This is really deep, intense, uncompromising music. You can label it ‘difficult listening’ if you like, because chances are, if you’ve never heard this sort of stuff before, you won’t be able to make it to the end of the album. Compare it to, say, field recordings of traditional appalachian singers or ballads from the Indian or Arabic classical traditions. Compare it to deep south shit-poor folk-blues from the countryside, because basically that’s what it is. The difference is, the country is Ireland. And the language is Irish, which means that you probably won’t understand it, and neither would most of the Irish nowadays.
“Well why would I want to listen to that?!” you say. Because sometimes you get the feeling that all the glamour and farce that get paraded around under guise of the ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ music and culture is all just a false facade like the high tops of buildings in the old wild west. And you begin to look around yourself for signs of something true and honest and without pretense. And you might not find anything that fits the bill, as simplicity comes little and far-between in this age. So you might get to wanting to hear something real and unadorned: something ancient. And if you follow that trail, at least in this country, eventually you come to the tradition of unaccompanied Irish singing: Sean-Nós. It’s like when you follow a river back to its source. This is the spring! And right beside it is the spring of Nordic music and Indian music and most other European musics too. Because when the Indo-European proto-Celts took these lands, these are the musics they sang. And that means that chances are, the water of the music is the water of your blood, and when you dream there’s a little piece of you dreaming in Sean-Nós. So find a quiet night, turn off the lights and draw close to the fireplace. Listen to these songs and let them take you back to your ancient self.
* * *
The Irish musicologist, Tomás Ó Canainn, had observed that “no aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of sean-nós (old style) singing. It is the key which opens every lock”. Sean-nós airs are sometimes called “shut-eye songs” because this music is an intimate undertaking and sung to ensure that the soul of the ballad is heard. It is not so much the narrative, but rather the emotion of the song which the singer tries to impart: it is music to, from and for the soul. A mystical experience between a singer and his music. All essential characteristics of Indian music as well and it may have been for this reason that the great Irish musicologist, Sean O’Riada, thought that “listening to ‘sean-nós’ singing is to think of Indian music rather than European”. The similarity is indeed so striking that one could almost challenge an unwitting listener to guess where it is coming from, India or Ireland !
Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (1920-1984) was one of the great Conamara singers of his generation – many would say the greatest.
In 1955 he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal for sean-nós singing at the Oireachtas festival. From 1957 he played a leading role in Gael Linn’s Oícheanta Seanchais at the Damer Theatre, Dublin, and was featured both on Gael Linn’s earliest record releases and on their radio programme on Radio Éireann.
Seosamh Ó hÉanaí spent many years in both Britain and the United States where his singing and storytelling introduced an appreciative new audience to Ireland’s heritage.
His years in America were punctuated by frequent visits to Dublin, where he added to the gaiety of many a seisiún in O’Donoghue’s Merrion Row pub.
Seosamh Ó hÉanaí – Ó Mo Dhúchas (From My Tradition)
Label: Gael-Linn CEFCD051
Some records are almost beyond criticism, and this is one of them. Seosamh O hEanai – Joe Heaney, as he was known to English-speakers – was recognized, even in his all-too-brief lifetime, as in some respects the greatest sean-nós singer ever recorded. Dubbed “the King of Connemara”, he was idolized by such disparate greats of the musical world as Willie Clancy and John Cage, and received, towards the end of his life, the accolade of being offered the first-ever professorship of sean-nós studies (by Washington State University). Loved by all with whom he came into contact, his presence graced any session that he attended.
And yet, such was the disregard in which his idiom was held for most of his life (things are a little better now, though not much), that Joe had to spend most of his life in exile, chiefly in Brooklyn, though also, memorably, for a time in London. And, though he was much in demand for radio broadcasts, and featured on many recordings of miscellaneous material (notably some of the mighty north London sessions of the early sixties), he made only four whole LPs in his entire singing career. Of these, probably the best-known is the one that he made for Topic, which, like his US release on Philo, features him singing in English as well as in Irish; and, while his singing in English was good and highly influential – he did much to popularize such songs as “The Rocks of Bawn” – he was always more at ease in his native Irish. After thirty years away from the Gaeltacht, he still thought in Irish, and it was in Irish that he displayed his unparallelled knowledge and mastery of his dúchas.
Dúchas, featuring in the title of this record, is one of those words that are hard to translate; merely to render it “tradition”, as here, doesn’t really do it justice. Gael-Linn would perhaps be well advised to leave the titles of their records untranslated, though in the case of this re-release of the second, and the better, of the two LPs which Joe made for them (in 1976), there is hardly anything else that one can fault them for. In their zeal to do the national work of disseminating the language, they used to have no English whatsoever on their record covers: such was the case with “O Mo Dhúchas” when first released, and can have only served to narrow down even further the potential market for such a record. Now, thank goodness, we whose Irish is poor or worse have an illuminating preface by Seán Mac Réamoinn, and résumé,s of each of the songs, in English to help us. My only other minor criticism would be the unnecessary tarting-up of the front cover: the original had a certain monochromatic splendor which ought to have been kept.
It is good also to be able to hear the songs without the omnipresent crackle that seemed to characterize so many of Gael-Linn’s older LP pressings. And what songs! The list includes two of the greatest tragic lovesongs in Irish, “Una Bhán” and “Dónall Og”; but there are also lighthearted songs such as “Peigín is Peadar” and “Cailleach an Airgid”; and even the religious tradition is represented here by “Amhrán na Páise”. The songs are nearly all of Connacht origin, and range from the obscure to the well-known: Joe’s renditions of songs in the latter category, especially his spinetingling performance of “Róisín Dubh”, are as definitive as anything that can be imagined.
Definitiveness, indeed, is the keynote here. Once you’ve heard the likes of “Contae Mhaigh Eo” performed in Joe’s rich voice (a little deeper than is fashionable these days, but what price fashion?), with his microsecond-precise timing, it’s hard to imagine the song in question done differently, let alone better. This is very much as it should be, for I never knew anyone who lived for his songs as much as did Seosamh O hEanai: indeed, the man was inseparable from the songs. A humble, self-effacing person in himself, Joe was fierce about the songs and their importance, and wouldn’t hesitate to administer a “Bí¡ i do thost!” (Shut up!) to anyone who was foolish enough to interrupt.
Joe was the songs; the songs were Joe. As Seán Mac Réamoinn says by way of conclusion to his excellent intro, “Si monumentum requiris, audi”. Listen, indeed. If you’ve any love for the unaccompanied tradition in Gaelic, this really is essential listening, and has to be at the heart of your collection. Non caveat emptor, as Seán might have added.
This 2CD set includes all the tracks from both of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí’s solo albums with Gael Linn: Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (1971), and Ó mo dhúchas: Sraith 2 (1976), and includes many of the greatest songs from the Irish tradition.
mpr >256kbps vbr | w/o covers
Yes, I realize this album was just re-released after years of being out-of-print. But Seosamh’s dead now, and there are living musicians on Gael Linn who need your support more.