Nurturing a New Generation of Sean-nós Singers
Bláth na hÓige is the title of a recently concluded seven-part television series on TG4, and now also the name of a new album of songs taken from the programme.
As music programmes on television go, the format is familiar. Eight talented young singers, mainly in their twenties, are brought together under the tutelage of two experienced musicians, with each show focusing on the emerging artists. At the conclusion of the series, the singers perform a concert together, which is also filmed.
What makes Bláth na hÓige different, however, is that these are eight young Irish-language singers, mainly specialising in sean-nós, and so the series carries deeper layers of cultural interest. Several are also not just singers but instrumentalists, and they compose and arrange too. Did anyone predict that the world of youthful sean-nós would be so multi-faceted in 2023? Despite the challenges facing the Irish language and the Gaeltachtaí, somehow the traditional music world has created a network of creativity so robust that it can nurture these kinds of fluent musicians. It is incredible that there is not more discussion of music and the arts when it comes to Gaeltacht matters, because these art forms have achieved what decades of policy have not.
So we have Piaras Ó Lorcáin from south Armagh who brings the songs of Oriel; Méabh Ní Bheaglaoich of the famous West Kerry family from Baile na bPoc; Cathal Ó Curráin, a singer, fiddle and banjo player from Gaoth Dobhair who last year was shortlisted for an RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Award; Máire and Étáin Ní Churraoin from Ráth Chairn in County Meath who are grand-nieces of Darach Ó Catháin; Séamus and Caoimhe Ní Fhlatharta from Iorras Aithneach in Conamara, a duo that has come to prominence with their performances on television over the past year; and Megan Nic Ruairí from Rann na Féirste in Donegal, a member of the Mac Ruairí family music group. Guiding them through the series are harper and sean-nós singer Síle Denvir, whose pedagogical experience shows in being able to focus in quickly on the interests of the singers, and fiddle player Colm Mac Con Iomaire, whose expertise helps create an open, creative approach.
Each episode sees the young artists meet up with a teacher or inspiration from their own area – Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Eilín Ní Bheaglaoich, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Máirtín Chóil Neaine Pháidín Mac Donncha, Mícheál Ó Cuaig and Moya Brennan – before setting off for the creative setting of Stiúideo Cuan in An Spidéal, Co. Galway, where they connect with their contemporaries.
The singers bring their own repertoire and ideas, and while there isn’t a huge amount of focus on the creative process among the group, in the space of a few days they produce a range of arrangements, which have all appeared on the album.
Ó Lorcáin delivers ‘Seán Gabha’ as the opening track, a rhyme song partly notated in south Ulster at the turn of the twentieth century and sung at wakes. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin has a solo recording of the piece on her Oriel Arts website, and in the hands of the Bláth na hÓige group it becomes something more like a harmonised Clannad song, but it illustrates how a fragment of a lost song, carefully preserved for future generations, can take on a new life.
Songs local and new
Ó Curráin brings his tender singing to ‘Seolta Geala’ written by Proinsias Ó Maonaigh, and Ní Bheaglaoich brings ‘Slán Leat’ written by her aunt Eilín Ní Bheaglaoich. Again, the approach is to augment the melody through the use of harmonies. Séamus and Caoimhe Ní Fhlatharta also introduce a family song, ‘Caisleán an tSléibhe’ by Mícheál Bheairtle Ó Donnchú, although the arrangement for the group is identical to what is found on their recent EP, Séamus & Caoimhe. The final track is Ní Bheaglaoich’s ‘Amhrán na nGael’, a cry of frustration from the Gaeltacht, written for the Aisling? show in 2016.
Nic Ruairí puts forward ‘A Bhean Udaí Thall’, a song about a man, his mistress and his wife previously recorded by Altan, but the Rann na Féirste singer slows it down, and Denvir suggests that Caoimhe Ní Fhlatharta sing the part of the mistress. The result is a highlight of the album, the contrast between the two voices creating a dialogue of real heartbreak. Ní Fhlatharta again stands out when leading off on the famine song ‘Johnny Seoighe’, which develops into a harmonised version with her brother Séamus and Denvir. A similar approach is taken on ‘Caisleán Uí Néill’, Denvir joining the Ní Churraoin sisters. Harmonising is clearly becoming an important part of sean-nós practice for younger generations. For Ní Fhlatharta, ‘Nuair a bhíonn muid ag déanamh an armóin… tá na mothucháin i bhfad níos láidre, dom fhéin ar aon nós.’ (‘When we perform harmonies, the emotions are stronger, for me anyway.’)
But the arrangements are all quite conservative musically, compared to, for example, recent sean-nós recordings by Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, Inni-k or Denvir’s Anamnesis, not to mention the song arrangements of groups such as Lankum. One also can’t help noticing that the arrangements contrast with the naturalness that we hear when the singers are meeting their mentors in the early part of each programme. There, they sit around kitchen tables, chat and sing in unison. The group of singers met up for only a matter of days in Stiúideo Cuan of course. It’s difficult to know how things would have developed if they had had more time.
The album has been released digitally by Gael Linn, and as a record of emerging talent, it is a valuable addition to their catalogue. But there are no sleeve notes to educate the listener about the history of these songs, or the backgrounds of these young singers and their mentors. I wrote recently in Comhar magazine that we need a full-time, fully resourced and fully staffed record label for Irish traditional music and song, and that this should be part of a new vision for the Gael Linn label. The talent on Bláth na hÓige is a reminder that traditional music organisations and funding bodies have got to get to grips with this question.
When the Ní Churraoin sisters visit Máirtín Chóil Neaine Pháidín Mac Donncha in Ráth Chairn in programme five, they sing beautifully with him and he says at the end: ‘By daid, má thagann mórán mar sibhse… d’fhéadfainn mó shúile a dhúnadh amárach’. (‘If there were more like you, I could close my eyes tomorrow.’). Listening to the quality of the singers on this album and in the television series, it is difficult to argue with that.
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Published on 1 June 2023
Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music.
Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music.