Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí or Joe Heaney in a bar

A Listener’s Guide to Traditional Singing: Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney)

In the first of a series exploring the singers of traditional songs, John Roy takes a look at the singing of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney).

The intention of these articles is to make the case for singers of traditional songs to be studied as performers in their own right. As the onward march of history moves us further from the era of the traditional singer, it is vital that the achievements of these performers are given the recognition they deserve. The temptation to view these old masters as merely, ‘source singers’ can often overshadow the value of their recordings as pure performances. 

The very best traditional singers act as conduits through which decades’ worth of history, style and repertoire are all made strikingly visceral. The singer becomes an actor in a vast historical epic, using their understanding of phrasing, meter and vocabulary to make living voices out of the long-dead, breathing life into often unnamed and forgotten characters, whose accounts of events would have been lost if their song had not survived in the mind of the traditional singer. 

A song is nothing without somebody to sing it, so it is the act of singing the song that I would like to focus on here. It has never been easier to find and listen to recordings of traditional singers. Almost the entire catalogues of Topic, Gael Linn and Claddagh records are available on online streaming platforms and I will be making playlists as companions to the articles on Spotify. 

I would like to make a start by discussing the many and varied styles of traditional singing from Ireland. This is a huge subject that has occupied many academic scholars for entire careers, so a very brief introduction is the best I can offer, beginning with the great Séan Nós singer, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí.

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney) – ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Muire’ ( ‘The Lament of the Three Marys’)

Born in the remote fishing community of Carna County Galway In 1919, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney, hereafter) was a native Irish speaker who learnt to speak English later in life. Like many other young Irish people of his generation, Heaney left Galway in his early twenties to look for work in the UK. He laboured on building sites in Scotland and Northern England before eventually settling in London for several years in the mid-1950s. Before leaving Ireland Heaney was already recognised as a singer of some importance, as he had won the top prize in the Oireachtas singing competition while still in Ireland in 1942. The folk scene in London was very receptive to Heaney’s seemingly ancient style of singing and he began to make commercially issued recordings in the late 1950s. 

He eventually settled in America and worked as a doorman while also being paid for his performances on the folk festival circuit and at Irish cultural events.  

Heaney prided himself on his restraint, saying of other singers… that they were, “knocking the hell out of it”. 

Heaney’s reputation in Irish music is towering, he is widely regarded as the archetype of the Séan Nós (Old Style) singer: a native Irish speaker from a remote part of the country with a repertoire and style routed in centuries-old tradition. The reputation of Séan Nós singing can be daunting to the uninitiated, and especially to non-irish speakers. The key is to treat the performance as if you were listening to a Jazz musician improvising on a theme. Heaney was a master of wringing complex emotions from the simplest of melodies, dwelling on some phrases, speeding up some passages for emphasis, and introducing hundreds of subtle variations into the melody of the song. Heaney prided himself on his restraint, saying of other singers who used forced dynamics and unnatural vibrato in a song performance that they were, “knocking the hell out of it”. 

It is important to understand that Heaney was a traditional singer who, by the time his most notable recordings were made, had already spent several years being paid as a performing musician. He understood his role as a performer and cultivated a performance style to reflect this. An example of this is the first song on the playlist: ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Muire’. 

Caoineadh na dTrí Muire is a song that in its traditional context is a lament sung at funerals by the mourners who would join in with the ‘Ochón’ refrain after every line. This refrain reflects the tradition of vocal keening without lyrics that once existed in Heaney’s native Galway. The words trace the story of the passion through the mourning of the women gathered at calvary at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The recording I have chosen is Heaney’s second official release of this song recorded 10 years after his first LP was issued on topic. It really is a masterclass in unaccompanied singing. Heaney begins the song at the lowest point in his register before slowly rising up to the keen of ‘Ochón’ at the end of each phrase. The constant variations in tempo and melody are delicately handled throughout, with Heaney wringing every last piece of emotion from each lyric. Heaney’s reverence for this song is obvious in the recording despite the fact that in 1969, when this album was recorded, he was already 25 years into his career as a performer and must have sung the song many hundreds of times. It is a testament to his skill as a performer that he could still produce recordings with an almost unsettling level of emotional resonance.