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The Singing Word
"He had a rich and powerful voice, and often, on a calm summer day, he used to go with a party into a boat on the Lower Shannon where the river is eight miles wide, and having rowed to the middle of the river, they used to lie on their oars there to uncork their whiskey jar and make themselves happy, on which occasions Anthony O'Brien was always prepared to sing his choicest pieces, among which were no greater favorites than Oisín's poems.
So powerful was the singer's voice that it often reached the shores at either side of the boat in Clare and Kerry, and often called the laboring men and women from the neighboring fields at both sides down to the water's edge to enjoy the strains of such music (and such performance of it) as I fear is not often in these days to be heard even on the favored banks of the soft flowing queen of Irish rivers."
In traditional Irish communities, practically everyone sang or played some kind of instrument because music was a shared experience, rather than a passive form of entertainment. In the evenings, especially in winter, people gathered at a specified house for songs, stories and "craic" - good fun. Donegal singer Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill recalled:
"Anybody that could sing - when he would come ... 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 cabins, out in the fields or on the waves, the voices were of the ordinary people of Ireland, who recorded their own histories in songs of loves and betrayals, dreams and awakenings, banishments and reunions. The soft sounds of a lullaby welcomed the new-born child into the world while the anguished wail of the caoine, or keening, marked her passage out of it. Singing provided a much-needed counterpoint to such daily tasks as churning milk, grinding grain, herding cattle, and spinning wool.
For music and song was for everybody, not just for professional performers. People sang as they breathed: unselfconsciously and spontaneously. In 19th century Ireland, it could truly be said, "In every cottage there is a musician." In Ireland, Sailí Gallagher, a traditional singer from Donegal, told her interviewer: 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!"
©Mara Freeman, 2000.
Note: We are very grateful to Mara for giving us permission to reprint this article. We encourage you to visit her beautifully-designed website: Celtic Spirit
Images: Singing in the woods from All Posters and Prints.
The Round Towers
The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
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March 4, 2011
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