While our culture prides itself on ancient stories and songs, much of the communal oral tradition has been neglected today in favour of an online network that we are continuously co-creating together with a ‘global community’ of internet users.
There is something anachronistic about listening, undistracted and quiet, to a song being performed live in a room. Indeed, a formal concert is becoming quite an old-fashioned way of enjoying music. It is a ritual, protected by tradition and by imagined boundaries and customs. These rules protect the music and preserve the performance space. Performers and venues must adapt to the habits of the audience, but then again, venues and performers can choose to some degree who the attract – using publicity shots and branding to weed out the people who might just spoil the show by talking or filming throughout.
In Ireland, the traditional seisiún amhráin is a pretty out-dated scenario. Maybe it always was. However, to enjoy music and literature with nothing but the human voice is as ancient as communication itself.
It is rare for young people anywhere in Ireland to gather in a technology-free zone, absent of sound systems, televisions, or mobile phones. Therefore, there is one series of non-verbal symbols that connects all of us online: binary code. As we hack a complex combination of 0s and 1s on a daily basis, we might be excused for claiming we have mastered another, new language; one that our ancestors could fathom only as science fiction. For all the complicated mathematical systems humans have conjured, binary code has broadened the horizons of modern technology.
Against this background, anyone who participates in a traditional song session is deciding to participate in something old, absent of binary code. It could perhaps be described as primitive. It is a conscious, or subconscious, act of preservation of an ancient form of art. Maybe it could even be seen as a political act.
While driving to Malahide (where I work at Fingal Academy of Music) today, I came across Heed Fm. I didn’t understand what it was at first. I heard a candid conversation between two people, the apparent interviewee sounded like a young man in his early 20s. It was very raw, unedited, long silences, swear words. This was daytime radio.
I looked it up online: “Heed FM is a twenty-eight-day anonymous sound portrait created through one-to-one and group conversations in Dublin with people aged 18–25 and from all backgrounds.” The project is committed to creating an authentic representational portrait of a generation residing in the Greater Dublin Area. Heed FM worked with over 100 subjects, which it calls “contributors”, from all backgrounds – some are users of social services and organisations in the fields of homelessness, mental health, and addiction.
The project said: “it is important to have an accurate portrayal of how this demographic normally communicates, beyond the limited way it is currently represented through mainstream media”. Minimal editing was employed to record “the most genuine possible representation of the conversations”.
One of the questions that was raised to this young man was about his Irishness. He had moved to work in New Zealand, and he was asked how he felt about being away from Dublin and about his identity as an emigrant. It was interesting that he felt that there was nothing unique about the idea of Irishness. With the majority of media consumed by young people (arguably by anyone under the age of 50) coming from the United States of America, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that we are more influenced by American culture than by Irish culture. The vast majority of Irish citizens are presented with USA politics much more often than they may read an article about domestic policy drawn up in the Dáil.
Regarding the ridiculous Presidential race taking place in the USA this year, it is a curious time to be an English-speaker. Along with Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Canadians, Irish people are expected to engage with the democratic process of a foreign country as if it were its own. Is that not strange? Do USA politicians exercise more power of Irish citizens than their own TDs? It is clear that power is a clear and apparent indicator of capital – whether it be political, economic, cultural or social.
Tonight, I attended a workshop in sean nós singing. We sang a song called Éamonn an Chnoic. According to the sources most readily available through Google, the song describes a man called Éamonn Ó Riain (c.1670-c.1724). He was apparently considered to be the ‘Robin Hood’ of east Limerick and west Tipperary. He was sent to France to study in pursuit of the priesthood, but instead he returned and fought for the Williamite forces. Following the confiscation of Irish catholic land in the Act of Settlement 1652 after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, many dispossessed catholic landowners took to the forests and hills of rural Ireland to wage war against the British Crown forces. They were known as “raparees”.
Storytelling – whether through song or otherwise – is a reflection of a community’s shared myths and heritage. Is there anything separating the stories, the myths, the cultures of young Americans compared to young Irish people? Of course there is.
However, the storytelling tradition in Ireland is obscured to a frightening degree by the contemporary media. The cultural appreciation of Irish literature and art is weak compared to American cultural self-appreciation. The USA is a source of wealth. Within a capitalist system, producers/creators of services or products are drawn towards wealth. So it is more economically viable to indulge in American cultural practices. Ireland has hardly any indigenous cultural capital; very little that can translate into money anyway. Ireland’s successful industries today are largely imported. The industries that remain intact and successful to some extent are inevitably exported – especially cultural products. And to where are they exported? Largely to Irish America.
If it is possible to remove the modern concept of capital from our judgment – replacing a 21st century value system with another, more traditional one – maybe it is possible to appreciate the Irish culture at a higher level. Listening to Irish voices through a project such as Heed FM might be a way for us to access ourselves, rather than tuning into foreign accents, speaking about familiar but foreign concerns. It is no surprise that the accents of young Irish people are homogenising. It is no wonder at all.
Tonight, Eithne Ní Chatháin sang Éamonn an Chnoic to a small room of listeners. Yes, there was a transaction (we paid for the class). But was there something else happening? Another transaction? Maybe Eithne’s form of storytelling – an sean nós (the old way) – arguably one of the only ‘indigenous’ art forms still active on this island – just maybe it is preserving something invaluable.
If we could view our own cultural practices in this way, as something timeless, something priceless, then we could develop an appreciation of our heritage that straddles the old and the new. Without this, money talks. And only the valuable remains in a capitalist world. And it looks like that’s where we’re headed.
I started working for Front Line Defenders almost exactly two years ago. It was my first job after finishing my Master's at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. On Wednesday 4 November, I gave the cultural presentation at the 8th Dublin Platform for human rights defenders at risk. It was a privilege for me to join this amazing event in such a capacity.
I performed four traditional Irish songs and spoke about the role of the human rights defenders at storytellers. Now we must listen as they pass on their story during this global human rights event.
John McCambridge (aka. Seán Mac Ambróis) had a passionate interest in the Irish language, which was spoken by most of the natives in the Glens in the mid-19th Century when Airdí Cuan was written. The song is named after a place near Cushendun. According to the map below, the townland of 'Ardicoan' lies between Bunavoher and Clady Bridge to the north on the Glendun Road.
In many ways, the people of the Antrim coast look towards Scotland as much as to the rest of Ulster. The Scottish connection is emphasised in local surnames such as McAlister, McKay, McNeill and common forenames like Alasdair, Randal and Archie. According to researcher Seán Quinn, "traditional culture survived well in the Glens of Antrim because of their remoteness and the Irish language was spoken daily around Cushendall until the early 20th century. Féis na nGleann was founded in Glenariff in 1904 under the inspiration of the celebrated Belfast folklorist and historian F. J. Bigger. There were competitions in language, traditional music and dancing as well as athletics and hurling. The Féis was maintained by the Gaelic League (Connradh na Gaeilge) which fostered the 20th century revival of national culture throughout Ireland. This enthusiasm for traditional culture has survived into modern times, and there are many notable singers and musicians associated with this area."
The townland of Ardicoan is a mile west of Cushendun, rising north from the River Dun to a height of about 500 feet. There is a multiplicity of Gaelic versions of the placename, and an equal multiplicity of interpretations: Airdí Cúing, Ard a’ Chúíng, Aird an Chúmhaing, Ard a’ Chuain, Airdí Chuain, Ard Uí Choinn. The first element, no matter how it is spelt, probably means a height. Dr Pat McKay of the Placenames Project in Queens University Belfast says that there is no authoritative version of the name, but tentatively recommends Ard a’ Chuain – the height of the harbour, or the height of the bay (Cuan in Scottish Gaelic also means the sea). Seán Mac Maoláin argues for Áird a’ Chum[h]aing (= the height of the narrow strip of land) because the townland is well back from the sea, and follows the narrow defile at the head of the glen, reminds us that the noun ‘cúng’ also means a narrow defile between two heights. The townland itself is long and narrow, and there is an Alticoan in the next glen.
John McCambridge was born in 1793 in Mullarts, near Glendun, and died in 1873. He is buried in Layde churchyard between Glendun and Glenballyeamonn. His tomb is partly in Irish. McCambridge was a native of Mullarts between Cushendun and Cushendall (at the bottom of the map) and recent research suggests that he belonged to a fairly affluent Presbyterian family.
The story of Airdí Cuan is told from the perspective of a Glensman who has moved over the sea to Scotland. From Ayrshire, he can still see the hills of Antrim and he longs for his home in Glendun and the beautiful hillside at Airdí Cuan.
One story goes that McCambridge left his native Glendun, perhaps to escape the potato famine, and settled in Ayrshire where he ultimately died pining for the hills of home, still visible on the western horizon. Airdí Cuan tells of his love for the 'cuckoo glen'; (Glendun) and of playing hurling at Christmas on the 'white strand' (the beach at Cushendun).
Another school of thought believes that, while McCambridge was considering emigrating to the Mull of Kintyre, he stood atop Ardicoan and imagined himself over in Kintyre looking back on his native soil. However, the process of writing the song made him so homesick that he decided not to go in the end, and thus spent the rest of his days in Ireland!
Which of these stories is accurate (if any!), and whether or not the song is autobiographical, I'm not sure. I still have to do more research! Make sure to click play on the videos below while you're reading the song's text.
Here are a few version online. Over on Spotify, Anúna's world-shattering arrangement is well worth a listen. Below is another of my favourite versions of Airdí Cuan, recorded by Doimnic Mhic Giolla Bhríde's Cór Thaobh a' Leithid from Gaoth Dobhair in Donegal.
"An Cailín Rua"
An Cailín Rua talks of a man who is smitten by a red-haired girl. He travels around all of Ireland with her, spending lots of money on butter, on ribbons, and on shoes for her. Then, in the last verse, we find out that she leaves him for a shop-boy in the west of Ireland. Maybe because he could get her a discount!
And so here you can hear two versions of this lovely little song. Above is a very 1990s - and very cool - version by Aoife Ní Fhearraigh.
The other, below, is an infamous interpretation by Skara Brae, which was first recorded in 1971. Skara Brae is considered to be the first Irish traditional group to add homophonic harmonies in to single-line Irish melodies. Quite the reputation.
In February 2015, Dónal travelled to the USA as a member of Anúna, together with composer Michael McGlynn and sean-nós singer Éabha McMahon, to present at the world-famous American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) National Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the event, he spoke about the Donegal sean-nós song, Coinleach Glás an Fhomhair.
In an infamous version of the song by Clannad, Moya Brennan sings only the first three verses (find the lyrics below). You can hear Dónal's live performance at ACDA - singing the first two verses only - by clicking here. Enjoy!
I first sang this song about ten years ago with Cór na nÓg Caisleán Ruairí under the direction of Siubhán Ó'Dubháin. That group of young people taught me so much about singing. With the incredible, natural voices of everyone involved - all boys and girls local to Rostrevor, County Down - I was surrounded by talent and (more importantly) a total love for music-making. We toured to Wales, Malta and Spain together and I had some of the most rewarding musical experiences of my young life with these singers. Siubhán's boundless creative energy taught us so much and I am still reaping the benefits.
Coinleach Glás an Fhomair is a traditional song from County Donegal, sung in the Irish language. A young man sings of a girl he once saw "on the green-stubble fields of Autumn". He paints a picture of her rosy cheeks and little feet as he remembers her that day, and wishes that they could be together.
In the second verse, the narrator expresses his jealousy of others who may share his interest in the same girl. The mention of the King of Spain sets the song, in my opinion, in the 18th century - around the time of the "Flight of the Wild Geese".
After the Williamite victory over the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690, the Jacobite leader, King James, returned to France. The rebellion had sought to bring about the return of the Scottish Stuarts, from James II to his grandson Prince Charles Edwards (aka. Bonny Prince Charlie, ‘The Young Pretender’), to the throne of England. In 1691, the Irish Jacobite army departed Ireland’s shores for France, as had been agreed in The Treaty of Limerick in what became known as the “Flight of the Wild Geese”. Until 1730, thousands of so-called “Wild Geese” soldiers left Ireland to fight in continental armies (mainly in France and Spain), marking the demise of the Jacobite movement in Ireland.
Thus, perhaps from Spain, the narrator looks back to Gweebarra, which places the song in the Gaeltacht region of western Donegal. The metaphor of a swan is introduced in the third and fourth verses. Often in sean nós songs, imagery of the landscape, animals and other natural elements is employed to signify human emotions. For instance, the cuckoo or the blackbird have been used in many songs to symbolise profound sorrow. In this song, the swan can be seen to illustrate the purity of the lovers' relationship. This is perhaps because they have never actually kissed.
In the final, heartbreaking verse, the narrator hears that the young woman is set to marry. He pleads with her. Perhaps the first time he saw her was the previous Autumn, one year before. He promises that he will love her, and urges her to reciprocate. We are told that she wrote to him about her love for him - "go rabh a croí istigh i lár mo chléibh" (her heart is in his chest), so there is a sadness when we learn that she will marry another young man, which is compounded by the fact that he probably heard this devastating news in the form of gossip.
The song leaves us wondering the circumstances of the woman's new marriage. Just as the narrator is left to wonder for himself.