traditional Irish singers know as many songs as Frank Harte or
sing them with as much enthusiasm and enjoyment. Born and raised
in Dublin, Frank was first introduced to traditional Irish songs
many years ago when he chanced upon a tinker who was singing and
selling his ballad sheets at a fair in the town of Boyle. Ever
since, Frank as been collecting and singing "songs that tell
stories" and his vast repertoire is second to none.
explains what it means to be a traditional Irish ballad singer
and offers some thoughts on Irish music generally.
meant by Irish "sean-nos" singing?
translated from the Irish simply means "the old way,"
in other words, the old way of singing. The term is generally
applied to songs sung in the Irish language. Even though I sing
old songs in an old way, I would not consider myself a "sean
nos singer." Should you wish to hear a Sean nos singer I
would suggest that you find a record of the late Joe Heaney or
Darrach O'Cathain or Nicholas Toibin and listen to their styles
you describe the different regional styles of singing unaccompanied
ballads in Ireland -- for example, the differences between Connemara
or Donegal or Cork. What is the predominate style in Ireland today?
There was a time
when it was easy to detect from the playing of a musician or the
singing of a singer which part of Ireland he came from, or indeed
almost which county he came from. The songs themselves would be
an indication, as they would almost certainly have many local references
in them, likewise the style of the musicians playing would indicate
which part of the country he came from. In the past these individual
styles were easily recognizable due to the fact that there was no
other means of transmission other than the oral or aural contact
between musicians and singers. Now days however with the means of
mass communication, if a singer/musician from Donegal records a
tune it will be learned by a musician in Kerry the following day.
It would be very hard to say just what particular style dominates
today… as all styles are all available on records to all musicians
a ballad a "street ballad"?
Again it is almost
impossible to be specific, the edges of these various definitions
are very woolly. What makes a New York taxi driver? I would consider
myself a ballad singer...why? because I sing songs generally without
musical accompaniment, songs that have a story to tell, and I sing
them in a declamatory manner. I demand that my audience stay quiet
and listen to the story that I have to tell, and I tell it out loud
with very little ornamentation so that the message comes across
Most of the street
ballads would have started with the first line being.. "Come
All you true born Irishmen" or "Come All you jolly ploughmen..."
or "Come All you loyal lovers…." And so they were often
classified in a derogatory manner as "Come All Ye's".
A street ballad …. a ballad that had news to tell, and on the time
when they were created they were generally sung in a declamatory
manner in the streets by ballad singers who then sold the ballad
sheet for a penny for any of the street audience that wished to
purchase the song. These songs would differ from the romantic tender
love songs, or the 'art ' songs such as the renowned Danny Boy etc.
Do you see
the oral tradition of telling stories slipping away in the electronic
age of exchanging information?
The venues for
singing are fast disappearing, whereas the audiences for our music
and dancing has increased out of all expectation, both nationally
and internationally. The venue for the song was of course the kitchen
where respect for the song and the singer was of paramount importance.
Now, however, the TV has taken complete control of that quiet time
when the creative elements of the individual were allowed free rein
amongst their neighbours. I think it would be a brave singer or
storyteller who would switch off the children's program to try to
tell a story about Fionn Mac Cool. But then the older folk song
collectors at the turn of the last century said that it was already
too late that all of the songs were gone….and here we are today
talking about and singing that same songs.
Do you see
the younger generation in Ireland having much interest in keeping
the tradition of ballad singing alive?
It depends on
the attitude of many of the schools. In general there is a positive
attitude to the promotion of Irish culture, music singing story
telling, dancing and the Irish language. There is also a group called
Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann which has branches throughout the country
and in America and England and are doing great work in teaching
and holding competitions largely for children and aspiring musicians
I think many
Americans like to hold on to their romantic notions of what Ireland
is all about. But how would you explain modern Ireland, and Dublin
So much of the
American's perception of Ireland dates back to the massive emigration
periods from the worst years of 'the great hunger' of 1847 into
the 1850s and from then on up through the more recent periods of
the 1920s through almost to the 1970s. The people of that time arrived
in poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and in many cases speaking a different
language. A people who for generations had lived in close contact
with their neighbors and gregarious by nature now found themselves
lonely in the middle of millions in New York. They also carried
with them the stereotypical hatred of English rule and their exploitation
by the landlord class. Following the freedom for which we fought
and won in 1922, it was evident that our markets were largely dependent
on exports to Britain, so that in effect they still maintained a
form of financial control in the Irish affairs. One of the major
changes has been Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community,
whereby our markets are now largely European with an eye to the
larger world market. European aid has contributed largely to the
development of the country's infrastructure and our adoption of
international computer companies has provided in large measure a
great source of employment. At present, the farming community is
now largely a part-time enterprise with their income being supplemented
by employment in industry. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is
the general standard of education in the country. We now have probably
the highest educated youth in Europe and it is the availability
of this workforce, along with tax concessions that are attracting
foreign industry to Ireland.
The biggest change
in Ireland of course if the fact that in the Irish Republic we are
a nation free from English rule and govern ourselves to our own
advantage. For a nation that is only 80 years old we are doing quite
well, we have the fastest growing economy in Europe. We now can
make decisions solely for the benefit of our own nation and our
own people, whereas in the past the Irish economy would have been
considered only in relation to what was good for England.
The youth of
Dublin have no more idea of the famine years that caused the massive
exodus to America, they are living in the prosperous economy of
'The Celtic Tiger' and long may it continue. But among the mass
of the people there is an awareness of the things that are essentially
Irish, music, poetry, literature, language and song, all of these
in the past had been associated with the stigma of poverty, now
however we are confident enough to take pride in those roots and
to know that we can take pride in them and bring them with us into
the new millennium.
in Ireland today was going to write a ballad to be sung hundreds
of years from now, what might it be about?
As I often say
myself regarding the songs of our people - songs, which I consider
in many cases are the unwritten history of our people…. Those in
power write the history and those who suffer write the songs, and
given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.
The Irish ballad
tradition, unlike many other nations has never waned, it has never
stopped, it is a continuum and the songs are still being written
about what is happening in the North of Ireland today. What songs
will be sung in a hundred years from now….well just three years
ago we commemorated the Rebellion of 1798 and sang the songs of
two hundred years ago. I have just this week completed a CD of the
traditional songs about Napoleon Bonaparte, again written about
200 years ago. I would hope that in another 100 years the people
would still be singing the songs in praise of the men who fought
and died, and particularly those who died in the Rebellion of 1916,
to give us the freedom which we and our children enjoy today. A
freedom which puts no limits to the possible achievements of my
grandchildren. I would hope that someone would write a similar "We
saw a Vision" which was written just a while ago to commemorate
SAW A VISION.
In the darkness
of despair we saw a vision,
you recommend some "must-have" records or CD's for someone who is
just starting to become interested in traditional Irish ballads?
people are all good singers and there are records and CDs available
of their singing. I would suggest that you contact Finbar Boyle
in Claddagh Records, Cecilia Street, Dublin, and ask him what records
he has available of "good ballad singers''. Here are a few
names to start with:
We lit the light of hope
And it was extinguished.
In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision,
We planted the tree of valour,
And it blossomed.
In the winter
of bondage we saw a vision,
We melted the snow of lethargy,
And the river of resurrection flowed from it.
We sent a vision aswim like a swan on the river,
The vision became a reality,
Winter became summer,
Bondage became freedom,
And this we left to you as your inheritance.
of freedom remember us,
The generations of vision.
Sarah Ann O'Neill
Mairghead Ni Dhomhnaill