Joe Heaney

Say a Song - Joe Heaney in the Pacific North-west

Northwest Folklife & University of Ethnomusicology Archives NWARCD 001

In countless conversations with old Irishmen, usually in pubs, encouraging them to talk about their homeland, somewhere in the stream of hilarious or nostalgic stories, there always seems to come a moment of sad reflective contemplation, followed by the sentence, "Ah well!  We were all born for the boat!"  Here are three of the millions that have had to follow the route of emigration. 

Joe Heaney, or Seosamh Ó hÉanaí as he was born in the Connemara Gaeltacht, learned his wonderful sean-nós style of singing from his father and other singers, neighbours, in the Carna area of County Galway.  Like most young men in the area he had to leave to find work and this took him first to England.   He made a considerable impact there in the early days of a rapidly growing folk scene and recorded an album for Topic.  (Early albums for Topic are another thing these three singers have in common.)  For English audiences who had discovered Irish song through The Clancys and The Dubliners, Joe's appearances and this album (Irish Traditional Songs In Gaelic & English - Topic 12T91) were to have a considerable impact.  We'd heard the popular groups and thought this might be an easy music to assimilate.  We then heard Joe unaccompanied and realised that here was a leading exponent of a high art form, that we couldn't begin to aspire to.

Some time afterwards, (late 1960's?) Joe moved to the U.S.A. where he worked in various places on the eastern seaboard, mainly as a doorman in hotels and apartment blocks.  I remember Belle Stewart telling me of her feeling of embarrassment at meeting Joe at the hotel they were booked into when the Stewarts of Blair were taken over there for the American Bicentenary.  ("How could they book us to sing at their festivals when they had better singers than us operating their lifts?")

Joe's last years were spent in the Pacific North-West where the rocky coasts and wet weather were some reminder of his home.  He became an artist in residence and teacher of Irish traditional singing at the University of Washington in Seattle.  He still made annual visits to Carna and stayed with another of the great old-style singers Seán ac Dhonncha.  Seán died just before Christmas and in an obituary in Irish Music (Vol. 2 No. 6) there is a moving account of Seán driving Joe back to the airport at the end of his last visit.  Joe, perhaps realising that this would be his last visit, was too upset to speak any word of farewell at the parting.

These recordings were made in the four years before Joe's death in 1984, in concerts, classes and in informal recording sessions with students, so we hear Joe in very relaxed mood and he will pause at the end of some pieces to make some explanation, translation or authoritative comment.  After lilting My Love, She is in America, he offers us, "Nowadays our countrymen is inclined to put their music a little bit too fast, but the old people still play it the way it should be played."

Several of the songs here were also heard recorded more than 20 years ago on that earlier album; The Rocks Of Bawn, The Wife Of The Bold Tenant Farmer, Caoineadh na dTrí Muire, and it is remarkable how similar the two treatments are in pitch, pace and in style of decoration after such a time interval.  The central characteristic of Joe's singing is the amazing facility, authority and control that he demonstrates in the use of decoration.  This is technically, a very difficult style but Joe performs all his songs with such flawless facility that the whole becomes a joy.  Compare some of the waltz-time performances of The Rocks Of Bawn you may have heard with the masterly interpretation that you'll find here.  There are some lighter pieces, but it is the twisting complex melodies of the likes of A Stór Mo Chroí, An Buinneán Bui and An Tiarna Randal that command a riveting attention.  Rather like listening to the performances of the great Scots Gaelic singers such as Flora McNeill of Barra, there is the feeling of being privileged to have access to an older and higher folk culture than our own.

Vic Smith - 6.4.97

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