. issue V : iii .
Sean-nós, or ‘old way’ traditional Gaeilge singing, is a disposition to song-crafting, oral history, and performance. In the traditional Gaelic homestead, songs were told, like stories, in intimate, dreary, vigorous settings where contextualization and connection to the human situation was a crucial source of entertainment and worldview. In traditional sean-nós, performers are not asked to ‘sing’ but to ‘say’ a song. It is all in the telling and the song itself; the song is everything, and the singer minimizes himself by pulling down his cap, turning away, covering his face, or standing in a dark corner. Sean-nós is a griot-esque tradition of folk histories, and the singer’s job is to be a sensitive, heartfelt curator, finding the sincerest expression and the most responsive telling for the song and then standing it alone. The lyricism and its meter, the narrative syntax and presentation and experience itself, are of central importance.
From 1745 until the mid-1800’s, instruments were banned throughout Ireland during a religious era of zealous intolerance; adapting, people made puirt-à-beul, or ‘mouth music’ to accompany dancers. (Note that the tremulous nasality of the uilleann pipes and the vocal pipes seem to be parallel presentations.) Again, lilting ‘mouth music’ does not quite have rhythm, but instead what Heaney called “the pulse.” There is no attempt to conceal the human origin of the sound; breaths are not merely tolerated but incorporated (as with throat singing and all sorts of indigenous musical traditions).
Heaney often spoke about beats as something inorganic and imposed on songs with condescension and concern; in sean-nós, the metrical life of a song is manifested in the “pulse” a singer gives breath to, so while it is true to say that sean-nós is a capella, it is apter to say that it is unaccompanied, unadorned in its honest human origin.
A two-disc recording of sean-nós master Joe Heaney performing for ethnomusicologists, The Road from Connemara is staidly moving, fragile and robust, spirited and stern, frugal and avid. Diligent, weathered, resolute, even obdurate, Heaney was the aesthetic of Western Ireland incarnate, hewn, with a voice of maritime bleakness, his face windward plains of stone, and a thin, tough, reedy frame. The folk circuit of the 50’s and 60’s idolized Heaney — and no less scholars — yet for his subtle pacing and unmatched sensitivity, Heaney was merely a vessel for his songs. The Road from Connemara is beautiful and devastating. It’s not just the pulse of songs and small snippets of folklore and anecdotes that Heaney gives breath to — it’s the last unadulterated, determined gasp of traditional Connemaran culture.