New Thinking for Sean-nós Singing?

A detail from the cover art by Méadhbh Ní Eidhin for 'Dhá Leagan Déag: Léargais Nua ar an Sean-Nós'.

New Thinking for Sean-nós Singing?

A new collection of essays on sean-nós singing, 'Dhá Leagan Déag: Léargais Nua ar an Sean-Nós', edited by Philip Fogarty, Tiber Falzett and Lillis Ó Laoire and published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht, explores a range of contemporary issues around the art form. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín reviews.

Is sean-nós singing in crisis? Are sean-nós singers an endangered species? Though the three editors of this collection – Philip Fogarty, Tiber Falzett and Lillis Ó Laoire – point out that ‘Ní gá a rá nach ionann scéal na Gaeilge agus scéal cheol na hÉireann…’ (‘It doesn’t need saying that the story of Irish and the story of Irish music (sic) are not the same…’, p. 13), the focus in these 15 essays is exclusively on the Irish-language singing tradition and native songs in the Irish language. That is, apparently, what they understand to be sean-nós singing. No room here for the likes of English-language singers such as John Connell or even Sarah Makem; for the authors in this collection, sean-nós is the Connemara style of singing in the Irish language. The contributions (by seven women and eight men) are the fruits of an academic conference held in Galway University in June 2015, at which the 25 listed participants discussed the prospects for sean-nós in the twenty-first century; their number included three speakers from Scotland, Griogair Labhruidh, Tiber Falzett and Seumas Watson. No one who has heard Labhruidh performing with that great exponent of the Irish wire-strung harp Siobhán Armstrong would have any worries about the future of singing in Scots Gàidhlig. Neither, indeed, if they heard Donegal singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde or Éamonn Ó Bróithe from the Déisi singing to that same harp accompaniment, would they fear for sean-nós singing closer to home. It is somewhat perplexing, therefore, to encounter the pessimistic tone of so many of the essays in this book.

The explanation is in the Preface and the first four essays. Síle Denvir on ‘barántúlacht’ (‘authenticity’) parades a series of ethnologists and ‘theorists’ whose alternative definitions leave her agonising over the future of sean-nós. Tríona Ní Shíocháin, on ‘Eispéireas, brí agus machnamh: an smaointeoireacht agus an amhránaíocht’, then tries to jam the distinctive features of the Irish tradition into another clutch of ‘theoretical’ frameworks, while Antaine Ó Faracháin, ‘Ag lorg áite don amhránaíocht dhúchasach’, wonders how Raftery would fare as a contestant for Corn Uí Riada, while Seosamh Mac Donnacha, ‘An sean-nós: báite ag an traidisiún?’, would question the ‘old-fashioned’ way of delivering the songs and wants the tradition of sean-nós to be ‘updated’.

Behind all these contributions, to a greater or lesser extent, is that dread ogre, ‘theory’. I suppose it was only a matter of time until the plaintive plea for the introduction of ‘academic theory’ to the study of Irish folk music and song made 20 odd years ago would come to pass. We’re now faced with eispéireas and eimpíreachas, frithstruchtúr and tairseachúlacht, cleachtais ‘eacstaiseacha’, cruinneshamhail, comhaimsearthacht na béalaireachta, taibhealaín and taibhléiriú, and of course aeistéitic, dioscúrsa, the ghastly féiniúlacht and a slew of other grotesque coinages culled from de Bhaldraithe’s dictionary. (A glossary of such terms would have been a useful addition to the book.) Readers who would seek enlightenment in Ní Shíocháin’s application of this methodology to the eighteenth-century poetry of Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire (of ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’ fame) can draw their own conclusions. There is certainly no consoling Mac Donnacha, who complains that not only is the range of ‘old’ songs impossibly limited, but the field is further handicapped by the even narrower range of airs that have survived (‘Dá theoranta é raon agus líon na n-amhrán sean-nóis a chloistear go rialta, is teoranta fós líon na bhfonn’, p. 108). The solution, apparently, is to have all sean-nós singers undergo a rigorous course of instruction in the techniques and technologies of singing, with seminars and workshops to teach them how to compose new songs.

Showing the way
The book is not all doom and gloom, however. For starters, there is Méadhbh Ní Eidhin’s brilliant artwork on the cover; and, amongst the essays, Odí Ní Chéilleachair has an exemplary study of
RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta: slánaitheoir an tsean-nóis?’. Succinct, coherent and to the point (and supported by extensive surveys and other empirical evidence) she is (fairly) optimistic for the future of the tradition. Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill too has an eminently readable piece on ‘The long note’ and other distinctive features of Munster singing, particularly the sharp intake of breath at unexpected points in songs (whose existence Seán Ó Riada, in Our Musical Heritage (1962), categorically denied). The Ó Cearbhaill essay is based on original research carried out by the author on the recordings made in Ireland between 1928 and 1931 by the German phonetician Wilhelm Doegen (1877–1967), a pioneer in the use of sound recordings in the teaching of foreign languages, whose Irish gramophone recordings, in remastered form, are now available in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin ( (He also made recordings of Irish prisoners of war during the early years of the First World War; see Derek Scally, ‘The Soldiers’ Songs’, Irish Times, 30 March 2015, p. 7.)

Doegen’s was not the first such expedition to this country, however: as early as 1907 the Viennese ethnologist Rudolf Trebitsch made recordings of spoken Irish (featuring An tAth. Peadar Ó Laoghaire) as well as traditional Irish music (including harp) and song in Ireland. If we are to have a parade of anthropologists and ethnologists in this book, why not go back to Doegen and Trebitsch, who at least knew the Irish material of their time. The Trebitsch recordings are available in a 3-CD set (The Collections of Rudolf Trebitsch, Series 5/2) from the Academy of Sciences in Vienna and would also repay detailed study. Ó Cearbhaill has shown the way. His piece, Ní Chéilleachair’s and Éadaoin Ní Mhuircheartaigh’s (‘”though it be unpleasant to their ears”’: contrárthachtaí agus coimhlintí ag na feiseanna luatha – scéal na n-amhrán’) are by far the best things in the book.

An obsession with authenticity
The Doegen and Trebitsch recordings notwithstanding, there is an obsession throughout much of the book with ‘authenticity’ (Denvir’s
barántúlacht) and the proper definition of sean-nós. This is at its most obvious – and depressing – in the essay by Virginia Blankenhorn Stephens, ‘Ó Chalifornia go Conamara ar lorg an tsean-nóis’. Anyone who has heard her LPTiocfaidh an samhradh: traditional songs from the West of Ireland (1978), will know that she acquired a complete mastery of the Connemara style (and of Connemara Irish along the way), but then someone remarked that her singing was ‘a very good imitation of sean-nós’ (‘Meiriceánach mná… a bhí in ann aithris an-mhaith a dhéanamh ar an sean-nós’, p. 226), which makes her wonder if she might not be guilty of what (in our benighted woke age) might be called ‘cultural appropriation’. But Irish traditional singing is not the blues: when George Michael was doing well in the States and an album of his reached No. 1 in the Top Black Albums chart, Freddie Jackson, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, said: ‘I live soul… George Michael hasn’t been through any of that’. Do Gaeltacht singers ‘own’ sean-nós? Can only they really experience it? It is well known that when the collectors came calling, the ‘natives’ were proud as punch (as attested, for example, by Martin Freeman when he collected in Baile Mhúirne in 1912–13), and if a collector such as Séamus Ennis (or Blankenhorn Stephens) actually learned some of their songs, so much the better. There was no question back then of ‘cultural appropriation’, and certainly no agonising over the matter (except to tell the collectors, always and everywhere, that they were too late and had just missed the best practitioners!). One of the authors in this book worries about Iarla Ó Lionáird’s accompanied versions of Irish songs when he sings with The Gloaming (alert: Iarla and I are cousins); when does ‘personal taste’ veer off into heresy?

Labhruidh’s fascinating paper is on the influence that the Comunn Gàidhealach and its annual Mod (‘the Scotch Eisteddfod’) had on the performance and appreciation of singing in Gàidhlig. There was a new trend towards the formation of choirs (not to be confused with órain-luaidh or waulking songs), while the publication of A’ Choisir-Chiuil in 1900 set new trends, not all of them to be welcomed, it seems. The effect appears to have been broadly similar to that of the Oireachtas competitions on singing in Ireland. Anyone listening to the younger (female) singers on Alan Lomax’s famous Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music from 1955 could not help noticing the ‘Feis Ceoil’ style voices that they have; their songs were apparently learned in school, not at home, and yet the sean-nós tradition has survived. It is a pity that there are no recordings of Bess Cronin at 25 or 35 or 45 to compare with her later recorded style, when she was in her 70s. Did she too sound like the younger singers recorded by Lomax? Someone should compare and contrast Máire Áine Nic Dhonnchadha’s singing with that of her mother; Máire Áine was probably the best known female singer in the Connemara sean-nós style in her time. An analysis of a mother-daughter transmission of the songs would be uniquely instructive and valuable.

Driven by ideology?
Another of the recent trends in the discussion of Irish traditional music and song (instances here are Ó Faracháin and Ní Mhuircheartaigh) is to harangue the earlier collectors. The ‘heroic age’, as represented by Bunting and Petrie, but also Ennis, Brian George and other more recent Irish collectors, as well as the great American ‘dream-catchers’, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritche and George Pickow, Sidney Robertson Cowell and Diane Hamilton, has given way to an era in which the collectors are now all charged with having been driven by ‘ideology’, their choice of singers and songs merely a reflection of their own innate prejudices. Many songs and much music was ‘left behind’ in the pioneering days, whether because of the scarcity of resources and the technical limitations of the recording equipment, or because preference was given at times to material in the Irish language that was thought – rightly – to be more endangered, to be gathered up with less discrimination by later collectors, such as Ciarán Mac Mathúna and Tom Munnelly. Whether Munnelly’s famous Clare collection of Tom Lenihan songs,
The Mount Callan Garland (1994), would ever have been ‘rescued’ by the earlier field workers is a moot point.

Róisín Nic Dhonncha (Cothú na féiniúlachta pobail: fianaise na hamhránaíochta), Lillis Ó Laoire (Cá bhfuil an sean-nós? an miotas, an réaltacht agus an spás idir eatarthu’), Máirín Nic Eoin (‘Athbheatha na n-amhrán: an amhránaíocht thraidisiúnta i nuaphrós na Gaeltachta), and Éamonn Costello (Sean-nós, réigiúnachas, agus Oireachtas na Gaeilge: Tionchar an réigiúnachais ar na comórtais amhránaíochta’) all touch, to a greater or lesser degree, on the concerns of the previous authors mentioned. Nic Dhonncha focuses on local songs in praise of their authors’ home places, in which (again) the theorists’ concepts of Communitas, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft and Pobal are all treated as ‘imagined communities’ (the American anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s concept, appropriate perhaps to south-east Asia in the 1960s, but mindlessly applied to every other era and area since then, with predictable results). Nic Eoin mentions in passing Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s special interest in collecting songs; it would have been useful to hear more about that in this paper (even though it has been treated elsewhere by Ríonach uí Ógáin). Mícheál Ó Conghaile’s anecdotes about the latter-day singers and collectors (as reported by Nic Eoin) are much less flattering, both in his stories and in his study of the present-day Connemara tradition; that said, no one has done more than him, especially by his establishment of Cló Iar-Chonnacht, to foster interest in the tradition and encourage its support. Ó Laoire – once he has left the jargon behind (the ‘miotas’ of his title and much besides) – is fascinating for the insights that he offers into the modus operandi of the festivals, the Fleadh Cheoil and the various competitions that are organised around the singing tradition (Corn Uí Riada in particular), in which he himself has been such a prominent participant; the theme is a recurring one throughout the collection. One wishes that one of the contributors might have offered an explanation for why sean-nós singing (and Irish traditional music in general) was able to come out of the shadows and into the pubs, where they are both now de rigueur. Is there no theory to explain the phenomenon?

Better by far, surely, it would be for the authors in this collection (and their readers) to spend time instead with Davy Hammond and Bill Meek, Hugh Shields and John Moulden, Henry Glassie or even Tom Munnelly (his criticisms of Petrie and the other early collectors notwithstanding), who all really did know what they were talking about. If we must read a Benedict on the subject of Irish singing, can it not be ‘our own’ Benedict Kiely (whose Irish Times articles throughout the 1970s are a fount of knowledge and information), and if we must have an Anderson, can it not be Benedict’s brother, Perry (a real Marxist)? Why not a Marxist interpretation of Irish sean-nós singing?! Costello’s passing nod to Marxist theory in his chapter is no substitute.

Academic theory and the seemingly inescapable Anderson, Clifford Geertz, Walter Ong, Homi Bhabha, Foucault and the small army of French ‘theorists’ (and a host of English ones less well known) were famously exposed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their book Fashionable Nonsense (1998; originally published under the even more telling title of Impostures intellectuelles in 1997). We don’t need ‘new visions(‘léargais nua’) on sean-nós, not to talk of twelve of them! Almost eight years on from the conference that spawned these essays, sean-nós singing shows no signs of terminal decline.

This collection is dedicated to my old teacher, Liam Mac an Iomaire. Beannacht Dé ar anmainn na marbh.

Dhá Leagan Déag: Léargais Nua ar an Sean-Nós, edited by Philip Fogarty, Tiber Falzett and Lillis Ó Laoire, is published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht and available to purchase from 

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Published on 8 February 2023

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín was Professor of History at the University of Galway and is a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He is the author of a number of books including 'The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin – Irish Traditional Singer' (Four Courts Press, 2000; 2nd edn, 2021) and is the editor of 'A New History of Ireland, Volume I' (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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