“Uncouth, untuneful, and unmusical.”
July 30, 2014 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Sean-nós singing: a bluffer's guide. While the future of the Gaeltacht is in question, sean-nós singing is alive and well in Ireland and beyond.

Sean-nós singing, or singing of Gaelic-language tunes “in the old way,” apparently got its name in the early 20th century as a way to distinguish it from the better-known “parlor-style” singing of English-language tunes.

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann names three distinct regions of the Gaeltacht in which sean-nós singing flowered: Munster, Connemara (Galway), and Ulster. Per Comhaltas, the Ulster style is distinct from the other two in its Scots influence and relative lack of ornamentation.

Some of the most marked qualities of sean-nós singing are:
  • Gaelic language (although you will hear the sean-nós style applied liberally to English-language songs)
  • No or minimal vibrato
  • A cappella
  • Nasalisation
  • Grace notes and melisma (Ulster style is more “plain”)
  • The singer does not “act” the emotion: the voice and the tune carry the message>
Sean-nós singing has been known to send children running around the room, ears covered. However, sean-nós singers have always had many devoted fans and the style has influenced modern singers and composers like Sandy Denny, Sheila Chandra, and Lisa Gerrard.

There is sean-nós dancing as well, and it is distinct from step-dancing.

Sean-nós singers old and new:
posted by Sheydem-tants (24 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Would Óró sé do bheatha 'bhaile qualify as well?
posted by jsavimbi at 10:53 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

God I love this stuff. When I went to ireland 10 years ago you could still go into certain pubs and eventually some old fella would stand up on a chair, everyone would shut up and he'd belt something like this out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:54 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Had the privilege of hearing Sean Keane perform in Galway on my honeymoon 17 years ago. What a voice! I don't think he sings in Irish enough, but I guess he's got to pay the rent.
posted by rikschell at 10:54 AM on July 30, 2014

It's my favorite. People are all, like, hooray, St. Pat's, everybody's Irish, and they have their hands full of green beer and t-shirts with a fighting Irish logo, and they settle down to enjoy a lovely afternoon of drunken rowdiness and corned beef and discussing where they bought their kilts and how their daughter learned step dancing from the age five on, and then out comes the Sean-nós singer and there is the sound of glass breaking and men weeping and the bar empties out to the street and I think, there it is, the crucible, the Irish that burns away pretension, the Old County as it really was and not as how we Americans pretended it into being.
posted by maxsparber at 11:00 AM on July 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Seán Keane performed at last weekend's Lowell Folk Festival, along with his band and fantastic Irish dancer Kevin Doyle. No sean-nos songs per se, but just about everything he does has a traditional touch. It was thrilling just to be able to see him Stateside - I wasn't sure that would ever happen.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:02 AM on July 30, 2014

I was forced, as some sort of punishment, to attend a Gaeltacht when I was 14, with my best friend (who shared my contempt for all things Irish). Over the course of a month (or six weeks?) our initial despair faded even as our Irish vocabulary grew, despite ourselves, and the final night's ceilidh remains one of the most memorable moments of pure, undiluted happiness of my entire (overall pretty happy) life. I'm pretty ambivalent about the artificial maintenance of an effectively dead language just to prop up some bogus notion of national identity but it'd be a shame if no more kids had a chance to have a summer like that.
posted by steganographia at 11:12 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Reviving a language is hard! How did the Czechs manage to pull it off?
posted by rikschell at 11:15 AM on July 30, 2014

We had the good fortune to see Iarla Ó Lionáird when he was touring with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill a few years ago. I'm not a huge fan of sean-nós, but I remember that I enjoyed his singing quite a bit.
posted by immlass at 11:26 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I play the Irish bagpipes and there is a rich tradition of air playing to be found there. Most airs are based on sean nós songs and the instrument is used much as the voice. Here's an example of the first song linked above by Seán Keane played on the pipes.
posted by misterpatrick at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm pretty ambivalent about the artificial maintenance of an effectively dead language

It's nowhere near dead, plenty of places it's spoken at home and I'd say 75% of my relatives and friends are fluent.

The culture of the Gaeltacht isn't very accessible to outsiders, including other Irish people, but it's definitely still alive.
posted by fshgrl at 11:54 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I study, sing and teach sean-nós singing here in Ottawa. It's an extremely challenging style, both for the singer and the listeners. I think that's part of why some people really love it; as maxsparber mentions above, it burns away pretension. Its subjects are usually loss, remorse, and loneliness, punctuated with the wit and frivolity that make a hard life worth living. The lyrics are interestingly circumspect in describing emotions, but the poetry used sends signals more powerfully than simply stating the obvious. For instance, the final verse of Dónal Óg, a song of a young girl forlorn by the unrequited love of a young man:

You took East from me, you took West from me,
You took before and behind from me,
You took the bright moon in the sky from me,
And it's my great fear that you have taken God from me.

Particularly for a North American performer, it challenges you to dig deep to find the right way to express those sorts of emotions in a way that's believable and compelling - I find we North Americans just don't express emotions this way. Not to mention the challenges of learning Irish!

When it's done right, it can be transcendent.
posted by LN at 11:55 AM on July 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Can someone help me understand the comments about glass breaking and small children covering their ears? I'm not well-versed in Irish music, (beyond having heard lots of Anuna).

It doesn't sound "untuneful" or off-key to me. It sounds like, if you tried to accompany the singer on an instrument, you could play just one chord the entire time. If you hear the song a cappella, you can kind of imagine the root note of that chord holding the melody in place, even if the note isn't being played. For a visual metaphor, imagine watching someone following a line on the ground. Instead of walking along it, they sort of dance back and forth to either side of it as they move forward, (with occasional curving sweeps away from and back toward the line).
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 11:57 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

If the mods will permit a MefiMusic self-link in the interests of the discussion: here's me competing at the Oireachtas na Gaeilge in the fall of 2012.
posted by LN at 11:58 AM on July 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Flipping_Hades_terwillinger, untuneful and off-key is a common complaint from people used to classical music. Traditional singers are concerned with the telling of the story contained in the lyrics, not so much the music you sing it to. The music is completely subservient to the lyrics, in almost every way. As a result, you get some singers who are given rapt attention at sessions, who would have been heckled offstage during the initial tryouts for "American Idol". I have many, many stories about this. One of the most famous, and hilarious, is a recording done by the fiddler Michael Coleman at the turn of the 20th century. The pianist was playing in a completely different key from Coleman; it was regarded as purely rhythmic accompaniment, with the chords being seen as meaningless in relation to the fiddle!
posted by LN at 12:03 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you spend some time listening to uilleann pipes and drums style trad (which is what people had before they got pianos, fiddles etc) the Sean Nos singing style makes perfect sense.

There's not a lot of played anymore except by marching bands and the like but I've always loved pipe and drum music. The soundtrack to In the Name of the Father is really the only time I've heard it modernized a bit and it was so cool.
posted by fshgrl at 12:33 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

God I love this stuff. When I went to ireland 10 years ago you could still go into certain pubs and eventually some old fella would stand up on a chair, everyone would shut up and he'd belt something like this out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:54 PM on July 30 [+] [!]

Let me tell you a story, 22 verses long...
posted by rollick at 1:00 PM on July 30, 2014

Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger - I'm with you. Sean-nos has always sounded great to me. That stuff made me laugh, probably because the fight to have traditional music recognized as "worthy" has mostly been won in our time.

The date given in the folkmusic.net article (1904) for the origin of the term "sean-nos" is somewhat close to the time period during which I believe James Joyce's "The Dead" was set. That story is all about the conflict between the "civilized" East of Ireland, where Continental style (per Joyce) was something to be imitated, and the "wild" West, where you would have heard sean-nos singing. And that style would have been derided by "cultured" people in Joyce's time.

LN: can't wait to listen at home.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:20 PM on July 30, 2014

Major, major Sean-nos fan - I first checked it out when I was in the midst of a starry-eyed "I am discovering my ROOOOOOOOTS" phase, and stayed into it for its own sake. It somehow manages to be gutsy and lyrical at the same time.

And it plays well with other music - fans of Iarla Ó Lionáird probably know about Afro-Celt Sound System, a combination of Afro-pop and Celt Trad Rock.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:47 PM on July 30, 2014

Speaking of a certain 'dead' language- is anyone else around here a little bit pumped that some Duolingo folk are putting out a beta for Irish lessons in the next month? Apparently there's a hiccup with the text-to-speech software not fitting the language too well but they're getting through it.
posted by sandswipe at 9:50 PM on July 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Now this is weird...

I'm at work and I had the Lillis Ó Laoire vid open.

I looked up and there he was himself, returning some library books.

He was a couple of days overdue but I let him off. :-)
posted by El Brendano at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Thanks, Sheydem-tants, I'm planning to go over this in detail later. Lots to digest!

I used to run soundboards for Maggie Drennon, who would always put one or two Sean-nós pieces in her sets.

Here's her version of Roisin Dubh.

Is Fad o'Bhaile Daithneoinn is not a traditional song, but a gaelic poem she put to music and performs a cappella.

I like the video, because she describes the poem before the sings it, which helps the gaelic-impaired like me.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:18 AM on July 31, 2014

Is Fad o'Bhaile Daithneoinn is not a traditional song,

We used to sing that in parts in primary school choir in Ireland decades ago.
posted by fshgrl at 11:22 PM on July 31, 2014

Sorry, I was unclear. Maggie's version is not a trad song, because she wrote her own tune to it.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:09 AM on August 1, 2014

OMG thanks so much for allowing me to wallow in some memories,

I was always 'a bit off" (or wilder!) as they say when I sang a Stor Mi Chroi since the song is sung in English. So not true sean nos. I loved it tho' - it summed up the aching loss I feel living away from Ireland.

But one of the aspects of sean nos I haven't seen mentioned in any of the links is that it is meant to display the very individual voice timbres that exist within a population. True, many of the female voices that became popular in sean nos were quite nasal and 'head' voices, (the quote about children covering their ears!) and even a few of the male voices were similarly 'head' voices.

I think in trying to get away from the 'parlour' or vibrato voices we cut ourselves off from a section of deep, red ocher voice timbres more often seen in Welsh male voice, or Mediterranean tenors.

Another aspect is that the relatively understated volume allowed ornamentation and, critically, pacing, to illustrate the story of the song. Unfortunately to a large extent and possibly for ego reasons ornamentation has won out over simple pacing strategies in dramatising the story.

LN, thanks for that link, you sang beautifully
posted by Wilder at 12:53 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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