Native singing in the west of Ireland

By Virginia Blankenhorn

Joe Heaney and the ballad boom

When Joe Heaney returned to Ireland from England in 1961, the folk music revival was getting into its stride worldwide. In the United States, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had acquired an agent and a recording contract and were enjoying phenomenal success. At home, Ronnie Drew was forming the ballad group that subsequently became known as The Dubliners. The ballad boom encouraged the formation of groups like The Wolfe Tones, The Johnstons, and Sweeney’s Men in the 1960s, the same decade that saw the emergence of Seán Ó Riada’s group, Ceoltóirí Chualann; these were followed in the 1970s by super-groups like Planxty, The Bothy Band, The Chieftains and many others. All of these groups relied on musical instruments — initially, the guitar and banjo were favoured — to maintain a strong rhythmical beat. Even slow, contemplative songs were sung to the accompaniment of a guitar.

It’s hard to remember now just how innovative all of this was. Prior to the 1960s, Irish dance music was played by solo performers, or by céilí bands in which everyone played in unison, supported by a piano and drum-kit. Singing never came into it. The sort of ensemble playing that emerged in the 1960s represented a total departure from what had gone before; and the involvement of singers alongside musicians in such groups was nothing short of revolutionary.

As a solo singer, Joe Heaney represented the old guard. Despite his friendship with the Clancys and The Dubliners, he didn’t really approve of the groups and what he called their ‘gimmicks’, which included the guitar. (He had a good reason for his dislike of the guitar, as we shall presently see.) He was unfailingly critical of the show-off tendency of younger musicians to play the dance music much too fast. He spoke wistfully about the Ballinakill Ceilí Band. In short, Joe saw the tradition being hijacked, and he was upset about it. He saw it as his job to guard the tradition, to see that it got the honour and respect that it deserved, given the hardships endured by those who had created and preserved it through the worst of times in Ireland.

Audience involvement in sean-nós songs

In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that Joe’s attempts to become part of the ballad scene in Dublin met with difficulty. Even when he was singing in English, his style of singing — unaccompanied, rhythmically subtle, melismatic, vocally expressive — was simply too different from what people had begun to expect.

Traditional Gaelic singing requires a truly attentive audience such as the one Joe knew in his youth. Unlike the songs favoured by the balladeers — punchy rebel songs, comic songs, drinking songs, sentimental songs that don’t demand much serious thought — the native repertoire of someone like Joe Heaney requires an imaginative and open-minded listener, someone willing to encounter a complex musical idiom and to engage with poetry that is both verbally and historically nuanced. In short, the listener needs to co-create the song in their own mind, to work along with the singer to bring the imagery and meaning of the song home.

Such an audience was available to Joe at home in Carna, a community of people who had been familiar with the songs all their lives, and whose everyday speech bore much in common with the rich language of the song-poetry. Like many others, Joe felt that the presence of any accompaniment reduced the respect owing to the song and to the singer, and that a regular rhythmic beat turned the song into something light that no longer required the listener’s close concentration.

The sort of concentration required by unaccompanied traditional singing is difficult in a noisy concert hall most of the audience wanted to hear the ballads and where few understood Irish. As Joe himself told Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, ‘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…[1]‘ The fact that Joe often sang in a language understood by only a small minority of listeners raised the bar even higher.

What is sean-nós?

These days, the singing style of Conamara and other Gaelic-speaking regions— now commonly referred to as sean-nós — is widely recognised, and has influenced singing in both Irish and English well beyond areas. But questions about its character and origins still come up, and for this reason it may be useful to offer some suggestions for those inclined to wonder about such things.

The Irish expression sean-nós (‘old style’) came to be used in connection with traditional unaccompanied singing in Irish in the early days of the Oireachtas competitions, where it was used to differentiate the traditional singing of the Gaeltact areas from the sort of thing that would be heard in polite drawing-rooms round the piano. In the century since, the term has become shorthand for a prescribed set of stylistic features governing vocal quality, rhythmic character, melodic variation, and a multitude of other factors — so many, in fact, that some people’s minds have refused to hold them all and, consequently, the term has been subjected to a certain degree of abuse[2].

Joe Heaney, like many of his Conamara contemporaries, rarely used the term sean-nós[3]. It’s easy to see why. By the use of the word sean (‘old’), the term implies the existence of something ‘new’; but in the wild reaches of Conamara this ‘new’ thing — the parlour-singing that the organizers of the Oireachtas wanted to rule out — was unheard of. There was only ever one kind of singing there, and its character was understood and transmitted from one generation to the next without any need for analysis or definitions or comparisons with other genres. Today, western societies — including the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland — are increasingly multi-ethnic, acutely conscious of cultural differences, ready to make comparisons and trace influences and draw conclusions. But when Joe Heaney was growing up, cultural differences — while they might be acknowledged in the wider political and social context — did not significantly impinge upon the social and artistic life of the community.

So much for the terminology — but what of the singing itself? Are there ways of listening to the native singing of Conamara, and ways of thinking about it, that will make it more comprehensible to people who have grown up with all the mainstream musical choices that radio, TV and the Internet now make possible?

Once upon a time…

Ireland is a musically-conservative country. Notwithstanding massive attendance at the Oxegen festival of pop music and similar events every year, traditional music is still popular. Many people still go out on a Saturday night to hear eighteenth-century dance music played on fiddles and uilleann pipes. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that these instruments — in fact, any instruments — are relative newcomers to Ireland. For most of time, there was only one source of melody: the human voice.

Singing is a natural human activity. All cultures do it. It is an activity that brings people together, and that helps us express feelings that otherwise might not find a voice. In the history of all music, in every society on earth, this was the starting-point. At one time, the type of singing native to Conamara would not have seemed strange at all, because something like it would have existed everywhere.

Over centuries, musical life began to assume greater variety. In addition to mourning one’s dead or lulling one’s child to sleep, singing became part of preparations for battle, victory celebrations and religious rites. In many societies, singing became a group activity, or it began to accompany dancing, or both.

For those societies that developed group singing and dance, the regularisation of rhythm became necessary in order to maintain group cohesion. Rhythm is intrinsic to being alive — try listening to your own heartbeat or going for a walk without being aware of the rhythm that accompanies everything you do — and the first rhythmical accompaniment was probably provided by people’s feet and hands. Next came the idea that a rhythmical device — like a plucked string — could also carry a pitch. In time, the accompaniment of the human voice with musical instruments came to seen as part of the natural order. And because instruments could do things that the human voice could not, instrumental music began to develop its own forms and functions.

While some have argued that Conamara’s native singing tradition can only be explained by reference to foreign models[4], it is more probable that it is a remnant of an earlier time in Ireland, when the human voice was still the principal means of creating musical sound. Rather than developing a choral tradition or a singing tradition closely allied with dance, the people of Ireland continued to view singing as a solo activity. Because there was no ensemble to maintain, such singing did not require regularisation in rhythmical terms; because it was a solo tradition, the singer was free to improvise melodic elements at the moment of performance; and for the same reason, the regularisation of tonality was also unnecessary, and pitch could be bent for expressive purposes[5].

Understanding musical structure…

So, if rhythm, melody and pitch are all variable, what if anything is invariable? What gives form and structure to the songs in this tradition? What anchors all this variability to the ground?

In terms of both thematic content and musical form, many of these songs reflect centuries-old European models. Thematically, Professor Seán Ó Tuama has convincingly demonstrated that the themes presented in traditional Irish love-poetry can be traced to the themes of ‘courtly love’ (amour courtois) developed by the troubadour and trouvère poets of the High Middle Ages in France — themes which likely entered Ireland by way of the Anglo-Norman settlement in the late 12th century[6]. As regards the airs, many of those used in connection with songs in the Conamara tradition can also be heard to songs sung in English, and belong to a common stock of melodies used throughout Ireland and Britain[7]. Most of them contain no more than two melodic elements, which most often occur in the familiar configurations ABAB, ABBA, or AABA. The end of a stanza always coincides with the end of the melody. In both of these respects, therefore, the Conamara repertoire presents no unusual challenge to the listener.

In structural terms, it is the poetry, the text, which provides the solid foundation for the airy filigree of melodic and rhythmic variability characteristic of the Conamara style[8]. Like songs in the English-language tradition of Ireland, the Conamara repertoire consists largely of songs composed in two- or four-line stanzas. Lines contain between four and eight stressed syllables and an irregular number of unstressed syllables; all lines in a stanza are of equal length; and all stanzas in a song are constructed on the same pattern[9]. This arrangement provides a predictable rhythmic pattern that the listener can follow in his head. The singer can then weave a rhythmically flexible and subtly variable melodic tapestry around that pattern without fear of losing the listener, for whom the text’s meaning is enhanced by the singer’s variations. To borrow an analogy from another musical genre, it is as if the predictable stressed syllables in the text function as a ‘ground bass’ for the singer. Indeed, the singer must remain grounded by the text if the song is to have any meaning, as we shall hear from Joe’s own comments in a moment.

…as distinct from style

For most people not born to it, the difficulties presented by Conamara singing — or the singing of any Gaeltacht area, for that matter — are stylistic rather than structural. Rhythmically, it may be helpful to think of these performances not as songs, but rather as slow, deliberate recitations, with melody used to heighten the normal flow and emphasis of speech. Such a concept may lie behind the expression abair amhráin which — as Joe never tired of pointing out to his students — does not mean ‘sing a song’ but rather ‘say a song’. In any case, an understanding of how speech and verse operate in Irish is crucial for anyone hoping to learn these songs, which may explain why so many have believed that the style cannot be learned by someone who is not a native Irish speaker.

‘Pulse’ and ‘beat’

Considering these songs as elaborated recitations may also help us make sense of a statement Joe was fond of making to anyone who would listen[10]:

In that type of singing there is no ‘beat’ — it’s only got a ‘pulse’. And the minute you put beat to it, it’s dead. You can’t get the same feeling out of it anymore. And in sean-nós there is a very deep feeling; and without that feeling, the song is lost, especially on the audience.

How does Joe differentiate between ‘beat’ and ‘pulse’ — two words that, in some sense at least, are synonymous? Asked by James Cowdery[11] on one occasion if, by ‘pulse’, he didn’t mean something regular, Joe replied:

Something that goes evenly, more or less, you know, with no sort of loudness all the time, no sort of [thumps table-top] ‘down’ all the time. It’s a thing that keeps going; and when it stops, then…whatever they’re doing is dead… A lot of the old songs were destroyed by the present ballad groups, you know… the balladeers. They’re taking good songs and they’re strumming guitars and knocking hell out of them, you know. I mean, [if] you’re going to a funeral, you should go slowly, you should be sad, and they go to a funeral… so fast you’d think they were running a race or something. You get me? Feeling — you got to have feeling in the song. Without the feeling— It all depends on the song. You’re singing a drinking song, you got to have a jolly feeling. You’re singing a sad song, you got to have a sad feeling. That’s the way it should be done. If you don’t bring that out in the song, nobody can enjoy it.

Two issues appear to be important for Joe here. On the one hand, it’s a question of tempo: Joe objects to the speed at which certain guitar-wielding ballad groups are playing songs that he thinks should be sung more slowly. At the same time, he clearly objects to the whole foot-tapping aspect of the balladeers’ performances, with the guitar being used to enforce a thumping, metronomic musical beat that obliterates the integrity of the poetic line and overrides the subtly-varying speech-rhythm of the verse, i.e. the pulse[12]. Joe believes that it is the singer’s job to express the rhythm of the lines based on his interpretation of them, thereby revealing his understanding of the emotion expressed in the song. If we are correct in identifying the rhythm of the poetry as the anchor of the whole performance, then Joe’s statement that songs have been ‘destroyed’ by the eradication of such poetic rhythm becomes easier to comprehend[13].

Ornamentation in sean-nós singing

If one question arose more than any other in Joe’s teaching career, it doubtless involved the subject of ornamentation. People wanted him to tell them how he knew where the ornaments should go. The difficulty he had in providing an answer points to the fact that the question should probably not have been asked in the first place.

To talk of ornamentation implies that, to the singer, there is a basic air to which ornaments are then added — like the icing on a wedding-cake, to which rosettes and so forth are applied. Tim Robinson, writing about the process of creating a map, wrote[14]:

In devising symbols for different terrains such as rocky shore, sand-dunes, craggy hillside and blanket bog, I looked for visual equivalents of their feel underfoot, the internationally standardised ornaments being unknown in practice and a priori unacceptable to me; even the term ornament, with its connotations of superficiality and redundancy, was quite inappropriate for these textures that were to be the very substance and ground of the drawing.

Joe Heaney did not think of his artistry in terms of ornament — at least, not until persistent questioning required him to do so[15]. What he inherited was an organic whole, and he was not in the habit of breaking it down into its component parts for analysis. Even considering the text separately from the air was difficult for Joe, since the shape of the air depends upon that of the text. In a 1978 conversation, Esther Warkov asked Joe how he worked out where to place the ornaments in a song:

EW: When you learn a song, do you learn the ornaments with it, or do you learn the song straight and then just — ?

JH: First of all you got to learn the song and develop your own style. I mean, as the saying goes, you’ve got to walk before you can run. The main thing is to learn the song, and what the song is all about. That’s the main thing. And then, develop your own style in doing it. And then, there’s nobody living can tell anybody where to put the grace-notes in a song — you just do it yourself. It takes years.

EW: But a pattern kind of has developed over the years, that makes…

JH: Oh, yeah. You develop your own style, and do it, but it takes years and years of doing it…

EW: …The slower songs, then, would be more highly ornamented than the faster songs.

JH: Oh, yes, much more. Much more. Much more… Yeah, well, see, the point is that the ornamentation came from, you see, that the people wanted to hold onto this particular line. They didn’t want to let it go; they wanted to hold onto it as long as they could. Every [sic] different lines in a song are different, sung differently to other lines in a song. Some verses tells of the tragedy, and other verses tells why did it happen, and they vary.

Significantly, Joe’s answer focuses not on the ‘how’ question that Esther has asked him, but upon the ‘why’ of it. And in addressing the ‘why’ question, Joe tells us that ornamentation represents a singer’s emotional response to the poetry, a means of dwelling on the line and the feeling it represents. This may explain why Joe so often stressed the importance of variation from one line to the next, from one stanza to the next, and from one performance to the next of the same song. For Joe, ‘ornamentation’ — which might be better be termed ‘melodic variation’ — is an important way of advancing the song’s essential meaning in the mind of the listener.

Joe’s responses to questions about ornamentation reflect his holistic view of the process of singing. In a subsequent interview, Esther asked how Joe would know if something he was doing was good or not:

JH: I judge it by the way I feel. Now, ‘Do I feel this, or don’t I?’ That’s the question I ask myself all the time. ‘Do I feel this song? Do I put myself in the man’s name that this particular song was written about? Am I suffering the labours he did? Can I go through that, and have that picture before me?’ If I can’t follow that man — the journey he took, whether he was in bondage or slavery — I don’t follow the song and I don’t do it justice. And I know I don’t, if I don’t do that…

EW: So in the process of developing your style, the main emphasis was on how well you could really picture the whole…

JH: How well I could live the song. It’s like drawing a picture. If you don’t have the blueprint for what you’re doing, you see, you’ll never never get anywhere…

EW: When you were learning or working on a song, would you ever take one line out of the song and sing that over and over, or —

JH: No.

EW: —straight from the beginning to the end.

JH: No, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to do the whole… The first important thing about a song is, know the story, what the story’s all about. And that’s very, very important. And then, you’re doing the song the same as if you were telling the story. Each line varies, but you’ve got to put them all together so they’ll make sense. I mean, it’s no use trying to get one line, because one line follows the other, and it’s before another line, so they’ve got to knit into one another.

EW: That’s interesting. You never took out one little part to practice it. Straight through.

JH: It’s got to be. That’s the way it’s got to be.

This exchange is revealing not only for the light it casts on Joe’s rehearsal technique — the question posed by Warkov — but even more for the insight it gives into how he called up the song from his memory. The late Donald Archie MacDonald of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh has written about how traditional Gaelic storytellers in the Highlands remembered their long tales[16]. They told him that they visualised the events of the story occurring before their eyes — like watching a film at the cinema — and described the action in what today we might call real time. Similarly, Joe gauges the success of his performance on how closely he identifies with the feelings and hardships of the person whose point-of-view is portrayed in the song; and his need to ‘have that picture before [him]’ suggests strongly that he employs the same sort of process when singing a song.

Professor Sean Williams, one of Joe’s students at the University of Washington, has written that Joe generally ornamented unstressed syllables in Irish texts[17]. Her study is to be commended for providing a practical and insightful overview of Joe’s techniques insofar as melodic variation is concerned. It is questionable, however, if ornamentation should be defined solely in terms of melismatic passages — what Joe learned to call the ‘grace-notes’ — or should also include the rhythmic variability, tonal ambiguity, stretching of notes, subtle changes of tempo, pauses, and other techniques that singers in this tradition use to enhance what Joe calls ‘feeling’ — the emotional meaning and impact of their singing, particularly of sad songs. It may well be that Joe Heaney would never have considered the question of ‘ornamentation’ at all, were it not for the questions posed to him by academics. If we ourselves are to consider it, we need to consider all aspects of it.

The influence of academics

Even if he was baffled by some of those questions, however, Joe remained interested in them. In her introduction to The Road from Conamara, Peggy Seeger remarked on Joe’s interest in and intellectual understanding of the craft of singing:

Shortly before Joe left for the USA [Ewan Mac Coll and I] invited him to stay for several weeks so that we could record him in depth. He would sit, glass or teacup in hand, and sing, talk, tell stories and jokes for hours… It was at these sessions that I began to really appreciate the intellectual status of the man, how purposeful and planned was his singing, how careful was his choice of repertoire, pitch, pace and decoration. He had learned from the masters and knew that he was a master himself… [He] really enjoyed having a chance to talk about the craft of singing as opposed to just singing the songs.

Steve Coleman recalls that this interest remained with Joe later in life[18]:

We called what Joe was teaching ‘sean-nós’ but he himself didn’t use that term very often. I wrote about… the learned understanding that he had of the music around him. I think he was learning the whole time, from the time he was in England with Ewan Mac Coll, looking for anything that would help him gain a greater understanding of what he had.

Certainly Joe acquired a certain amount of terminology from his contact with academics, and he can be heard using terms like ‘grace-notes’ when talking about ornamentation, or ‘macaronic’ in connection with One morning in June, or ‘broken-token’ in discussion of songs like The Lady in her Father’s Garden. He also developed set-piece speeches about the ‘drone’ and the ‘nyaah’ — terms of art that emerged from one of Joe’s conversations with Ewan Mac Coll in 1963–4, and that may reveal more about Mac Coll’s thinking than about Joe’s.

Stylistic development

One of the greatest privileges of listening to this material is the opportunity to hear and compare examples of Joe’s singing across a wide span of years, from 1942 — the first year he was recorded by Séamus Ennis — until shortly before his death over forty years later, and to trace the development of his unique style. Compare, for example, Joe’s early recording of Amhrán Rinn Mhaoile for Séamus Ennis with his later recording on the second of his Gael-Linn LPs, Sraith 2: Ó Mo Dhúchas. While the exact nature of the differences here are hard to pin down, the earlier version seems to have more in common with the singing of Joe’s neighbours Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha (son of Seán Choilm) and Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha, whose own performance of Ámhrán Rinn Mhaoile was broadcast in 2010 on Amhráin is Ansa Liom[19], a television series made for the Irish language television channel TG4. Singer Peadar Ó Ceannabháin, who has studied Joe Heaney’s singing extensively, sums it up well[20]:

When Joe sang in the beginning he was kind of rough. He had a beautiful voice, very strong! But since he went to America, with the travel and everything, his singing became more finished, more polished. With all the travelling he did — Dublin, Scotland, England, and then America — I think that what he saw and heard affected him, consciously or unconsciously.

The style he had in the beginning was simpler, I think. He was more like the old people at home, more like Dara Bán and Michael Mháire an Ghabha. He was a lot more like them. And then, probably, to move an audience — when he’d observe other people moving an audience — he began doing other things as well. When you go on stage, it’s another kind of presentation, and he would have picked that up. I would think he was trying to put more into it. And sometimes he’d slow down the song at the end, and there would be more ornamentation. I think, oddly enough, that his voice was becoming sweeter.

While Joe may have been unaware of some of these changes, there were at least two practices that he consciously adopted in an effort to accommodate what he took to be the expectations of his audiences. The first of these — noted by Peadar Ó Ceannabháin in the passage just quoted — was his habit of slowing down during the last few words of a song to let listeners know that he had reached the end. A similar practice was that of repeating the first stanza at the end of a song, something that he probably picked up from other singers of the folk revival. Neither of these are features of Conamara singing. Here’s what Joe says to Jim Cowdery about the way singers in Conamara typically bring a song to a close:

JH: I used to do this, you know, but just in case they’d think I was mad here if I did it… The sean-nós singer always speaks, you speak the last few words of the song, you know.

JC: I’ve heard that on some…

JH: They do it in Conamara, but — I’d like to do it, you know.

JC: Do they always do that?

JH: Always. I’d do it here, but they might think I was crazy or something.

Both of these features can be noted in the version of Dónal Óg that Joe recorded for Gael-Linn on the second of his two LP’s Sraith 2: Ó Mo Dhúchas.

A changing world

In the past century, the traditional world of the Gaeltacht has been changed dramatically. Radio and television now fill the evening hours at home in Gaeltacht areas, just as they do everywhere else. Better roads enable people to get out more. The Celtic Tiger brought many emigrants home — if not to stay, at least to build holiday homes. While English has been the principal language of northern Conamara since the Famine, it has inexorably penetrated the Gaeltacht areas of southern Conamara over the past generation. It is therefore no surprise that the Irish language and its culture are under pressure in today’s world.

But while the society that created the traditional arts has passed on, there are still many who seek to nurture them. While the great storytellers and the tradition they upheld have largely passed away, the old songs are still attracting singers from both within and outside the Gaeltacht; many of these are very much committed to perpetuating the tradition of unaccompanied singing in Irish. A children’s singing competition, organized as part of the annual Joe Heaney Festival in Carna, attracts young singers of a remarkably high standard. The explosion of enthusiasm for sean-nós dancing in recent years has helped focus attention on the traditional arts of the Gaeltacht, and has doubtless brought the singing tradition to the notice of some who might otherwise have paid little heed to it. In Carna, Cumann Amhránaíochta Iorras Aithnigh (The Iorras Aithneach Singing Society) meets once a month in the Carna Bay Hotel, where the manager mutes the television for the evening. Although these evenings are generally quiet, a good crowd can be expected to come out to hear a special guest singer, or to support an event such as Féile Joe Éinniú (‘The Joe Heaney Festival’).

These changes, however regrettable, were not unexpected. It was in response to such threatened changes that Séamus Ennis and others like him were sent out from the Irish Folklore Commission to gather traditional songs, lore and tales from the old people. It’s in response to such change that teachers and writers, groups and government departments are doing all they can to protect and strengthen the Irish language.

Over a century ago, the Oireachtas was founded by Conradh na Gaeilge to support and encourage the development of literature and the arts in modern Irish. Since the late 1930s, the traditional singing competitions have been the main attraction for people attending the Oireachtas; with the establishment of the dancing competitions in 2000, a new generation of young people has flocked to the festival, and the visitor can witness the extraordinary — if fleeting — phenomenon of Irish being widely spoken on city streets. The idea behind such competitions was — and remains — that they will encourage interest in the performing traditions of the various Gaeltacht areas, particularly among young people. Today, the competitive spirit remains as strong as ever, and the the prize-money — €1,500 at the time of writing for the winner of the most prestigious singing competition, Corn Uí Riada — is truly breath-taking.

Some, however, have deplored the focus on competition. Ríonach uí Ógáin, who compiled and edited a collection of songs recorded by Roisín na Mainiach singer Sorcha Ní Ghuairim, wrote that the latter took a dim view of competitions[21]:

She was worried that the old style of singing practiced in the Gaeltacht was dying, and this was a great sadness to her. She understood that there was a danger that singers would be trying to please everybody, and she said that the mental collaboration between the listener and the singer was essential. She had noticed that songs were being sung, as it were, on stage, and it’s likely that she had in mind the competitions and other formal occasions of that kind.

Liam Mac Con Iomaire pointed out that Joe Heaney — despite the fact that it was Conradh na Gaeilge who first brought him to prominence, and despite having himself won prizes at the Oireachtas in the 1940s and ’50s — was dismayed by the bad-feeling that the adult singing competitions tended to foster. Joe told Mick Moloney[22]:

If I had anything to do with Oireachtas myself I wouldn’t have any competition, because it breeds animosity sometimes, because you cannot give the prize to everybody. I think if they invited one or two from each Irish-speaking district and have them all in the one room doing a concert, and pay them all the same thing on the same stage, I think it would be much nicer.

Peadar Ó Ceannabháin, writing much more recently, has laid out an eloquent critique of the competitive ethos, and of the ill effect that the Oireachtas competitions have had on singing in the Gaeltacht. His views are worth quoting at length[23]:

Nowadays the competition is the big thing, if the number of competitors and the size of the audience at the Corn Uí Riada event is anything to go by; but even so it is having little impact on singing in the Gaeltacht areas, where for a number of years the craft has been on its last legs, regardless of the Oireachtas, even in those areas where it was formerly robust.

The nature of the competition is to recognise a couple of singers once a year, to give them name recognition and high status ever afterward, wherever they sing. … The competition isn’t focused upon community values or upon the role of the singer in the community — indeed it’s the very opposite that it’s after, as it promotes and inspires tension and rivalry not just between the singers, but also between communities and regions. To me, the Oireachtas is more like an All-Ireland cup final in gaelic games than an arts festival, with all the talk of how [Corn Uí Riada] has ‘gone north (or west, or south)’ or has been won once or twice by a competitor who is now itching to go for the hat-trick.

‘The Oireachtas is the showpiece of the Irish language’, declared the President of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1997 — and the sean-nós is the most valuable jewel on display in this annual show. Symbols can be important if they bring people together; but far more important are vitality (as opposed to revival), creativity (as opposed to imitation), celebration (as opposed to commemoration). Since the Oireachtas got hold of it, traditional singing has seen little in the way of innovation or composition; rather it has become brittle and underfed, a valuable little symbol of one aspect of our heritage that we have now abandoned to academics and adjudicators so that they can drag the guts out of it.

…[F]or many of today’s performers, singing is clearly a struggle. They wrestle and fight with the song, stress bursting off them, singing inside their mouths, striving mightly to maintain control and to project their voice strongly — especially in the presence of an adjudicator. Where ease and steadiness marked the singing of older generations, singers of recent years are plagued by anxiety and unease… The most appropriate atmosphere for the singer is sustained in the Gaeltacht, which provides a supportive, familiar, understanding environment. Competition, by contrast, creates the most hostile, crude, tense atmosphere for the singer who, isolated on stage and with no assurance of a sympathetic audience, is subject to formal and stylistic criticism. This isn’t singing — it’s a test or trial of the competitor’s strength and self-control.

I began this essay talking about competition, and there’s one more thing I need to say on the subject. Competition is a disease — an infectious, chronic disease that is difficult to cure. The western world is riddled with everlasting conflict and fighting, and if the human race is to be saved at all there needs to be some aspect of life — some spiritual or artistic element — free from the conflict and greed, and from the pettifogging, judgmental analysis which stifles and destroys any froth of creativity in a person’s soul. Traditional singing is a sensitive, intimate art, and live singing is the most valuable part of it, as the singer sweeps the listener in a moment from worldly concerns and provides a sparkling glimpse into our ancestral heritage. Today such singing is balm to far-flung speakers of Irish, and helps reconnect them to their true birthright. It is a balm for the soul of the one who drinks deep, and who endeavors to renew it in accordance with its own nature[24].

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this culture of competition has been the shift of aesthetic focus from the song to the singer. Instead of celebrating the art of a community, a song repertoire constantly renewed over many generations, songs with stories behind them, songs that our ancestors spent long winter nights discussing, songs that it didn’t matter who sang them as long as someone did — instead of rejoicing in this remarkable heritage, competitions focus on minute differences between individual singers, and make media stars of those who have the vocal skills and mental fortitude to endure the test. In order to win, singers must differentiate themselves from their competitors. It is no longer about sharing, but about prevailing. The focus on competition, however, does not preclude participants in the festival from enjoying lively sessions where music, song and dance alternate in an extended, interwoven unity of playful purpose, as they have always done. The difference is that this is an unofficial outcome of the Oireachtas festival with the focus placed squarely on competition.

For Joe Heaney, however, the principal value of the songs was that they gave a voice to the community, a means of teaching and calling to mind the history of the community and all that it had endured. For him, the song was much more important than the singer, and singing was about sharing. If you were singing, you were taking part in the life of the community, you were strengthening and reaffirming that life, and you deserved to be heard. Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha observed[25]:

He was a man who could put a song across to people. You had to listen to him. If you didn’t, Joe wouldn’t be too happy, God knows! He had great respect for the songs, and he felt that they should be listened to, whoever was singing. He wasn’t the only person who deserved to be listened to.

Following his death, Joe’s friend Lucy Simpson tried to express her feelings about him[26]. Her remarks reveal not only how deeply she appreciated Joe, but how clearly she understood what was centrally important to him:

I have tried countless times since Joe died to come to an understanding of what knowing him meant to me. The songs and stories were only part of it. Some people say it was the voice, the singing skill, the respect for the songs, his love of the old ways, his integrity, etc. I treasure them all, but there was still something beyond all those things. I think that what I shared with him was some common feeling, maybe unconscious on both our parts, about why we do this, why we learn songs and sing them for and with other people.

At heart, it’s not about performing or preserving the tunes and texts. It’s about preserving the kind of contact that takes place through the songs and stories, between people when they simply open their mouths and sing, without rehearsal, songbooks, props, costumes, arrangements. I’ve heard people say that he didn’t like to see people using instrumental accompaniments with the old songs; that he disapproved of altering lyrics, or that he was critical of some performers for other reasons, but I saw him make many exceptions to those rules he seemed to have.

I think he instinctively recognised people who know, consciously or not, that real folk music is not about being a good singer or entertainer, having a good memory, or never changing a word. I think the songs and stories were for him a link to some ancient way of being together on this earth, connecting person to person in a most simple, universal way, directly, with a naked song or story. There was something very earthy and rooted about him.

Joe Heaney was a complex character; his relationships with other people were complex; even his relationship with Ireland was complex. His luminous and spellbinding art was the way in which he reconciled all of these complexities in favour of humanity — his and ours.


1. Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche. Cló Iar-Chonnachta (2007), 110. 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.

2. For a list of all the criteria, along with a good summary of the history and development of this term, see Anthony Mc Cann, Sean-Nós Singing: A Bluffer’s Guide in the online magazine The Living Tradition (June/July 1998).

3. Traditional singer Sorcha Ní Ghuairim so strongly disliked the term sean-nós that the Oireachtas in 1943 featured a discussion entitled ‘Symposium on the Singing of the Gaeltacht’ in which, among other topics, the appropriate terminology was discussed. See Róisín Nic Dhonncha, ‘An tOireachtas agus an Amhránaíocht ar an Sean-Nós: Cruthú agus Sealbhú Traidisiúin’, in Ruairí Ó hUiginn and Liam Mac Cóil (eds.), Bliainiris 2004, 57 71.

4. In his documentary film series Atlantean (1983), Irish film-maker, writer and photographer Bob Quinn argued that Conamara was part of a cosmopolitan seafaring culture that ranged as far as the Mediterranean, and that the similarity (as he hears it) between the melismatic Conamara singing style and that of the Berbers of north Africa is no coincidence. Quinn’s work sparked debate about the long-held belief in the ‘Celtic’ origins of the Irish and their culture.

5. Its remarkable tonality is one of the least noted but, I believe, most distinguishing features of singing in Joe Heaney’s community. If you need to be convinced that tonality is a slippery concept in this singing, try taking down — if you are able to write staff notation — Joe’s performance of An Sceilpín Droighneach or The Yellow Silk Handkerchief and see how far you get. Be sure to transcribe all the stanzas, not just the first.

6. Seán Ó Tuama, An Grá in Amhráin na nDaoine, Baile Átha Cliath (1960).

7. Compare, for example, the air to which Joe sings An Tiarna Randal with that of The Star of the County Down. There are, of course, airs in the Conamara repertoire that do not turn up elsewhere and were probably composed locally.

8. As becomes clear at fleadh and feis competitions every year, it’s difficult to play a slow air on a musical instrument if you haven’t got the shape and rhythm of the poetry in mind.

9. There are exceptions in terms of stanza-length — see Eileanóir na Rún — but they are rare. At the linear level, the importance of the metrical character of Irish verse in governing the musical expression of the poetry is considerable; see V. S. Blankenhorn, Irish Song-Craft and Metrical Practice Since 1600, Lampeter and Lewiston, NY (2003).

10. From an interview videotaped in San Francisco by Irish journalist Frank Ahern in 1983 for the television programme Irish Magazine.

11. UW 850105. Recorded by James Cowdery, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA, between 1979 and 1981.

12. Joe’s well-known dislike of the guitar undoubtedly stems from its use as a metronome, as discussed here. But there may be more to it than that. Joe told his friend Gerry Shannon, I don’t like guitars accompanying me because I don’t know who is accompanying who! They could be trying to be following me and I’d be trying to follow them! (Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 250). Curiously, Joe knows what he’s talking about, as is revealed by this amazing example, which Joe recorded at the behest of Ewan Mac Coll for the latter’s BBC Radio Ballad, The Travelling People, in the early 1960s.

13. A revealing contrast can be heard in a recording that Joe made with Scottish revival singer Geordie McIntyre in the 1960s, on which he and Geordie sing alternative verses of the Napoleonic war anti-recruiting song, Mrs Mc Grath. While this is not a song that Joe would ever have sung in a slow, melodically-ornate style, note how much easier it is to tap your foot to Geordie’s stanzas than it is to Joe’s.

14. Setting Foot on the Shores of Conamara and Other Writings (Baile Átha Cliath, 1996), 76 – 7.

15. Indeed, for many of Joe’s airs it would be difficult to identify a ‘basic’ melody in any case. Try it with Dónal Óg or An raibh tú ag an gcarraig? or Úna Bhán and see how far you get.

16. D. A. Mac Donald, ‘A Visual Memory,’ Scottish Studies 22 (1978), 1 – 26; agus ‘Some Aspects of a Visual and Verbal Memory in Gaelic Storytelling,’ Arv: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 37 (1981), 117 – 24.

17. ‘Melodic ornamentation in the Conamara sean-nós singing of Joe Heaney,’ New Hibernia Review (Spring 2004), 122 – 45.

18. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 389.

19. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 176.

20. Tá an dá thréithe seo le cloisteáil ar an taifeadh de Dónal Óg a rinne Seosamh do Ghael-Linn ar an darna ceirnín dá chuid, Sraith 2: Ó Mo Dhúchas. Translated from Irish.

21. Sorcha: Amhráin Shorcha Ní Ghuairim, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann / Gael-Linn (2002), 5.

22. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 463.

23. ‘An Sean-Nós: Caithréim Chráite nó Íocshláinte Anama?’ in Áine Ní Chonghaile (eag.), Deile: Iris Mhuintir Chonamara i mBaile Átha Cliath (1998), 15 – 21. Translated from Irish.

24. Lillis Ó Laoire writes that his evidence from Tory Island revealed that submission to the judgement of others was a normal part of becoming a public singer in Tory, and that tension and anxiety were part of that rite of passage; see On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2007), pp. 80–87 and 94–96.

25. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 226. Translated from Irish.

26. Ibid., 407 – 8.