BREATHING ON THE EMBERS — Dr Tom Munnelly
Review in Journal of Music in Ireland
This is a book of which I was aware was long in gestation and which I looked forward to. Even being conscious of its imminent birth I was surprised by its sheer physical size when it arrived.
From the outset its very originality make it a difficult work to pigeon-hole. One asks oneself the standard questions: Is it academic? Yes, the author’s deep learning and grasp of her subject are everywhere evident. Is it informative? Yes, she has the very welcome ability to marshal her thoughts clearly and communicate her research and erudition with enthusiasm. Is it an ethnographic work? Yes, in the broadest sense, she works on every level from describing the manners and customs of the region to passing on local gossip about the songmakers and their subjects. Is it a musicological or literary work? It is both. The work of the known poets are examined in minute detail by someone with a profound understanding of the literature of the area. Music is given for every song and references are supplied to all known relevant versions. This is done by an someone who not only knows the theory of the song lore of Oriel, but is also a practitioner and an extremely fine singer who has made a recording of songs in the book [see the review of An Dealg Óir on p. 19]. It is this aspect which gives such a vibrancy and passion to the book. A study it may be, and a fine one at that, but its main objective is to restore this extremely important corpus of traditional song to life and re-forge the link to this chain which has only so very recently been broken. What was said about the Oriel collector, Lorcán Ó Muirí, could perhaps apply to her, that she is ‘driven by a desperate zeal’. Though, having read the book I am more inclined to think that what we have here is not the work of a zealot, but the work of a lover.
A sense of responsibility
She has stated that her decision to write the main body of the book in English was in order to ensure maximum accessibility for all who approach it. The songs are given in the original Irish as collected in south east Ulster, followed by the author’s translation and extremely extensive notes and appendices. Although she maintains that her motivation in compiling this collection was ‘a sense of responsibility to my own people’, there can be no doubt that the writer’s initial inspiration for her magnum opus was her late father Pádraig Ó hUallacháin (Paddy Weldon, 1912-1974) who passed on to her and all his family his love of the Irish language and the Gaelic tradition of Oriel. He was also a singer and collector and, in many ways, A Hidden Ulster can be seen as a continuation of his work, a repaying of a perceived debt to her father in particular as well as a sense of nobless oblige to her dúchas, her heritage, in general. Many collectors contribute to the book and Ó hUallacháin is given his rightful place amongst them.
Among the most dominant figures featured in the book are two collectors, Lorcán Ó Muirí and Luke Donnellan, the latter of whom left a legacy of wax cylinders which he recorded and which were transcribed by Séamus Ennis in the 1940s. Many of these musical transcriptions are reproduced in the book. The fact that we owe so much to these clerical collectors is particularly interesting in the light of the author’s meticulously researched introduction in which she outlines the destructive effects of the Roman Catholic clergy in trying to obliterate the Irish language in Oriel in the nineteenth century.
Much of what we know about the song of Oriel comes from such publications as Ó Muirí’s Ceolta Oméith and Amhráin Chúige Uladh. As well as making his recordings, Donnellen published several articles on traditional song in the County Louth Archaeological Journal. Perhaps better known than either of these was Enrí Ó Muiríosa (Henry Morris, ‘The man of Farney’), author of many books on Gaelic poetry and song. Two of these, Céad de Cheoltaibh Uladh (1915) and Dá Chéad de Cheoltaibh Uladh have been the standard reference points for Ulster Gaelic song texts for many years. Naturally Ó Muiríosa contributes to the contents of A Hidden Ulster.
Breathing gently on the embers
The work of no less than twenty-five relevant collectors and scholars are drawn together by Ní Uallacháin and it is this awareness of printed, manuscript and aural documents which make this such an important overall picture of a cultural flame which burned for so long. And even if the flame has flickered out, the ashes are still warm and she is breathing gently on the embers to coax a glow from them once again.
The collectors are given individual attention, all are given biographies and many appear in the marvellous photographs of Peadar Ó Dubhda, another great Oriel enthusiast whom some older readers may remember from his radio broadcasts.
These glass plate photographs are not merely reproductions or portraits of individuals, they catch the lifestyle of Oriel in the early twentieth century. We see people at work harvesting, tilling, spinning or at play dancing and singing. Ní Uallacháin treats the folklife of Oriel in great detail and we are given extended essays on traditions like the harvest calliach, the cutting of the last sheaf. She conducts a fascinating examination of ritual songs such as May songs and states that ‘South East Ulster is the richest source of seasonal songs in Ireland to date’. She then goes on to give a great deal of evidence to back up this claim. Everywhere that accounts of the manners and customs of the people illuminate the song texts these traits are scrutinised in detail. The turbulent history of pattern days follows Patrún Chill Shléibhe, an extended treatise on traditional laments comes after An Bhean Chaointe, and so on throughout this very discursive work.
Naturally, the importance of the singers themselves is given priority and whatever could be found out about them, which was often quite a lot, Ní Uallacháin has reproduced. On a recent television programme she commented that her work has drawn her so close to the singers themselves that she feels as if she knows them as personal friends and were she to encounter their apparition she ‘would not be one bit afraid’ to embrace them. This sense of engagement is obvious throughout the book which certainly has enough scholarly content to merit a PhD. When I asked her about this she said that such a route had indeed been suggested to her several times, but she finally decided to abandon it and chose to present her work from the viewpoint of a singer and a native of the region. Her loyalty is to the singers who passed on the torch to her and, hopefully, to those to whom she can pass it on in her turn.
The book differs from accepted academic presentation in that the songs are presented in many cases in collated versions, but this is to ensure their singability. In all cases we are given the sources of each and every verse so that if the reader/singer wishes to peruse the original texts they are told where to look. So, both the singer and the academic are catered for in relation to every song.
The spirit of the songs
Of the songs themselves, McCooey, Mac Cuarta, Ó Doirnín and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna are well represented and the versions of their songs given here have in most cases been through the filter of comparatively recent oral tradition. As would be expected, the majority of the songs are anonymous. Even so, many of these songs reach a plane of excellence often coupled with a deceptive simplicity which would be the envy of many of the great writers of more formal verse. Such a song, to my mind is An Bhean Chaointe, in which a mother is deranged by the loss of her daughter. This lament is found only in the Gaelic song tradition of South East Ulster. The údar (authority/explanation) behind the song tells us that the grieving woman had already lost eleven children.
A Neillí bhán dheas, go mbeannaí Dia d(h)uit!
Go mbeannaí ‘n ghealach bhán ‘s an ghrian d(h)uit!
Go mbeannaí na haingil ‘tá I bhflaitheas Dé d(h)uit!
Mar a bheannaíonn(s) do mháthair a chaill a ciall dhuit.
Tá an ghrian ‘s a ghealach ag triall faoi smúid;
Tá réaltaí na maidne ag sileadh na súl;
Tá na spéarthaí in airde fá chulaith chumaidh
Is go dtillfidh tú aríst cha luíonn an drúcht.
(Fair Nelly, may God Bless you!
May the white moon and the sun bless you!
May the angels in God’s heaven bless you!
And your poor mother who lost her reason for you, blesses you.
The sun and moon are moving in shadows;
Teardrops fall from the morning stars;
The skies above are in a cloak of sorrow
And until you return again the dew does not lie.)
This jewel of a song is followed by no less than a dozen pages of elucidation and contextual information.
There is really no point in selecting individual songs for separate attention. All fifty-four items are at the very least interesting and most are fascinating. The Irish text is presented first and this is followed by the author’s translation. Given her empathy with her subject and (once again) the fact that she is a singer, these translations invariably catch the spirit of the song. In the case of the music given for the songs this is a little more problematic in that these are reproductions ranging from sol-fa notation of varying legibility to the pellucid transcriptions of Séamus Ennis. Asked if it would not have been better to have all of the musical examples re-set and published in uniform staff notation, Ní Uallacháin said that given a choice between doing that and reproducing the actual artefacts which represent part of the tangible residual tradition, she chose the latter. The preference for this reviewer would have been to do both, but given the already high cost of publication this was hardly a realistic option.
But in so many other ways the book does not stint, it gives exhaustive coverage of material printed in the Dundalk Democrat, collections such as Seán Ó Hannáin’s and Pádraig Ó hUallacháin’s. Patrick McGahon’s manuscript collection of music from the early nineteenth century is reproduced in facsimile as are tunes from the repertoire of the piper Philip Goodman and the song airs and dance music from the collection of the County Louth Archaeological Journal. Aside from the body of the work and footnotes there are thirty pages of bibliographical reference and indices.
A Hidden Ulster is incredibly exhaustive. It may have taken a considerable time to complete, but the end result stands as an exemplar as to just how well such things can be done. As I said initially, it is not cheap, but this big generous book is nevertheless exceptional value. If you can afford it I would suggest buying the hardback because it is a book you will be referring to for many years to come. Not only will it rapidly take its place among the great works on Irish song written within the last century, I am convinced its importance will be undiminished at the end of this, twenty-first, century.
1. 16 October 2003.
2. A set of CDs of the author’s unaccompanied singing of all these songs is in the final stages of preparation.
3. Rattlebag, 16 October 2003.
4. These cylinders are now in the possession of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin, and are currently being digitally remastered.
5. The Raw Bar, RTÉ 1, 15 November 2003.
6. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin may be heard singing this herself on the CD An Dara Craiceann – Beneath the Surface, Gael Linn CEFCD 183, Dublin, 1995.
Tom Munnelly (1944-2007), born in Dublin but resident in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, since 1978, made the largest field-collection of Irish traditional song ever compiled by any individual. After recording privately in the 1960s, and collecting especially from Traveller singers, he became a professional folklore collector and archivist with the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin (now the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore and the National Folklore Collection), from 1974 to date, with a concentration on English-language song. He lectured and taught widely, was a leading activist in many folk music organisations and festivals, including the Folk Music Society of Ireland, the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing, and he served on national bodies such as the Arts Council. He was the founding Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive from 1987 to 1993. Recently he was presented with the festschrift Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, and was made an honorary Doctor of Literature by the National University of Ireland Galway.
A LABOUR OF LOVE — Lillis Ó Laoire
Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin is an extraordinary traditional singer in the Irish language, with deep roots in Oriel, as she terms the area of South-East Ulster straddling the borders of Monaghan, Louth and Armagh. The Irish language survived here as a community language until late in the nineteenth century, when it began to die out as a result of the combined effects of Famine, clerical opposition and the allure of English. As the language receded, cultural workers began to collect and document the songs and stories of the people. Ní Uallacháin lovingly tells the story of that last harvest in this unique book, concentrating particularly on the songs. These are handsomely reproduced with text and music, variants, and manuscript facsimiles, giving an idea of the work that went into their rescue from oblivion. Numerous photographs of both singers and collectors add another engaging dimension to this book. Ethnographic and historical background is given for all the songs in meticulous detail. This book, truly a labor of love, is a treasure and is highly recommended. We eagarly await the CD of the author’s singing of the songs she has documented.
ONE BIG SONG — Michael Longley
Review of A Hidden Ulster in Fortnight Journal
A Hidden Ulster is a treasure-trove of words and melodies from the beautifully named district of Oriel in south-east Ulster. Not only is this handsome book a rich anthology of songs, it is also a cultural and social history, a portrait gallery in which humble creative people who have been unheeded and forgotten are given their due and brought back to life. Ni Uallachain has gathered together here fifty-four songs, and provided English versions, the over-riding criterion for which is accurate literal translation. In order to convey the spirit and pulse of the Irish songs, she has in many instances reproduced rhyme and rhythm in her translation. Her versions enjoy the dignity of poetry. She has avoided the bouncing rhythms and clanging rhymes that spoil so much translation. All the airs are included in these pages.
There is a critical apparatus for each song. If the song has its roots in lore or legend, Ni Uallachain tells the story. If the song is about an historical person or event, she fills in the background. Some of the songs are about trades – the “cadgers” who sold shellfish, the makers of brooms and brushes, the geese-pluckers – Thomas the Feather and Mickey the Pluck. Some of the singers made their livings in these ways. LINEN Homespun linen was one of the main industries in Ulster until not so long ago. The hacklers and scutchers of the linen industry were travelling tradesmen and some of them thereby carriers of tradition, of lore and song. We learn about the fairs and markets that were central to economic and social life, and central to the transmission of songs. The singers are brought alive for us in their workshops at their trades or relaxing at the hearth; showing off at the fair or at large in the fields singing for whoever might be listening or just for themselves.
Ni Uallachain also salutes the collectors of songs and information, the scholars and the local scribes who lugged cumbersome equipment around the countryside and bequeathed to us on wax cylinders and magnetic tapes voices from the grave. In their pioneering grainy photographs others have put flesh and bones on fading reputations. In my early days with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland I got to meet some of the cultural heroes who appear in these pages: Michael J. Murphy, Sean O Baoill, great collectors and scholars. When Ciaran Carson took over from me in the mid seventies, he organised some extraordinary events: for instance, two weekends which gathered together, in Beleek and Portrush, singers from all over the archipelago, but especially from Ireland. I’ll never forget Geordie Hanna and his sister Sarah Arm O’Neill exchanging songs across the room, their sibling reciprocity an intense encapsulation of what this book is all about. The rich particulars of A Hidden Ulster are woven together as tightly as the finest tweed.
This is a work of phenomenal concentration, of great tenderness and big hearted loyalty. Proud and heartbroken, it is an heroic attempt to remember – in the sense of commemoration and recognition – the hidden voices of uncounted singers. But there is also the other crucial sense of retention. When we remember we commit to memory, we learn by heart. The ancient Greeks teach us that Memory – Mnemosyne – is the Mother of the Muses or, to quote from one of Art McCooey’s songs, “Parnassus’ nine fair maids”. Memory is the mother of all art. Something akin to Alzheimer’s disease is eating away at our civilization. Our greatly accelerated culture is destroying the processes of historical memory that connect each generation’s experience to that of earlier generations. But every now and then someone of genius comes along to cure or at least slow down our forgetfulness – someone with the qualities of an idealist, an enthusiast, a prophet. Ni Uallachain has all of these qualities, and more.
She talks about the “poignant optimism” of the old singers and storytellers who despite belonging to a doomed culture persisted in passing on their songs and stories. A Hidden Ulster is in itself an act of “poignant optimism”. These songs have been saved and will be sung again. I have an elated sense of all the singers of Oriel – past and present and future – crowding tumultuously towards what Native Americans call “the powwow at the end of the world”. This is indeed a momentous publication. A Hidden Ulster adds up to one big song.
FORTNIGHT JOURNAL. BOOKS
Longley, Michael. “One Big Song.” Fortnight, no. 420, 2003, pp. 27–27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25561041.
ATLANTIS OF THE AMHRÁN — Pól Ó Muirí
Review of A Hidden Ulster in Irish Times
By recovering old Irish songs and stories Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin is reclaiming our collective memory, writes Pól Ó Muiri.
There is a saying in Irish: Más mian leat do mholadh, faigh bás. It means: If you want praise, die. It’s a cynical reminder of what can happen after we’ve lost someone: we praise them and remember their talents while never admitting we probably didn’t show the same appreciation while they were alive.
Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, a singer of great talent with six albums under her belt, has undertaken her own act of remembrance – and linguistic, musical and cultural reclamation – in A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs And Tradition Of Oriel.
Don’t bother looking for Oriel on the map. As Ireland lost its fifth province, so it lost Oriel – its 33rd county, if you will – an area in south-east Ulster that included south Co Armagh, north Co Monaghan and Omeath, on the Cooley peninsula in Co Louth. For 200 years it was an area of song, music and poetry, “a Mecca for musicians and harpers”, says Ní Uallacháin.
As late as 1925 an elderly community of Irish speakers in Omeath held the work of 17th- and 18th-century poets – Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Peadar Ó Doirnín and Art Mac Cumhaigh, among others – as part of their living repertoire. Yet the artistic region in which they lived disappeared like an Atlantis of the amhrán beneath waves of English. That Anglicisation was helped in no small measure, she says, by the Catholic Church’s hostility towards the language.
Ní Uallacháin speaks fluently and passionately about charting the landscape anew. “I felt there was a serious neglect of the traditions that were part of the area where I live . . . . With the loss of the language there was a collective memory loss in the community. People weren’t aware of the wealth of tradition and song and story incorporated in the language which had been the language of the community 100 years previously.”
As she has family ties in Cos Armagh and Louth – and lives in Mullaghbawn, in Co Armagh – she is able to give a unique insight into the area. Her book is an impressive piece of scholarship, containing an introduction to the area, 54 songs, their translations by Ní Uallacháin, original music to accompany them and pen portraits of the singers and the collectors who walked the highways and byways in search of material.
Ní Uallacháin refers to them as carriers of song, “ordinary men and women with extraordinary gifts”. She says: “I felt that the work of the collectors – who were both Catholic and Protestant – was completely unknown and that their work lay in archives, forgotten.” She wrote the book in English, so the story “should be known to those who wish to access it”.
Ní Uallacháin’s story of Oriel has three chapters so far: the first was the release of 14 local songs as a Gael-Linn CD, An Dealg Óir (The Golden Thorn); the second is the book’s publication; and the third will be her recording of all 54 songs, so they will never again fade from memory. She speaks of the loving intimacy of transmitting song; she learned verses from her late father, Pádraig, as he had learned them from an earlier generation.
That passion was to sustain her during arduous archive work. She gave up a well-paid job as a teacher and is dependent on a fellowship from the Community Relations Council in Belfast and a major arts award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to complete her task.
Her priority was “to remarry the songs with their respective airs, so that the songs could be sung again as part of the oral tradition”. Most of the songs had no written music. “There is a major severance in the tradition – not just fragmentation but severance – of memory and the passing on of the oral tradition, when the language died. It was a casual entrance into the world of music acquired by osmosis: people sang songs; people told stories; people knew the place names; the place name told a story in itself. It was an amazing memory loss. The book is reminding people who we are.”
She came across old photographs, many of them reproduced in the book, among her family papers. “The faces were begging me to tell the story. I was able to connect the photographs with the names of people who sang the songs. It was very moving when the people began to come to life. They weren’t just songs on paper; they were songs that people sang – and, of course, songs are the heart and soul of the people.”
Yet this is not a work of archeology but a re-sowing. Tá ‘na Lá, “the last known song to have been heard sung in native Armagh Irish”, has been taught at a Gaelscoil in Monaghan. “That gave me great encouragement,” says Ní Uallacháin.
The collapse of Irish was a communal impoverishment. The singers and storytellers didn’t pass on their art to their children “because there was such a great fear and threat surrounding the Irish language”, she says. “On the one hand you had a parent who had 1,000 lines of rich, colourful poetry from the poets of the area and a son or daughter who could hardly speak English or Irish, never mind sing or recite poetry. That was frightening.”
Equally frightening, she argues, is Ireland’s continued neglect of research on its songs and folklore. There is enough material on Oriel alone in the archives of the Folklore Commission to fill two or three PhDs, she says.
“I was travelling through Tipperary when I saw a sign for Ardagh. I thought of the Ardagh chalice and the value of the Ardagh chalice and the beauty of the Ardagh chalice and if anything were to happen to the Ardagh chalice what an uproar there would be about it – and rightly so. I thought that all I have done is lifted the equivalent of another Ardagh chalice from beneath stones and dust and polished it up and said to people around me: ‘This is our Ardagh chalice.’
BRILLIANT LIGHT ON ORIEL HERITAGE — Dr Séamus Mac Gabhann
RÍOCHT NA MIDHE 2004
A Hidden Ulster:People, Songs and Traditions of Ulster. By Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin. Published by Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2003. 540 pp.
Séamus Mac Gabhann
RíochtnaMidhe, XV, 2004, pp 215-218.