” RuthAnne adds. The idea spiralled, and in less than two days there were over 40 artists ready to contribute. After discussions over WhatsApp over what song would best suit the performance, a decision was made to cover The Cranberries track ‘Dreams’. When it was suggested by fellow singer Erica Cody, both women knew exactly how it would sound and how it would suit the cause.
What was important, however, was not just to create a karaoke version of the track. “I wanted to re-imagine it and in a way that represented us as artists in 2020,” RuthAnne explains. The track itself took six days to produce, with RuthAnne arranging the instrumentation, ensuring all the recorded audio was up to scratch and pulling it all together seamlessly. This was the first track RuthAnne had produced single-handedly, causing untold stress but immediate satisfaction and pride upon its completion. “It was really an amazing process for me because it taught me about myself and about some of the skills or techniques I didn’t realise I learnt or had”.
The track, and its accompanying video, was released, under the name Irish Women In Harmony, on June 18th to immediate acclaim and excitement. On Twitter, #IrishWomenInHarmony trended on its release day and beyond, and artist such as Hozier and U2 tweeted out their support, with the latter adding that ‘Dolores would have loved this…’, in reference to The Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, who passed away in 2018. “When the Cranberries gave their blessing and U2 supported it I knew it was something really special,” RuthAnne says. “It’s amazing how well received it was. It felt like a hugely powerful and important movement”. Within three days, the video had racked up three million views.
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While Irish Women In Harmony were releasing ‘Dreams’, the finished touches were being put to a radio report by PR manager Linda Coogan Byrne and artist Áine Tyrrell which placed Irish radio’s lack of representation for Irish female artists and artists from the POC community under even greater scrutiny.
On June 24th, the Gender Disparity Data Report on Irish Radio was published, which showed that Irish female artists and artists of colour were vastly under-represented in Irish media plays across the country in comparison to white men. Across the entire country, only one station had a 50:50 gender split between the Irish music they played, and that was RTÉ Radio 1. In comparison, RTÉ 2FM 10% Irish female artists compared the 90% Irish male artists. This was apparent across the spectrum, with many stations playing close to 0% Irish female artists. There was also only one single artist of colour in the entire report: Soulé.
“Did I know it was bad? Yes. Did I know it was that bad? No,” Coogan Byrne admits. They released the report unsure of the impact it would have on the industry. Within six weeks of publication, the report had been viewed over 20 million times.
The national success of Irish Women In Harmony and the timing Gender Disparity report helped highlight the disparity and gave stations across Ireland a clear message that Irish female artists and artists of colour deserved to be heard and that listeners wanted to hear them. “I was getting tweets from listeners asking why there were no women on the TV and on the radio, and when the audience begin to notice you know you have a real problem,” RuthAnne recalls.
A follow-up report was carried out in October by the same team and found that the stations had taken the report on board, and that there had been a notable increase in the number of Irish female artists played across all stations. Stations that had previously recorded 0% were now seeing increases of five to 10%. RTÉ 2FM’s representation of Irish female artists went up by 35%, with women now accounting for 45% of all Irish music played on the station. Artists of colour were also up to seven featured artists as opposed to just one seen in the previous report.
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As the year draws to a close, the question remains: was 2020 a turning point in female representation in Irish music, and can this translate to representation on TV, on festival line-ups and within the industry itself across the country? Both RuthAnne and Coogan Byrne believe so.
“We are seeing something that has never happened before, and it’s reflected in the data - more women on air and more artists of colour. We are closer to a more equal and diverse industry,” Linda replies. “I’m very hopeful that the industry has now seen the disparity that’s there and the injustice”.
RuthAnne is equally optimistic, noting that while a 50:50 split will likely never be possible, given the time it takes artists to release music, there has been progress. “The best thing we could do is make everything fair for Irish artists. It’s tougher to get an Irish artist into the top 20 in our own country than it is to do everything else, we cannot get our own in there and we need to tackle that”.
In November, following the huge success of ‘Dreams’, and a rise in women representation across the music industry as a whole, Irish Women In Harmony released an original Christmas song entitled ‘Together At Christmas’, which is helping to raise money for the ISPCC and Childline. As well as introducing new female artists to the group, the song also includes a choir made up of 18 young singers. The tracks aimed both to raise money and to provide inspiration for the next generation of Irish female artists.
“Ireland’s next star could be a young girl at home right now who got inspired by watching Irish Women in Harmony or Denise Chaila or any of the other amazing female artists this year and it could be that inspiration that pushes them to pursue it in the future,” RuthAnne adds, smiling.
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Words: Cailean Coffey
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