Sean Nós Singing
Sean nós, literally “old style”, singing is part of an unbroken tradition with ancient roots. A number of theories have been shared concerning the various influences that have shaped this particular form of singing. Unaccompanied singing in the Irish language is today an echo of the tradition of the poet, file or seer, who once occupied a central role in Irish society. For Ireland’s ancestors of a distant past, in a time when words held more power than bullets have today – and were respected as such : poetry was sung or chanted.
In bardic times, it was through the authority of the poet, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of regal genaeology, that an Irish King would lay claim to the throne. Sometimes the poet would be accompanied by the “cruit”, an early forerunner of the Irish harp. Sung poems brought news of events, could be used to praise or to condemn.
Today the tradition of “amhránaíocht ar an sean nós” the old style singing, continues to be handed down from generation to generation. These songs are by reputation entirely in the Irish language although occasionally you may hear a song in Irish which includes a chorus in English ( this is called a macaronic song ). Although at yearly Oireachtas or the Fleadh, singers of all ages compete for highly prized awards, traditionally the real life of this singing tradition is found in local community gatherings wherever the Irish language continues to be spoken.
There is much scholarly discussion on the origins of this form of singing. One of the first sean nós singers to gain international recognition, Seosamh Ó nÉanaí is described( by Martín Ó Cadhain) as singing his songs
“effortlessly, one after the other, in a manner which strongly reminds one of Gitano Singing in the caves of Granada. In fact, his splendid figure and face is the southern Spanish type. There is a strong tradition that survivors of the Armada remained along the Connamara coast.”
Others have observed how this Connamara sean nós singing is comparable to the unaccompanied tones of the muezzin calling to prayer in the Islamic world. Indeed, the sean nós calls us away from the senses – and into the trance and the realms of the spiritual where one can move out of space and time. As the Irish language is sounded, Ireland’s ancestors are invoked in every word.
It cannot be denied that Ireland’s western coast bears evidence of continuous contact between Islamic Spain and even north Africa. As an island nation, Ireland’s rich boating traditions have shaped our culture in many ways. Prior to the definition of nation states, our own sense of self would have been as fluid as the waters that surround the Irish coast. Whatever the influences that shaped this form of singing, in the pressure cooker of time, it is the sense of evoking a connection with unbroken essence of a life lived on this island that remains. As each singer brings his or her own unique voice inviting the songs to life, the spirit of these songs remains.
Each Gaeltacht region has its own particular nuances of language and style of singing.
The villages of Ballymaceera and Ballyvourney in Co. Cork’s Gaeltacht region have a very rich culture. Here people are constantly switch from speaking Irish to English, almost like switching buttons on television channels. One form of singing that is unique to this area is the “agallamh beirte” which is a story told in the form of a singing-duet, with both singers having a musical conversation about an event. These are often very humorous songs and newly composed songs continue to tell of the news of the times, evoking the magic once witnessed in bards of old. The Cultural Centre, Ionad Cultúrtha, in Ballyvourney offers an excellent programme of cultural events (www.ionadculturtha.ie). Get a sense of the magic of this area through the website of resident composer, musician and filmmaker, Peadar ‘O Riada (www.peadaroriada.ie). One world famous sean nós singer is Iarla ‘Ó Lionaird, is bringing this unique form to new audiences as part of The Gloaming. He also hails from this region.
On the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry, visitors can also find a rich seam of this unique cultural tradition. Annual festivals such as the Dingle Tradfest in early September, or the famous Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh (www.scoilcheoil.ie) which is held mid-February each year. The Blasket Island off the village of Dún Chaoin on the Dingle peninsula was home to a rich Irish cultural condition where singing and storytelling were part of the fabric of everyday life. You can learn more about the people and the life as it was lived on the island through the many books which have been published by the last islanders. These include An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig by Peig Sayers and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
All along the western coast, the pubs are alive with music with many traditional sessions throughout the year. As the sean nós singing requires a sympathetic listening audience, it can be rare to have an opportunity to listen but it is worth asking and inviting a song and a hush of silence for the duration. Allowing the voice of an Ireland past, a world of a different pace and sensitivity, to come through.
To the north of Ireland another unique Gaeltacht hot spot for this form of singing is to be found on remote Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. Here, the Irish language has been spoken for unbroken generations and the people of Tory are renowned for their singing. There is a book written about them “A rock in the middle of the ocean” by Lillis ‘O Laoighre, which is worth a read.
Peadar ‘O Ceannabháin and his daughter Saileóg are among two of the many well regarded sean nós singers who carry the Connemara style today, hailing from the region of Carna, also the homeplace of Seosamh ‘O hEanaí who was mentioned above. Other notable Connemara singers include Sorcha Ní Ghuairim and Seán mac Dhonncha. Through meticulous rendering of the traditional songs he learned as a child and he continues to inhabit, Peadar brings life to the world of which he sings. His voice is that of a trusted teacher of a gentle guide into this other world of the hidden Ireland. In recent years, Peadar , together with writer Micheál Ó Conghaile and others, has helped to compile a unique collection of 400 songs of the sean nós tradition, collected from all over the country. “Leabhar Mór Na nÁmhrán” is published by Cló Iar Chonnacht, the book also contains fascinating historical notes on each song as well as where to find recordings.
It is a wonderful testament to the power of this music, that despite the world being sung in the Irish language, such that many do not understand, yet the emotion carries over – inviting the listener to another world were the river of Ireland’s ancient emotion run deep.
Peadar’s daughter, Saileóg continues her father’s strong affinity with the sean nós tradition. Through her albums, she has been reviving rare gems, songs of this tradition which are rarely sung today – offering them to the listeners of today. Visit www.saileog.blogspot.ie to learn more.
To hear Saileóg’s plaintive voice is to be transported to a realm out of time. One can hear the restless waves and the expansive Connemara landscape echoing in her songs. Sean nós is a therapeutic music in that it invites repose and demands a slowing down, which is refreshing to ears accustomed to the pulsating assault of western pop music. A rare depth of feeling and presence is available in the music and yet for many it may be an acquired habit ; listen to this clear voice that calls from a land rich in emotion and memory.
Even when one does not know a song’s meaning, the words in Irish find their way into our consciousness and have their effect. Inhabited for generations, these songs exist as portals to another world, they persist in their essential vitality.
In Connemara, you would be likely to find a traditional singing session in local pubs, on the Aaran Islands too, the music persists. Look out for “Féíle Joe Éiniú” on the May bank holiday weekend in his homeplace of Carna each year. You can also learn more about Seosamh ‘O Éanaí online at www.joeheaney.org.
In recent years it has become popular for non-Irish speaking singers to take up the style, first learning the language and listening to recordings. Singing sessions are then a good place to try out your skills – while in Cork, visit the Sunday session upstairs at the Spailpín Fánach.
Taking the ‘sean nós’ singing to new audiences, voices such as those of Eithne Ní Catháin(www.INNY-K.com) , or Iarla Ó Lionaird offer a new approach. As part of The Gloaming supergroup, Ó Lionaird has been singing Ireland’s sean nós songs to audiences from Sydney Opera house to London’s Royal Albert Hall.
If you care to learn more about Irish Traditional Music and Singing you will enjoy browsing the online collection of the Irish Traditional Music Archives www.itma.ie/digitallibrary.