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Sean-nůs: The music of what happens
What makes Sean-nós distinctive is that the song is sung in Irish and is unaccompanied. Often, the singer seems to stay detached and in a kind of trance. For those of us who are used to performers who gesture, show emotion and sing dramatically, Sean-nós may seem somewhat strange.
The point of it all is that Sean-nós is about telling a story or reciting a poem. The meaning is all-important and the style is purposely understated. The songs themselves cover all aspects of Irish life - love, nature, laments, and even humor; but most often, the songs are stories about the singer's locality and can be about current happenings or social history - the music of what happens, then and now.
There are three main styles of Sean-nós, corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken: the Gaeltachtaí of Munster, Connacht and Ulster. Munster Gaeltachtaí include parts of Cork, Kerry, and Waterford; the Connacht Gaeltachtaí are on the west coasts of counties Galway and Mayo, and the Ulster Gaeltacht is entirely within county Donegal.
While Sean-nós is practised beyond these areas, only these three styles are recognized. Singers from English-speaking areas of Ireland and outside Ireland may sing in one of the three styles, or may blend them, depending on where they learned the art.
The most obvious difference between the styles is that Donegal Sean-nós has been heavily influenced by Scots Gaelic singing, which is much less ornamented. Donegal singers tend to keep a steady pulse throughout the song and the melody is presented with minimal ornamentation. The Munster and Connacht styles can be more difficult to distinguish and both are highly ornamented, with the forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist and with other more complex forms.
Some good examples of Ulster singing can be heard on Altan's first few albums. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is a very talented traditional singer, and her unaccompanied tracks are outstanding. (Most of Altan's recordings are available on amazon).
There are many other fine Sean-nós singers, including Lillis Ó Laoire from Donegal, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí from Connemara and Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin from west Cork, just to name a few. It's not a style that appeals to everyone, but if the song is followed along with a translation close by, the beauty of the story or poem slowly unfolds and reveals a depth of emotion and expression that belies the seeming detachment of the singer. Once you understand what he or she is sharing, the thing to do then is to listen to the song again - this time with your eyes closed. It is fair to say that those of us with an ounce of Irish spirit in the blood will feel the pulse of old Ireland surging through the veins.
Image: Song of the Lark from All Posters and Prints.
Founded in 545 AD by St Ciaran, Clonmacnoise monastery became between the 7th and 12th centuries a religious, literature and arts center for monks all over Europe. They came to study and pray in the Island of saints and scholars when the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages. Clonmacnoise was totally devastated by fire as well as successive raids but the site retains its stunning features. The view captured in this image has remained relatively unchanged for 1500 years. Clonmacnoise lay in decay until the Office of Public Works began the arduous task of turning this sacred place into one of Ireland's most famous visitors' centres. Interestingly - and we have yet to find out why - for centuries, courting couples have stood on each side of the arch whispering their words of love to each other.
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March 4, 2011
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