Dé Máirt 28 Meitheamh 2011

Idir Dhá Thraidisúin (nó Trí…)

[Originally posted here on January 6th, 2011]

Something odd occured to me the other evening while I sang along to songs on my iPod - I know the words of Scottish Gaelic songs and not Irish songs! How weird is that? I set myself to learn a song in Scottish Gaelic ‘Mo Bheannachd Dhan Bhailidh Ùr’ (though I still struggle with some of the words), but I’ve never really had the same drive to learn an Irish song. I stood and lingered on this thought for a moment, and some thoughts hit me.

I think the songs are presented in a much more accessible way to modern audiences in Scotland than in Ireland. Irish traditional singing is quite purist still in the sense that it’s not really changing in order to adapt to its new context, which allowes for the old songs to be still sung in a modern world that has a much broader exposure to different styles of music.

I don’t mean that it has to change, what I mean is there should be a branch of a further new development in style while still remaining in the tradition. There are very few in Irish sean-nós who do this. Irish singers do, however, ‘water down’ their tradition to make it commercially appealing to tourists who have a misty-eyed view of Ireland. This may seem a very snobbish observation, but it’s a fact not only obvious in musical terms but in Irish culture in general. (This is not to say that the Scots don’t do the same, but we’ll come to them later.) The effect of this is that the native Irish have become repulsed by the ‘hye-diddley-eye’ made-for-export commodity that is popular Irish culture. This is only an aspect of the much broader Irish cultural collective, but this has had such a negative effect on the Irish psyche that the ‘true part’ (if you like) of our native culture has been neglected, and left to gather dust.

Another problem is the Irish language, which keeps our authentic culture - the majority of Irish people have become alienated from the language, and so they have become alienated from their culture. Personally, I have literally had to learn my native language, and so I literally learned my culture - and I’m still learning it. Monoglotism in favour of the English language is essentially a barrier preventing the Irish from truly re-acquainting themselves with their native culture after colonisation. This is why bilingualism in English and Irish (at least! learn other languages to broaden your mind further!) is something the Irish should aspire to; only then will they truly find their original mindset and see that their native culture is not something to be watered down for export. It is something for us. And, once we reclaim our culture, then we can share it properly with the world, and create something new by experimenting with different blends. In musical terms, fuse styles together to create new sounds, and perhaps blow the dust off old musical manuscripts to reintroduce old songs and tunes to the modern world.

Just as I’ve been writing this, I realise that all of my examples are female. Well, there are no accidents, as they say. As a woman, of course I’m going to look to my fellow females as a basis to my interpretation of culture. I’m going to discuss contemporary artists as opposed to the older bona fide sean-nós singers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, whatever way you look at it) I wasn’t born in the Gaeltacht; I do not come from a family steeped in Gaelic tradition. I found the language and the tradition myself, and perhaps this is why I value them so dearly - they’re mine, my way of individual expression. The only drawback to this is my trepidation at the beginning of my cultural journey - here I was on a Gaeltacht course, afraid to speak a word in case I got it wrong, and sitting feeling shameful while others stood and sang loudly and proudly songs as Gaeilge that they knew. This was my culture, but I was alienated in its midst. It was excruciating. And you know, though I’m now fluent enough in the language and well-versed in the culture, I still don’t know the words to the songs that the people belt out around me. I still cower. This, I think, is due to my insecurity as a learner and it hasn’t gone away. What doesn’t help is the many critcial Gaeilgeoirí who create a cliquey feeling at Irish language events. There are unfortunately many snobbish know-it-alls who look down on those who learned the language themselves later in life. If you’re not from the Gaeltacht or go to a Gaelscoil, you can forget it.

So I bought my CDs, of the bona fide sean-nós singers and these new artists who are presenting old songs to new audiences. One of the first of these was Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola. Now it’s my turn to be the snobbish hypocrite. To me she doesn’t come across, though I don’t deny she’s a beautiful voice. Her music is very - do I dare say it - inauthentic. I don’t mean authenticity here in terms of tradition, but in terms of musical creativity. To me, it’s not real, it’s too dreamy and appealing to the tourist’s view of Ireland. There’s no pulsing blood in it, but the frothy white stuff (!) that fairies are supposed to be made up of. You can hear the Aran Islands in her music (especially a track that I love on her first album An Raicín Álainn, ‘Oileán na Teiscinne’), with the dim wet winter days, mist from the sea and rain on your face. But she could do something much more tangible and powerful if she dared. Her tradition is a rooted thing, of earth and cold rough stone - she has the mistiness of the islands down, now she needs to put across the real emotions and sweat behind those old songs, and to be bolder with her new ones. Líadan are very talented as a group, they’ve got it going on. I only have their fantastic version of ‘P is for Paddy’ (as Béarla, but sush! it’s a good song!) from their first album, but I bought their second album Casadh na Taoide - this album has a mixture of Irish and English language songs and traditional tunes. My favourite track has to be Síle Denvir singing ‘Tomás Bán Mac Aogáin’. This is actually one song (and specifically this version) in Irish that captivates me enough (words and tune-wise) to learn it, not unlike the affect that the Gaelic ‘Mo Bheannachd Dhan Bhallidh Ùr’ had on me. Some of their songs can be a bit predictable insomuch as they sound like they were produced in a manner to appeal to those who relish the watered down version of Irish music, but mostly they are pretty rooted in their tradition. Pauline Scanlon and Éilís Kennedy as Lumière (originally called ‘Dingle White Females’; I don’t know why they changed their name. ‘Lumière’ to me doesn’t seem relevant…) lend their beautiful voices from An Daingean to traditional songs in Irish and English. I have to say their voices have that typical traditional tone to them, and their arrangement of the songs are honest and straightforward, as if they were singing beside you in your room. Their version of ‘Fill Fill, a Rún Ó’ was the first Irish language song that I set myself to learn - the pain of the song really came through in their high voices, with the ornamentation in the right places. A friend gave me Acabella’s amazing jazzy version of ‘Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin’ - now this is what I’m looking for! It’s gutsy, brave and new, and gives a kick to the song. This interview with them on Beo.ie explains how the five of them came from different musical backgrounds, and how they put these different styles together to create something new. This is a perfect example of breathing new life into old songs, and bringing traditional songs into popular culture without killing its spirit.

Now we come to the Scots. I remember talking to a friend of mine who’s also mad into the sean-nós and traditional music before I first went to the Isle of Skye on a summer course in Gàidhlig in Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. He said to me that he felt that they have better tunes and songs than we do in Ireland. I was stubborn and couldn’t imagine such a fact. But then I experienced it myself - and I fell deep deep deep in love! My experience in the Gàidhealtachd was the opposite of how I felt in the Gaeltacht - I wasn’t shy to use Gaelic words, and I was able to enjoy becoming acquainted with Gaelic music and culture. There was no pressure, no judgement. I figure this is because I had no cultural baggage to weigh me down. It was hard to admit that I was an outsider amongst my Irish language and culture, but because this was Scotland I and felt happy and excited to try, make mistakes and be corrected so I could learn. I was more accepting of my language level, and Gaeilge became a friend to keep me company on this new journey.

The main quality I noticed about the Scottish Gaelic tradition is that, ironically, it’s presented in a more contemporary way. It may be a language that hasn’t changed much in form from the Classical period, but with the correct use of modern resources it seems to be more accessible newcomers, and to Scots coming from an English-speaking background. BBC Alba and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s site alone are invaluable. I think more effort has been put into making Gàidhlig more accessible through the media because she is in worse trouble than Irish - unfortunately she only has the Highlands to support her, and a few friends in Glasgow, Aberdeen and maybe Edinburgh, as opposed to Irish which has the status as the official language of Ireland, and an EU language. (I would like to say at this point that Gàidhlig also has support from us here in Ireland, and no doubt from Nova Scotia.) I’m still trying to get my head around her situation, but I’m very impressed so far with the resources available to someone wanting to learn Gàidhlig. It seems more approachable to me, but I’m not sure what it’s like to learn Irish coming from the outside, so maybe I can’t make a proper comparison. (Maybe some of my American and Candian friends can help me with this one.) Vast Scottish Gaelic-English dictionaries are available online, but when it comes to Irish, focal.ie is a terms only reference dictionary and An Foclóir Beag is only through Irish…

Now for the music. My first encounter with contemporary traditional Scottish music was with the Mhàiri Hall Trio, who played a gig at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Mhàiri Hall herself was classically trained on the piano, but her love of traditional tunes led her to develop her unique style. Her story is incredible, she collected old tunes and came across old manuscripts, which probably haven’t been played for a century, and she arranged them on her piano so that they have a new lease of life today. The combination of the classical and the traditional creates a jazzy feel, very energetic. You can hear the traditional traits in the pieces, but it’s not obvious - so she has created something very fresh and contemporary. Needless to say, we all flocked to buy a copy of their album, Cairngorm, when the gig was over.

Oh, I’m telling you a lie - my first encounter with a contemporary traditional Scottish artist was Joy Dunlop, at Cuairt na bhFilí Albanacha in Dublin last April. She sang us three songs; one of them was an impressive port à beul (mouth-music). I began following her on Twitter, and knew that her album Dùsgadh had been released when I was heading to Scotland, so I set myself to buy it. And I did. She has such a powerful voice, but it’s easy at the same time. When I brought the album home and stuck it on my CD player, I was astonished at her arrangement of the songs - there were similar contemporay piano sounds to that of Mhàiri Hall, and the sort of ‘alternative’ sound that you would find on a Lisa Hannigan or a Gemma Hayes album. I thought this quality of sound and contemporary arrangements was a rarity (and it must be said that Joy Dunlop is a rarity!), but then I finally managed to get my hands on Julie FowlisCuilidh. I would say that this album is quickly gaining on Lisa Hannigan’s Sea Sew as the most played album on my player! Again, here was another fantastic traditional singer (and whistle-player to boot) who poured her young energy into old songs and who had exceptional taste in creating a particular sound.

These are not watered-down, made-for-export arrangements. They sound like songs newly-composed, contemporary (to use that word yet again!) and relevant. They may be old songs, but new sap is flowing from them due to the new lease of life given to them. They are from centuries past, but it is the singers/performers and their new arrangements that make them more appealing and accessible to a modern audience. Through these new presentations of the songs/tunes, people can work their way back to the original traditional contexts if they’re interested. The bottom line is that songs are meant to be sung, they are meant to be both expressions of society as it is and as popular entertainment. This purist and academic approach to the tradition that we often find only distances people from what is rightfully theirs. The Scots have done well, and should be proud.
So I guess the main reasons I find the Scottish songs more appealing to learn? the freedom their new arrangements give them, the fresher approach to them, and the lack of cultural snobbery that I get from my own crowd.

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