"People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."
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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.
The idols of Boa Island
Boa is at the lower end of Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh. Here, in the ancient Caldragh cemetery are two pre-Christian stone figures - the Janus statue and a smaller statue, the Lusty Man. Shown is the more famous of the two - a double-sided figure of two beings carved back-to-back. Interestingly, this type of figure is often referred to when the calendar year has just turned and we are glancing back even as we move forward. Also, the month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates. Often flowers and coins are left at the base of both statues - perhaps for good luck in the new year? Speculation as to what the idols represent continues.
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March 4, 2011
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