Friday, March 20, 2009

The First Time I Fell In Love with Ireland

Sean-nós: A rare and beautiful artform

Last February, two months before I embarked on my journey, Ulsterman asked me what was the one thing that I would like to do when I get here (besides him).

Without hesitation I said, "Sean-nós!"

A bewildered Ulsterman replied, "Sean knows what? And who is Sean?".

"No!", I replied, "Sean-nós is an old song genre unaccompanied by instruments. It is the oldest form of traditional Irish music. Very rarely performed and an often misunderstood genre. Mostly performed in the West of Ireland, but can be found in villages in the countryside throughout the island, north and south."

Ulsterman relieved let out a resounding, "I see. Sean-nós it is then."

I was first introduced to traditional Irish music when I was studying Ethnomusicology at UCLA. We were given an elective to take at least one class on the music of Western Europe. I was stuck with the Traditional Irish Music class. I wasn't looking forward to it and thought it would be a snoozer. How exciting can fiddles and tin whistles be? That was until my professor brought his grandfather in who came all the way from Galway!

I remember a very tall distinguished looking gentleman wearing a tweed jacket walking across the lecture stage. He sat himself on the stool, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and sang like I've never heard anyone before. It pierced right through me, and the cadences of his voice were echoing throughout the hall. It was so beautiful and I was so moved, I couldn't hold back my tears. It was amazing. Just him and his voice. There was a deep soulful genuine-ness to it. Pure and clean. No nonsense bullshit. When he finished his song, there was a 5 second silence which seemed to last forever. Everyone finally picked their chins off the floor and we gave him a well deserved standing ovation. That was the moment I said to myself, "That's it. I'm going to Ireland!"

Fast forward 9 years, I'm here in Norn Iron a year out and no Sean-nós. We travelled to Galway last May with intentions to see it, but we were trapped in the middle of nowhere in Fanore! The trip turned out to be a disaster and I resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't meant to be. I was gutted. I doubt I would be able to hear Sean-nos here in Belfast, I'd probably have to go to the countryside and even then it's not a guarantee that I will see it. Like I said, it's a rare sight because they only do it when it moves them. I'd be lucky to catch one.

***Ethnomusicology = the study of culture through music. Just in case you were wondering. :)


Unknown said...

God I wouldn't even know if you could hear it anywhere in Belfast. Have you tried asking at the Ireland Tourist Board, they might know if there are any organisations up here or if anyone will be performing. I know some of the GAA clubs used to have singers and vocalists in to sing on certain nights, a lot of the time unaccompanied but I'm not sure if any sing Sean nos.

Anonymous said...

Try the House of McDonnell in Ballycastle. Friday nights, open late too!