Chapter 1- Introduction.
This thesis investigates the performance style in the sean-nós singing tradition, it also looks into such areas as the centrality of the performer, contexts of community and the audience and also structural and stylistic features. I will draw on my own experience of performing and learning of the Oriel region, with a special mention of sean-nós performance practice in this region. My methodology draws on relevant literature, interviews with performers who also teach the style and autoethnography. ‘The autoethnography characteristically begins with the researcher’s autobiographically oriented narrative associated with the research puzzle’ and also the idea of being the field as ‘a member of the landscape’.
Methodology and preview of remaining chapters.
To complete a thorough exploration of this research, I undertook a literature review with the aid of a questionnaire which I requested all of my previous traditional singing teachers complete and which assisted the literature review on a personal level of opinion as experts in the style. In Chapter Two, the literature review explains sean-nós in the extensive broad sense of the term. Essentially, the key aspects of sean-nós are discussed, such as the performance practices and also the features and functions of the style. In Chapter Three, I complete an in-depth study of ornamentation and I compare and contrast the simplified Ulster style of ornamentation to that of the more decorated and ornate Connemara style of Joe Heaney. I include the development and the history of the style here. I also focus on the various language ideologies and thus, the distinguishing of the two language styles in Ulster. I give further attention to the debate of tradition verses innovation, mainly in the Connemara style. I endeavour to show how development is assisted by the strength of the Irish Language in the future and by continuation of the sean-nós style. On a larger level, I set out to complete this research with a detailed analysis into all of the singing styles that I partake in under the heading of sean-nós. Chapter Four will conclude the research and provide a summary of the findings. For the remainder of this introductory chapter, I begin with a brief overview and definition of this Irish musical tradition with reference to literature on the subject.
In a broad sense the term sean-nós, meaning ‘old style’, refers to Irish traditional singing in Irish and English. In common use, ‘sean-nós is used to distinguish traditional Gaelic singing from its English Language counterpart.’ It is pronounced ‘shan-nos’ with a long ‘o’ and a hard ‘s’. According to Vallely, ‘it is a singing style developed over centuries.’
This term is somewhat misleading as the line of singing has never been broken; the style is as modern as it is old. Most of the sean-nós repertoire sung today is anonymous, probably composed between 1600 and 1850, and was maintained by amateur singers in rural areas after the extinction of the bardic profession, but modern composers continue to add new songs to the tradition.
It is a highly personal vocal form that has been passed on from generation to generation, hence the terms ‘a tradition’ and ‘a custom’. It is a very personal form of singing, in abundance with ornamented melody. Séamus Mac Mathúna, who has made a major contribution to the renewal of Gaelic cultural life in the north of Ireland once said:
Sean-nós singing is at once the most loved and the most reviled, the least often heard and the least understood part of that body of music which is generally referred to as Irish Traditional Music … It is the least understood because, technically and emotionally, it is the most complex part of that body of music, and many of those who dislike it do so because the techniques of sean-nós singing are not the techniques which they have come to regard as the “proper” or “correct” ones.
It is also celebrated as an increasingly popular solo dance form, namely sean-nós dancing, but they are completely separate from each other and only draw comparison in name.
Sean-nós is deeply rooted in the rhythms of the Irish Language and in the meters and rhythms of the poetry of the language. The living community of the language An Ghaeltacht covers extensive parts of counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry – all on the Western seaboard – and also parts of counties Cork, Meath and Waterford.
The home of the Irish language and the sean-nós repertoire is, of course, in the Gaeltacht regions. But this is not to say that the style cannot be found in other areas of the country, for example there is a style of sean-nós singing in South Ulster called the Oriel style, which takes in parts of Armagh, Monaghan and Louth as seen in figure 1.0. Even though the home of Irish language might not be fully intact, the tradition still lives on. Many of the Irish-speaking areas have some form of sean-nós singing, but what constitutes sean-nós is fundamentally regional. There are clearly three main regions as indicated on the map, Ulster, Connaught and Munster. Williams states that ‘beyond regionalism, of course, is individual performance practice, in which a singer represents not so much a regional style but his or her own interpretation of, an intimate relationship to, a song.’
If each main area has its own distinctive style, one might be inclined to ask- how can such a broad term encapsulate each unique style extending from Tory Island off the coast of Donegal in the North, down as far as The Blasket Islands off the Kerry Coast in the South?
I have often pondered what constitutes the meaning of a sean-nós singer in comparison to that of a traditional Irish/ English singer. It is mainly a difference of language, as sean-nós is predominately as Gaeilge, or through the medium of Irish, and traditional Irish singing is in the English language medium. And yet we have songs in the tradition which are Macaronic, in which both language are shared and sung in the one song. The question can be raised; must a sean-nós singer be raised in a traditional Irish speaking region? I am not from an Irish speaking region; therefore I have learnt to sing in the sean-nós and the Irish traditional style. Where is the borderline between the styles?
When I first began singing as part of the local Comhlatas group with Monica Beggan, I was encouraged to use ornamentation even though the songs were through English. I actually found it very hard at the young age of 13. In a questionnaire returned by Monica she explained that ‘Ulster singers are lucky to have a broad range of accents and their pronunciation of words can vary vastly from County to County and she called this “the Northern brogue.”’ My dialect of English, as I live in Carrickmacross, which is in South Monaghan would be completely different to that of a person in North Monaghan. The North Monaghan dialect is quite musical in itself and that the accents draw a similarity to the Northern accent like that of Donegal and thus is more decorative in nature. It could be stated that ornamentation has a strong link with the blas or nature of your own speaking voice.
I began to attend group sessions with Stephanie Mackem, where I gradually picked up songs such as ‘Margadh an Iúir’ and ‘The False Knight’. These songs are from the Oriel region of South Armagh, Louth and North Monaghan. I wondered how one catagorises these songs, since the area is no longer characterised as a Gaeltacht. As documented by Ó Torna, ‘it is clear that, in contexts such as this, Gaeltacht does not represent a particular location, but rather a group of people, the Gaeil, the ‘Gaels’-Irish or Scottish speakers of Gaelic and subscribers to a Gaelic world view.’ Does this suggest that it is sean-nós if the people who sing the style understand and are able to communicate in the style which they sing in? It was not until I attended various workshops with Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, from South Armagh, that I began to sing frequently as Gaeilge. A style which Lillis Ó Laoire summarises broadly as ‘ancient in lineage, personal in character, lyrical in content, more ornamented in delivery, more authentic in essence.’ A competency in the fluency of the Irish language and an understanding of foghraíocht or diction greatly enhances the natural inclusion of ornamentation.
During these workshops we would also have singing time with Padraigín’s husband Len Graham who would teach us Irish traditional songs, macaronic songs of both Irish and English Language, ballads and also lilting which refers to the singing style of Irish dance tunes to vocables , syllables which have no literal meaning, and is analogous to many vocal traditions around the world. Len provided a fusion of different song styles from the Ulster Region and one cannot conclude that one type epitomises the Ulster singing style in itself, but rather an amalgamation of all types to give us the Ulster style. In interview with Len he describes his style as ‘Irish traditional singing in the English Language with an Ulster regional dialect.’ Len as an English language singer also voices the idea of the Ulster dialect. ‘This English language tradition is, more recent in origin, more practical in character, more literal in content, more plain in delivery, less Irish in essence as Ó Laoire puts it.’ It is less Irish in the sense of language and yet a dialect of English is still referred too.
I have presently been singing in the Tír Chonaill style from the Donegal region and I know that this is sean-nós without any confusion or collaboration of other styles as it has been fully defined and is only through Irish. There is no other influence of the English language on the style, other than that of Scottish Gaelic which is very similar to the Irish that is spoken there. All of my personal experiences with both language singing styles have raised a question in my head. How does one distinguish the Ulster sean-nós from Irish traditional singing, the macaronic songs, the ballads, the lilting tradition and what correctly categorises each style, what are the similarities and differences in the various features of the singing styles in the Ulster Region.
Chapter 2: The Sean-nós Tradition
In this chapter I explore the term sean-nós and its performance style, under the following headings; Audience Participation – Community and Context, a Musical style and structure and Performance Practice. Ornamentation, undoubtedly, is a key factor in all styles of sean-nós and thus will have a large share in this chapter. I will compare the simplified Ulster form of ornamentation to that of the Connemara style using Joe Heaney as a figure who epitomises the technique.
Audience Participation – Community and Context
The audience usually refrain from singing along with the singer as the style is solo, however, they may accompany the singer in the chorus or in a repeated end line. ‘There is a communal sense of place and a shared sense of social history which often moves the listeners to utter words of approval and encouragement to the listener.’ An example of such praises and vocal encouragement are expressed in the poem Croch suas é by Seán Ó Curraoin. (Translation follows)
Abair stéibh d’amhrán
As ucht Dé ort,
Is tú atá in ann, Bail ó Dhia ort,
Ciúneas do Bheairtle!
Torm do láimh go windéafaidh mé thú,
Sin é anois é.
Céard déarfas mé?
Abair ‘Ros a’Mhil’….
Fáinne óir ort!
Go maire tú go ndéana craiceann spíonáin cónra duit!
Tugaí seans dó!
Dúnaí a mbéil!
Tell us a song,
Tell us a stave off a song
For God’s sake,
You’re well able, God’s blessing on you,
Quieten your mouth!
Give me your hand so I can wind you,
That’s it now.
What will I say?
Say ‘Ros a’ Mhíl’…
A gold ring on you!
If you survive a coffin of spinach will be made for you!
Give him a chance!
Close your mouths!
This poem presents us with the series of events that lead to a song being sung or told, as stated in the translation. A singer has to be persuaded into singing and needs to be complimented, the audience need to be silenced. Often in the Connemara tradition, a person may take the singers arm to twist it in a winding motion. They are almost winding the song out of the person but they also act as a connection between the singer and the listener. The singer may ask if there are and requests or a suggestion as to what he will sing. When he begins to sing they shout words of praise and blessings at them in order to let the singer know they appreciate his singing for them.
Since traditional Irish songs are primarily lyrical rather than narrative in composition, sean-nós singers also often give the narrative background of a song, before singing it, even when they can assume that the audience is already familiar with the story. It is an important feature which shows that you have an interest in your listeners and you give then a deeper understanding of the performance. ‘Without a listener, an ingredient would be missing, so they must be treated with respect also. The singer sings the words of the protagonist, while both the singer and audience follow and emotionally participate in the ‘story’ of the song.’
Like storytelling, the context most conductive to the performance of sean-nós singing is a quiet, intimate one, with an attentive and sympathetic audience. Historically, sean-nós singing was almost entirely confined to community gatherings, such as céilí houses (ag dul ar cuairt-going visiting or céilíing), dances, wakes and weddings. ‘You would be walking the road and the tavern-door would be open and you would go in. There would be as many as twenty men in the room drinking, and every man that came in he would not go without singing a song or telling a tale.’
With the decline of these traditional contexts, the performance of sean-nós singing has become increasingly common in pubs which we can a seisiún, at traditional music festivals which are numerous, in schools, at traditional music festivals, at singing competitions and at specially organised singing sessions.
Adam Kaul tells the story of friends of his from the United States who were visiting him in Doolin, they had promised them that before their return home they would take them to a ‘session’. Having problems describing what a session was, they brought them to one in O’Connor’s Pub and set after set, they played in the front room around the cold fire.
At other times during the evening, like when Seamus McMahon sang a few sean-nós songs, the air became thick with sombre (if not quit sober) silence. This was a great session, one that buzzed…His eyes were squeezed tightly shut and his head turned at a slight angle as he lilted through the sad story of unrequited love and emigration…Some watched him while others gazed glassy eyes at the floor or into the coal fire…As he came around to the end of the last line of the verse he suddenly shouted out “Up the Banner, boys!” expressing his local pride in County Clare…The crowd roared with laughter and cheers and orders for another round of drinks. “Good man yourself, Seamus!”… My friend leaned over to me and said, “This is it, isn’t it?”
Not much has changed over the years in the interaction between singer and audience. The context of performance has just been altered from an intimate setting to a public setting; this is not to say that the intimacy has changed. For instance, one still finds in these settings the practises of encouragement and the rhythmic swinging or winding of the hand by the listener, a practise that is still alive in the Connemara style.
Musical style and structure
The idea of a sean-nós singer having a collection of one hundred songs would be the profession of a collector and not a sean-nós singer. Instead, most singers have a smaller personal repertoire of songs maybe around a dozen. These songs mean something to the person or maybe suit their voice and are picked for particular occasions. Williams points out that ‘in a small village where all the singers know each other, it is considered polite for singers to avoid performing the favourite songs of their friends and neighbours, to give them the opportunity instead. As a result, most singers are known for their particular renditions of individual songs.’
Many people like Sean O’ Boyle consider that ‘Irish music, not only on the metres and rhythms of Gaelic poetry, but also on the scales or modes, within the compass of our national instrument, the harp.’ Many of the airs of sean-nós songs have distinctive features including the recurrent use of the flattened seventh note, many pentatonic-based scales and airs composed in the less frequent ABAB, ABCA and ABCD form. Sean-nós is based on various modal scales as seen in figure 2.2. Most Irish tunes are in one of four modes which are: Doh (Ionian mode), Ray (Dorian mode), Soh (Mixolydian mode), Lah (Aeolian mode). The Mi mode is rare and the Fah mode is uncommon. Doh and soh are both major modes and Ray and Lah are minor. ‘Many of the songs include inflection: sometimes the seventh note is flattened and natural in the same tune. Also the same effect can be taken on the fourth degree of the scale.’
Doh mode C D E F G A B C
Ray mode D E F G A B C D
Mi mode E F G A B C D E
Fah mode C D E F♯ G A B C
Soh mode D E F♯ G A B C D
Lah mode E F♯ G A B C D E
One can recognise which mode a piece is in generally from the last note of the piece- if the air ends on La; the air is in the La mode.
Traditional singers do not usually feel bound to observe what Seán Ó Baoill described as ‘the isochronous nature of the metrical feet of music’. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin notes how ‘they choose rather to stress the poetic metre often dictated by feeling and ornamentation, breathing gaps and glottal stops in the singing of the song.’
Methods of Learning
The sean-nós style grows from an oral tradition. ‘Many say that a tune learned by standard notation is more easily forgotten than one learned from listening to another singer. Also if you learn a song by ear you then associate it with the person you heard singing it or the place you first heard it; so the tune is alive in your mind and not just dead black dots on a white page.’ As the songs are learnt by ear and not from written notation, this guarantees that the songs undergo alteration over time, more likely the melody rather than the tune. Hence, this would explain why many alternative versions of the same song exist.
Solo and unaccompanied presentation.
Irish traditional music depends on an individualistic embellishment of the melodic line; it is often held that it is communicated to its greatest effect in solo performance. The act of accompanying a sean-nós singer is not common as it is not coherent with the style itself. However, if musicians were to accompany the singer for company, or maybe to give an emotional affects to the performance or, essentially to provide bigger sounds so that one can dance.
‘Musicians since the 1960s have experimented with adding accompaniment and vocal harmony to the Irish songs, but by definition, such innovations are outside the “old style”’. The idea of accompaniment is a personal choice of the singer and it also depends on the genre of the song. During a rendition of some particularly slow songs with an emotional thematic background, the drone of the uileann pipes can prove appropriate and also if the song is a lively one, a single, accompanying instrumental line can be highly effective.
Freedom and Vocal timbre.
Unaccompanied solo singing lends itself to a sense of freedom which is most evidently expressed through the rhythm, melodic decoration and vocal timbre. It is natural in nature and no vocal training like that of a classical voice is needed. The only training a traditional singer or a sean-nós singer if they were to acquire, is to meet with singers who have a barn load of songs as the saying goes. Also, a key aspect of the sean-nós style is to learn proper pronunciation of the Irish words, which can take longer than learning the tune of the song itself at times. Certain aspects of vocal training may help and instruct singers on how to improve their singing technique. For example if one is having difficulty with certain high notes in the range of a song they have under taken, a vocal coach can teach them how to use their head or falsetto voice. They can also teach them correct breathing and prepare them for the performance of a song. Doctor Richard Henebry explains the consequences of training on a traditional natural voice:
I knew some who did well in traditional singing until their success prompted them to take lessons in voice production from common modern teachers in towns, and they could never sing Irish any more. The colour was completely gone from their voice, and the power to glide and make the complicated graces so dear to music.
A sense of freedom is open to each sean-nós singer and no one verse is ever sung the same by any one singer. This is something that makes each singer unique. Williams writes about the free metre of the sean-nós style, ‘so that one can breathe, complete a musical phrase in the time necessary rather than being beholden to an accompanist, and use vocal ornaments according to stylistic appropriateness, individual choice, or not at all.’ This great freedom is due to the fact that sean-nós singing is without the strict rhythm of accompaniment. They are able to keep the rhythm themselves, sometimes you might notice a singer tapping their feet or taping their hands on their thighs if the song is a lively one.
An air of detachment.
Sean-nós singers often assume an air of detachment when performing. Some close their eyes; some others lower their heads or even turn away from the audience. Others again keep their eyes wide open, engaging specific audience members much as though they were narrating a story. Some singers prefer to sit while singing, others stand, and others take a drink after each verse. The singing is informal in nature. Monica Beegan declares:
I started singing at a young age and I always sat down and closed my eyes, but I don’t think it was because I was “into” the song, it was nerves!! As I got older I would always break the song down and no matter what song I sing I always associate it with my life experience, I feel this helps me tell the story better and remember the words.
Maire Ni Choilm also noted that:
It depends on the song, the audience and how I’m feeling at the time so there are many factors to consider. If it’s a sad love song or a song about tragedy I tend to close my eyes and get lost in the story/essence of the song. If it’s a light or happy song or a drinking song I tend to have my eyes open and engage with the audience.
It appears to be a matter of personal opinion and the age of a person is a key factor.
Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin upon interview on the area of detachment replied:
‘The song is always an internal process in as much as I am the singer but it is also inclusive of the audience, and my intention would always be when singing to bring a universality of emotion into the songs so that listeners can identify with it. The more I am inside the song, the deeper it gets and the more others can identify with it, I hope. I am not comfortable with exclusivity, either in emotion or music. Of course all that depends on the song. A singer wouldn’t need to go deeply in the case of some lighter songs which would require other characteristics such as playfulness etc. I sometimes close my eyes, but only to avoid distraction and to remember words. In order to go deeply into the song one needs to detach from the audience, whether with eyes open or shut, but that doesn’t mean excluding the audience. In a sense one needs to “live” the song.’
Nevertheless, this is not to say that the performance is casual; ‘a person’s agreeing to sing for instance, may be the culmination of a very structured series of requests and denials. One might go so far as to say that knowing when to sing is a significant element in the singer’s art.’ The Age and prestige of the singer is naturally taken into account in deciding when each person sings. The singer is not usually demonstrative – hand gestures or body movement or facial expressiveness is rare. Speaking rather than singing the final line or phrase of a song is a frequent device which signals that the song is almost complete. Sean-nós singing can often be a very internal process for the singer. The singer must sync themselves into the world of the song. The idea of ‘living’ the song is very much alive. Similarly, Joe Heaney once said:
I put myself in the man’s name that this particular song was written about. Am I suffering the labours he did, can I go through that or have that picture before me; if I can’t follow that man, the journey he took, whether he was in bondage or slavery, I don’t follow the song and I don’t do it justice, and I don’t know, I don’t if I don’t do that.
The glottal stop.
A common stylistic device is the use of the glottal stop. This is a normal feature of the style where there is a sudden stopping of the air flow in the throat in the middle of the song without caution. ‘The result was to break the smooth running of the songs metre with the abrupt ending of a note. It is a form of rhythmic decoration. The effect of the sudden stop is to emphasise either the note which has just been sung or the following one. The use of the glottal stop is quiet common in all regions.’
A feeling of continuity.
One of the problems for the solo singer is to maintain a feeling of continuity in both music and text. One finds singers adjusting the phrasing of the song to give continuity; they do not pause at the end of a line but run the phrase right into the middle of the next line. They must also insure not to lose the natural momentum. It sometimes happens that the singer will only pause after the linking word in the text has been sung and the listener then knows that the remainder of the sentence has yet to come. The anticipation bridges the gap in the music sometimes on the word is/and or ach/but, for example in the sean-nós song ‘Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn’ (We bring the Summer with us)
Samhradh buí ,earrach is geimhreadh
Is thugamar féin a’ samhradh linn.
(Bright summer, spring and winter
And we’ll take the summer with us.)
In this example we are presented with ‘is’ this encourages the singer to refrain from taking a breath after geimhreadh but rather to create a sense of continuity as the word ‘is’ creates an unbroken flow.
Another idea is to repeat a line for emphasis, the song to illustrate this:
Tá’na lá, a mhíle grá,
Tá’na lá is seal’ mhaidin,
Tá’na lá, a mhíle grá,
Is tráth domhsa bheith’ gabhail abhaile.
Nasalisation is another attempt to maintain continuity musically by continuing a note at the end of a line even when there is no text to support it. It is most obvious on a vowel sounds when the singer closes his lips thereby forming an ‘m’ sound like a kind of a drone which is repeated at the end of other lines. A sean-nós song musically purified seems to the author to imply a continuous drone throughout, supporting the ornate melody line. A practical advantage of nasalisation is that it gives the singer time to think about the song without losing pitch.
There is no doubt that there is a strong link between the singing and the words. Liam de Noraidh believes that the music releases the words ‘Sáraíonn an ceol an chaint.’(The music releases the speech) On the other hand Tomás Ó Canainn believes that ‘words and music are equally vital.’ Ó Madagáin considers that to sing is ‘to put a voice on the words’ De Noraidh gives us examples of words that would not be emphasised in speech but would be emphasised in song.
‘Is gairid a bhíos ann’ which means ‘I was recently there.’
The title of the song is Aréir ar mo Leabaidh
The emphasis is on ‘gairid’ or ‘recently’. In normal speech, the emphasis would be on ‘a’ or ‘I’.
‘Céad slán ag sléibhte maorga chondae Dhún na nGall.’
“100 goodbyes to the majestic mountains of Donegal.”
Gleanntáin Ghlas’ Ghaoth Dobhair.
‘Maorga’ here means majestic, in speech if one was saying goodbye to one’s home place or as in this line the mountains of Donegal, the emphasis would be on the mountains not the fact that they are majestic.
Breandán Breathnach says that ‘the notation does not preceed the performance nor is it a directive as to how a piece must be played’ , this is most evident in traditional singing also and it is form this concept that the idea of ornamentation arrises. Certain regional differences can be drawn regarding the use of ornamentation in sean-nós singing. There are three main regions and thus three main styles- Connacht, Ulster and the Munster style. To consider one the dominant, or one better than any other, would be highly inappropriate. Ornamentation in my opinion is strongly linked with the dialect of Irish in the area and thus evokes a sense of decoration in the style of singing.
Two main types of ornamentation may be observed: melismatic and intervallic.
Melismatic ornamentation may consist of a group of adjacent auxiliary notes decorating or replacing a main note of the melody as shown in figure 2.3.
Figure 2.3. Melismatic Ornamentation.
Figure 2.4. Intervallic ornamentation
Intervallic ornamentation consists of an interval between two notes which may be replaced by a different interval or, perhaps by a series of stepwise notes to fill the interval as shown in figure 2.4.
For instance, ‘ the kind of pronounced melismatic ornamentation and attenuation of phrases often found in Connemara sean-nós is not characteristic of the Donegal tradition, where rhythm tends to be more restrained.’ ‘The style of sean-nós singing in the northern half of Ireland combines a stark simplicity with subtle ornamentation, much less so than the florid melismatic ornamentative style of some west of Ireland singers.’ Máire Ní Choilm reiterates this point in reference to her use of ornamentation as an Ulster singer: ‘Generally speaking, there wouldn’t be a lot of use of ornamentation in the Donegal style of singing. I would not be inclined to use a lot of ornamentation in my own singing.’ Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin also voices that she allows ‘a freedom of variation and interpretation’ in her singing and that ‘it is true to say that seldom are traditional songs sung in exactly the same way by two different singers.’
Ní Uallacháin speaks of the southeast Ulster Gaelic song as one which was kept a secret, of one which was unavailable to many outside the restraints of the Gaelic language. Ní Uallacháin tells us that these songs tell us a wealth about the human heart, about the people who made them, the times they lived and the traditions of their communities. The people’s style of singing in the northern half of Ireland combines a stark simplicity with subtle ornamentation according to Pádraigín and thus may draw similarities to that of the Donegal style. Doretha E. Hast asserts that any performance of Úirchill a’Chreagáin by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin will give one a clearer understanding of the style.
The texture is sparse: one unaccompanied voice. The timbre is warm and intimate, and the pitch and volume are slightly higher than that of a speaking voice- elevated enough to create the sense that something more passionate than normal conversation is going on, but not at the frequency and dynamic level of an operatic aria or a shouted blues. The use of rhythm to emphasize the meaning and emotion of the text is coherent with the style.
In interview with Ní Uallacháin she stated ‘I was not taught it (ornamentation) but would have been influenced by what I heard. It is very much in the style of Ulster, less is more, and the ornamentation tends to be more subtle that Connemara sean-nós. Ornamentation is used to emphasise an emotion or sound. The longer a song is with me the more ornamentation I tend to use, sometimes but not always.’ Ornamentation appears to be something very personal to the performer if all of my teacher’s opinions are to be taken into account.
An example of a sean-nós singer from Connacht is Joe Heaney. When asked about the ornamentation in his songs, Heaney’s answers showed that he thought of it, not primarily in terms of notes or of musical form, but as an act of ‘drawing out lines’:
…the notes that you’re talking about, the embellishments of it-whatever you call it, that’s nature’s accompaniment they call that. I Don’t try to do it, it just happens through the song when I try to draw out a line, and not-hold on to that particular line because there’s something special about that line. Don’t throw it away, hold on to it as long as you can.
I find this man’s view simplistically brilliant, even though his style is so different to the simplistic Ulster style, I can still identify with his way of thinking. There is no manual presented to you when you wish to learn the style-the style is rooted in a tradition. Joe Heaney is one man who preserved what this tradition epitomised. After all, ‘you’ve got to learn the song and develop your own style-to walk before you run…to learn the song and what the song is about. And then, develop your own style in doing it…there’s nobody living that can tell anyone where to put grace notes in a song. You just do it yourself. It takes years.’
There is no doubt that is takes years. I can recall first learning how to ornament and I remember singing triplets and grace notes very slowly and then putting an ‘x’ above the word I needed to ornament. But now I understand that you create ornamental emphasis naturally while singing. Monica Beegan said:
I have never actually learned a song and decided where to put ornamentation, and I know and have been told that I never sing a song the same way twice, I would class myself as an Ulster Singer and throughout Ireland Ulster singers a known for their flow of the song (Ornamentation is just natural, not forced and predictable). I was never taught ornamentation and I believe that it is something that comes naturally from listening to other singers. And it is what makes sean-nos singing unique.
As Heaney says it takes years of practise and essentially the singer must be ‘at one’ with a song to be able to ornament, or to ‘live’ the song. Ornamentation is a question of time, coming from the desire to ‘hold on’ to lines. Naturally, slower songs will allow more time for ornaments than faster ones. Heaney’s description of ornamentation is very understandable and plausible. It draws relevance to personal taste, imagination and ability.
Chapter 3- Sean-nós and Modern Developments.
As we have previously learnt from Fintan Vallely, ‘the sean-nos style is as modern as it is old.’ In this chapter I set out to explore the developmental aspect of the style. Ríonach Uí Ógáin has conducted great research into the development of the Connemara singing tradition and, while looking into her work, I intend to draw comparisons between the Connemara and the Oriel style of South Ulster. I intend to show how the idea of the loss of the Irish language has hindered the progression of the Oriel style. I hope to understand what effect, if any, that the “two-tradition hypothesis”, an idea developed by Lillis Ó Laoire and Anthony Mc Cann has on the progression of the Oriel style.
The sean-nós singing tradition like any other custom is constantly changing, which is the nature of any vibrant musical genre. Ríonach Uí Ógáin in her essay “From Camden Town to Ros an Mhíl- Changes in the Connemara singing tradition” reports that ‘it is sometimes said that the tradition has become stereotyped and unreceptive to change.’ Uí Ógáin poses the question of whether or not the singing tradition has become so narrow that it may decline. She also points out that ‘not only is this living tradition in a state of constant flux but that it is also a singing tradition in a minority language which is under threat.’ One can argue that the idea of this living tradition is not as evident in the Oriel style of South Armagh to that of the Connemara style in which the Irish language is spoken on a daily basis in the community. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin wrote herself that:
….. the sean-nós style is a celebration of traditions past, and also one which holds a fragile survival into the present. She also said that the story of southeast Ulster Gaelic song was a hidden world, which was accessible only to those who could speak and read the Irish language. The decline of Irish as the vernacular of the people of southeast Ulster, and with it the Gaelic songs tradition, is a story of division and alienation attributed, mainly, to the machinations of church and state.
And thus, we are presented with the answer as to why there is a continuous development in the sean-nós style in Connemara, the survival of the Irish language.
Uí Ógáin is of the opinion that:
The vocabulary in the songs and the phrases and nuances were closely related to similar characteristics in the songs composed in English at the time. The new songs in Irish were a direct translation of the music and emotions expressed in recently composed songs in English… The Irish language songs were accompanied, and were sung in a mid-Atlantic accent.
She also noted that these songs were a means of recognising the fact that young people in Irish-speaking districts no longer wanted to listen to the more traditional songs such as ‘Anach Cuain’, and that their needs should be addressed, at a time when important changes were rapidly taking place in relation to language, music and culture.
There were many other composers at the time who were composing songs and singing them with accompaniment, such as Tomás Mac An Iomaire and Joe Steve Ó Neachtain. The roots of their songs were in the community, the majority of them ‘light-hearted, some are amusing, reflecting the sense of humour of those who listen to them and who sing them.’ One only has to attend the Oireachtas (which is a celebration of Irish traditions and cultures which is based around various competitions for all ages) to hear these kinds of songs in one of the many competitions specifically Amhráin Nuachumtha or Newly composed songs.
A lady from Santry in Dublin, named Míne Bean Uí Chribín, sang a song about all the different ways chicken is served these days and it was absolutely hilarious but so relevant at the same time. Another gentleman, Seán Ó Gráinne from Na Forbacha, in County Galway, sang a song about one of the candidates who was running for Presidency at the time and subsequently is now our elected President Michael D. Higgins. Both songs come from old tunes and are sung with traditional features such as Seán’s chorus which was a slight form of lilting:
“Oh Michael D. D O diddle dom…”
Ríonach speaks of songs which you would also hear at this competition, songs such as the ‘Great Flu’ and ‘Amhrán an Dole’. Ciarán Ó Fátharta has composed a modern song, ‘Amhrán na mBaid Mhóra’:
Iad ag seoladh ina scórhta,
Báid bheaga agus báid mhóra,
Iad feistithe amach is cóirithe,
Iad réití’ thar barr…
Also another newly composed sean-nós song which tells the stories of the daily lives of the people is ‘Amhrán an Bhingó’ which Tomás Seoige composed:
Nach iontach an mí-ádh é an geaimbleáil,
Seacht n-uaire níos mease ná an t-ól,
Nuair a chloisim an chaint ar an jeaicpot,
Bíonn mó chroí istigh dhá bhrú is dhá dhó.
These songs reflect many problems, social, economic and political, which are to be found in the community. Would it not make sense that as time and the social way of life of community develops that the themes of the life as expressed by the people themselves in their songs also develop? Ó Conghaile wrote ‘má chuaigh an seansaol i léig i gConamara ní dheachaigh na hamráin ná an chumadóireacht.’ (If the old way of life was to decline in Connemara, the songs and the composing would not go with it.) If Ó Conghaile is right, then why has there not been any similar significant development in the Oriel region, assuming that seansaol has a strong link with the Irish Language. Ní Uallacháin noted that ‘The language preserved the songs and nce the language went, within the space of thirty years the next generation neither had language nor songs.’ It does not mean that a tradition is ‘narrow’ or ‘in decline’ but rather ‘it must survive side by side with other singing styles and not isolated from them.’ Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin herself as an Ulster singer has composed and recorded various albums. One such album is ‘áilleacht’ or ‘beauty’ which is a new collection of compositions in Irish in a traditional and contemporary style This album may not be regarded traditionally as sean-nós singing. However, it may be looked on as a development in the Ulster song style as the songs are still in Irish. A distinctive pattern of development within the sean-nós style is highlighted and explored in Connemara, but so far to this date, no modern publication of newly composed sean-nós songs exists in the Oriel region.
A question of language?
Songs in English are also sung in this style but, while there are similarities between them and traditional singing in Irish, they are two different traditions and are generally celebrated as such. Liam Mac Con Iomaire talked about ‘the outlook the songs reflect on life and how each language of song has its own distinctive view of the world that is quite different to the songs in English.’ This view raises many unresolved questions in my head. If one is to argue the point that sean-nós singing applies predominantly to the Irish Language then why am I not writing this thesis as Gaeilge? And yet, all of these notions ignore the fact, that for better or for worse, ‘ English is the language of the vast majority of traditional singers in Ireland, and that singing in both languages shares many common features.’ But, one could also argue that in an Irish-speaking situation, the singer and the listener are in real communication.’ In many instances the performer is singing of people and places known to the listener in the locality so therefore sean-nós is wholly understood in the natural home of the language where listeners not only know the words of the song but can also identify with the background.’ All the above points are identifiable to the English language singing tradition also.
We translate sean-nós as an old style of traditional singing and yet sean-nós is called Irish traditional singing. It seems a somewhat paradoxical situation. Within the restrains of the 1937 Irish Constitution under Article 8, the Irish language is the “national” and “first official language.” English is recognized as the “second official language.” This is unfortunately not a true representation of the main language spoken in the country.
Ó Laoire and Mc Cann in their article about ‘The Hierarchy of Tradition in Representations of Gaelic and English Language Song’ , explore this discursive operation of binary opposition which they feel is presented as a ‘choice of languages.’ The practice of what is commonly referred to as ‘traditional’ or ‘unaccompanied’ singing in Ireland is often represented as if singers have before them the “choice” of two radically-distinct and symbolically-disparate linguistic traditions. They title this a ‘two-traditions hypothesis’. Ó Laoire and Mc Cann have now provided me with a label for the un-answered questions that lie in my head. They suggest a binary opposition was established in the discourses of Irish cultural nationalism. The concept holds that the embodiment of music and language through song in Gaelic is one which upholds the matrix of what it means to be Irish.
This idea of ‘Two Traditions hypothesis’ has come to characterise the Gaelic song tradition as being absolutely different and separate from its English language counterpart. The idea of a ‘song tradition’ is presented to allow the persistence of a continuously defined and unchanging entity which remains more or less identical through time. So therefore one could draw that there is absolutely no association between the two and they are in support of Liam Mac Con Iomaires viewpoint, however this is not a universally popular idea. ‘They also show us O’ Rourke’s opposition to this view in the development of Gaelic Song.’
In these songs, it seemed to me, they think differently, they look on the world with different eyes and minds, they fall in love differently – or at least express themselves differently about it; they grieve differently, they pray and curse differently. And they do all these things eloquently, imaginatively, impressively, attractively – more so, I thought, than in the [English language] world with which I was already familiar.
Some scholars hold the view that the English language splits people apart from their roots and natural ability to converse and communicate in Irish as the language of the country. O’ Sullivan supposed that ‘popular English songs differ enormously from their Irish counterparts, and the difference is indicative of the profound effect of the loss of their language on the psychology and character of the Irish people.’ O’ Boyle also views, ‘the texts of English language songs as malformed attempts of a people, to express themselves in a language that is not their own.’
This binary way of thinking holds the idea that the English language singing tradition and the sean-nós tradition are two separate identities. This is a view more commonly held by Gaeltacht speakers or those whose language of song is predominately through Irish. People who have been brought up and been immersed in both languages would find this hypothesis flawed. This mind set is ideological and has made people disregard the English language singing tradition. Music should not be used as a weapon in a war between cultures and traditions but a bridge which acts between the transfers of the values of these customs from one community to another.
Each different opinion has given me the chance to form mine. I recall having a conversation with Máire Ní Choilm, my present sean-nós teacher, about the performance differences while singing in two different languages. She described it as a difference in meon which translates in English as mind-set, character, outlook, attitude, viewpoint, perspective, feeling etc. Máire helped me to understand what the differences are while singing each song. It is an internal entity that is very hard to explain, but the word meon encapsulates the idea exquisitely. To me it is a very personal method of communication between one’s own mind and that of a listener which O’Rourke succeeds in unfolding for me. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin also expresses a similar belief to this when it comes to the audience when ‘they feel discomfort that they ought to understand the language being sung. She argues that they need to sit back and feel, they would understand, but they feel, because they have not got the language, or they left the language aside….’ Ní Uallacháin understands the idea of feeling a song as both a singer and as an audience member. In interview with Ní Uallacháin she voiced that:
I think the country is too small and the tradition too narrow to talk of celebrating two different traditions. It is one tradition reflected and expressed in different ways. Mac Con Iomaire’s remark is a generalisation but the lyrics of Irish language songs tend to be less explicit in a story line than those in English and would express more feeling and imagery. The story behind it would often be imagined. But again this is all very general. The sounds of Irish and English are very different, and in Irish are much more sung on the vowel sounds which create a different effect. For me that’s much more significant musically.
It is obvious that there is a binary between the two traditions, but this is not to say that they should be celebrated as such. Personally, I have grown up with both traditions alongside me in equal measures and I have never termed one as more supreme than the other. Neither are malformed attempts in either language nor are they expressing a loss in either language. Maybe a new celebration needs to be set up where both styles in both languages are celebrated in unity together, after all, singers generally sing for the love of song and not language.
According to Ó Laoire and Mc Cann, ‘sean-nós serves as a powerful unifying symbol of language, literature, and ore for Gaelic revivalists and Irish cultural nationalists… the epitome of Ireland as not- England.’ Maybe having grown up near to the border of Northern Ireland, I have never seen a divide in singing styles as many of the songs in the Oriel region are from the border regions including South Armagh and people who live here do not see any political border in song. A song celebrates memories that are so important in the first place they were made into a song, so why should one distinguish language in an act of celebrating memory in either language?
Having sung sean-nós for ten years, it was not until I started my Bachelor of Arts degree that I was introduced to the techniques and features of the style under the course of traditional and popular music here in the college. This course instilled awe and wonder in my singing and I wanted to conduct further research in the subject. Naturally my two main interests lay in performance practise and in Ornamentation. Having come from the simplified style of the Oriel region and being exposed to the flowery decoration of the Connemara style, it led me to pursue my interest further.
In Chapter Two, I addressed three headings: Audience Participation- Community and Context, Song Structure and Repertoire and Performance Practice.
Audience Participation – Community and Context led me to discover that the singing style is celebrated in an informal environment where the audience is concerned. A series of events leads to the singer’s performance; often a singer may need encouragement as seen in ‘Croch Suas É’, the poem by Seán Ó Curraoin. This poem lays out the path for performance. Even asking him just to sing a verse so they will not feel intimated or under pressure. Singing in front of many can be a daunting experience even for the well accustomed singers in the tradition. While the singer is telling the story through song, the audience feel obliged to encourage the singer and to compliment them with various well wishes and praise. The audience must also be treated with respect and so the singer may tell the story of the song to create a feeling of inclusion amongst all present. Often to explain the idea of a singing seisiún to a person not accustomed to the tradition, can be a difficult task to undertake. Adam Kaul tells us a story where he felt no explanation of the style was suitable and the best way to understand what sean-nós and a seisiún was to take his visitors to one. A feeling of intimacy still surrounds the singing style where any audience, big or small, is concerned.
Musical Style and Structure deals with the idea of repertoire and how each singer has a smaller personal repertoire of songs, maybe around a dozen. These songs mean something to the person or maybe suit their voice and are picked for particular occasions. Many singers are known for the songs they sing. I learnt how each song is based on a mode, which is useful to be aware of even if accompaniment was needed. The sean-nós tradition is one that comes from an oral background and in turn this can have an effect on the alteration of the melody of the song but on the other hand it can prove learning the song easier if you have to learn the words by memory, as you are not relying on any sheet and you are focused more on the melody and the decoration rather than on the words.
Performance Style regards the idea of sean-nós as a solo and unaccompanied style in its original form. I have rarely come across the style being accompanied but this is not to say it cannot be done. Unaccompanied solo singing lends itself to a sense of freedom which is most evidently expressed through the rhythm, melodic decoration and vocal timbre. Sean-nós singing draws from ones natural singing range and vocal abilities, no training is necessary on the voice but rather on techniques such as creating continuity, nasalisation or the glottal stop. An air of detachment is also associated with the style, depending on the song, some may close their eyes to avoid distraction, or maybe if the song is sad, they will want to avoid eye contact with anyone in order to sing the song with feeling and to link their own mind with the song. However, if the song is lively or funny, one’s eyes remain open and the singer will engage with the audience. One must have associations with the song, they pick a song for a personal reason so they can connect with the song.
Ornamentation was another key aspect to this chapter. I now understand ornamentation as the will to hold on to an idea that is important and thus you decorate it with extra melodic notes so as to create a sense of emphasis around this significant lyrical idea. Ornamentation is looked on with different eyes by different singers. The Oriel and Ulster style is simplified because as Ní Uallacháin says it is complete with ‘understated emotion’ and ‘a subtle use of ornamentation as a result’. To explain the Connemara style in a simplistic way is to put it into the words of Joe Heaney’ to hold on to it and not to throw it away. Both styles have this idea of ‘holding on’, it is just a matter of how long or how much decoration, the singer feels is necessary.
Why is the Connemara sean-nós tradition forever developing and why does the Oriel style seem to be steadfast in the past? This was the central idea of Chapter Three. What I learnt is that sean-nós is a living tradition in Connemara. The repertoire is not static, new songs are added and older pieces shed for a while and then revived and their memoires relived. One may be of the opinion that the music is conservative in tendency where the Oriel tradition is concerned. And yet, change only takes place slowly in any tradition. This led me to undertake a study into the idea of language and the “two tradition hypothesis.” I concluded that if a strong active existence was in place in the community of sean-nós singing, it will encourage new growth and development of the style. This also explained why little development if any has occurred in the Oriel style. The development lies in the work of Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin and her book “A Hidden Ulster”. This book was only published in 2003, and it is a source of great wealth and holds a treasure of the songs of the people of South Ulster. It is hard to say that this Oriel style will undergo any development in terms of new repertoire as the Connemara style has. But, it may not be development in repertoire that the style needs, but rather to create a larger awareness of the wealth of songs that have been preserved for us and from whom our ancestors have left for us. It does not mean that we are living in the past; it is just the stage that the Oriel sean-nós style is at.
This study has greatly influenced by own practise of the sean-nós singing tradition. Not only have I begun to use the glottal stop but I am more aware of the reasoning behind key aspects of the style. With the help of the literature and my previous singing teachers, Máire Ní Choilm, Monica Beegan and Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin I now hold a greater understanding of various areas of the style which I have been singing in for ten years. While there has been much research on the Connemara tradition, there is scope for further research in the areas of linguistics; musicology, ethnomusicology and folklore where the Oriel style of sean nós is concerned.
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