Global Fandom Jamboree Conversations (Round Five): Julián de la Fuente (Spain) and Ellen Kirkpatrick (Ireland) (Part Two)

Riverdance—Flamenco

[JDFP] I think we have both identified two key trends within fandom in our respective countries. In both cases, they are marked by conflicts that have led to a certain cultural sectarianism, but at least in the case of Spain, it has not led to a clear territorial division. The case of flamenco music is a clear example of traditional fandom that despite its Andalusian origin, has been able to achieve fame and followers beyond regional and even national borders. Some of these regional fandoms also allow immigrants within the country or abroad to maintain the heritage of their local traditions. As with Punk in Ireland, these fan communities have structured their identity as a minority and served to disseminate and visualize their culture.

 

Regarding international media fandom, I think they are globalizing phenomena whose reception can be interpreted as a reaction to the more traditional cultures. But we must not forget that sometimes they also become a vehicle to spread this local culture. I have already mentioned television shows like “Money Heist” that would never have achieved the impact obtained without the presence of international fandom powered by Netflix. Actually, they are still very much minority fan communities that would hardly achieve notice if they were not organized internationally. Returning to the case of Flamenco, the community of fans of this music could be considered a minority in many places in Spain (as in the rest of the world), if it did not have a connection with the local community from which it originated. I think something similar happens with fan tourism. Without an international contribution they could not be considered remarkable fandoms.

 

So, I wonder to what extent is it the media that really shapes these fan phenomena? Obviously, it is part of local cultures, but what is it that allows the tourist fan to be so important in Ireland and go unnoticed in Spain? Or in the musical case, that traditional Irish and Spanish groups obtain worldwide recognition?

 

[EK] You raise some interesting points here in terms of the multidirectional flow of not just cultural phenomena but fandoms. Human migration sees publics (as fans) take beloved cultural texts and practices with them as a way of making strange new lands feel a little more like home. In terms of the Irish diaspora (historically coupled to the “famine and the crown”), this is perhaps most evident in traditional Irish folk music and dancing, but also ball games. It’s not an exaggeration to say that traditional Irish music is one of Ireland’s greatest exports. And as you observe regarding flamenco music fandom, traditional cultural phenomena and fandoms can move beyond regional and national borders, particularly with help from national/regional governments and culture industries. (A connection you neatly demonstrate in your discussion of “Money Heist”.) Similarly, fans of traditional Irish cultural phenomena are not just people from within the Irish diaspora but those adjacent to it and oriented towards it. I think these factors go some way towards answering your question as to why Irish and Spanish traditional music, for example, have global reach. 

 

As is well observed within fan scholarship, cultural fandom offers a way to connect, celebrate, signal, and buttress a sense of national and cultural identity for those parted, for whatever reason, from their homelands. Moreover, it creates the possibility for immigrant communities to if not quite transform their new locales, then to at least impact them culturally. A cultural flow that sometimes comes full circle. North America, South America and Australasia are just a few places with strong Irish folk music traditions. Moreover, this music genre has not only taken root worldwide but developed emergent expressions, often secured via international industry/media support. (A cross-cultural diffusion assisted by evolutions in digital technologies and social media as much as human migration and international travel.) Celtic music fusions include, for example, American roots music (such as, bluegrass, old-time), Celtic hip hop, Celtic Reggae, and Celtic Punk. Bluegrass music is particularly interesting in the context of our discussion because it perfectly illustrates the idea that cultural/media phenomena not only inform but are informed by the events, communities, and worlds around and adjacent to them. Irish and Scottish immigrants, for example, organically created—incorporating African American blues and jazz traditions too—a new soundscape for a new socio-cultural experience. And today, centuries later, this once emergent, highly localized music form is celebrated and enjoyed back, as the original immigrants might have put it, in the Old Country, and beyond. (The large number of bluegrass and country music festivals demonstrate how popular these music genres are in Ireland, such as Ballydehob’s “Heart and Home” festival.) It is also worth noting that technological advances in the early to mid-1900s, such as the gramophone and the radio, carried this music down from the seclusion of the mountains and into the public domain, inside the US and beyond.

 

We see this transformational promise in men’s ball games too. Irish immigrants, for example, brought Gaelic football and hurling to Argentina, North America, and Australia amongst other countries. Outside Ireland, however, these Celtic ball games still occupy a marginal status. But Australian rules football—aka “Aussie Rules”—illustrates transcultural processes arising from human migration and colonization. Aussie Rules football developed from a mix of Anglo and Celtic ball games—such as Caid (an early form of Gaelic football)—brought to Australia by Irish and British immigrants in the early part of the nineteenth century. Aussie Rules is a hugely popular national game—highest attendance for any sport in Australia—and illustrates the flow of one cultural phenomenon to another territory, a transformative process that sees the source material adapted and ultimately, though not necessarily, becoming something new and distinctive. Sometimes this emergent form migrates to new territories too. Aussie Rules football is played in New Zealand, for example, and attempts have been made—mostly by Australian emigrants—to bring the game to Ireland and the UK. Media coverage (and thus advertising), of course, plays a huge role in the mainstreaming and internationalization of traditional/local sports. 

 

Irish dancing too whilst popular at home and within the Irish diaspora saw a national and global boost in response to a performance of step dance—a form of Irish dance—during an interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, an event hosted that year by Ireland. A seven-minute performance spawning the stage show known as Riverdance. This phenomenally popular show not only changed the nature of Irish dancing but liberated it from its Irish moorings (island and diaspora). “Riverdance”, as Breandán de Gallaí—a lead dancer—commented, “has changed dancing forever. It brought it to the world.”[1] But it also helped change, or better rehabilitate, the idea of “Irishness” both on and beyond the island. (It drew attention away from, for instance, reductive international Irish stereotypes—such as the idea of the “Fighting Irish” (a widespread cliché still, for example, providing the prejudicial name and logo for the University of Notre Dame’s football team, the “Notre Dame Fighting Irish”) or Ireland as a land full of riotously-mournful hard drinkers—and towards the idea of the Irish as “lively, fun loving, innovative people”.[2] Alongside rapid social and economic change (i.e., the “Celtic Tiger” economy of the mid-1990s-late 2000s), Riverdance was critical to national attempts to reposition “Ireland globally and culturally, representing a contemporary Irish identity to both the Irish themselves and to the world.”[3] A clear example here of media/culture industries and a national government working to build and wield cultural and imagological soft power.

Much like K-Pop fandom today, Riverdance’s fandom was, and still is, transnational and transcultural, as is the show itself. Whilst currently diminished, at its peak, the show toured consecutively for 15 years throughout 32 countries; its global TV—and later DVD and later still online—audience was even wider.[4] A recently released animated film, Riverdance: The Animated Adventure (2021), centering an Irish boy and a Spanish girl discovering the power of Irish dance, might reignite the fannish flame, however. Moreover, the film’s characterization evidences (an industrial awareness of) Riverdance’s transnational and transcultural dimensions. For example, featuring over two thousand dancers from around the world, including America, China, Russia, and Spain, Riverdance’s dancers were, and are, specialists in a variety of international dance styles, such as renowned flamenco dancer and choreographer, María Pagés. (Borders between fan/performer can also collapse as when fans become “real” Riverdance performers.[5])

Furthermore, Riverdance fan activities commonly stretch to include embodied practices whereby fans worldwide seek to learn Irish dancing and/or musicianship and costuming style and so forth. Dancing-fans may also incorporate dance styles local to their region into their Irish dancing performances thereby appropriating not only Riverdance but Irish dancing itself, a transformative process allowing them to, as with Bluegrass music and Aussie Rules football, make something quite new. And as another quick example of multidirectional transcultural engagement and flow, Riverdance itself incorporates international dance styles on stage, including Russian folk, American tap, and the aforementioned Spanish flamenco. “Official” recognition of Riverdance’s transnational and transcultural dimensions is significant for several reasons not least because of its suggestion that the “powers that be” do not wish to enforce national and cultural borders but to instead work with a more expansive, global idea of Irish dance and perhaps even “Irishness” itself, a particularly heartening development given Ireland’s increasingly diverse population. 

But we should remember that not all transnational fandom is transcultural, and vice versa. Moreover, and evoking the debate around the value of the idea of “transnational” fandom (e.g., see Chin and Morimoto 2013 and the trio of opening statements and discussion kicking off this “Global Fandom” series) it’s not always useful to distinguish fan practices in relation to geographical border-crossings. For instance, regarding transcultural fandom, non-Irish Irish dancers do not always wish to enfold or combine local/national/regional elements into their Irish dancing/Riverdance performances or vice versa, nor indeed to suggest a sense of “Irishness”. As with much worldwide K-Pop fandom, many of these fan-dancers wish to merely signal an enjoyment, or passion, for the cultural phenomenon in question, be it Riverdance or Irish dancing (or both). 

Similarly, although speaking with reference to fannish nationalistic displays, when American fans of Niall Horan, an unabashed Irish folk-pop singer, united at a concert in Cleveland, Ohio to create a shimmering Irish tricolor (Ireland’s national flag) with their mobile phones they were not displaying the flag to signal Irish identity—though some may claim Irish heritage—nor to, momentarily, transform their national identity but to welcome, celebrate, and connect with Horan. As one fan said, “He loves his country so He will definitely appreciate it.” Yet when music fans within the Irish diaspora display Irish tricolor flags at “rebel” music events they do so to actively signal and reconfirm their Irishness, to themselves, to each other, and to the world at large. So, when The Wolfe Tones—a hugely popular “rebel” group—play venues around the world and fans bring out their Irish tricolours (and wear their Celtic football jerseys) they are doing a little more than welcoming and connecting with the band; their displays (are meant to) indicate, to celebrate, an Irish identity and a direct connection to Ireland. Further complicating our understanding of fannish nationalistic and cultural displays—flags, jerseys, and so forth—are the intergenerational fannish practices performed by Irish Nationalists in the North of Ireland. For example, at a recent Wolfe Tones concert in West Belfast fans donned Celtic football jerseys and flourished Irish tricolours, much like diasporic Wolfe Tone fans around the world. And yet these nationalistic displays were performed by Irish people on the island of Ireland, albeit a highly contested territory, one still under British colonial rule. And herein lies an example of the curiosity and complexity of thinking about fandoms viz. transnational (and transcultural) qualities in conflicted, divided territories with disputed borders, that is in places, such as Ireland, where borders often lie only in the eyes of the beholders. As we see here, Horan fans and Wolfe Tone fans use flag displays and so forth to publicly connect with their fan objects, but—by also signaling a national/cultural identity—those within the Irish diaspora and in the North of Ireland—are doing a little bit more.

As we see, studying fandom in (and orientated towards) territories marked by historical political conflict and contested national or regional borders, as in Spain and Ireland, proves a particularly rich pursuit, and like all good discussion, ours has raised more questions than it answered. 

[JDFP} I think the debate has been very fruitful and has allowed us to present a large number of representative examples from both countries, as well as many common fan phenomena. Both Spain and Ireland are two peripheral countries with significant cultural heritage that perhaps does not correspond to their media presence. Undoubtedly the migrant fan communities have helped to make these traditions visible throughout the world. However, as Ellen points out, “not all transnational fandom is transcultural, and vice versa”. That is why I think we have to pay attention to media phenomena that are capable of enhancing popular culture beyond its identity or nationalist expression. Probably the transnationality of a fan phenomenon requires the germ of one or several local communities that, without a doubt, will adapt this fandom to their own practices. While a transcultural fan phenomenon must also be based on local values that will have to be accepted and shared wherever they go. When we speak of local or global fandoms we are referring simply to the focus on the origin or current expansion of the phenomenon. The media industries cannot make a fandom global without local scale, nor can a local fandom be understood today without its global ramifications.

[EK] I have very much enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about fandom in Spain, and it is heartening to think that our discussion could have taken many other paths that would have proven just as rewarding and enjoyable. Though I do think—and especially when discussing cultural phenomena and fandom in (and adjacent to) contested territories—that issues of cultural identity are always present and felt in our discussions, even when they are (consciously or unconsciously) overlooked. Every act, as conceptual artist Daniel Burren, reminds us, “is political and, whether one is conscious of it or not, the presentation of one's work is no exception”. Moreover, I remain unconvinced of the value and merit of aspiring to the goal of transcending issues around cultural identity in our work, especially given the current state of fandom and Fan Studies. For, as Rukmini Pande previously observed, “No media text or fandom is free from issues and hierarchies of power around representations of identity, relationships, and desire.” And neither is scholarship. As with many others, I hold that fan scholars should be actively prioritizing such matters within their discussions, especially perhaps those exploring notions of “border-crossing” fandom and phenomena. Finally, I would like to express my sincerest thanks to Julian for the discussion and to Henry for the opportunity to be part of this global jamboree. 

References 

 

Chin, B., & Morimoto, L. H. (2013). ‘Towards a theory of transcultural fandom’. Participations, 10(1), 92-108. [Available here.]

González-Gordon Luque, M. M. (2019). Economìa y deporte. El efecto económico de los fans en el fútbol. El caso de la Liga española. Universidad Pontificia de Comillas.

Hills, M. (2002). ‘Transcultural otaku: Japanese representations of fandom and representations of Japan in anime/manga fan cultures’, Proceedings of MiT2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. May 10‐12. [Available here.]

Mestre Pérez, R. (2020). España plató de cine: claroscuros de las rutas de cine y televisión. Estudios Turísticos, nº 220 (2º S 2020), pp 9-29

 








[1] “Riverdance – 10 Years Documentary.” Riverdance. DVD Tyrone Productions, 2008.

[2] McAvinchey, Shane, former Riverdance troupe member. Interview. 8 Mar 2010.

[3] Brennan, Helen. (1999) The Story of Irish Dance. Kerry, Ireland: Mount Eagle Publications Ltd. (p. 152). 

[4] It is estimated that today more than twenty-five million people have seen the show, in one form or another. 

[5] The company holds open call auditions allowing worldwide fans to not only imagine/dream of becoming part of the show, but to see a route to making it happen.

 

Global Fandom Jamboree Conversations (Round Five): Julián de la Fuente (Spain) and Ellen Kirkpatrick (Ireland) (Part Two)