Joe Heaney: Background (2)

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  • Teideal (Title): Joe Heaney: Background (2).
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 830904.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): Joe’s background.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 1963.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): London, England.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): inverview.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Ewan Mac Coll: Where is it that you come from?
Joe Heaney: Carna in County Galway, Republic of Ireland.
EM: That’s in the southwest of Ireland, isn’t it?
JH: Yes, southwest1.
EM: And Carna, what do the people in Carna do for a living? What’s the main occupation?
JH: The main occupation is fishing and, of course, working small farms.
EM: And this was your family occupation, was it, this is what your father did?
JH: Yes, that’s what they did. Of course, the farms there, there’s more rocks than land. Only for the fishing, they couldn’t, never hope to make a living out of it.
EM: They were rock farmers.
JH: [laughs] Oh, well, you could call them that, rock farmers. Both ways, by the sea and the farm. Rocks, they meet rocks all the way.
EM: And you were one of how many children?
JH: Seven — living. I was what they call the black sheep of the family.
Peggy Seager: Why?
JH: Because I never did anything right, that’s why. Nothing to please anybody.
EM: Now, Joe, who was it in your family that sang?
JH: Well, my father was a very good singer. In fact, he had more songs than I’ll ever hope to have. They went to the grave with him. He died when I was thirteen, so I had no hope of getting the songs because I thought I’d have plenty time to get them off him. But they went to the grave with him. More songs — I heard him sing songs that I never heard since and I haven’t got myself.
EM: What, songs in Gaelic and English?
JH: Gaelic and English, both.
EM: Did you learn no songs from him, then?
JH: Oh, I did. In fact, most of all the songs I have I learned from him. But I could have learned more if I knew he was going to die so young, you know.
EM: But, did any of your uncles sing or aunts as well?
JH: They did. Well, Colm, you know, Colm.
EM: Colm Keane?
JH: He had an awful lot of songs. In fact, that’s the man who gave Seamus Ennis two hundred and two and he probably has more left, but Seamus never went back to get the rest off him. And he was always singing, of course. They were all singing and telling stories and that was the carry on there during the winter — singing sings, playing music, step dancing, telling stories2.
EM: Where did they do this, Joe?
JH: In the houses in the villages
EM: Like, one night they’d be in your house, would they, in your father’s house?
JH: Well, most nights they were in my father’s house. See, in every village there was one house that everybody seems to come to. One of those special things and our house was one of them.
EM: So it wouldn’t only be members of the family who came?
JH: Oh no, no, anybody from the village or outside the village.
PS: How big was the village, Joe?
EM: How many people lived in the village?
JH: Oh, say about eighty people.
EM: Eighty. That’s not many, is it?
JH: No. But, you see they’re all small villages, about a hundred villages in the one parish, you know. Our village was small, say about twenty houses in the one village.
EM: So, when people would come in for a céilí in the evening — did you call it a céilí?
JH: What we called it was a siamsa tine, around the fire, carry on, round-the-fire sport or a pastime.
EM: And was that how it would be, everybody would sit round the fire?
JH: They’d all sit around and one man would tell a story, one man would sing a song, one man would play a tune, one man would do a bit of step dancing and that’s the way they’d carry on.
EM: I notice you say ‘one man’, didn’t the women sing, or tell stories?
JH: Well, not as a rule. The women very seldom did anything, except knit, as she’s doing now3.
EM: But they didn’t tell stories.
JH: No. The men usually told the stories. The women, of course, after the men had finished, the women used to gossip among themselves.
EM: This is odd, isn’t it, because, among the Scottish travellers, it’s the women who do most of the singing and story telling and the men just sit and listen.
JH: There’s an odd woman, all her life she’ll lilt a tune for somebody to dance, but the men as a rule tell the stories, mostly the stories and the old woman would sit in the corner and lilt a tune — mouth music, I should say — lilt the tune — port béil — and somebody would dance to it if there’s no musician in the house. She’d lilt the tune and they’d start step dancing to it.
EM: And it would be the men who danced?
JH: Oh the men.
EM: Not the women.
JH: Sometimes the women, but very few of the women did.
EM: When they were dancing in partners, would it be a man and a woman or two men?
JH: Oh, a man and a woman in partners. What we call a breakdown or a set. That’s the name they had for the old step dancing, you know, breakdown4.


1. Mac Coll’s geography is inaccurate. Carna is of course on the western coast of Ireland, but on a latitude that rests more or less half-way down the country, placing it firmly in the west rather than the south-west. Interestingly, Joe does not correct him, although the tone in which he agrees with Mac Coll’s mistake bears contemplation.

2. Colm Ó Caodháin, Joe’s second cousin, from whom Séamas Ennis collected over 340 items including songs, tunes and seanchas (traditional history and lore). The majority of these items — some 212 in all — were songs.

3. Presumably Peggy Seeger is knitting as this conversation takes place.

4. Joe seems to have the terms ‘set dancing’ and ‘step dancing’ confused; not the dancing itself, of course, but the terms used for them in English. Generally one would expect step dancing to refer to solo dancing (what has become known as sean-nós dancing in the post-Riverdance era) and set dancing to refer to the activity in which a number of couples (usually four; two in a half-set) get up on the floor together and perform an established ‘set’ of figures. This latter type of dancing is presumably what Joe means by the term breakdown. None of these, of course, has anything to do with with breakdancing, which is something else entirely.

This transcription was made by Fred Mc Cormick as part of his transcription of all of the interviews conducted by Mac Coll and Seeger with Joe Heaney in late 1963 and early 1964, before Joe emigrated to the United States. The interviews in their entirety can be read at the Musical Traditions Internet Magazine. We are grateful to Fred for allowing us to use this excerpt here.