Singing at the Centre of a Life

Seán ‘ac Dhonncha, Máirtín Byrnes, Seosamh Ó hEanaí and Liam Ó Murchú (Photo © Nutan)

Singing at the Centre of a Life

Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche. Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Indreabhán, Galway, 2007, 521 pp, with CD, €35

Tomás de Bhaldraithe used to tell a story recalling an encounter in New York in the late 1960s. After delivering a lecture at Fordham University in the Bronx, he had a couple of hours to spend in Manhattan before catching his flight home, and was astonished to be addressed in Irish as he walked up the west side of Central Park. One of the uniformed, peak-capped doormen, who spend their days hailing taxis and performing other services for residents of those fine apartment buildings, greeted him by name, and he recognised Seosamh Ó hÉanaí.

Originally from An Aird Thoir in Carna, Co. Galway, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, Joe/Josie Éinniú, or Joe Heaney, as he was variously known, was then about fifty. Already a well-known recording artist – a star performer at the Newport Folk Festival or in O’Donoghue’s of Merrion Row, Dublin – and a major celebrity among Irish speakers, he asked Tomás to meet him for a drink at the end of his shift. When Tomás explained that he would be on a plane by then, Joe pressed a $10 bill into his hand.

The irony was not lost on UCD’s Professor of Modern Irish, but this most gifted artist in the Irish language had previously worked on building sites in England and Scotland, and until 1966 in Dublin had existed on the pittances paid for recordings and performances, and on the generosity of friends. He worked as a doorman at 135 Central Park West for ten years until 1976, when he was offered an external teaching job at Wesleyan University’s Department of Music in Connecticut. This was followed in 1982 by a more formal position as Visiting Artist at the University of Washington’s Department of Ethnomusicology, in Seattle, on the west coast. That same year, the National Endowment for the Arts selected him for its National Award for Excellence in Folk Arts, in recognition of his unique contribution, not only as a singer, but also as a gifted teacher and interpreter of the authentic Irish singing tradition.

More than one voice was raised to deplore the fact that his own country could not offer Joe Heaney a living, much less a single honorary doctorate or similar recognition. One plan to employ him in the Gaeltacht almost came to fruition, but would have paid him to be an administrator, not an artist, and so he remained in the US and ended his days in Seattle instead, in 1984. Friends who knew how much his dúchas meant to him raised the money to bring his body back to Ireland for burial, and a number of photographs in this fine new volume show the crowds who assembled in May sunshine in Carna for the mass and burial (younger versions of the author and of this reviewer among them). Ancient tensions were re-enacted when the local curate attempted to forbid singing in the church, but singers and players honoured Joe with a feast of music at his graveside. At the University of Washington, his blue teapot stands on display, alongside the extensive Joe Heaney Archive, with recordings assembled from all over the United States: tangible memorials of his influence on people’s understanding of music, and on their lives.

The Art of Fonnadóireacht
Joe Heaney’s impulsive gesture when he saw Tomás de Bhaldraithe on the street outside his building in Manhattan encapsulated something fundamental about him, as this book makes clear: the dignity and pride of his adherence to the courtesies and hospitalities of his home place, as well as to its music, oral poetry and storytelling, and his insistence on their centrality, wherever he might be. This biography places his singing at the centre of a life lived in scrupulous service to the songs he heard as a child and an adult in Conamara, and to all they have represented for the human spirit, especially in times of hardship and marginalisation. It joins two other groundbreaking books on Irish-language singing and its social contexts from the same imaginative and enterprising publisher: Lillis Ó Laoire’s Ar Chreag i Lár na Farraige (2002) – now translated by the author as On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island (2007) – and Mise an Fear Ceoil (2007), Ríonach Uí Ógáin’s prizewinning edition of Séamus Ennis’ field diaries for 1942–46. And this is not just one publisher’s obsession: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs and Traditions of Oriel (Dublin: Four Courts, 2003), is another rich, handsome and recent celebration of Irish traditional singing, while John Shaw’s Brìgh an Òrain / A Story in Every Song: The Songs and Tales of Lauchie MacLellan (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2000), has done the same for the Gaelic-language tradition in Nova Scotia.

With its accompanying nineteen-track CD, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche is a long, luxurious immersion in the art of fonnadóireacht: unaccompanied singing, as practised in Gaeltacht areas for generations, and especially in Conamara. It presents the life, travels and performances of Joe Heaney in a fluent narrative that reads like a week of singing and seanchas, as voice after voice, speaking Irish or English or both, arrives on the printed page to remember the complexity and power of the singer and of his songs. The subtitle (May I never die [until I shake off my bad luck]), taken from the love song ‘Amhrán Rinn Mhaoile’, with which the CD opens, recalls the line ‘“I never died,” said he’, from the labour ballad ‘Joe Hill’, much sung in the places Joe Heaney frequented in the 1960s. Liam Mac Con Iomaire quotes liberally from his own interviews with the singers, listeners and students, neighbours and relatives who have kept his memory alive, in Ireland, the UK and North America, and from a wealth of earlier sources in radio, television and print. The result is at once a masterclass on the aesthetics and ethics of the kind of singing usually known as sean-nós, a many-faceted microhistory of music and migration in Irish vernacular culture, and a celebration of a man who is generally acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s most magnificent exponents of traditional singing anywhere.

Liam Clancy, quoted on p. 229, put his finger on one of the book’s recurring themes:

When he got immersed in a song he became possessed by that song. And it was like he was a medium. It wasn’t an individual that was singing. It came out of everything that had gone before him. And anybody who ever watched him singing got that sense of not just the individual, but the importance of what he had come from.

But Liam Mac Con Iomaire also quotes Peggy Seeger’s notes on the recordings she and Ewan McColl made in 1964, when Joe Heaney stayed with them in London (p. 195):

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.

This is the book’s second major theme, for Joe Heaney was not only a committed, gifted and thoughtful singer and a masterly critic and teacher, who could articulate with clarity and authority all that most exponents of the art left unspoken; he could combine the two functions in a seamless performance that conveyed all the intellectual rigour of an oral tradition at its finest. In Chapter 18, the descriptions of his confident collaboration with the avant-garde composer John Cage on Roaratorio (1979) underline the poverty of the aesthetic pecking orders that prevailed in his lifetime, and left him poor. Joe Heaney was much loved, but he could be cranky, and very difficult, for he was truly a tortured artist, without the luxury of describing himself as such. Indeed, such self-congratulation, had he ever indulged in it, might well have diminished the great integrity of his power to communicate the things he most urgently wanted to pass on: the songs, along with the stories, emotions and experiences that lie behind them and are indispensable in their correct performance. Though some saw him as arrogant, it is his humility in serving his art that is most evident here.

Songs Were a Currency
The CD, sponsored by RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and edited for this publication by Peigí Ní Thuathail, is a compilation of conversation and singing, including the two religious songs that Joe Heaney made famous, ‘Oíche Nollag’ and ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Muire’, and the stunning ‘Eileanór na Rún’ with ‘Seachrán Chearbhaill’, both attributed to the seventeenth-century poet Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. Three of the tracks were recorded by Padraig Ó Raghallaigh in 1957; the rest by Proinsias Mac Aonghusa in the 1970s. An appendix (pp. 485–521) gives the words of the songs, but not the text of the chat, where Joe Heaney’s resonant and authoritative speaking voice recalls the extra magic of his introductions and explanations in live performance. It opens with Séamus Ennis’ piping, and his spoken introduction to ‘Amhrán Rinn Mhaoile’, often known by its opening words, ‘Scríobhfainn agus léifinn leabhar Gaeilge’. On a later track, Liam Clancy follows Joe’s rendition of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna’s ‘An Buinnneán Buí’ with Thomas McDonagh’s translation, ‘The Yellow Bittern’, recalling the intense second life these songs had in New York in the 1960s.

This is Liam Mac Con Iomaire’s second major biography in Irish (the first, in 2000, was of Breandán Ó hEithir). Himself a singer, raconteur and inspired interviewer, in this book he has followed Albert B. Lord’s dictum that ‘one must always begin with the individual, and work outwards from him to the group to which he belongs, namely to the singers who have influenced him and then to the district, and in ever-increasing circles until the whole language area is included.’ The language area in question is the Conamara Gaeltacht, whose stories and songs, people and landscape Liam Mac Con Iomaire knows intimately. Since Joe Heaney’s death, electronic communications and the marketing category of ‘world music’ have globalised this ‘language area’, but in his own lifetime, and in no small measure through his unique contribution, it expanded to take in the pubs and singing clubs of London, the world of commercial recordings, and the folk festivals and university campuses of the United States.

The singers who influenced Joe Heaney are here: his own father, Pádraig Éinniú, from whom he learned stories and many, if not most, of his English-language songs, as well as a good number in Irish; the masters, Seán Jeaic Mac Donnchadha and Seán Choilm Mac Donnchadha, and the women who preserved the religious songs he loved so much, Máire an Ghabha, Bean Uí Cheannabháin, and her mother, Neain Mháire Ní Ghríofa. All were near neighbours in An Aird Thoir, a few miles west of Carna, where money was scarce, but songs were a currency in liberal and joyful circulation. Another master, Colm Ó Caodháin, who gave over two hundred songs to Séamus Ennis, was Joe’s second cousin and an important influence on him; he lived a few miles farther, in Glinsce. Halfway between the two townlands, at the crossroads in Maíros, or Moyrus, near the cemetery above the beach, where Joe Heaney now lies among so many fine singers and storytellers, was Tigh Phádraig Rua, later Tigh Christy and now a ruin, the only pub in the locality where singing was allowed at that time.

This is a lovely book, but with such a wealth of reference to people living and dead, and so much valuable quoted speech in Irish and English, not to mention the painstaking documentary research that lies behind the narrative, it is a great pity that nobody saw fit to include an index. Perhaps we may look forward to a searchable electronic version on line, with hyperlinks to the sound recordings – surely a cornucopia that would be accessed far and wide for many years to come. In the meantime, this book is well worth reading from cover to cover. Its language, as one would expect from the author, is precise, idiomatic and flavoursome, and a delight to the ear that listens to Joe Heaney’s singing, but no-one who has enough Irish to follow a conversation, along with access to a dictionary, should find it difficult, while those who know English but not Irish will also find plenty to browse through.

Published on 1 May 2008

Angela Bourke's last book was Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker. Now Professor of Irish-language Studies at UCD, she was a song collector in Carna in the 1970s, and as Angela Partridge wrote Caoineadh na dTrí Muire: Téama na Páise i bhFilíocht Bhéil na Gaeilge (1983).

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