Singing Big

Author: Cathal Goan

Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán [The Big Book of Songs]. Edited by Micheál Ó Conghaile, Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg, and Peadar Ó Ceannabháin. Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2013, 877 pp.

Mór may be translated as big, large, or great. Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán is indeed a big book with 877 pages and containing the words of some four hundred songs, but its ambition and its achievement are more aptly described as great. For all that, its editors say in their brief editorial note that the book itself is only half the story; “The song doesn’t exist until it is sung.” So what they present to us are the texts for four hundred songs as recorded and disseminated commercially in the past thirty or so years. To round out the story, we must access the recordings of performances of the songs as published on cassette or CD by Cló Iar-Chonnacht, in the case of most of the songs, with occasional additional recordings from other publishers such as Gael Linn and Ceirníní Cladaigh. Taken together, the song recordings and transcriptions alongside detailed notes about each, as published here, represent an invaluable insight into and a celebration of the living, dynamic art of traditional singing in the Irish language—sean nós.

The publishing house Cló Iar-Chonnacht is in itself key to the ambition and the achievement. Since its establishment in 1985, it has published over 300 books and, importantly in this context, over 200 albums of music with a particular emphasis on singing in Irish. Its founder, Micheál Ó Conghaile, writes a characteristically warm and personal introduction to the volume. He offers perceptive comments on the context for producing albums of song and outlines his own early encounters with this art form. It was not—as one might anticipate—bearing witness at his own hearthside to the wealth of song of family and neighbors, but rather the delightful ingenuity of his mother who effected repairs to a 78rpm gramophone recording of the song “An bhfaca tú mo Shéamaisín?” (“Have you seen my little Séamus?”) that had arrived by mail to their island home in Inis Treabhair, Conamara broken in four parts. The repeated clicks on the mended disc did not discourage the five or six year old Ó Conghaile; if anything they appear to have had the opposite outcome. Ó Conghaile has been to the fore in making this art-form more widely accessible, initially through publishing tape cassettes of unaccompanied songs from Conamara in Galway, but widening out to embrace singers and songs from all of the Gaeltacht areas in Donegal, Mayo, Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and Meath. Singers and songs from all of these areas are represented here.

Universal themes are in evidence in songs that span many centuries; some hark back to a Gaeldom shared with western Scotland; some have variants in all of the surviving Irish speaking areas, others are intensely local; some bear an ancient anonymity, others are the recent compositions of celebrated local song-makers. In this last regard, the song making of Conamara remains most vibrant to this day, but the most recent songs published here date back to the 1960s. The meters, melodies, and rhyming of songs made since then carry evidence of the growing influence of popular Anglo-American recordings. It is not all clear to me, however, that new compositions are in such demand in other Gaeltacht areas.

Performances noted in Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán evidence the interplay between oral transmission, published pamphlets, books, and, more recently, audio recordings. Sometimes singers have reconstructed songs from diverse sources looking to an imagined original version. This may be problematic but the intent underlines a central component of sean nós with the constant regeneration, reconstitution, and re-casting of traditional materials. The lyric essence of the majority of the songs contributes to the sense of a great body of material at the disposal of the individual singer and song-maker. Many variants of individual quatrains are to be found as part of quite distinct songs well defined as integral units in specific localities. Often the story that accompanies the song but to which there is little or no reference in the song itself—údar an amhráin—serves to reinforce the particular localness of the verses as sung. In such stories, the anonymous heartbroken lovers of the song may be given names, genealogies, and foreign domiciles to emphasize the particularity of the tragedy. Of course, in some outstanding examples of lyric songs, there is no escaping the minutely varying details or the reasons for their composition. “An Chéad Mháirt de Fhómhar” (composed by Séamas Ó Domhnaill in 1811) from Donegal and “Amhrán na Trá Báine” (composed by Bríd Ní Mháille around 1879) from Galway both relate in powerful raw imagery the desolation caused by the actual loss of loved ones to drowning. In such cases the loved ones are named, as are their grieving families, within the lyric framework of the song.

The notes to each of the four hundred songs vary in length and detail (and occasionally in quality). They are contributed by thirty-four singers and scholars who bring sympathetic analysis to bear on the performances and the transcribed texts. The notes give a sense of an unspoken pride in the achievements of the sixty-two singers whose recordings form the basis of the book. Micheál Ó Conghaile asserts in his introduction that sean-nós is in as healthy a state today as it has ever been. He is confident of the art form’s future, notwithstanding the many other attractions for young people in the twenty first century. Based on the evidence of attendance at and participation in singing competitions in events like An tOireachtas, he may well be right. Let us hope so. In a dedication in the frontispiece, we read 

do na fonnadóirí agus do na filí

a bhí ann ach a d’imigh

a mhair ar an mbeagán

ach a d’fhág mórán

(To the singers and poets who were here but are now gone, who survived on little but bequeathed a great deal)

A concrete way of adding weight to that dedication might be to consider making the audio recordings on which the book is based available online in a consolidated site with the texts, photographs, and notes published here. As it is, Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán is a great achievement; it has the potential to be even greater.