During the summer of 1979 I travelled to Co Donegal to learn about and record sean-nós singing. From the first, I encountered difficulty in obtaining a precise definition of the term - a difficulty which increased rather than diminished as I spoke with more and more singers. I soon discovered that although there is, indeed, something approaching an 'official' definition of sean-nós, even it is subject to much individual interpretation; that, in fact, there is no single definition of the term; and that any attempt to reduce it to one would be an over-simplification of an extremely complex and mercurial subject.
The word sean-nós to denote traditional singing is actually of fairly recent origin. It was apparently created in 1940 or '41 at the Gaelic League Oireachtas, the annual festival of traditional song and storytelling which initiated the competitions that have since become an Irish institution. 1 Sean-nós literally means 'old way' or 'custom', and in the context of the competitions it has come to indicate the traditional performance style of folksongs in the Gaelic language. This style is comprised of such technical aspects of performance as intonation, ornamentation, and tempo.
Sean-nós has also come to be identified - particularly in official circles - almost exclusively with the specific performance style employed by singers of the Connemara region of Co Galway - of which Joe Heaney is probably the best-known representative. This is the style described by Tomás Ó Canainn in his Traditional Music in Ireland, in which he defines sean-nós as "a rather complex way of singing in Gaelic, confined mainly to some areas in the west and south of the country. It is unaccompanied and has a highly ornamented melodic line." 2 *
Armed with this definition, I began my research in the northern Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking region) of Donegal; I soon realised, however, that it was not entirely applicable to the singing I heard there. The northern style is markedly different from the southern nós, characterized by a more open vocal tone, and adhering more closely to the basic rhythmic and melodic structure of a given song. Melodic ornamentation, when present, is more or less incidental.
My first informant, Sailí Gallagher of Rann na Feirste, had a very straightforward style - pure and relatively unadorned. She had participated in a number of singing competitions, and told me that she had been criticized for not singing in the southern nós:
We were told we weren't able to sing the sean-nós - because it was a Connemara adjudicator; and he thought, well, we should have the Connemara songs. It really does hurt when somebody stands up in front of a crowd and says, "Well, you can't really sing sean-nós"; and at the time, I said, "Well, that's me finished - I'm not going to sing anymore." 3When I asked Sailí for her own definition of sean-nós, she replied, "It's the old way that they used to sing long ago; that's the way I would describe it: the way they used to sing long ago." 4
The simplicity of this definition was echoed by the late Hiúdaí Ó Duibheannaigh, a fine singer, who was highly respected by the community. He was very knowledgeable about the singing tradition, having been a collector for a number of years, including one official three-year stint with the Irish Folklore Commission from 1936-39. Sean-nós, Hiúdaí told me, was simply "the old, traditional style of singing." But, he added, "that varies very much from one part of the country to another - and even from one part of Donegal, now, to another. But people now, that word being used these last forty years, think it's a particular style of singing: it's not!" 5
According to Hiúdaí's definition, the Connemara style is but one of several regional styles which, once numerous, have now dwindled to a handful. All are equally valid, and each is a form of sean-nós. This does not mean, of course, that singers from different regions necessarily regard all styles in the same aesthetic light; in fact, they often tend to be critical of each other's differences - Sailí Gallagher's Connemara adjudicator is a case in point. Even Hiúdaí, who was very democratic in his approach to the singing tradition, commented that:
The Connemara people have an altogether different style to Donegal: a lot more drawn-out - sometimes, I feel, too drawn-out. That's the difference, and perhaps the adjudicator would think the more drawn-out it was, the better the sean-nós. Some adjudicators haven't a clue what sean-nós is. 6But sean-nós embraces not only regional differences; individual styles are also accepted - even encouraged. "You could get two in one family who differ in their style," Hiúdaí told me, observing with evident pride that he himself had "never imitated anybody when singing":
I made my own style and I held onto it. There are people, and they try to imitate other people - which is good if they imitate a proper thing. But I never did. I never changed my own style: I made me own style as a young boy, and I held onto it. 7Few of the singers I encountered, however, made such claims to individuality. Sailí Gallagher told me that she sang "pretty much as I learned from my mother." 8 Gaoth Dobhair singer Aine Ní Ghallachóir credited her style to the tutelage of the renowned Síle Ní Ghallachóir, from whom Seán Ó Baoill and Peter Kennedy collected in the 1950s. 9 More frequently, however, when singers spoke to me of their "influences," it was in reference to the songs rather than the techniques they had learned from them. The development of these singers' styles seems to have been more an intuitive than a self-conscious process. When, for example, I asked Gaoth Dobhair singer Neillí Curran and her daughter Bríd in what style they sang, they replied, "Whatever way it comes out." 10 Hiúdaí once summed up the sean-nós of former days in the simple declaration: "You sang your song." 11
Now that traditional singing is less common, however, it has become increasingly necessary for young singers to seek out and imitate "a proper thing." They must more consciously master the stylistic features that characterize sean-nós singing. Whether learned consciously or unconsciously, these features are an important part of the singing of any traditional performer, although, as I have already indicated, they can vary greatly within the boundaries determined by regional, local, and individual taste.
One of the most important technical aspects of sean-nós is rhythmic freedom, a quality more marked in Connemara, but an important element of the northern nós, as well - occurring most frequently in the form of rubato. Hiúdaí felt very strongly about this rhythmic flexibility, and blamed modern schools for discouraging this aspect of the nós. "The children all go to school," he commented. "They're taught singing in the school. The teacher, who has been taught in his training how to teach singing, measures it too much. It's too measured to be sean-nós, and that's what's killing the sean-nós." 12
Melodic ornamentation is also an important aspect of sean-nós, although again, it is less conspicuous in Donegal than in the south, and may sometimes appear to the casual listener to be altogether absent. One subtle form of ornamentation which Hiúdaí employed in his singing was the practice of "bending" certain notes - deliberately, as he put it, "going out of pitch." 13 Other Donegal singers incorporate a number of rapid grace notes into the melody of a song, although none employs the elaborate melismatic ornamentation of the Connemara style, which tends to alter the melodic structure of a song and to render the lyrics less intelligible. Several Donegal singers commented to me that, unlike Connemara singers, they placed more emphasis on the lyrics than on the melody of a song; and Hiúdaí even spoke of "ornamenting a word." I could never get him to define this concept, but his point was that in his singing words were of primary rather than secondary importance. 14
Instrumental accompaniment was not used by any of the singers I encountered, and was generally eschewed as having a 'straitjacketing' effect upon the songs and the sean-nós. As Hiúdaí explained:
It's nice, but it doesn't suit the sean-nós at all, at all. Because a person singing in the real sean-nós - he draws out one line, and he makes another one kind of sharper and quicker, and he goes out of tune now and again. And if you had a good musician or a man who know his work, a little backing would certainly be nice ... but not a real accompaniment at all - no, it doesn't suit. 15Other technical considerations in sean-nós performance include tone and vocal registration, both of which may vary greatly - though it is generally true that Donegal singers employ a fairly open tone and cultivate a wide, often high-pitched vocal range, while in the south a nasal tone and a lower, more limited vocal range seem to be more characteristic.
Consciousness of these stylistic aspects of performance and an accompanying tendency to view sean-nós as pure technique seemed to be most prevalent among the younger singers I encountered. They had all participated in singing competitions, and were consciously concerned with such technical considerations as breath control, pitch, and intonation. The older singers, while often aware of technique, were far less self-conscious about it, and placed much more emphasis upon a singer's ability to convey the content of his song to an audience. Some expressed concern that the formal competitions over-emphasized technique to the detriment of the songs and to the sean-nós itself. Hiúdaí, musing on this problem, remarked to me:
If I were an adjudicator, I'd like a man or a woman or a boy or a girl to come out, and get his audience to understand everything that he was saying, instead of standing like a statue and singing words and songs: that's not singing at all! 16To singers like Hiúdaí, sean-nós - and traditional singing in general (by this time he had begun to use the two terms more or less interchangeably) - is not merely a display of technical skill, but a form of artistic expression - what Hiúdaí simply called "telling a story." As he once commented, "That's what singing is, anyway. The sean-nós is - there's a story - some sort of story - attached to every song; and you must put that story across in your singing." 17
From this point of view, the song - not the singer - takes precedence; and whether a singer can put his song across determines to a much greater degree than technical polish whether he does or does not "have the nós." When Hiúdaí spoke of singing as "telling a story" however, it was not in the same sense that a ballad-singer or a seanchaí might use the phrase - it is not, in other words, the process of relating a narrative. Most of the songs in the Irish tradition are lyrical rather than narrative in form, and the 'story' of a song is more often implied than stated. There is, as Hiúdaí told me, "some kind of story" attached to each song; but the traditional singer can - or could at one time - assume that this story was familiar to most of his listeners. It is not, then, the narrative of song that the singer must convey in his performance, but, rather, its emotional content. When Hiúdaí spoke of his own sean-nós, this was the crucial element: "The way I had it was, the theme of the song - whether it was a sad song or otherwise - I'd try to put that feeling . . . into my singing, and tried to convey that to my listeners." 18 This is not accomplished by a melodramatic, overtly emotional delivery of a song, however, but rather by a sensitive presentation of its poetic and musical content. In the true sean-nós, the song must be allowed to speak for itself. To achieve this, of course, requires a certain degree of technical proficiency, but this is of secondary importance. What really matters is the emotional sincerity of the performance and the singer's ability to communicate this sincerity to his listeners. This ability, one of my informants observed, is "something that's in you or isn't in you." 19 Technique is merely a tool to facilitate the process of communication.
But if the sean-nós tradition is a form of communication, then it must be at least partially defined by its context. Singing, like story-telling, demands an audience - though this audience has all but disappeared from even such strongholds of traditional Irish culture as Rann na Feirste. Yet none of the older singers I interviewed could talk about sean-nós without mentioning the teach an airneáil or céilí house, in which members of the community would once gather - particularly during the winter months - for songs, stories, conversation, and the 'crack':
From November right up until March - St. Patrick's Day, when the nights were getting shorter - that was the whole go: you'd come to me tonight, or I'd go to your house tomorrow night or the night after. There were certain houses that people used to gather in, and that was called 'teach an airneáil' - there were certain houses that were noted for their airneál. 20The airneál provided a context for communal activity of all kinds, in which all could participate. The late Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill, another noted Rann na Feirste singer, in describing the airneál to me, remarked that "Anybody that could sing - when he would come into here ... maybe there would be a couple of people - and they would ask him to sing a song. And maybe someone would tell a story - everyone would have to do something." In the old days, she concluded, people would use "any excuse for a good time." 21 Sean-nós singing was integral to this good time, and was, until recently, a major source of entertainment within the community itself. As Hiúdaí observed:
There were very few dance halls around, and they had a kind of 'hoolie' or a dance in the houses, and so many songs would be sung during the céilí or dance. There was more singing going on then - well, there's plenty of singing going on now, too - but singing was the thing in the old days. 22This situation has, of course, changed since mass entertainment entered the Gaeltacht. As Hiúdaí commented:
The airnéal is practically gone; because there's no point in going to a house now, and sit and watch television - you can do that at home! And the comhrá - or the conversation and the 'crack' - that has died out very much. 23The pub has now replaced the céilí house as the communal gathering place, and this has had a detrimental effect upon sean-nós. Contemporary rebel songs and sentimental 'ballads' are often preferred to traditional songs, and these are performed in a non-traditional, melodramatic style. In those pubs where traditional singing still occurs, however (these are far more numerous in Connemara than in Donegal), the close connection between the tradition and the community is still readily apparent. I was particularly struck by the extent to which listeners are able to participate in the performance of a song; for although in sean-nós, performance is almost always solo, an appreciative audience can contribute to it by addressing numerous words of encouragement to the singer. At any point in the performance of a song - particularly at moments of emotional intensity - a listener may suddenly interject the expression, Maith thú! (good for you), Dia go deo leat! (God be with you always), or simply, Good man! - and thus express his appreciation of the song and his sympathy with the singer.
The intensity of this interaction between performer and listener demonstrates the way in which the sean-nós tradition is at once highly social and deeply personal. Since sean-nós is a solo form, many singers place a great deal of emphasis upon individual expression. Hiúdaí, for instance, remarked that he had always "tried to put my own feeling about the words and the song and the theme, and tried to put that into my singing." He insisted that a singer must "put his own personality into the performance of his song." 24 Another singer, a young girl of seventeen, observed that "you can convey yourself through singing a lot." 25 This concept of personal expression is probably much of what Hiúdaí meant when he said that he had "made his own sean-nós." Each singer brings to the tradition his own sensibilities and experiences, and at once creates and derives something unique from it. To a large degree, this individual creativity determines specific performance style. Several of my informants expressed the belief that many aspects of sean-nós singing - particularly ornamentation, varied more from person to person than they did from region to region.
In view of this, it is not surprising that the tradition possesses great personal significance for many singers. Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill spoke of her songs with an affection bordering on ecstasy:
I loved songs; and if I would hear a nice song, I would be afraid that anybody would draw his breath to spoil the song. And if I would take a fancy to a song, I wouldn't rest till I would get that song, and I would be going over it in my bed at night. Oh, I loved songs! I loved songs! 26Singing, for Neilí and singers like her, is a highly personal response to life. Hiúdaí brought home this point with some feeling when he declared:
Most of the poetry in Irish has come from hard times - crushed down! And poetry wasn't composed merely for the sake of composing a song; it came straight from the heart - and therefore it meant every word of what was said. And, you know, there are people composing nowadays, and they want is rhyme and to fill in. But that wasn't so in the old days: you were driven to poetry - driven to saying something. It was like crying your eyes out over something: you put it into words and you got relief after composing something that you were satisfied with. 27One of the most popular songs in Rann na Feirste is An Chéad Mháirt de Fhómhair (The First Tuesday in Autumn) - a lament, spontaneously composed by a local man upon learning of the death by drowning of a favorite son. The man was found on the beach, "crying and lamenting and singing for his lost son," and, as Hiúdaí told me, "Nobody knows how the melody came - it's freely wailing and crying like the keening of old women." 28 This song, which is a profoundly emotional response to a personal tragedy, clearly illustrates the process of singing as a way of obtaining the catharsis or "relief" of which Hiúdaí spoke. But it also illustrates the way in which singing can transform individual feelings and experiences from the personal to the universal. The song did not die with the event that engendered it, but lived on as a part of local Rann na Feirste tradition. Singing it established a bond with others through shared human experience (the death of a son), and ultimately provided a means of expression which was a valuable emotional outlet for both the individual and the community.
Sean-nós, then, involves continual interaction between individual and community, singer and audience. It can express shared meaning for many and at the same time retain special significance for one, for sean-nós is essentially an expression of humanity - and that is common to all. It is because of this aspect of sean-nós that singers from the tradition respond so negatively to those who only "stand like a statue, and sing words and songs." Sean-nós cannot be separated from the emotional significance of the songs or from the context of the lives of those who compose and sing them.
Nor can sean-nós be separated from the songs of the Irish tradition. Although, as Hiúdaí observed, there is no such thing as a 'sean-nós song', obviously sean-nós singing cannot exist independent of the traditional repertoire. Like style, repertoire varies greatly in accordance with regional and personal taste. While many songs, like Dónal Og or Róisín Dubh are found throughout the country, others are associated with specific regions. Thus the repertoire of the Connemara singer can be as different from that of his Donegal counterpart as is his singing style. Hiúdaí pointed out to me that there are, for instance, relatively few songs in northeast Donegal about fishing disasters - one of the main themes of the Connemara repertoire. This scarcity may reflect the relatively limited fishing activity of that region, especially in former times. As Hiúdaí observed:
This part of the country, since the Ulster plantation, when people were driven out here to the shores between the mountains and the sea, there was no word at all about fishing ...it was a struggle for existence, a struggle for life, and they made as much as they could out of the moor, out of the mountain. And that was their whole life: trying to get as much out of the land as would keep them alive. There were fishermen, surely, in later years, but not in the old days that I'm talking about. At that time they hadn't boats, they hadn't anything. 29Thus, when such songs appear in the Donegal repertoire, they tend to be imported, as is the case, for instance, with Liam Ó Raghaille, a lament from Connacht. (An Chéad Mháirt de Fhomhair concerns not a fishing disaster, but an expedition across the inlet between Rann na Feirste and Gaoth Dobhair to obtain supplies for the manufacture of poitín.) There are, of course, exceptions - most notably, the mournful Badaí na Scadán (The Herring Boats), which laments the destruction of a fishing boat from Inis Fraoigh (an island which lies between Arranmore and Burtonport on the Donegal coast).
Another genre of songs which Hiúdaí felt were not native to (though popular in) northwestern Donegal are the bucolic cow-herding songs so numerous in the Rosses and Gaoth Dobhair. He theorized that, although "you don't want to witness everything" to be able to compose a song, a more likely place of origin for this genre was farther inland - perhaps even as far east as Co Derry, an area more conducive to the pasturing of cattle than the rocky coastal terrain of western Donegal:
There's a lot of travelling people going in the bad old days, and they carried the songs from one part of the country to the other, and that's how I think the gamhna geala - and all those songs about calves and cows and Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó - and all that lovely stuff - came into this part of the world. I believe the gamhna geala were composed round about Derry - the Ban river there, and a lovely spot - and big farms and what have you there - and that's where they came from. 30Some of the differences between regional repertoires, however, may most adequately be explained not by thematic preferences or generic distribution, but rather by the occurrence of individual, localized songs - some of which may have traveled to other areas (to emerge later as regional variants), while others (for a variety of reasons) remained relatively limited in their circulation. This situation seems less likely to obtain today, when radio and sound recording make songs from all regions so generally accessible. Yet local affinities may still limit repertoire. Several of the younger singers I met in Donegal were consciously restricting their choice of material to local or regional songs. And, while it is true that even songs as strongly associated with Donegal as An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid) and Tá Mé i mo Shuí (a love lyric especially well-known in Rann na Feirste and Gaoth Dobhair) are becoming increasingly popular with southern singers, they are still referred to as 'Donegal' songs.
One of the most interesting features of the northwestern Donegal song repertoire is its inclusion of a large number of songs in the English language. This is especially remarkable in Rann na Feirste, where the Irish language has historically retained one of its strongest holds. Older Rann na Feirste singers recalled that at a céilí or airneál, while the language of the songs may have alternated between English and Irish, the language of conversation remained persistently Irish. Hiúdaí (and others) attributed this phenomenon to the once heavy traffic between Donegal and the Scottish bothies, from which both Scottish and English songs were imported back to Ireland. 31 Family tradition has it that when the young Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill's mother was asked by a departing suitor what she would like him to bring back to her from Scotland, she replied simply, "A song." 32
Yet, while Neilí's repertoire was particularly rich in English-language songs (chiefly learned from her mother), her cousin Hiúdaí, who also had access to such songs, knew scarcely any. Individual choice clearly plays an enormous role in determining the composition of a singer's repertoire, which - while partly moulded by local and regional taste - is ultimately dependent upon the singer's own aesthetic judgement for its exact shape. It is simply another example of the propensity of the traditional singer to "put his own personality" into his singing - and his own stamp upon the tradition.
But what, then, of the place of the English-language song repertoire in the sean-nós tradition? Since the word 'sean-nós' is itself Gaelic, it is usually applied only to songs in that language. But, as I discovered, many older Donegal singers have (or had) repertoires that included songs in both Gaelic and English. (Younger singers, by contrast, seem to prefer a homogeneously Gaelic repertoire.) When I asked Hiúdaí his opinion on the matter, he replied, "There was a sean-nós for all sorts of singing ... but in the old days, those who sang English songs, sang them more or less in the same style as the old sean-nós Gaeilge." 33 Paddy Tunney, famed exemplar of the English language singing tradition of the Fermanagh/Donegal border, was even more insistent on this point. "The traditional style of singing in English," he maintained, "is just as much sean-nós as in Gaelic ... traditional singing is all sean-nós." 34
Sean-nós, in conclusion, cannot be reduced to a single definition; rather, it has many different levels of meaning, depending upon the context in which the term is used. It may be used to describe distinct performance styles - or to refer to the singing tradition as a whole. In this larger sense, sean-nós embodies the many interrelated aspects of the tradition, including performance style, performance context, social function, and repertoire. On a personal level, sean-nós has as many meanings as there are members of the tradition - and as many functions. It can serve at once as a form of entertainment, as an emotional release, and as a means of communication, expressing life as it enriches it, creating connections with the community and with the world at large.
All my informants in Donegal sang as they breathed: unselfconsciously and spontaneously. Describing the prevalence of singing in her daily life, Sailí Gallagher exclaimed:
I always sing when I'm working - I never stop singing! I never stop - and somebody'll see us the other day, and I was makin' tea and I was singin' away, and they said, "Well, you're happy, anyway." But I never stop singing - I always keep on! 35Aine Ní Ghallachóir, recalling her girlhood, remarked, "Oh, I sang everywhere - across the fields and jumping over the ditches - I sang everywhere, to myself!" 36
To the traditional singer, sean-nós is no mere matter of technique or style. It cannot be bounded by concepts of time and space - or even by the folkloristic concepts I have discussed here (function, performance context, repertoire, etc.). Such concepts imply that human behavior and creativity can be separated into discrete units and analyzed accordingly. But to the traditional singer, there can be no such tidy demarcations. To him, sean-nós cannot be detached from the process of living, for it is the stuff of life itself.
Julie Henigan - 14.8.99