Joe Heaney — man and artist

By Virginia Blankenhorn

The events of Joe Heaney’s life are doubtless revealing, but they may reveal more about the times he lived in — the good luck and the bad, the attitudes and prejudices of others — than they reveal about the man himself. It’s how a person responds to events and circumstances that reveals most about his character.

Most people would regard a good deal of what happened to Joe as unfortunate. His childhood was shaped by financial scarcity, a circumstance that made his expulsion from secondary school more disastrous than it might have been for someone whose background offered other alternatives. Emigration was virtually forced upon him. For most of his adult life he lived alone in lodgings, or with friends, or in apartments in foreign countries. His short-lived attempt at domestic life was unsuccessful. He lived hand-to-mouth, and most of his paid employment bore no relation to his real life’s work.

Despite these setbacks, Joe remained remarkably single-minded in his devotion to the traditions he bore. While Carna was poor in economic terms, its cultural riches were unassailable. Joe was determined not to squander this inheritance — indeed, he was determined to pass it on to others.

The arc of his life, even in its disappointments, reflects this determination. The worldwide revival of interest in traditional music and song, which began in the 1950s and continued through the 1970s, coincided with Joe’s growing awareness of the importance of his songs not just to his own community, but to the world at large. His move from Scotland to England, undertaken for domestic reasons, may have become permanent as a result of his acceptance among the Irish of Camden Town and the enthusiastic welcome he received from the likes of Ewan MacColl and others in the traditional music scene[1]. He returned to Dublin in 1961 because he thought the ‘ballad boom’ might allow him to earn a living doing what he loved. When that didn’t work out, he moved to the United States following his experience at the Newport Folk Festival when, as he said, ‘for the first time I found an audience for my songs and stories such as I have never had before’. And while we cannot doubt that he very much wanted to return to Ireland, it is significant that when he was offered a position with Gaeltarra Éireann — as a building and grounds custodian at their premises in Conamara — he chose to continue doing the work he loved, even if it meant staying in America.

‘Everyone in the world can have my songs’

It is ironic that Joe’s background — including the poverty and the hand-to-mouth lifestyle — doubtless made him more interesting to the middle-class Americans who formed the majority of his students and audiences than he would have been if he had come equipped with a middle-class urban upbringing and a college degree. As Mick Moloney pointed out[2]:

[Joe Heaney] was a source of fascination to a lot of people in America, people involved in folk music in America, in the urban folk scene, folk revival. They would have been middle-class people, educated liberals, but they wouldn’t have come from a traditional community. To them Joe Heaney was the real deal. He was the man from the mountains. He was the man from the past. And he represented the gold nugget, the thing they all were looking for. … They were people who really had heard a lot of music. They would have been multicultural through education and they would have been exposed to lots of different cultures. And they knew when Joe Heaney sang that this was the real thing. … There was a dignity about him. I think it was his carriage, his deportment, his appearance, plus the way he represented himself. And people saw him almost in a priestly way. I would always call what he was doing a vocation, because it was almost a priestly function. He saw the sacred — priestly is probably not the word — sacred would definitely be the word. I never saw anything like it. He was complex man and a great, great artist. And passionate beyond belief in what he did. A prophet, almost!

There can be no doubt that Joe Heaney’s gifts were huge, that his commitment was genuine, and that he was a charismatic, spellbinding performer on stage. If Moloney is correct in this assessment, as he surely is, we must give Joe’s artistry, his ability — even when singing in an unknown language about an unfamiliar culture — to hold an audience captive for hours at a time, the lion’s share of the credit for his popularity.

At the same time, it is surely also true that the audience’s desire to be spellbound, their longing to experience ‘the real deal’, played a considerable part in Joe’s success. As western civilization has become more homogeneous, experiencing cultural difference has become difficult, especially for the middle-class. ‘Authenticity’ has become a selling-point — though the meaning of the term is a constantly-moving target[3]. So the fact that Joe spoke an exotic language, grew up in a remote area, and represented the traditional rural and seafaring past made him an artefact that these people yearned to have contact with.

Such yearning was not limited to Americans. Cork-born writer Liam Ó Muirthile recalled the 1960s in an article for the Irish Times in January 1996[4]:

Joe Heaney and Nioclás Tóibín were the two most prominent sean-nós singers of the late 1960s. They were the first to inspire city youth like me to learn the sean-nós from their Gael-Linn recordings… For me, interest in sean-nós was the same as interest in the blues or in Woodie Guthrie — a hunt for the fundamental native thing, for the nuclear kernel.

Another side of this reverential obsession with the ‘fundamental native thing’, however, could be a narrow minded snobbery[5]. Liam Ó Muirthile again:

The view was still widely held that it was impossible to learn sean-nós — that, like the language, you had to imbibe it with your mother’s milk. But it was bottles and Farex that we had at home. One singer told me at that time that I hadn’t any nós and never would.

This elitist attitude used to make Joe mad. As he told Joe Kennedy in 1969[6]:

What I really want to do is bring people together in traditional singing. Here in this city [Dublin] there are many people who love traditional music and know some songs but, because they do not come from a Gaelic-speaking area, are afraid to get up and sing. These people must be encouraged. I’m very disappointed at the atmosphere in some clubs which seem to be run for the select few only, and there is no encouragement for the person on the fringe, the city-born person. As far as I am concerned everyone in the world can have my songs. I will sing them for everyone to learn, and I love to be able to bring people to the stage, to encourage people who love the songs but have not the tradition since birth. I have no time for the people who make holy places out of clubs and who have no time for a singer who is not a born traditional singer.

That Joe felt strongly on this point is reflected throughout his life. A revealing early incident was his decision to sing Caoineadh na dTrí Muire on stage during the Oícheanta Seanchais at the Damer Hall in the 1950s. Prior to that public performance, this and the other religious songs that Joe inherited were sung only at home, as part of the private observance of the religious occasions to which they were linked. Joe’s decision to sing this song in a less reverential setting for a wider audience was not a careless one; indeed, one can well imagine other singers deciding that such a performance would be inappropriate. But Joe felt that the world — meaning the world beyond Carna; beyond the Gaeltacht — should hear it[7].

Another indication of Joe’s passion on this point came at the end of his life, when he learned that the Joe Heaney Collection was being established at the University of Washington. He resisted the notion, urged upon him by one friend, that access to the collection should be limited to people of Irish heritage. Indeed, the more that this person argued in favour of limiting access, the more determined he became that there be no such limitation. We are glad that modern technology has at last enabled us to provide unfettered access to the material that he himself gave so freely, and thus to carry out his wishes in this regard.

The complex character of Joe Heaney

Like most people, Joe was a mass of contradictions. Despite the generosity we have just noted, many people found him unapproachable. Song collector Tom Munnelly, recalling nights they spent together in O’Donoghue’s, put it down to Joe’s having a high opinion of himself[8]:

We often shared the same stretch of bar for the night but contiguity did not lead to companionship. There was a peppery arrogance about Joe Heaney’s behaviour which I never cared for… It is an unfortunate fact that many great artists were and are unlovely people. And Joe Heaney was a great artist. It was his very justified belief in his outstanding ability as an interpreter and as a conduit of a magnificent tradition which gave him an air of superiority which he handled badly with unfortunate social results. If he was truculent and resentlful, he had much to be resentful for, and he seems to have been his own worst enemy.

Munnelly’s irritation at having his overtures of friendship rebuffed is palpable. Others approached him with caution, and even one of his closest friends, Johnny Chóil Mhaidhc Ó Coisdealbha, admitted that ‘Joe could be cranky’[9]. He held strong views, and disliked being challenged. On occasion, however, his assumption of authority backfired on him. Perhaps the most famous incident occurred in the Aran Islands, where a number of Conamara singers went to perform a concert in 1971. The audience became restive under a steady diet of long, slow songs. The singer Tomás Mac Eoin, from An Ceathrú Rua, tells the story[10]:

The concert went on, and it seems as though it wasn’t going down too well. Dónal Ó Lubhlaí was master of ceremonies, and I heard him saying to Joe Heaney, ‘Things aren’t going well — we’re not getting much silence’. Joe said, ‘Leave it to me! I’ll sort them out!’ And away he goes onto the stage and says, ‘Can you hear us?’ ‘Yes!’ comes the reply. ‘Well, I’m afraid that I can hear you, too!’ The whole night was ruined. They started hooting and whistling at him.

While Joe could show considerable patience with serious questions from students and from people he respected, he had a sharp tongue, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Once you were in his bad books, you stayed there. Tomás Mac Eoin, in addition to being a traditional singer and a very popular figure throughout Conamara, had the misfortune of attracting Joe’s scorn over a lighthearted song he composed — An Damhán Alla (‘The Spider’) — which he recorded with a guitar accompaniment. It became a hit on Raidió na Gaeltachta. Joe Heaney hated the guitar’s pervasive presence on the folk scene, and reviled such compositions: ‘Oh! Those people who think they can compose new songs and accompany them with the guitar!’ Years later he ran into Tomás Mac Eoin in Conamara and greeted him sarcastically, ‘Oh, look where the little spider’s turned up!’[11]

Joe seems to have believed in the maxim that the best defence is a strong offence, as his former student Sean Williams recalled[12]:

He was so quiet about his marriage. I think most of us didn’t know that he was married. And I asked him once: ‘What about the family at home?’ And he had a stock answer to that question, which was ‘I gave up three things twenty years ago, and I’m never going back!’ And one had to assume ‘cigarettes, alcohol and women.’ But that was the stock answer when anybody asked him anything about relationships, even though he had classic ways of flirting with his female students… And so a lot of us spent a lot of time defending our relationships, our hair colour, our preferences in music; and I think that was his way of both flirting and challenging. And I think for him flirting and challenging was just blended exactly. That was one of the ways he operated at comfort level. I think he needed to see vulnerability to feel like he had something to offer.

For others, it seemed clear that Joe’s arrogance masked deep unhappiness. Diarmaid Breathnach, writer and former librarian at RTÉ, met Joe in 1957[13]:

I had great respect for him as a singer. But it seemed to me… that he was unhappy with his life and that he was sorry for himself. And I was a bit afraid of him for that reason. I felt that he was not a happy person — that was the strongest impression I got.

His student Steve Coleman, now lecturing in Anthropology at NUI Maynooth, was one of several who thought Joe was lonely[14]:

It never seemed to me that he was as sure of himself as other people thought. To me, he seemed tormented, that he was thinking of the life he’d led and the things that had happened to him. He was living by himself, and he seemed lonely. He was very glad when people visited him, but you’d have to be confident to go to him…. He was friendly, but at the same time he was moody. He might turn on you for no particular reason, and the next minute he’d be great friends with you again. I was kind of terrified of him at first, because he seemed larger than life, in a way.

Prejudice against Irish and the Gaeltacht

Joe Heaney, despite his enormous gifts and accomplishments, was obviously a moody and insecure man. But why? A good deal of the answer may lie in the nature of Joe’s cultural inheritance.

During Joe’s lifetime, being an Irish-speaker from the Gaeltacht — however interesting and exotic it made Joe to people abroad — carried a stigma at home and, for that matter, among many recent Irish immigrants in the United States. Many Irish people viewed the Gaeltacht as a godforsaken place where the people lived in squalor, themselves and their livestock under the same roof. The Irish language was a badge of economic deprivation. Poverty was shameful. Many an emigrant who came home for a holiday was seen to put on airs and profess to have forgot his native language.

The people of the Gaeltacht were well acquainted with such bigotry, harboured by many who were only a generation removed from such experience themselves. Sad to say, many people in the Gaeltacht areas themselves internalized this stigma, which may explain Joe’s declaring with some vehemence in later years, ‘It’s no shame to be poor!’ Liam Clancy recalls an occasion, shortly before Joe was to depart Dublin for England:

There was always this pervasive mood of sadness and insecurity about him. That’s what I remember most about Joe at that time. He had no self-confidence or self-esteem. And when he had enough drink, the other side of him came out, the chip on the shoulder: ‘You’re making fun of me because I talk Irish, because I’m a Conamara man’. And that anger would come out. And he was as prickly as a thorn bush when he was in that mood.

Given the ignorant stereotyping that they had to endure, it’s little wonder that many in Conamara, including Joe Heaney, could react with cantankerous vehemence against it[15].

Living abroad, however, relieved some of this burden. In England and, later, in the States, Joe largely dealt with people who were not of Irish extraction. As a result, he met with less prejudice, and he allowed himself to be more relaxed, more likeable. This was important, because what really made him happy was knowing that others liked him, and that they liked his singing. Mayo native Martin Byrne shared lodgings with Joe in Southampton when both of them were working in England[16]:

When Joe got the proper response something happened to him. His face would light up, and he got so much pleasure out of seeing others getting pleasure. It was a kind of a gift, especially when he sang in Gaelic… I loved his singing even though I can’t sing myself. And I think that helped our friendship.

English singer John Faulkner and his wife, Dolores Keane, who visited Joe in New York in the mid-1970s, confirmed the mutual admiration between Joe and people on the English folk scene at that time[17]:

I thought he was a great guy and a fantastic singer. Not only did I get along absolutely well with him, but so did most English people. All the people I knew in the folk scene at the time in England, people like Martin Carthy and Louis Killen, they were all huge devotees of Joe.

It seems hardly surprising that Joe found it easier to relate to English people and Americans than to some Irish people. In Ireland, he had his critics as well as his admirers, and the possibility of someone challenging his knowledge, begrudging him his success, or making a bigoted remark was ever-present. For his English and American admirers, on the other hand, Joe was the master. Joe reflected on this distinction in 1982, when he was interviewed by Bill Stuart for the Sunday World just before his concert in the National Concert Hall in Dublin[18]:

I don’t know how long I’ll stay [at University of Washington], but this is the best move I have ever made. They pay me $1,600 a month and the students are very receptive. Not one of them is of Irish descent. Most of them are women. I surely hope that they make it part of their thesis and teach it and pass it on. I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of doing that here. I can go out to the schools in Seattle and teach the kids for an hour. The teachers welcome you. I couldn’t do it here. They’d laugh at you here if you asked for a television programme. I think they’re trying to do away with the language. It’s a bloody shame. In every country in the world, the first thing they do is play their own music and speak their own language, and then they go on to something else. Once the language is gone in any culture that’s the beginning of the end. The language is the mainstay of it. I think the language will be gone here in 15 years… I think the Government has a lot to answer for.

There was even more straight talk in an interview Joe recorded with Maidhc P. Ó Conaola for Raidió na Gaeltachta in 1979[19]:

Do you know that you’ll hear more culture on the radio and television over [in America] than you will here? Now, I’ll tell you the truth, I’m not giving very high marks to Raidió na Gaeltachta either. I hope they’ll remember that it’s the Gaeltacht radio, do you get me? If they do, everything will be alright. But now, if you don’t mind my saying it, there are certain people who want to bring in pop I think. And that’s not why Raidió na Gaeltachta was founded… I’m going to say one thing — that it’s the language of Máirtín Ó Cadhain and of the people of the Civil Rights movement that should be spoken, for without them there wouldn’t even be a Raidió na Gaeltachta. They shouldn’t be exposing children to things that were never heard in the Gaeltacht… It’s alright to compose a song, but people are composing songs nowadays and bringing in guitars and playing them — isn’t that pop? If you’re trying to bring pop into Irish, you might as well get rid of Raidió na Gaeltachta altogether. Let them sing the old songs. Wasn’t that why [Raidió na Gaeltachta] was founded — to present the old songs to the community?… There’s no good in something that was composed yesterday. People survived, they went through terrible times, to keep things alive, and they should be recognized for that.

Once again, Joe’s fundamental concern is for the integrity and dignity of the traditions he had inherited, and he is outspoken in his loathing for anything — lack of official commitment to the Irish language, pop music on Gaeltacht airwaves, the omnipresence of guitars — that he sees as a threat to that tradition, a betrayal of that heritage. Joe was a deeply conservative person, and the process of cultural change made him uneasy. The fact that he lived abroad during a period of accellerating cultural transformation probably made each journey home more of a shock than it might otherwise have been.

Joe Heaney the performer

Joe Heaney was, as the recordings on this website make clear, an exceptionally compelling performer. Louis Killen, who later came to know Joe in Seattle, first encountered him in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1962. In an article published following Joe’s death, Killen wrote[20]:

For close to an hour and a half, Joe Heaney had that audience mesmerized. I stood at the back of the room filled with wonder at his incredible vocalization, the deep resonant voice, the baroque complexity of his ornamentation, and the centredness of his performing. Every one of us was drawn into the ancient culture Joe represented. We were drawn by the passion and commitment Joe had to that culture, of which he was a part — just as every song was a part of Joe Heaney. That evening, Joe had found that place of perfect balance within himself, that centre where he was one with the past, present and future, within and without. From there, through his songs, he was able to transmit his feeling to us all as though we were in perfect communion with him.

Peggy Seeger described for Liam Mac Con Iomaire how Joe would hold the audience’s attention at The Singers Club[21]:

He sang with such joy in singing, even when he was singing miserable songs. He just disappeared into his songs. He did not sing for the audience. He sang for himself.

She also emphasized that Joe, unlike some of those who were invited to perform at The Singers Club, always saw to it that the material he chose challenged his audiences. ‘[W]hat Joe would do, he would not give you his simplest stuff. He would just launch in, in Irish and in English, and if you didn’t like it, too bad!’[22].

At the same time, Joe gave careful thought to the expectations that his audiences brought to his concerts and presentations. Most of his public performances — at any rate, those given outside of Ireland — were designed for people with no knowledge of Irish tradition. He wove his material through a matrix of historical themes — wars, hardship, emigration, patriotism — with the idea that people should be informed as well as entertained, and should depart a bit wiser than they came. He developed a number of set-pieces, such as The American Wake and The Rocks of Bawn, in both of which he marshalled a number of elements in order to describe the realities of Conamara life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Come Lay Me Down was a song that he himself adapted for use when he was talking about the Famine — a theme that he might have preferred not to deal with, but about which people persistently questioned him[23]. He sought common ground with his audiences, as when he sang Éamonn an Chnoic at the Sydney Opera House, and related it to folklore about the Australian bandit Ned Kelly.

When he chose a song in Irish, Joe made sure to explain its background and its meaning, perhaps by giving a brief translation, always by emphasizing the humanity and the feelings of the person whose point-of-view the song portrayed. One of his favourite presentations, Eileanóir na Rún, began with the love story of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and Eleanor Kavanagh, and often ended with a performance in English of the song Eileen Aroon, so that those who had no Irish could at least taste the emotional intensity of the original song. As much as his spellbinding performance of the songs themselves, these devices helped Joe to draw people into the charmed circle round the fire in his boyhood home.

Joe Heaney the teacher

In the same way, when Joe began teaching, he brought to that task a dual awareness of his tradition, not just as someone who was born to it, but equally importantly as someone who could see into it, as it were, from the outside, and who had developed an interest in understanding it from a scholarly perspective. His education in these terms had arguably begun at the hands of Ewan MacColl, who took an intense interest in understanding how Joe viewed his own art. Later, contact with American academics like Kenneth Goldstein and Fredric Lieberman as well as with students helped Joe develop ways of talking about his singing[24]. This is not to say that he became an academic — he lacked the necessary objectivity, never mind the cool analytical discipline — but he did manage to hold his own[25]. Steve Coleman writes[26]:

I am interested in Joe’s university career, in which he was required to explain and interpret his singing style to audiences of professional musicologists… Asked formalist questions (such as ‘How do you know where to put grace notes in a song?’), Joe argued passionately and consistently for a radically different understanding of his tradition, in which musical form is only one aspect of a much wider act of orientation. He mobilized all available resources to articulate and defend this vision, including technical musicological terms, non-sequitur, and a few otherwise dubious recollections and interpretations. In doing so he wasn’t being scientific, but was, arguably, articulating his insights as best he could to people who came with quite different presuppositions about music, song, and much more.

Joe’s students at Wesleyan University and later at the University of Washington included a wide range of people, including undergraduates, graduate students, participants in adult evening classes, and attendees at university-sponsored workshops and lecture-demonstrations. In addition, he visited elementary schools and public libraries, and continued to perform in concerts and festivals. In some of these appearances, the line between ‘concert’ and ‘class’ was indistinct; but whether he was appearing before a group of schoolchildren or a gathering of academics, Joe understood that they needed to learn as well as to be entertained.

Many of his university classes focused on a stated theme. Hallowe’en, for example, would involve discussion of fairies and the underworld, and Christmas and Easter would prompt discussion and performance of the religious songs. Other sessions might focus on boats and fishing, stories about Fionn Mac Cumhaill, traditional cures and folklore, or other themes. Typically, Joe would give his listeners the background they needed to understand the context for the songs and stories before performing the items themselves. In addition, Joe often distributed the words to a song which he would then teach the students to sing in chorus, sometimes over a period of several class meetings. While most of the songs he taught were in English, he also attempted to teach a few of the simpler songs in Irish — songs like Connla and Beidh aonach amáireach i gContae an Chláir, which involve a good deal of repetition as well as having alternative texts in English[27].

Much of Joe’s time was spent meeting privately with students. While the primary focus of these lessons was meant to be on the student’s learning songs from Joe, student tapes in the Joe Heaney Collection suggest that what went on in these sessions varied considerably. James Cowdery, who made over forty hours of recordings with Joe at Wesleyan University, was primarily interested in the airs to Joe’s songs, so in many cases Joe sings no more than one or two stanzas of any given song[28]. Because Cowdery left the tape running throughout their sessions, however, these tapes also contain a good deal of revealing chat about Joe’s experiences, his philosopy, and life in general.

By contrast, tapes made by Jill Linzee, who was writing her master’s dissertation on Joe’s singing for the University of Washington, contain long stretches of well-structured interview; so also do tapes recorded by Esther Warkov, Cynthia Thiessen, Joan Rabinowitz and others. Seminars, such as those conducted by Kenneth Goldstein before a class of students at the University of Pennsylvania, also provide a glimpse into Joe’s interaction with academics in a more formal setting. Examples from a number of such interviews are available in these Archives.

Workshops generally focused more on the material than upon Joe himself. On a number of occasions, Joe appeared alongside other singers, affording an opportunity for comparison of variant versions of songs. We have included a number of examples here: see Barbara Ellen, Dark is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair, and Seven Drunken Nights, all performed during workshops with Mike Seeger; also the video recording of The Lady in her Father’s Garden, which includes a version performed by American singer Almeida Riddle in addition to Joe’s.

Finally, some of the most valuable and revealing of the tapes are those recorded by Lucy Simpson in Brooklyn. Although Lucy was not strictly speaking a student of Joe’s, she did embark on a well-defined mission to record as much from him as she could, and was persistent in her pursuit of details about each item, such as where and from whom Joe learned it, and how it fit into his repertoire[29]. As a friend of Joe’s and someone with whom he felt very comfortable, Lucy was able to pursue such information without him perceiving a challenge to his authority, and the relaxed atmosphere encouraged Joe to respond more frankly than he did on other occasions; an excellent example is his description for Lucy of an actual American Wake, and of how he decided on what to include in his performance of The American Wake at concerts.

Listening to the tapes in the Joe Heaney Collection, it is hard to escape the fact that Joe had developed set-piece introductions for much of his material, as well as stock responses to many questions. He likewise developed a smooth knack of steering conversations away from topics — such as his unfortunate dismissal from school — that he preferred to avoid. The most noticeable feature of his discourse, however, was his habit of digression, one point leading to another until he had strayed far from the original question or point he wished to make. While some of these digressions led to interesting anecdotes or other information, others were clearly well rehearsed and did not greatly augment previously recorded material. With regard to these Archives, digressions have been edited with a view to sharpening the focus on an individual item but this has been done as minimally as possible.

Joe’s repertoire and recordings

Any assessment of Joe Heaney’s repertoire must distinguish between those items that he performed in public — his active repertoire — and items that he had heard from others but did not perform himself. The Joe Heaney Collection at the University of Washington contains most of the songs in English that Joe was known to sing. His songs in Irish, however, are not so well represented, because Joe quite understandably focused upon his English repertoire when performing for people with little or no Irish. For this reason, we have been able to include a number of Joe’s best-known songs in Irish only through the generosity of other collections; others, unfortunately, remain available only on commercial recordings that copyright prohibits us from publishing here.

Like all traditional singers, Joe sang a wide variety of songs, and didn’t pay much attention to where they came from. Although dating is notoriously difficult with this material, the oldest item in his repertoire was probably Seachrán Chearbhaill, a stunning composition associated with stories about the legendary poet Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and his elopement with Eleanor Kavanagh. Of more recent vintage would be songs like The Half-Door, Red-Haired Mary and many of the sentimental songs that focus on emigrant nostalgia. In addition to the songs in Irish that he learned from family and neighbours at home, we should remember that his father had a great store of songs in English, and Joe recalls seeing broadsheets around the house when he was growing up. One of the songs for which Joe became best known among his students was I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me, (according to his own claim, his grandmother’s only song in English) which appears to have derived from a 1920’s American hit by Vernon Dalhart, The Prisoner’s Song. The collection also includes a number of songs that Joe doubtless learned in school, like The Leprachaun Song and Óró a Bhuachaillín, Seol do Bhó. These ‘school songs’ would have been scorned by the people in Joe’s village, but he found them useful in his teaching later on.

The fact that his repertoire was such a mixum-gatherum should in no way be taken as a criticism of Joe’s taste. Traditional singers typically care little about the age, lineage or other external aspects of their songs — matters that concern scholars and folklorists — but simply choose their repertoire from items that appeal to them. On one occasion, Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger asked Joe how he classified songs in his own mind. Joe didn’t seem to understand the question at first. It’s not clear, for example, that what Mac Coll and Seeger meant by ‘ballad’ was how Joe understood the term. Joe’s classifications included ‘folk-songs, ballads, rebel songs, funny songs, sad songs, lamentable songs, oh different things — every time I sing I try to give a bit of each’. Peggy Seeger asked Joe if Lord Randal meant more to him than Patrick Sheehan (The Glen of Aherlow), because Lord Randal is such an older song. Joe responded that both of them have the same sad feeling, even though he knew that Lord Randal is older. It seems clear from this exchange that the relative ages of items in his repertoire were not important to Joe, and that he was unaware — at least when this interview was recorded — of the high status accorded by folklorists and scholars to the classic ballads collected by Francis James Child.

At the same time, there were some songs that Joe absolutely refused to sing. American audiences were used to hearing songs derived from the Irish music-hall stage, the worst of which made fun of a stereotypical, thick-witted, drunken Paddy and his comical turn of speech. Joe described to Mick Moloney how he chose what to sing at a concert[30]:

I try to mix it by giving them a bit of the serious stuff and the not-so-serious stuff, without ever having to do any popular song… If I have an audience that understands a bit of what I’m doing, then I give them very good stuff, althought I never do anything bad, you know, even to a young audience. I try to educate them… because some of these people were… used to songs like Finnegans Wake, Fine Girl You Are… There’s nothing wrong with them songs, but you want to let people know there are other songs… We weren’t all drinking all the time. To tell you the truth I very seldom do any drinking song, because if you do people will look at you and say, ‘There it is again! The Irish drinking again!’ I’m trying to kill that image too, of the Irishman with the drink on the stage. I don’t like that image and I never have.

As regards the stories, Joe had strong views about what constituted a story, and what didn’t. He told Jill Linzee:

[T]his is what it meant by inis scéal; ‘tell a story’. You weren’t talking about something that happened yesterday or the day before. A story meant you’re going back pre-Christian times. That is a story about the magic of the Dé Dannans, and the Manannán Mac Lir; the man who had the boat who could go under the sea, between the sea and over the sea; the magic horse that Niamh Chinn Óir had when she came from the Land of the Ever-Young to take Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s son with her as her husband; the King of Ireland’s son going to East and the Western World, to marry the King of the Western World’s daughter; the exploits of him as he went; the embellishments, the runs of the story.

In addition to the sort of hero tales and Fenian stories Joe mentions here, Joe told moral tales like Blessed is the Corpse that the Rain Falls on, stories about Cú Chulainn, stories of the supernatural, stories about animals, and funny anecdotes. A number of Joe’s songs come with significant narratives attached, such as the story of Lynch’s son and the Spanish Suitors (connected to the song The Claddagh Ring), the stories relating to Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (see Eileanóir na Rún and Seachrán Chearbhaill), the account of the Death of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Gunna (An Buinneán Buí) and a number of others. The story of The Three Good Advices is turned into a chantefable through its linkage to Peigín is Peadar, an Irish version of Our Goodman.

What the Joe Heaney Collection lacks, however — and it is a grievous omission — is any complete tale told in Irish, as Joe would have heard them growing up. He does include the cóiriú catha or culaith ghaisce (the ‘battledress’), an ornamental flourish with which the most important stories typically began, along with an interesting translation of it into English; but apart from this Joe felt constrained to share his repertoire of stories in English only. One can understand why he did so. We have tried to include a few examples here of stories told in Irish that equate to versions Joe had in English, to help redress this imbalance in a small way; these include Bás Thaidhg na Buile (seanchas about the O’Flahertys), the story about Joe and the Conger Eel, Cailleach na Luibhe (‘The Hag of the Herbs’), Scéal na gCat (‘The King of the Cats’), and an account of Christmas customs.

The Collection also contains many items from Joe’s passive repertoire — songs to which Joe knew the air and one or two verses, but which he did not sing in public. Some of these he may have learned at home, but it is likely that many of them were songs he learned from recordings, from other Folk Revival singers, and from printed sources. Despite protesting that he had never learned a song from a book, it is clear that Joe was interested in the songs that he found in books, and that he used printed sources to track down additional stanzas to songs that he felt were fragmentary. James Cowdery had the habit of bringing books and lists of songs with him to his meetings with Joe. This helped to remind Joe of songs and airs that might otherwise have escaped him; also, Joe and Lucy Simpson occasionally referred to books that they found in the New York Public Library and elsewhere. In this fashion, songs were teased out of Joe that we would otherwise be unaware that he knew.

Joe’s repertoire also contained a number of songs that he doubtless knew well but chose not to sing, or at least that he did not seemingly record, while he was working in the United States. Some of these, such as Johnny Seoighe and Is measa liom Bródach Uí Ghaora, he excluded because he thought, quite rightly, they might give offence to people at home; other local songs he tended to avoid either because he thought they were lightweight — ‘funny songs for weddings’ as he said once — or perhaps because they would require too much background knowledge. Fortunately, his determined American interviewers were able to pry loose a couple of items, including An Seanduine Dóite, Whiskey-O-Roudelum, and a collection of Lúibíní, which Joe is unlikely ever to have sung in a formal setting before mixed company[31].

Given the likelihood that Joe knew more songs than he ever recorded, and that items doubtless fell from his repertoire as he progressed through life, it is difficult to estimate the number of songs that would have been in his active repertoire at any given time. The list compiled by Lucy Simpson contained 237 songs, but as she explained[32]:

I suspect he didn’t know them all completely. He put about 100 on my eleven tapes. The last time he was in Brooklyn, we met as usual. He recorded some verses to songs he’d given me long before — verses he had not sung the first time!

At the time they were published online in November 2010, these Archives included texts and performances of 140 songs in English; texts and performances of ten songs with macaronic texts or singable English translations[33]; and texts of ninety-one songs in Irish, for some of which we are unable to supply recorded performances for various reasons. The total number of songs — 241 — accords remarkably closely with Lucy Simpson’s total, although there were doubtless items on her list that don’t appear here, and vice versa. We would agree with Lucy that a substantial number of these songs were ones he rarely sang. In addition, the Archives included 121 recordings and summaries of tales, anecdotes, riddles, prayers, and bits of folklore told by Joe in English; these include stories connected with particular songs.


1. Joe told Mick Moloney: ‘If you sang a good song in a bar in Camden Town then, you’d get silence… I used to see people putting down the darts while somebody was singing… Even a song in Irish would go down well, and even people in the public bar would listen to people in the saloon bar singing. The Rocks of Bawn was their favourite, and Curachaí na Trá Báine was the favourite of the fellows from Conamara…’ Quoted in Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choiche Cló Iar-Chonnachta (2007), 184–5. 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. Ibid., 364–5. Limerick-born Mick Moloney‘s own career has not suffered as a result of his middle-class upbringing or academic qualifications. At the same time, I don’t imagine that he would expect an article about him to contain the words ‘priestly’, ‘sacred’ and ‘prophet’!

3. For a fascinating and persuasive discussion of this theme, see Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, Harper (2010).

4. An Peann Coitianta, Irish Times, 11th January 1996; quoted in Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 461–2. Translated from Irish.

5. Indeed, Andrew Potter argues that the quest for ‘authenticity’ is, at bottom, a form of status-seeking.

6. Interviewed in the Irish Independent, 20th August 1969; quoted in Mac Con Iomaire, Ibid., 256–7.

7. As we have seen, there were songs that Joe preferred not to sing in public; but these were songs that, in his view, carried the potential to cause offense.

8. ‘A Mastersinger from Carna’, The Musical Traditions Internet Magazine.

9. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 143. Translated from Irish.

10. Ibid., 280. Translated from Irish.

11. Ibid., 148. Translated from Irish.

12. Ibid., 393.

13. Ibid., 163. Translated from Irish.

14. Ibid., 390. Translated from Irish.

15. Ibid., 219. Astonishingly — despite the efforts of the Clancy Brothers and others — many of these attitudes persisted until the worldwide phenomenon of Riverdance at last persuaded the majority of Irish people, both at home and abroad, that their cultural heritage was something they should take pride in, rather than feel ashamed of.

16. Ibid., 135.

17. Ibid., 301–2.

18. Ibid., 370.

19. Ibid., 326–8. Translated from Irish.

20. ‘Memories of Joe Heaney’, Seattle Folklore Society Journal (Fall, 1984), 3.

21. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 196.

22. Ibid., 191.

23. See Lillis Ó Laoire and Sean Williams, ‘Singing the Famine: Joe Heaney, Johnny Seoighe and the Poetics of Performance’ in A. Clune, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly. Miltown Malbay (2007), 229–247.

24. In addition to the Mac Coll / Seeger interviews, see also conversations with Esther Warkov, James Cowdery, Jill Linzee, and the lecture / demonstration that he gave along with Mike Seeger at University of Washington in 1978.

25. On some occasions, by befuddling his questioners; again, see the Mac Coll interview, especially where Joe is grappling with MacColl’s questions about the nyahh.

26. ‘Joe Heaney Meets the Academy,’ Irish Journal of Anthropology 1 (1996), 69-85.

27. Joe himself composed a set of English verses to Beidh Aonach Amáireach and developed a detailed story or údar to accompany the song. Favourite English-language songs that he taught to his classes included I wish I had someone to love me, Red is the Rose, and The Wild Mountain Thyme.

28. Cowdery’s study, The Melodic Tradition of Ireland, Kent, Ohio, (1990), contains a chapter based on Joe’s singing.

29. One tape contains a hint that Lucy and Joe were ultimately planning to publish a book of Joe’s songs.

30. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 300–1.

31. The second of these songs, Whiskey-o-roudelum, was included on the double CD The Road from Conamara (2000), compiled from tapes made by Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger in their London home in 1963–4. The recording here, however, is especially entertaining for Joe’s glosses on the meaning of the stanzas.

32. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 323.

33. These include genuine macaronic songs like One morning in June and One day for recreation as well as items like Connla and The Leprachaun Song for which Joe recorded parallel English texts in addition to the Irish ones.