Ciarán Ó Gealbháin
University College Cork

Creative Commons 4.0 by Ciarán Ó Gealbháin. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Philip Fogarty, Tiber Falzett, and Lillis Ó Laoire, eds.

Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2022. 404 pages.

ISBN : 9781784442378

This new work, edited by Philip Fogarty, Tiber Falzett, and Lillis Ó Laoire, comprises a highly stimulating collection of essays – fifteen in all – exploring various aspects of the Irish-language song tradition and, to a lesser extent, that of the wider Gaelic world. Being largely the proceedings of an academic conference held in the University of Galway in June 2015, at which twenty-five listed participants (and many more besides) assembled to discuss the current status, vicissitudes, and challenges faced by the native Gaelic or sean-nós style of singing in the twenty-first century, the collection understandably focuses principally on the Conamara tradition. It does, however, also feature a number of important contributions focusing on the Munster and Ulster styles, while an international dimension is introduced with contributions from Gaelic Scotland and Nova Scotia, these by Tiber Falzett, Griogair Labhruidh, and Seumas Watson. (Watson, whose contribution to our understanding of Gaelic Atlantic Canada has been immense, sadly passed away prior to publication. He is fondly remembered in the introduction, along with two other stalwarts of the tradition, Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha, and Liam Mac Con Iomaire, to whom the collection is dedicated.)

The title of the work, echoing the old proverb that “there may be two versions of every story but twelve of every song”,[1] is highly reflective of the papers within – a stimulating mix of personal experience and theoretical perspectives. It is also in some ways resonant of Albert Lord’s memorable line that, when considering song performances in an oral context, every telling must be regarded as, in a sense, “‘an’ original if not ‘the’ original” (101), each as valuable as the next, links in complex chains of transmission. As one might expect, and again, as the title might hint, the authors here are not always to be found in agreement: one, for instance, counselling that sean-nós singers should look more to the future than to the past, another advising that they promptly return to the wellspring of ancestral heritage for redemption![2]

In their introduction, two of the editors, Ó Laoire and Fogarty, play on English novelist L. P. Hartley’s oft-cited maxim, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. As culture is fluid and ever-evolving, the future, they propose, is an equally strange place: change in all things – society, politics, religion, language – is inevitable, as it is for culture, music and song.  “We are all”, they suggest, “exiles after a fashion, even if we are never to leave our birthplace: we are in exile from earlier times and eras to which there can be no return” (18).[3] The contributions here in a sense reflect the entire spectrum, some focusing on the past, others on the present, still more looking to the future and to what lies in store for this venerable art form as we move into the second quarter of the twenty-first century.

Certain recurring themes emerge again and again throughout the work, from the critique of revivalist efforts in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, to questions of authenticity, identity, and the “displacement” of the tradition in light of the present-day emphasis on the competition stage. Unsurprisingly in this regard, Oireachtas na Gaeilge (and particularly Oireachtas na Samhna, the annual festival of Irish-language culture, home to the most prestigious prizes in Irish-language singing, including the much coveted Corn Uí Riada) attracts special attention.

A number of contributions touch on the tremendous change that An tOireachtas has witnessed since its inception in 1897. Éamonn Costello, in an absorbing discussion, speaks of the dynamics at play when certain aspects of regional culture may be appropriated and pressed, as it were, into the service of the nation. While emphasis on the various regional singing styles is maintained in competitions staged by An tOireachtas, a somewhat contradictory view nonetheless prevails, he suggests, of traditional singing as a national art, leading him to detect a certain “cognitive dissonance” (Festinger) in the ideologies informing the establishment of An tOireachtas, which he describes as a “complex, paradoxical mix of cultural nationalism and cultural regionalism” (324).[4]

Costello shows how many within the Revivalist movement at the turn of the twentieth century felt that a musical style which conformed with the conventions of Western art music, but which was nonetheless informed by living Gaeltacht culture, would best serve as a national style. Recalling writings of Herder, Pearse, for instance, suggested that “those who would build up a great national art – an art capable of expressing the soul of the whole nation, peasant and non-peasant – must […] take what the peasants have to give and develop it” (cited in Costello 331). This tension or conflict between the literary and the oral tradition, formal and aural training – the subject of much debate in the early part of the twentieth century – is also explored by Éadaoin Ní Mhuircheartaigh who shows how, ironically, the agenda was often set by those outside of the tradition, functioning as “adjudicators, critics, and administrators of the native arts”, while the communities who had practiced and preserved them over many generations were seldom consulted (292).

Co-editor Lillis Ó Laoire remarks amusingly on how little of the celebrated homespun tweed of earlier times is on view at Oireachtas na Samhna in the present day, competitions taking place in an entirely modern context, some being broadcast live across the globe, and featuring participants who are entirely “entangled” (I bhfostú) in contemporary life, fully engaged with the modern world (314). As one who has experienced these contests from multiple perspectives, as spectator, both in person and via the various media (radio, television and online), as adjudicator and, indeed, as two-time winner of Corn Uí Riada, Ó Laoire’s call for debate with regard to current practices and protocols relating to the staging of these competitions is surely deserving of deep reflection and further consideration.

Given the influence of An tOireachtas over so many years, there may be a certain tendency to think of competition as being the sole or principal focus of the sean-nós singer today. Síle Denvir, however, in addressing issues of authenticity in native Irish-language singing, highlights the myriad contexts and loci in which these artists can be found performing in the present, posing a certain challenge to the more conservative view that singing of this kind is most authentic when shared in small groups, unaccompanied (35-36). Again, interrogating the rather prescriptive rules that now often govern the performance of sean-nós, most especially in the competition environment, Antaine Ó Faracháin asks, rather provocatively, how the celebrated song-makers of the past, whose compositions remain highly popular in such settings, would fare were they to compete today. He asks, for example, if the highly acclaimed Mayo-born poet Antaine Ó Raiftearaí (1789-1845) would even be allowed to contest Corn Uí Riada in this day and age: in this hypothetical situation, his songs would be considered newly composed (and therefore proscribed or ineligible) and were he to accompany himself on his fiddle, which he was known to do, he would find himself instantly disqualified! Leading us away, as it were, from the competition stage, Ó Faracháin proceeds to share some highly interesting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources that illuminate the myriad other contexts in which song was practiced in former times.

Like Denvir and Ó Faracháin, Máirín Nic Eoin, again considering the performance context, explores the many different circumstances and situations that may give rise to song, this time through the prism of the modern and contemporary Irish-language prose tradition. Drawing somewhat from the writings of Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko (1991), she suggests that something of the “second life of folklore” is in evidence in the (surprisingly) many instances in which the act of singing has been woven into twentieth-century Irish-language literary works. Traditional song, she says, is one of the verbal arts which has witnessed great change in both context and function over the past 100 years, being practiced, imagined and experienced in many diverse settings that differ greatly from those from which it emerged (135).

A number of contributions give highly personal accounts of experiences from within the tradition. Virginia Stevens Blankenhorn, for instance, tells of her odyssey from California to Conamara in the pursuit of song (213-228). Though born in America with apparently no Irish connections, over her lifetime Stevens Blankenhorn has acquired a thorough mastery of the Conamara style of sean-nós singing, has issued a number of highly acclaimed commercial recordings, and authored many important works on both the Irish and Scottish Gaelic song traditions, in addition to publishing a full-length monograph on Irish accentual verse meters. Yet here she seems to grapple somewhat with her own place within the tradition, questions of identity, of belonging, ownership, and cultural appropriation coming very much to the fore.

Likewise, Seosamh Mac Donnacha shares something of his own interesting journey growing up in An Cheathrú Rua, Conamara, where other kinds of music, in addition to sean-nós, informed his musical formation. He warns against an over-prescriptive approach to the art and the present tendency to often discuss sean-nós “in terms of what is ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ according to tradition” (102).[5] He wonders whether singers today are, perhaps, too often lead by the record of the past. Being of their time, the early collections, he suggests, can sometimes be likened to old black and white photographs, devoid of “colour”, yielding little or nothing that may cast light on the style of the performance as delivered (103).

The effects of print and other technologies on the tradition over time are also considered by Róisín Nic Dhonncha in her exploration of the ways in which songs and the act of singing may nurture and reinforce the unique identity of a community. She argues that in the case of the sean-nós tradition, print and the publication of texts have in a sense lead to “the displacement of songs”, as they were taken from their natural interactive setting and introduced into “the strange, depersonalized world of commerce” (119).[6] Likewise, the commercial recording may offer wonderful possibilities, but these come at a cost: the performance context and the lived communal experience are once again lost to the listener (120). For Nic Dhonncha, in its locus classicus, the art of sean-nós singing is a social practice, highly dependent on an appreciative and responsive audience, and she advises a keener awareness of the desocialization of music that can occur with the loss of face-to-face engagement. The relationship between singer, song, and audience is a theme also explored in depth by Tríona Ní Shíocháin in a wide-ranging contribution (51-78), where she contemplates the “time out of time” that the act of singing can create in our lives. Rather than thinking of song as merely echoing historical, social, or contemporary events, she proposes that we view this cultural form as a “liminal play space, from which innovative ideas and challenging discourse may emerge” (53).[7]

Ódí Ní Chéilleachair discusses the unique and invaluable platform that RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta has provided (and continues to provide) for sean-nós singing, since its inception in 1972. Exploring present-day trends at the station, the paper is supported by an extensive survey of the airtime devoted to sean-nós, among other genres of song, over the period of a single month (May 2015), revealing highly interesting findings ranging from play frequency to regional distribution. Earlier audio technologies inform Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill’s examination of the “long note” (an nóta rífhada), among other distinctive features of Munster singing in former times, as he analyses a number of recordings made in 1928 by German phonetician, Wilhelm Doegen (1877–1967). Originally made on wax matrices, but later converted to shellac, the chosen examples feature the singing of Tomás Ó Corcráin (b. c.1846) of Both an Dúin, Co. Waterford and Peats Ó Ceallaigh (b. c.1868) of Cill Rialaig, Co. Kerry. He memorably likens their employment of the extended note – a striking, irregular musical feature – to “breaking waves”, the singers’ voices “soaring to a peak before falling off once again” (240).[8] We are in the fortunate position today of being able to access archival recordings relatively easily, and Ó Cearbhaill wisely counsels that the study of such material will aid us greatly in arriving at new and deeper understandings of the tradition.

Dhá Leagan Déag is an important collection, the first of its kind, offering a wide array of unique perspectives from within the Irish and wider Gaelic song tradition, in many instances those of well-known and highly regarded exponents of the sean-nós style. The editors, contributors, and publishers of the collection (Irish-language publishing house, Cló Iar-Chonnacht) are to be congratulated for gauging the temperature and capturing such a rich snapshot of a particular moment in time. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in the native Irish-language song tradition, it more than delivers on the promises of its subtitle, sharing many new, often emic insights into this aspect of our native arts.


[1] See An Seabhac (55), for example: “Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal (agus dhá ghabháil déag ar amhrán)”.

[2]Caithfidh amhránaithe an tsean-nóis a bheithag breathnú chun cinn seachas a bheith ag breathnú ar gcúl” (Mac Donnacha 111); “Measaimse gur fiú dul siar ag triall ar thobar an dúchais faoi dhéin íocshláinte” (Ó Cearbhaill 248).

[3][I]s deoraithe muid uile ar bhealach, fiú amháin mura mbogaimid riamh ón áit inar rugadh muid: is díbeartaigh muid ón am atá thart, agus ní féidir linn filleadh air

[4] “[T]á mé ag áitiú anseo go bhfuil idé-eolaíocht an Oireachtais bunaithe ar mheascán casta, paradacsúil den náisiúnachas cultúrtha agus den réigiúnachas cultúrtha araon

[5]Is i dtéarmaí céard atá ‘ceart’ agus ‘inghlactha’ de réir an traidisiúin a phléann muid an sean-nós go rímhinic

[6] “[D]éanann cló agus foilsiú théacsaí na n-amhrán díláithriú amach as an bpobal ar na hamhráin sin agus … scaoiltear isteach i bhfearann anaithnid, díphearsanta na tráchtála iad”.

[7] “[Is ceart] foirm an amhráin a thuiscint mar spás imearthach tairseachúil ina dtagann nuálachtaí machnaimh agus dioscúrsaí dúshlánacha chun cinn”.

[8] “[I]s cosúil le tonnta iad a bheadh ag briseadh, mar go n-ardaíonn a nguthanna ina lár agus go n-íslíonn”.

Works Cited

An Seabhac [Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha] (1926). Seanfhocail na Mumhan. Dublin: An Gúm.

Festinger, Leon (1962). “Cognitive Dissonance.” Scientific America 207 (4): 93-107.

Honko, Lauri (1991). “The Folklore Process.” Folklore Fellows Summer School Programme. Turku. 25-47.

Lord, Albert B (1960). The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.