Singing the Rite to Belong

Ritual, Music, and the New Irish

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Helen Phelan
Oxford Ritual Studies Series
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Helen Phelan’s Singing the Rite to Belong: Music, Ritual, and the New Irish, explores the influence of singing rituals in creating a sense of community and belonging in the context of contemporary Ireland. Phelan integrates a depth and breadth of knowledge in ritual studies, ethnography, philosophy, religion, music education, acoustics, and the singing voice to create a compelling argument about the profound effect that performed singing rituals have in the development of communities of belonging.

Professor of Arts Practice at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, Phelan describes various personal experiences with religious rituals, educational rituals, and civic/community-based rituals. Many of these experiences deal with the immigrant community in modern Ireland and the struggle of that community to find a sense of belonging in a new culture. Narratives include, among others, the creation of immigrant choirs, the experience of singing in spaces that differ from the originally intended use of ritual space, and the way that singing rituals during baptism helps to create a sense of belonging in the face of exclusionary immigration policies by the Irish government.

The book is essentially a series of disparate studies that draw from Phelan’s multiple areas of expertise and experiences. Some sections are essentially ethnographic studies and personal narratives, while others dive deeply into areas of philosophy, religion, pedagogy, and music research. Phelan outlines five basic characteristics that contribute to ritual belonging: resonance, somatics, performance, temporality, and tacitness. As a singing pedagogue, I particularly appreciated Phelan’s expertise in the singing voice and the ways in which resonance (the relationship between singing and space) and somatics (the relationship between singing and the physical body) influence our experience of singing ritual in community. She also draws successfully from contemporary music education philosophy, including David Elliott’s idea of music as praxis, which understands music as an activity whose performative nature makes it by nature something that is social and thereby ritualistic.

Phelan makes a profound argument regarding tacitness (communication without words) as an essential element of singing rituals. Singing brings communities together by moving beyond conceptual ideology to create an unconditional sense of belonging among participants. In doing so, she challenges traditional dogmatic views of religion and advocates for a more inclusive, tacit view of religion that moves beyond what words can convey. In her conclusion, she states that “ritual singing provides a way of being, which objects to any saying of ‘no’ to the other…what theological writers sometimes call grace” (253). It is an argument that resonated deeply with this reviewer as a musician of faith.

The world in 2017 continues to experience the greatest migrations in all of human history, and the challenges involved with the intermingling of cultures are encapsulated in the challenges Phelan describes in contemporary Ireland. Through thoughtful descriptions of personal experiences of singing rituals among immigrants, this text successfully describes the many ways that singing rituals function to create a sense of belonging among persons of all backgrounds. Pheland’s writing is of value to scholars of religion, ritual, music, and ethnic studies as well as anyone interested in the exploration of multicultural community building.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Schloneger is assistant professor of music/voice at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen Phelan is professor of arts practice at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick. A singer and ritual studies scholar, she is an Irish Research Council recipient for her work on singing and sustained social integration with new migrant communities in Ireland over the last two decades. Her singing interests span medieval chant to contemporary ritual vocal song while her publications are primarily in the areas of ritual studies, music education philosophy and arts practice research.


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