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“The mode of reciting ballads (on Inisheer) is singularly harsh. I fell in with a curious man today beyond the east village, and we wandered out on the rocks towards the sea. A wintry shower came on while we were together, and we crouched down in the bracken, under a loose wall. When we had gone through the usual topics he asked me if I was fond of songs, and began singing to show me what he could do.
The music was much like what I have heard before on the islands - a monotonous chant with pauses on the high and low notes to mark the rhythm; but the harsh nasal tone in which he sang was almost intolerable. His performance reminded me in general effect of a chant I once heard from a party of Orientals I was traveling with in a third-class carriage from Paris to Dieppe."

J. M. Synge – “The Aran Islands”

To generalize about the Irish song tradition - or even, perhaps, to call it the “Irish” song tradition - is difficult. There are obvious stylistic parallels between some Irish vocal techniques and those of, say, Western Scotland (whether it be Presbyterian hymn singing or a Catholic song of unrequited love); the “high lonesome” style of the Appalachian mountains is not a million miles away, emotionally and technically, from that of some Donegal singers; and it has become fashionable, in recent years, to suggest links between Eastern and Irish music:
In the area of vocal ornamentation East and West come close. I once played a Claddagh recording of Maire Aine (Ni Dhonncha) singing “Barr an tSleibhe” for an Indian Professor of music who refused to believe, until I showed her the sleeve of the record, that it was an Irish song. She claimed, and demonstrated by singing to me, that the song bore a strange resemblance to an Indian (North) raga about a young girl being lured toward a mountain. The Professor was interested in the mode, the pitching of the voice, and certain notes which were characteristic of both the raga and “Barr an tSleibhe”.

Fanny Feehan, “Suggested Links Between Eastern and Celtic Music”
in The Celtic Consciousness ed. Robert O'Driscoll (1982)

If Ireland is part of a wider cultural community, Ireland itself contains differing communities. It is likely that a particular community will have built up a repertory of song from very diverse sources, on a wide range of topics: songs of love, unrequited love, emigration, war, drinking, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, tailors; music-hall songs, blackface minstrel songs, classic “Child” ballads, songs written in praise of the locality, hedge-school compositions with intricate and absurd rhyme-schemes, nonsense songs; songs of English, Irish or Scottish origin.

The tradition, in other words, is not static, nor is it confined to one genre. A distinction is often made between so-called sean-nós singing in Irish and singing in English; yet the singer of the “big” songs in Irish may often include all of the above material in his repertory. In a night's singing in the village of Coolea in the West Cork Gaeltacht, for instance, you will hear elaborately-ornamented songs which might indeed remind one of a North Indian raga; chorus drinking songs, sporting songs, songs from the classic ballad repertory, and newly-composed songs on local incidents.

And in-between a set or two might be danced, a story told, some drink consumed. The situation, in fact, might be the genre: a context which allows a varied emotional range, in which the music and singing is itself part of an ongoing conversation, a debate between the community and itself and the concerns of the wider world.

And of course, in other communities, sectarian or “party” songs might be sung, though never, in my experience, to the exclusion of other material. In any case, Orange and Green might be mirror images of each other. As Hugh Shields puts it, “party songs are culturally complementary: while expressing different allegiances they use similar themes, forms, styles and melodies.”

Customarily performed out of earshot of any whose religion they might offend, they can be compared with local topical songs whose malicious shafts of satire make them unsuitable for the ears of the targets selected on no sectarian basis. Jimmy McCurry, the fiddler from Myroe, composed such songs: though he was a Presbyterian, his songs have a diversity of “Gaelic” features such as are common in Anglo-Irish poetry and music as a whole. Neither is it uncommon for singers to have songs from both camps: possibly these are sung in a spirit of irony, or a desire to show that one knows the other side as well as one knows one's own; knowledge is power. Or perhaps they are sung because they are good songs.

Proinsias Ó Conluain's notes to Robert Cinnamond's record “You Rambling Boys of Pleasure” extends this point:
Robert Cinnamond's songs and ballads covered such a wide range of subjects that no one record could accommodate even a reasonably representative selection of them. Many of them were of historical or political or social interest. For example, he had a great number of songs dealing with the rising of 1798, and one of his favourites was “I Am A Bold United Man,” about the fisherman who hung his net upon a tree and followed Henry Joy McCracken. “That's the best one I have about the Antrim men of '98”, he said, but he had most of the well-known songs of the period and to some, like “Betsey Gray” and “Lord Edward Fitzgerald”, he put a tune of his own.
He had numerous ballads dealing with the sectarian affrays in the north of Ireland in the last century and he sang those he fancied, whichever side of the political and religious divide they came from. For example, he would sing the Orange “Dolly's Brae”, about a fight near Castlewellan in Co. Down in 1849, but he also had a version of events as seen from the Roman Catholic side - something which has not survived otherwise in ballad tradition. On this record he sings the Orange song, “The Aghalee Heroes” – Aghalee is not far from his native place - but he also had ballads in which the Orangemen were anything but heroes, e.g. “The Chapel Hill Fight” (at Glenavy) and “The Battle of Glenoe” (Co. Tyrone).
Both these incidents, involving provocative Orange marches through Roman Catholic areas, occurred around the 12th of July, 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, and it is safe to say that Robert Cinnamond was the one man in Ireland who still remembered the ballad accounts in 1966, when he recorded them for Radio Telefis Eireann. Some say that these sectarian ballads would be as well forgotten; yet they are the very stuff (unfortunately) of Ulster history in the last century and go a long way to explaining the continuing conflicts of today.

Some Notes on Sean-Nós

Sean-nós literally means “old-style”. In the context of traditional performance, it is often applied to the singing, in Irish, of the Gaeltachtai (or Irish-speaking areas) of the west of Ireland. There are difficulties with the term: whether it was invented by the Gaelic League to distinguish the musical expression of “a language which the stranger does not know”, or whether it is an indigenous expression, is open to some question; certainly, it seems unlikely that native Irish speakers would use the term to describe a native form of singing. Again, there are clear differences (and, granted, parallels) between the singing of the Donegal Gaeltacht and that of Coolea in Munster; should sean-nós include them both? Ironically, most singing in Irish, as promulgated by members of the Gaelic League and by Feiseanna Cheoil (Music Festivals), is not what is usually understood by sean-nós; nor does it accord to any perception of the notion of “traditional”. Yet the word sean-nós has become a shibboleth, and many Gaeilgeoiri (Irish language enthusiasts) go so far as to maintain the patently absurd conclusion that no musician can be a traditional musician without an understanding of the sean-nós; others take the converse position, that everything is Irish - and therefore traditional – if expressed in the Irish language.

All these notions ignore the fact that, for better or worse, English is the language of the vast majority of traditional singers in Ireland, and singing in both languages shares many common features. Further, many aficionados of the sean-nós school of thought would be surprised to find that Joseph Taylor, recorded by Percy Grainger in Lincolnshire in the early years of this century, used vocal techniques which would be familiar to a Connemara singer.

Despite its inadequacies, the term sean-nós may be a useful one if it means those characteristics which distinguish traditional singing from classical singing. (Some academics prefer the term “folk” to “traditional” singing. Yet, in Ireland, a “folk singer” usually refers to a performer of the Wolfe Tone or Clancy Brothers type.)


Irish traditional singing contains several different idioms; yet all Irish traditional singing can be contrasted to that of the European concert platform tradition. Traditional singers, for example, do not employ dramatic effects to illustrate the emotional content of a song: rolling of the eyes, gesticulations of the hands, smiles and frowns are inappropriate, as are the use of crescendo or diminuendo. Because of this, many observers of traditional singing have called it impersonal; perhaps “understated” is better, since the utterance of a traditional singer is, in fact, very personal in that the performance is his alone, and recognized as being so. It is just that the dimensions in which he operates are different. The so-called trained voice of the opera singer would be counter-productive to a traditional singer: its intentional volume and vibrato would tend to diminish any of the subtler effects used by him. The singing of the late Tom Phaidin Tom of Carna, Connemara, is a case in point. By classical standards, the voice hardly exists: it sounds, on record, like a conversational whisper; yet this is beautiful and complex singing, in which a slight change of rhythm, an almost unquantifiable pause, can make a world of difference to one's perception of the song.

It has been said that this kind of singing gains its effects by melodic decoration; but it is important to remember that the traditional singer does not conceive of ornament, or melodic variation, as being conceptually different to the melody itself. The song is the way it is sung; since there is no absolute melody, one is free to interpret it as one wishes; the song is the totality of the effects that may be deployed at any one time.

Similarly, the mode of performance is different. The traditional singer usually sings sitting down; he may not even face his audience. If he happens to be holding a cup of tea or a glass in his hand when he is asked to sing he may go on doing so. This is not to say that the performance is casual; his agreeing to sing, for instance, may be the culmination of a very structured series of requests and denials. One might go so far as to say that knowing when to sing (and what to sing) is a significant element in the singer's art. The song, after all, is one expression of whatever is going on at that particular social gathering.



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