Joe Heaney — 1919 to 1984

By Virginia Blankenhorn

Home and family

Joe Heaney was born on 1st October 1919 in Aird Thoir (Ard East), a townland of some twenty houses located about four miles west of the village of Carna in Conamara. Joe was the fifth of seven children born to Pádraig Ó h-Éighnigh (‘Pádraig Éinniú’ in the local form of the surname) and Bairbre Ní Mhaoilchiaráin (‘Béib Sheáin Mhichíl’ locally — Bairbre, daughter of Seán, son of Micheál).

Pádraig Éinniú (1881–1937) originally came from Glinnsce, a townland five or six miles to the north, where his family were well-regarded singers and tradition-bearers. Pádraig’s first cousin once removed — thus Joe’s second cousin — was renowned singer and seanachie Colm Ó Caodháin (1894–1975), from whom the Irish Folklore Commission’s Séamus Ennis and other collectors gathered 212 songs in both Irish and English as well as a great deal of other folklore. Joe took great pride in this connection, sometimes referring to Colm hazily as his ‘uncle,’ but always expressing great admiration for him and for his songs.

Béib Sheáin Mhichíl (1881–1962) was one of a family of daughters of Seán Mhichíl Shéamais (Seán, son of Micheál son of Séamas) Ó Maoilchiaráin and Bairbre Ní Chathasaigh (Casey)[1]. Joe’s mother’s family had a great reputation as storytellers. Her father, Seán Michíl Shéamais, specialized in short, funny stories — like the one about the duck that had lost her beak in a rat trap. Seán Mhichíl told how he had fashioned a tin beak for her. Not only was the duck well able to function with the tin beak, but when she laid eggs, and they hatched, every one of the ducklings also had a tin beak[2]!

An uncle of Béib’s, Colm Mhichíl Shéamais, was a great man for organizing entertainments, such as the time he suggested that young Joe nobble his competitors in a foot-race by throwing sand in their eyes; Joe told Lucy Simpson that Colm was nearly 90 when he died around 1938. A second uncle, Pat Mór Mhichíl Shéamais (Big Pat Mulkerrins), was reckoned to have been one of the best storytellers the area had ever produced, specialisng in the long tales of adventure and Fenian lore. Big Pat died young, before Joe was born, but the family’s reputation for storytelling was well-established in the community.

At the time of her marriage, Béib Sheáin Mhichíl was living with her mother in the family home in Aird Thoir. For some time before Pádraig Éinniú joined them there, Joe’s grandmother ran a shebeen[3] from the house, but abandoned this activity when her daughter married. Pádraig and Béib had seven children — four sons and three daughters[4].

Singing and storytelling in the Ards

With his father’s family known for their songs and his mother’s for storytelling, the home was ideal for a boy of Joe’s interests. And even if his family hadn’t provided plenty of material, the wider community thronged with talent. In Aird Thoir and Aird Thiar (Ard West) alone there were families whose reputations for singing, storytelling and seanchas have become legendary:

  • Seán Choilm Mac Donnchadha, whose house was literally a stone’s throw from Pádraig Éinniu’s, was probably the greatest influence on Joe’s singing apart from his father. Joe told Mick Moloney in 1981 that when he was growing up ‘…all around, you could hear the man next door, Seán Choilm Mac Donnchadha. He had twelve or thirteen children, but after work every night he’d go out and sit on a big rock and start singing at the top of his voice, and the whole neighbourhood could hear him singing’. Of Seán Choilm’s son Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha (1936 2007), one of the most highly-regarded singers of his generation, Joe Heaney once remarked to Tom Clancy, ‘This man is better than myself’[5].
  • Joe Pheaitsín ‘ac Dhonncha, the father of Joe’s great contemporary, Johnny Joe Pheaitsín ‘ac Dhonncha (1919 1996) lived in Aird Thiar. Joe Pheaitsín was a well-regarded singer, as was his father-in-law, Johnny’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Joe Heaney and Johnny Joe Pheaitsín were the first Conamara singers of whom commercial recordings were released by Gael-Linn in Ireland.
  • Seán Jeaic Mac Donncha (1904 1986) also lived in Aird Thiar; his son Josie Sheáin Jeaic won Corn Uí Riada at the Oireachtas in 1978 and again in 1982, and Josie’s brother Johnny, who died tragically in a boating accident in 2009, was also a fine singer. Joe thought Seáin Jeaic was the best male traditional singer he’d ever heard, and the two of them won Oireachtas competitions together on a number of occasions in the 1940s, performing work songs of their own composition.
  • Beairtle Ó Chonghaile, storyteller and singer, lived not far from Seán Jeaic in Aird Thiar. Beairtle, who died in 1971, won prizes for both singing and storytelling at the Oireachtas in the same year. His son, Eddie Bheairtle (Éamonn) Ó Conghaile, parish priest of Tír an Fhia at the time of writing, has kept alive his father’s enthusiasm for the traditional arts.
  • Máire an Ghabha, Bean Uí Cheannabháin[6] (1905-1999), lived in Aird Thoir. Her son Michael Mháire Ghabha (1936 2005) became a renowned traditional singer, and two of his children, Caitríona and Pól, are keeping up the family reputation. Máire an Ghabha passed on a trove of songs and prayers that she had learned from her maternal grandmother, Máire Ní Ghríofa, and from her mother, Neainín Mháire Ní Ghríofa, Bean Mhic Giolla Máirtín. Joe credited his grandmother and Neainín Mháire Ní Ghríofa as the source for his important religious songs, Oíche Nollag, Amhrán na Páise and Caoineadh na Páise or, as it became better known following Joe’s recording of it, Caoineadh na dTrí Muire.

The perfect environment

It is difficult today, with communications of all kinds much improved, to grasp how thoroughly inaccessible the communities of western Conamara were when Joe Heaney was growing up. The main roads between Galway City and the west were poor — and remain so even now — and the roads leading into the various townlands were little more than stony tracks. Seán Choilm Mac Donnchadha’s son Seán, now returned from England to live in Aird Thoir, tells of how building materials for the family’s new house — on the right in the photograph here — had to be carried in to the site by horse and donkey when the house was built in the 1950s, because the road into Aird Thoir had not yet been paved.

Even radios were scarce, as few people apart from the parish priest and the schoolmaster could afford one. Joe told Mick Moloney, ‘There was no radio or anything to distract you from listening to what the people were saying’. Instead, ‘there was always a song or two in our house every night, and a story or something like that’[7]. In fact, as Joe described on numerous occasions[8], Pádraig Éinniú’s house was an important teach airneáin (‘visiting house’) in Aird Thoir — a place where people would come after the day’s work was finished to share gossip, songs and stories — and it was these occasions that held Joe spellbound as a child. As Joe told Séamus Ennis[9]:

You could say I was drinking [the songs and stories] from the bottle while I was in the cradle. I had them from the time I was in the cradle. I heard them around the fire day and night, out in the gardens herding the cattle, or out on the sea fishing, or anyplace I went. I had to have them. My father was a great singer, and Colm Ó Caodháin, God be good to him, a cousin of mine, was one of the Conamara people best known to have songs. There was another man there — known all over Ireland — Seán Choilm we used to call him, and Seán never stopped. After a day’s work he’d start singing. He’d go out on the hill and lie back and be singing until twelve o’clock at night.

Eddie Bheairtle Ó Conghaile recalls how Seán Choilm was in and out of the Heaneys’ house all day, and as a result was probably the most important source of Joe’s Irish-language repertoire[10]:

Seán Choilm used to be in and out of the Heaneys’ house, maybe three times a day, and he spent nearly every night visiting there. He had a lot of songs, and never had to be asked to sing — he used to sing at the drop of a hat. When he had a drink inside him he’d keep it up indefinitely. Joe was listening to these songs, and he learned them. I don’t think he had any need to write them down. At that time, nobody wrote anything; and maybe it would often happen that the words of the verses would get swapped around on account of the way they were picked up by ear. But he learned a lot of the songs that way.

The songs weren’t important solely as pastime, although that was certainly a big part of their value. Liam Mac Con Iomaire points out that ‘people used to sing in order to raise their spirits. A whistled tune or a couple stanzas of a song were able to dispel gloom, for singing was the same thing as being carefree, even if the song were a sad one’. As Eddie Bheairtle put it[11]:

It didn’t take much to raise their spirits so that they’d start singing — maybe a bit of good news, or even the fact that the weather was fine, would be enough to start them singing, their hearts were so light. They only wanted fun and a laugh and a song and some music. But the music was in their bones, and it had to come out.

The singing and storytelling with which Joe Heaney grew up were as much a part of the natural environment as the rocks and the sea. They were intrinsic to a life built around relationships with family and neighbours, people who deeply understood the importance of their reliance upon one another. Joe explained that, while disagreements and fallings-out happened, people would never hesitate to come to the aid of a neighbour in need. Their whole world was encompassed in this small townland, and their art was of a piece with every other aspect of their lives, focused upon home, family and community. It truly expressed their identity.

The cultural changes that began to affect Gaeltacht life in the second half of the twentieth century, especially the improvements in road transport and communications, inevitably broadened this focus. While visitors and returning travellers had always brought a whiff of the exotic — very often in the form of a new song or story — the wider world increasingly began impinging upon the life of traditional communities. As radios became more prevalent, they provided an alternative to listening to the neighbours tell the old stories. Some families managed to get hold of gramophones and were able to play the 78 rpm recordings sent by relatives in the States. Joe wondered aloud to Jill Linzee if the radio might have interfered with his learning the old songs and stories, if there had been one in the house in his day:

Of course now, maybe — if there was other things, if there was radio, maybe, or something — maybe that would divert me off it. I’m not saying it would — right now, I’d say it wouldn’t, but maybe it would, I don’t know. Because I know the people growing up today, you see, is singing the old songs and telling the old stories, and they all have radios. But they’re…singing the old songs and telling the old stories as usual.

This happy coexistence, however, was not to last. As roads improved and incomes rose, people had new opportunities to socialise and were no longer confined to the traditional fireside activities. But when they attempted to bring their native arts into new environments there were difficulties. It wasn’t every public house — even in Carna — that would tolerate singing[12]. Publicans reckoned, no doubt correctly, that their takings rose when people were allowed to make a certain amount of noise. In addition, many people had no interest in Irish, and no patience for the old style of singing. Joe told Mick Moloney in 1981 that he had witnessed people slandering their own kinsfolk and neighbours[13]:

These people were often told, when they sang one of these songs outside their native place, ‘Go back to the bog and sing that; we don’t want that kind of a song here’.

These days, singers have a hard time finding a welcome in any pub, as singing requires a quiet and respectful audience. The time when a traditional singer could strike up in a corner of a noisy bar and still the room — something that happened frequently enough in O’Donoghue’s in Dublin and elsewhere in the sixties and seventies — although memorable when it still occasionally occurs — remains an elusive and rarely encountered phenomenon. With people’s houses now dominated by radio and television, and with greater mobility affording a more varied social life, the traditional arts that were once commonplace, that virtually defined the identity of home and community have become, for lack of a better term, homeless. Although festivals have filled the gap to some extent, they have not completely compensated for the radical changes that have taken place.

Joe’s progress

This is not the place for a detailed biography of Joe Heaney. That job has already been admirably accomplished by his biographer, Liam Mac Con Iomaire. Suffice it here to provide what we might call an ‘annotated timeline’ that will point out some of the most significant events and achievements of Joe’s life, and provide context for what he has to say for himself.

1924–37: education

Joe began school at the age of four-and-a-half. His schoolmasters in Aird Thiar, a Mayo man named Seán Ó Conchúir and his wife, a local woman named Bríd Ní Fhlatharta, appear to have been a very positive influence, and — unlike some teachers of the era — encouraged children to take an interest in their native heritage. It was at some time during the 1930s — probably 1935 — that Joe wrote out the texts to a number of songs and stories now held in the main manuscript collection of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin[14].

Eventually Joe passed an entrance examination for Coláiste Éinde, a secondary boarding school that prepared Irish-speaking pupils to enter training as primary-school teachers, and from 1935 to 1937 he attended Coláiste Éinde in Dublin. Unfortunately, just as he was about to return home for the Easter holiday in 1937, one of the priests in charge told him he was not to return. It’s not clear that any reason was ever given, although Joe in later years blamed his own lack of diligence. What is certain is that this event caused a huge change in Joe’s fortunes, removing all chance of his gaining a qualification, and condemning him to a life of manual toil and financial insecurity.

Good Friday, 1937: bereavement

On his arrival in Carna following the devastating news of his expulsion from Coláiste Éinde, Joe met a funeral procession. Making enquiries, he learned that it was the funeral of his own father, who had died of pneumonia at the age of 56. Joe himself was just 17 years old. In future years he often spoke of this loss, and of the many songs that Pádraig Éinniú had taken with him to the grave.

Joe’s father had spent a number of years during Joe’s boyhood working in Scotland, visiting his family only once or twice a year. He at last returned home when Joe was about 12, which left only five years for them to get to know each other — and for two of those years, Joe was at school in Dublin. In light of this sad experience we may better understand why ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Muire’ — the lament that formed a centrepiece of Good Friday observances in Joe’s home — was so important to him, and why his performance of it was so powerfully moving.

1937–46: at home in Carna

Apart from a brief visit to Scotland in 1939, Joe spent the next ten years at home. During the Second World War, he and his brother Máirtín dredged for scallops in Cill Chiaráin Bay, a job which entailed a six-mile walk each way as well as the back-breaking labour of rowing a currach up and down the bay, hauling the dredger across the sea-bottom. He also spent several months in County Meath cutting turf, the demand for which was high because the supply of coal had been disrupted by the War. Even the steam locomotives relied on turf at that time.

This period was primarily important, however, because it gave Joe an opportunity for more mature exploration of the cultural riches of Iorras Aithneach. Despite his father’s untimely death, Joe’s home still teemed with singers and storytellers. In 1940, at the age of twenty, Joe first sang in public at the Feis Ceoil in Carna. He told Proinsias Mac Aonghusa in an interview for Radio Éireann that he was terrified: ‘My legs were shaking! The first time, you know yourself! The old songs aren’t meant to be sung on a stage. They’re meant to be sung in a country house, or on the same level as the people listening, and my legs were shaking so badly that a lot of people thought I was dancing!’[15].

Having won the competition at the Feis in 1940, Joe competed at the Oireachtas in Dublin, where he came second. From then onwards, with the exception of 1947, he attended the Oireachtas every year until 1957. He won the top prize for the first time in 1942 — the same year that he first met Séamus Ennis, who had begun collecting for the Irish Folklore Commission in Iorras Aithneach. The fact that Ennis, a Dubliner, took such a keen interest in collecting this material undoubtedly underlined for Joe the wider significance of his traditional heritage[16]. Séamus Ennis and Joe, who were exactly the same age, remained friends — and also keen rivals — for many years afterwards, and saw a great deal of each other especially during the 1960s, prior to Joe’s emigration to the United States.

1947–1965: Clydebank, Scotland

In the postwar period Great Britain once again became a magnet for Irish people, who were in great demand as reconstruction got underway. Joe moved to Clydebank, outside Glasgow, in 1947, where his father and his older brothers Máirtín and Micheál had worked before him. He lodged there with a man from Caladh Mhaínse near Carna, Seán Ó Conghaile (Connolly), and sometime in the late 1940s Joe married Mary, the daughter of the house. Although they eventually had four children, the marriage appears to have faltered early on. Joe departed to find work in England in 1951, and visited his family only a few times before his wife’s death from pleurisy in May, 1966. At that time the care of the children — Jackie, Patricia, Barbara and Michael — fell to Mary’s mother and sisters in Clydebank. It would appear that Joe made no attempt to stay in touch with his family.

This is not the place to rake over the details of this painful story, nor to speculate on the reasons for the ending of Joe’s marriage. What seems clear, however, is that Joe himself experienced deep shame and unhappiness as a result[17]. He rarely spoke of his family, and developed a smooth knack of deflecting all questions about his personal life. Years later, when introducing a love-song for an audience, a note of bitterness could be heard when he mentioned ‘love — whatever that is’. He was also fond of quoting a maxim that he attributed to his grandmother: ‘Love is blind — but marriage is an eye-opener’. What he meant by these oblique comments is anybody’s guess. Relationships are mysterious.

1951 1965: folk revival and ballad boom

In 1955 there appeared a groundbreaking recording, the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: Ireland, which featured singers from all over Ireland recorded by American folklorist Alan Lomax in 1951. Lomax’s guide on his field-trip was Séamus Ennis, who introduced Lomax to many of the Gaeltacht singers from whom he himself had recorded materials for the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940s. Joe Heaney, working and living in Scotland at the time, was not among them. It is remarkable, however, that of the twenty-six songs on that recording, fully half became standard items in Joe’s active repertoire — including some, like Elizabeth Cronin’s Cucanandy-o, which had never been staple fare in Conamara[18]. It seems safe to say that this recording made a considerable impression on Joe, and may have even helped shape his choice of material.

During Joe’s years in Britain, the revival of interest in traditional music took off, and Joe became a familiar figure in the pubs and folk-clubs of Kilburn, Camden Town and elsewhere in England and Scotland in the 1950s and ’60s. His entry into this world was facilitated by his friendship with Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger, whose London-based Singers Club greatly influenced the British folk-song revival; even after his departure for the U.S., Joe remained the Singers Club’s Irish artist-in-residence. In late 1963 and early 1964, Mac Coll and Seeger interviewed Joe at length, and many of the songs and reminiscences they recorded are preserved on the CD issued in 2000, The Road from Conamara[19].

In 1957, Joe visited Dublin at the invitation of Gael-Linn to participate in the first of a series of Oícheanta Seanchais (‘Folklore Evenings’) at the Damer Hall in Stephen’s Green. Singers, storytellers, musicians, dancers and shanachies from Kerry, West Cork, Conamara and Donegal assembled on a stage set evocative of a kitchen in the Gaeltacht, and shared stories, songs, and good times just as they had done at home. The evenings clearly served as a model for Joe Heaney, who would often begin his own presentations in years to come by inviting people to visualise just such a fireside gathering.

The Oícheanta Seanchais drew huge crowds, and were repeated in each of the following two years. At the same time, encouraged by the success of these shows, Gael-Linn began issuing commercial recordings of traditional music and song, the first time such recordings had been published by an Irish company. Joe Heaney and Seán ‘ac Dhonncha were the only Conamara singers recorded by Gael-Linn at this time, and their fame spread not just throughout Ireland but within Conamara itself, where they encouraged a new generation to take an interest in traditional singing.

With the rising popularity of The Dubliners and Luke Kelly and the rapturous welcome of the Clancy Brothers home from America, the ‘ballad boom’ was in full swing in Dublin by 1961. Following the success of the Oícheanta Seanchais and the popularity of the recordings, Joe Heaney decided in that year to return to Ireland and try for a professional career. As it happened, concert promoters at the time were looking for acts to fill theatres and cinemas that had suffered a decline in audience numbers when RTÉ began broadcasting television. The popularity of the ballads helped to fill these venues, and Joe was invited to participate in a number of such concerts over the next few years.

This period of his life bore fruit for Joe in several ways. Accustomed to the folk clubs of England, in Dublin Joe encountered larger and more diverse audiences, and began sharpening his instincts as a performer and gaining greater confidence on stage. He forged lifelong friendships with the Clancys, with Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners, and with others at the centre of the ballad phenomenon. They swapped material and learned from each other[20]. Séamus Ennis, who had been working for the BBC, also came to live in Dublin at this time. All of them could be found most afternoons at O’Donoghue’s in Merrion Row, which became the designated gathering-place for singers, musicians, and those who wanted to rub shoulders with them.

By 1965, however, it had become apparent that the audience for the ballads and the audience for traditional unaccompanied Irish singing were significantly different. At one concert in 1964, Joe was actually booed off the stage by a drunken crowd who had come to hear The Dubliners — an incident that wounded Joe deeply. In the four years he had been home, Joe had not managed to achieve anything resembling a regular income, and he got by largely through the generosity of Paddy and Maureen O’Donoghue, who made sure that he got a hot meal most days, and other friends who provided him with lodgings. However much Joe wanted to stay in Ireland, there didn’t seem to be a living there for him.

1965: first visit to the USA

All this began to change in 1965, when Liam Clancy’s efforts resulted in Joe being invited to sing at the Newport Folk Festival. As Clancy recalled it[21],

The Newport Folk Festival was a very eclectic kind of gathering. There were blues singers from the South Georgia Sea Islands; Pete Seeger would have been whipping up the crowd of maybe fifteen to twenty thousand people. Bob Dylan went electric that year. Joe Heaney came on the scene and I don’t think people knew what to make of him… When he got immersed in a song he became possessed by that song. And it was like he was a medium. It wasn’t an individual that was singing. It came out of everything that had gone before him. And anybody who ever watched him singing got that sense of not just the individual, but the importance of what he had come from.

Joe remained in the States until October of that year. He sang at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he met Kenneth Goldstein, chairman of the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania for nearly twenty years, who became one of Joe’s earliest and most committed supporters in the U.S. Recordings of Joe’s singing made at the Philadelphia Folk Festival were eventually released in 1975 as an LP on the Philo label, Come All You Gallant Irishmen.

1966–1976: emigration

Upon his return to Dublin in the autumn of 1965, Joe’s reputation was higher than ever. Stories about his appearances at Newport were in the newspapers. In 1966, Séamus Ennis brought Joe with him on a musical tour through Co. Clare, and he continued to appear on stage alongside the Clancy Brothers. Proinsias Mac Aonghusa invited Joe onto his radio programme Aeriris a number of times. But the underlying difficulty hadn’t changed, and Joe was still living hand-to-mouth. It was time for a change.

In 1966, the world learned that Joe was emigrating to America. Journalist Joe Kennedy, long an admirer, quoted Joe as follows in an article he wrote for the Evening Herald[22]:

…[W]hen I went to the Newport Festival last year for the first time I found an audience for my songs and stories such as I have never had before. I did not like to make the decision to leave Ireland permanently but there just is not a living for me as a folk singer here.

Once again, Joe’s friendship with The Clancy Brothers was of enormous help as Joe found his feet in the States. Tom Clancy paid Joe’s fare to New York in August, 1966; and the Clancys’ manager, Jerry Campbell, helped Joe find a job as a doorman at a prestigious Manhattan apartment building, The Langham, at 135 Central Park West, where he worked for the next ten years. A friend of Campbell’s, Jack Deasy, found an apartment for Joe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. And if it’s true — and maybe it isn’t — Tommy Makem helped Joe obtain a work visa through a Chinese friend who owned a restaurant, and who vouched to US immigration authorities that Joe Heaney was able to play Chinese music, and that this was what was needed to assure the success of his restaurant in Greenwich Village![23]

Apart from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and a few others, however, Joe relied little on the large Irish-American community in New York. Mick Moloney told Liam Mac Con Iomaire[24]:

Joe’s support system was completely outside the Irish American circle. The Irish Americans ignored him completely. They didn’t realise that they had a genius in their midst. And it was the Irish language, too, which made it inaccessible to most of them.

Sean Williams, who later studied with Joe Heaney at the University of Washington, Seattle, offered a sensible explanation[25]:

I think there were a lot of first-generation Irish people in the northwest who were ashamed of anyone who spoke Irish. Because in the eighties the economic boom hadn’t happened yet in Ireland, Riverdance hadn’t happened yet, and people who left Ireland felt that they had reason to be ashamed of anyone like Joe. A lot of the Irish community wouldn’t come out to hear Joe. He reminded them of things they would prefer to forget. Anyhow, Joe would probably scold the likes of them for not speaking Irish, and I don’t think they cared to be scolded. They probably had enough scolding when they were younger and still living in Ireland.

Joe settled into a routine in New York and gradually began to make a name for himself on the American folk circuit. The folk music revival was every bit as big a phenomenon in the States as it was in Britain and Ireland, and afforded plenty of opportunities. Kenneth Goldstein helped to introduce Joe to university folk clubs and societies. He met the Clancys regularly in The Lion’s Head, a Greenwich Village bar, and they often used their contacts to get him invited to perform at festivals[26]. Occasionally a lucky accident helped spread Joe’s fame — such as the time Merv Griffin, one of several show-business tenants in ‘The Langham’, visited O’Donoghue’s pub in Dublin and was astonished to see the face of his concierge looking down from a photograph on the wall. As a consequence, Joe was invited to appear as a guest on Merv Griffin’s Saint Patrick’s Day television broadcast, where he sang a number of songs to the delight of a national audience.

From 1969 onward, Joe returned to Dublin on holiday every year or two, each time to a rapturous welcome in O’Donoghue’s. During his 1969 visit, he recorded a number of songs for the British label, Topic Records, and his first LP, Joe Heaney: Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic and English, appeared at the end of that year. In 1970, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa interviewed Joe in New York for his RTÉ television programme, Féach.

In 1971, the first of Joe’s LPs for Irish record company Gael-Linn appeared. It was this recording and its sequel, issued in 1976, that contained the most important songs from Joe’s Irish-language repertoire; both were hugely influential. Gael-Linn undertook the task of arranging concerts in the Damer Hall and elsewhere for Joe whenever he returned home. He had by this time become fast friends with Gael-Linn’s Riobard Mac Góráin and Máire Nic Fhinn Davitt, who not only helped to maintain Joe’s reputation in Ireland, but tried hard to find him a job that would allow him to return to Ireland permanently. But while this was not to be, there were changes in store for Joe that finally allowed him to become what he had hoped for when he won the scholarship to Coláiste Éinde in 1935: a teacher[27].

1976–1984: professional Gael

When Joe returned to the States in the autumn of 1976, he went back not to the lobby of The Langham but to a university teaching post. Doctor Neely Bruce, Professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, persuaded Joe to offer private lessons to Wesleyan students interested in Irish oral culture — as Joe described it to Mick Moloney, ‘Irish songs and stories, and mythical and cultural things’. Joe very much enjoyed the teaching and the contact with students. He retained his flat in Brooklyn, and took the bus back and forth to Middletown — a long journey, but better than being on his feet all day in the lobby of 135 Central Park West. He continued to teach at Wesleyan until he moved to Seattle at the end of 1981.

When he wasn’t teaching, Joe participated in festivals all over the U.S., Canada and beyond. He frequently visited other universities and colleges, and it was at this time that he began to include storytelling as well as songs in his presentations and workshops. He found the experience engrossing. As he explained to Mick Moloney[28]:

I just go up there to tell them something. I get so involved in what I’m doing that I get lost. And I’m on my own. There isn’t a soul there, only myself, and I get so involved that I’m there talking and singing and telling epic stories about Cúchulainn or Fionn Mac Cumhaill and all that. And I find out that the audiences — most of them any way — really love it.

Joe’s reputation continued to grow, just as the work he was doing helped him to grow and mature as a performer. At last Joe Heaney was able to focus all of his energies on the subject-matter that had engrossed him all his life, without the distraction of earning his living doing something totally unrelated. He began to win recognition not just for his talents as a performer, but also for his contributions to a wider understanding of the Irish experience which — whether Irish-Americans were ready to embrace it or not — had helped shape the United States over the previous century and more. One such award was the Eisteddfod Award, granted to Joe by Southeast Massachusetts University in 1977, which recognized both the importance of his repertoire and the ‘dignity… of his performance of it [which] has helped considerably to maintain the integrity of Irish traditional music during the period of its greatest popularization outside of Ireland’.[29]

It was at an Eisteddfod Festival the following year that Joe first met Lucy Simpson, a schoolteacher who turned out to be a neighbour of Joe’s in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The two became close friends, and Lucy set about recording Joe’s songs and stories at weekly meetings that continued — albeit intermittently — even after Joe departed for Seattle. Lucy somehow managed to persuade Joe to let his guard down — something he didn’t do with everybody — and the recordings are as valuable in what they reveal of Joe’s character and feelings as they are in terms of their content. Lucy made a list of over two hundred songs and other items, and Joe would then record one or more of these each time they met. Many of these recordings have been made available for the first time in these Archives.

In February and March of 1978, Joe made his first visit to the Pacific Northwest. He was invited by Fredric Lieberman, a New Yorker who was at that time chairman of the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, Seattle, to spend several weeks as a visiting artist-in-residence at the University. The success of this engagement, which yielded some of the richest material in the University’s Joe Heaney Collection, led eventually to Joe’s being asked to return to Seattle for a two-year appointment.

In the meantime, Joe visited Ireland in 1979 for several weeks. During this visit he was invited to England, where he recorded with his friend from London days, Gabe Sullivan, the LP Joe and the Gabe which was released in the U.S. the following September. Surely the most astonishing consequence of Joe’s trip to England came about during a tour, arranged by Ewan Mac Coll and Peter Bellamy, of folk clubs throughout the north of England. It was at one such club in Norwich that Joe first encountered American avant-garde composer John Cage, who had travelled from New York especially to meet him. Cage was working on a composition called Roaratorio based on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and he recruited Joe and a number of other Irish musicians to take part in the production, which was to have its first performance at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in January, 1980[30].

Roaratorio was an hour-long aleatoric composition — a word that is derived from the Latin alea or dice. It depended upon the random workings of chance to provide its memorable moments. Readings from Finnegans Wake and other texts were interwoven with music, singing and recordings of sounds mentioned in Joyce’s work. Each of the performers was told to play for twenty minutes exactly, never mind what else was going on at the time. As Paddy Glackin described it[31],

It was a kind of simultaneous music-making, based on chance operations, and this atonal thing going on. Then, unexpectedly, the music would come together. It was magic; it would last five seconds at the most, and then it would be off again. And mixed in with all that were all these sounds! … It was incredible. We never heard such a thing before. Cage was there, laughing at us, because he knew how we felt. But Joe took the thing very seriously. He seemed to understand what was going on. The most amazing thing to me was that he understood John Cage, in a way that we certainly didn’t… And Joe had extremely strong opinions about it all. After the concert one night he went out and said, ‘That wasn’t right tonight!’ He had a sort of spiritual understanding of what was going on, I think.

Indeed, Joe was very much intrigued by Cage and his work, and Cage was no less interested in Joe Heaney, seeking him out for his opinion after the concerts, and valuing that opinion when he got it. Roaratorio was performed with Joe’s participation on two further occasions after its premiere in Paris; for performances which took place after Joe’s death in 1984, a tape recording of Joe’s songs was used.

One of the most exotic concerts of Joe’s career — at least in terms of distance travelled — was the one he gave to a packed audience at Sydney Opera House. Concert promoter and folksinger Warren Fahey arranged for Joe to be invited to participate in the Festival of Sydney in January, 1981. Fahey’s recording of the concert can be heard on his website[32], and he has kindly allowed us to use a number of songs from it here. To hear Joe’s performance in such wonderful acoustics, with a warm and receptive audience of Australian music-lovers, is a revelation.

The year that began in Sydney ended for Joe in Seattle, where he began a two-year appointment as Artist in Residence in January, 1982. The following July, it was announced that Joe was to receive the National Heritage Fellowship Award, bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. for the first time that year[33]. Richard Harrington described the occasion in the Washington Post, 5th July 1982[34]:

Fifteen men and women — shapers, movers, founders and protectors of varied folk traditions — accepted the thanks of a nation Saturday evening as the National Endowment for the Arts unveiled its first National Heritage Fellowship at the Departmental Auditorium… The 15 ranged from craftspeople… to musicians. These are ‘the people who have given this country a spiritual signature’, said folklorist Alan Lomax. ‘This is the first time America has turned around and given proper credit where credit was due to the folk tradition for having made America a wonderful place to live in. In the last 50 years, we have moved with giant strides toward something we think of as social and economic justice. Tonight we move to an important new idea — cultural equity, cultural democracy, where we recognise that America’s most precious possession is its diverse cultural heritage’… Following the awards, each winner gave a brief performance… Ballad singer Joe Heaney stood like a Prussian and sang about an ancient battle, a round-by-round description of the boxing match between ‘Morrissey and the Roosian Sailor’. He also gave a hilarious and tongue-twisted history of one particular Irish tune that led emcee Theodore Bikel to suggest that ‘history should be taught by folk singers, not historians’.

Joe himself was very proud of this honour — and rightly so. Jill Linzee, one of Joe’s graduate students in Seattle, explained to Liam Mac Con Iomaire[35]:

The award Joe got is a very prestigious award. It’s a big deal… And he was given the award because of his recognition by the academic community in this country. There were PhDs in folklore and enthnomusicology who were saying that this man is worthy of our attention and our recognition as a man who is a fine example of this tradition and also as someone who is investing time and energy in passing that tradition on to others.

That autumn, Joe returned to Dublin on what was to be his last visit to Ireland. He returned in triumph. Thanks to the efforts of Riobard Mac Góráin and Máire Nic Fhinn Davitt of Gael-Linn, the story of Joe’s National Heritage Fellowship Award finally made it into the Irish newspapers. To crown this achievement, these loyal friends arranged for Joe to give a concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. So the Irishman who had sung before huge audiences at festivals across the United States and Canada, who had performed Roaratorio in Paris, London and Toronto, and who had sold out the Sydney Opera House was at last honoured with a concert on the national stage in Ireland’s capital city.

Although Joe’s contract with the University of Seattle came to an end in 1983, he continued to teach privately until shortly before his death from emphysema on 1st May 1984. He could not have done so without the support of friends and colleagues from the University of Washington, who did all they could to get concert and workshop bookings for Joe, and who supported him lovingly in his final illness.

This ends our review of the most significant events of Joe Heaney’s life. The significance of his life, however, is another story, and that’s where we go next.


1. Joe often told people — whether it was true or not — that it was his great-grandmother, Bairbre Ní Chathasaigh’s mother Máire, who was the larger-than-life subject of the song Cailleach an Airgid.

2. Recalled by singer Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha in conversation with Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Joe Heaney’s biographer, in Mac Con Iomaire’s book, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche, Cló Iar-Chonnachta (2007), 45. This biography, written in Irish, has been an invaluable resource in the preparation of this article. Those unable to read Irish may still enjoy the many passages quoted from interviews conducted in English; and the list of sources (pp. 473–6) provides a useful starting point for further study.

3. Shebeens represented the retail end of the poteen-making industry, which was of course illegal.

4. Of these, only Joe’s brother Máirtín Éinniú stayed at home as an adult; his daughters Máire and Barbara married two Mulkerrins brothers, and Joe used to stay with his niece Máire and her husband on visits home. One of Barbara’s daughters, Bríd, won Corn Uí Riada, the top prize awarded at the annual Oireachtas for traditional singing in Irish, in 2002. Joe’s older brothers Seán (1914–1980) and Micheál (1918–1979) both lived for a time in the United States before returning to Ireland; his older sister Máire became a schoolteacher and lived with her husband in Bray, County Wicklow; and his younger sisters Kitty and Sheila both married and raised families abroad, Kitty in England and Sheila in Florida.

5. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 223.

6. Literally, ‘Mary of the Smith, Mrs Canavan.’ One of Máire an Ghabha’s ancestors had been a blacksmith. Her grandmother’s name was Máire Ní Ghríofa (Griffin) and her mother, Neainín Mháire Ní Ghríofa (‘Mary Griffin’s Little Nan’) became Bean Mhic Giolla Máirtín (‘Gilmartin’) when she married. Although it was generally a person’s male antecedents who supplied the lineal references in this naming system, occasionally the mother’s name would be used; when the father had died young, for example. Because she greatly outlived her husband, all of Máire an Ghabha’s children and grandchildren have borne her name; thus her granddaughter Caitríona, daughter of her son Michael, is known as Caitríona Mhichael Mháire an Ghabha.

7. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 108.

8. See in particular his long discussions with Ewan Mac Coll and with Jill Linzee.

9. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 50. Translated from Irish. Passages originally in Irish are given in the Irish-language version of this article; English translations (as here) are by the editor.

10. Ibid., 48. Translated from Irish.

11. Both passages ibid., 56. Translated from Irish.

12. Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha told Liam Mac Con Iomaire that there was only one pub in the district that would allow singing — Tigh Phádraig Rua (Uí Dhónaill) in Maorus: ‘At that time it was the only place in the community where there was permission to sing a song. In the pubs in Carna, if you raised your voice you’d be told to stop or to go home. But Tigh Phádraig Rua was the mecca for songs’. This pub has now been closed for many years (Ibid., 225).

13. Ibid., 109.

14. NFC 1275:417–446. Texts include the songs An Faoitín, Beartlí Ó Dónaill, and Cúilín Triopallach na Gruaige Báine, and the stories Dearg Mac Dearg and Grabaire Beag Fhinn Mhac Cumhaill. Although it is likely that Joe contributed these pages at the behest of his schoolmaster, they are not part of the school-based collection of folklore that the Irish Folklore Commission undertook in the years 1937–8. A likely date for his manuscript would be 1935, when Joe received a prize (Airgead an Mháirtínigh) for telling stories, including the two tales just named.

15. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 110. Translated from Irish.

16. Ennis recorded many songs from Joe, Seán Choilm, Colm Ó Caodháin and others in Iorras Aithneach between 1942 and 1946. Songs recorded from Joe include Amhrán na mBréag, Amhrán Rinn Mhaoile, Amhrán Shéamais Uí Chonchúir, Bád Dóite Loideáin, Béal an Átha Buí, [Is measa liom] Bródach Uí Ghaora, An Buinneán Buí, Caisleán Rí Néill, Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair, An Crúiscín Lán, Cuaichín Ghleann Néifin, O’Brien from Tipperary, Péarla Dheas an Chúil Bháin, Róisín Dubh, Seachrán Chearbhaill, Seven Young Irishmen, and Úna Bhán; also Fáilte Uí Cheallaigh, a piece of seanchas about the poet Micheál Mhac Suibhne. For some of these, Ennis recorded the text alone; for others he noted the tune in staff notation and one or two stanzas; for a few, he recorded a couple of stanzas on an acetate disc. Manuscript references to the National Folklore Collection are included in transcripts published on this website, and can also be found in Ríonach uí Ógáin (ed.), Mise an fear ceoil: Séamus Ennis — Dialann Taistil 1942 46, Cló Iar-Chonnachta (Indreabhán 2007), 439–40.

17. Liam Mac Con Iomaire’s biography of Joe contains a revealing anecdote. Joe was observed sitting by himself at the bar in O’Donoghue’s in Dublin on a Sunday in May, 1966. He was in a foul mood. Mairéad Ní Eithir, who was in the pub with some friends, saw him there. ‘Someone told us, “his wife has died, and he’s not going home for the funeral, and he’s beside himself”. We all understood; since he wasn’t going to the funeral he was in a worse temper than if he had done the thing which he should have done’ (Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 239 40).

18. Songs included The Banks of the Roses, The Rocks of Bawn, Dó-ín Dú, The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer, Connla, Cucanandy, Bean Pháidín, She moved through the fair, Morrissey and the Russian Sailor, Molly Bawn, Mrs Mc Grath, Una Bhán, and Soldier, Soldier; all present in Joe’s repertoire. In addition, the recording included Munster versions of An Beinnsín Luachra and Tháinig bean cois leasa (‘The Fairy Lullaby’), of which Joe sang the Conamara equivalents.

19. Fred McCormick’s transcripts of Joe’s conversations with Mac Coll and Seeger are available online on the mustrad website. After Joe’s death, Peggy Seeger donated copies of the original tapes to the Joe Heaney Collection at the University of Washington, Seattle. We have included a number of items in these Archives that were not on the commercial CD, as well as fresh transcriptions of some of the discussions.

20. Most famously, Joe gave The Dubliners the song Seven Drunken Nights, which reached number seven in the British charts in 1967. In America, Joe and Liam Clancy developed a repertoire that they performed together at Rosie O’Grady’s in New York — songs including Anach Cuain, Dónal Óg, The Rocks of Bawn, and An Buinneán Buí.

21. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 228–9.

22. Ibid., 241.

23. Ibid., 242.

24. Ibid., 364.

25. Ibid., 395.

26. Joe was later able to return the favour, arranging gigs for Liam Clancy after his decision to launch a solo career and the arrival of a large tax bill had left him in a financial hole. See Mac Con Iomaire, Ibid., 288–9.

27. Joe was eventually offered a position as a building custodian and groundsman with Gaeltarra Éireann in Conamara while he was home on holiday in 1977. By this time, however, he was teaching at Wesleyan University and decided against taking up the offer (Mac Con Iomaire, Ibid., 311–2).

28. Ibid., 308–10.

29. Ibid., 314.

30. (Link dead; January 2016.)

31. Ibid., 337–8. The other performers, in addition to Joe and Paddy, were Liam Óg O’Flynn, Peadar and Mel Mercier, and Séamas Tansey.

32. Joe Heaney.

33. National Endowment for the Arts.

34. ‘Honoring America’s Folk Heritage’, quoted in Mac Con Iomaire, Op cit., 357–9.

35. Ibid., 385.