One Man, Many Voices

Tom Munnelly at the opening of the Irish Traditional Music Archive at the Guinness Hop Store, 19 November 1991. Photo: MacInnes Photographers, courtesy Irish Traditional Music Archive.

One Man, Many Voices

Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill reads a book of essays in honour of Tom Munnelly.

Dear far voiced-veteran: Essays in honour of Tom Munnelly, edited by Anne Clune,
The Old Kilfarboy Society, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, 2007, 404pp

The first visit by folklore collector Tadhg Ó Murchú to southwest Clare in 1942, in search of material in the Irish language, is the subject matter of Patricia Lysaght’s article. Ó Murchú managed to collect folklore from eighteen speakers, the majority of whom were elderly. One of these was Domhnall Bán Ó Loingsigh, a fine Irish speaker by all accounts, who had a very independent nature. He was unwilling to forego playing cards in order to suit the visiting folklorist, and would accept whiskey ‘only after he had been assured that it had been brought, not as a bribe, but in honour of the Feast of St. Martin!’ Seán Ó Flannagáin, who worked as a full-time folklore collector from 1937-1940, mainly in south Galway, also salvaged what he could from the remaining Irish speakers in the Clare-Galway borderlands. Caoilte Breatnach, in his essay entitled ‘Twenty years too late’, tells us that Ó Flannagáin transcribed some 9,000 manuscript pages of folklore in that period. Between 1995 and 1996 Breatnach himself was involved in collecting folklore in part of the area which Ó Flannagáin had visited two generations previously. In Breatnach’s own words: ‘I was becoming intrigued not only with the word-for-word recording of local lore, but also with the concept of combining past with contemporary’. The fruits of the labours of Ó Murchú, Ó Flannagáin and other folklorists in Co. Clare are evident in Pádraig Ó Héalaí’s account of various religious explanatory tales in the oral tradition.

There are other articles which also link different generations of song- and folklore- collectors. Angela Bourke recalls her experiences of song collecting in the Irish speaking district of Carna, Co. Galway in 1975 and ’76, using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. She inevitably makes a comparison with the singers from whom Séamus Ennis recorded, ‘with pen and paper’, in the same area thirty years prior to that: ‘Some of those singers were still alive, but Seán Jeaic Mac Donncha was no longer singing, and Seosamh Ó hÉanaí had been living in the US for years. The population of Fínis [Island] … was down to one man’. Bourke also gives a very human account of her initial trepidation in approaching the singers with a view to record: ‘trying to muster the credibility that would induce people to spend time with me, and feel like singing, yet wait patiently while I set up the machine’. She transcribes a selection of the fine songs in English which she recorded at the time, including the classic Child ballad ‘The false knight on the road’, which, as Len Graham reminds us in his article about singers and song collecting, happens to be the most complete version ever recorded in Ireland. Many of the singers whom Bourke encountered were of a younger generation than Séamus Ennis’ informants; a timely reminder that the ‘twenty years too late’ perception which awaits many a song collector isn’t always correct.

Seán Choilm Mac Donncha from An Aird Thoir, Carna, was among those who provided Ennis with songs in the 1940s, and two of his sons, Dara Bán and Cólaí Bán were subsequently recorded by Bourke. Seóirse Bodley’s contribution to this volume is a careful transcription of the song Bean an Fhir Rua which he recorded from Séan Choilm in 1966, and whom he regarded (at the age of 71) as, ‘still most impressive as a genuine traditional singer in the florid Conamara style’. Both words and music are transcribed, and some of the ornaments of the singer are also notated. The value of such a detailed analysis is explained by the author, ‘Although it is impossible to recreate the song merely by an exact repetition of the notated version, there is genuine value in it as a tool for understanding the musical procedures employed in the performance of an outstanding singer’.

Lillis Ó Laoire and Sean Williams discuss the reasons why another famous singer from Carna, Joe Heaney / Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, never sang in public one of the few historically authentic Irish-language songs about the Great Famine, i.e. ‘Johnny Seoighe’. He used instead an elaborated version of an English composition (ultimately ‘Muldoon the solid man’) as a Famine song. The authors tell us that, ‘In America Joe Heaney often faced audiences who wanted, even needed to be able to connect with an imagined Irish past. Despite his seeming lack of Famine songs from Carna, as a resourceful performer, Heaney was able to enlist his power as an icon of unassailable cultural authenticity to reconfigure a text (or texts) with no direct references to the Great Irish Famine, investing it with meaning and significance for listeners’. Incidentally Joe Heaney’s non-performance of ‘Johnny Seoighe’ is also investigated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire in a recently published biography of the singer, entitled Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche.

The last-mentioned example of a traditional singer who reshaped a song to his own taste, for a particular purpose, is echoed to a degree by Terry Moylan’s account of ‘Collecting sets in the early days of the revival’. Moylan demonstrates that the ‘revival’ of set dancing, beginning in the 1970s, entailed ‘the invention of a tradition, and the birth was a complicated one, with the final form of the sets being affected by many factors’. Of course every living tradition is in a constant process of invention or reinvention. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin discusses the inventiveness of another well known traditional musician, Tommie Potts, and what he regards as different perceptions of Potts’ music by ‘classical ears’ and ‘traditional ears’ (i.e. by listeners who have ‘an informed perception’ of either ‘Western art music’ or of ‘Irish traditional dance-music as it exists within the mainstream tradition’).

The continuity of orally transmitted song and the ‘story behind the song’ emerges in Margaret Bennett’s previously mentioned article, in which she refers to Gaelic songs recorded by her in Newfoundland from octogenarian Allan MacArthur in 1970. The songs had survived for a century and a half, since the immigration of the singer’s ancestors from Scotland. Therefore, the Gaelic songs which were preserved by MacArthur’s family from the time of the Napoleonic wars, and their orally transmitted commentary, aren’t really historic artefacts but rather topical songs frozen in time. Éamonn Ó Bróithe’s article seeks to separate folklore from history in the various accounts preserved in the National Folklore Collection of the faction fighting which was prevalent in the Sliabh gCua area of Co. Waterford in the early nineteenth century. It is worth noting that at least one of the extracts is taken from the Schools Manuscript Collection and was originally recorded by Siobhán Ní Fhearchair who was a National School pupil at the time (1938). The piece, which allegedly recounts the daring exploits of Risteard Ó Cadhla, may have been specifically tailored by the informant, Labhrás Ó Cadhla, for his young collector. A good, relevant example of survival in oral tradition is the ‘battle song’ of the carabhat faction which was sung by Labhrás Ó Cadhla to a version of ‘the Blackbird’ and can be heard on the CD, Labhrás Ó Cadhla: Amhráin ó Shliabh gCua (RTÉ, 2000, 2004; produced by Peter Browne, notes and transcription by Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill). A little more attention to editorial detail, such as spelling and jumbled text, would have enhanced Ó Bróithe’s article.

I can only refer briefly to two further interesting articles which deserve to be carefully read. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin examines a manuscript list of melody titles (in Irish and English) compiled in Drogheda in the mid-nineteenth century. The author demonstrates that some of those Irish titles correspond to identifiable compositions of various Irish poets from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, many of which have, to date, been identified only as poems. Barry Taylor’s article looks at aspects of Seán Ó Riada’s contribution to Irish traditional music. I believe that his assessment of Ó Riada’s legacy to traditional music is harsh. Ó Riada could have spent a comfortable, easy life within the narrow confines of academic circles. He chose to do otherwise. How many academics, then or now, would be willing to spend a long period of time living with, and learning from, a traditional singer (such as Seán de hÓra)? On the matter of traditional singers, Ó Riada’s inclusion of Darach Ó Catháin and Nioclás Tóibín in concerts and recordings was both innovative and courageous, and probably influenced later traditional groups, such as The Chieftains, Dé Danann and The Bothy Band. And finally, one minor correction!: The use of ‘the Chualann’ as an abbreviation for Ceoltóirí Chualann is incorrect, as Cuala – a placename corresponding to south Co. Dublin and north Wicklow – is the correct nominative form of Chualann.

Before ending this review, it would be fitting to quote directly from Tom Munnelly’s contribution to the Crosbhealach an Cheoil conference in 1996 – the quotation is also found in Fintan Vallely’s article, ‘Encomium on a reluctant academic’ – in which Munnelly placed his own work of song collection alongside those who had preceded him in the field: ‘Like the Folklore Commission collectors before me I recorded not only the outstanding individuals in the areas wherein I worked but also a great many of the inconspicuous folk who make up the greater part of our traditional landscape; the grasslands which nurture the spectacular flower and without whom we would have absolutely nothing’.

Ciaran Carson’s poem, ‘Fishing for eels’, which is dedicated at the beginning of the book to Tom Munnelly, manages to capture that which impels musicians, singers and collectors to ‘fish for’ new material. It seems appropriate, in conclusion, to quote from the poem:

‘Have I a name for it?
I lifted the bones of it
from a tramp fiddler passing through
on a fair day,
making shapes in my head
all the way home’.


Published on 1 January 2008

Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill is employed as a placenames researcher in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Pádraig’s solo CD of traditional song, Amhráin na Séad /Jewels and Pathways was released in 2006.

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