Róise Rua: An Island Memoir, by Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí, translated by JJ Keaveny. Mercier Press, 288 pages, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1856356244
Island autobiographies and memoirs are synonymous with the emergence of a strong voice in Irish language writing, something new for a people who had previously been represented primarily in English by outsiders. The publication in the 1920s and 30s of the Blasket island books The Islandman, Peig and Twenty Years A-growing, first in Irish and, subsequently, in translation in English and in other languages, promoted a certain kind of Irish identity which the newly emerging state was able to capitalise on. The image of a hard life lived against the background of an unforgiving environment is nowhere more evident than in Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s classic An tOileánach (The Islandman), which appeared originally in 1928 but whose definitive edition had to wait until 2002. Muiris Ó Súileabháin’s work Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-growing), a more lyrical and poetic account of life on the same island, places more emphasis on the joy and carefree nature of youth for most of its length, making the spectre of emigration and change all the more effective when it finally appears. Peig Sayers’s narrative, also underscoring the straitened circumstances she endured, appears in more than one book, accenting certain episodes differently in each of them. Significantly, the two men wrote their own stories whereas Peig’s writing depended on an amanuensis in the person of her son, Maidhc, himself a storyteller, poet and prose writer.
Despite Peig’s dependence on others to commit her work to writing and Ó Criomhthain’s and Ó Súileabháin’s competence in this regard, it is widely recognised that outside influence played a major role in stimulating the Blasket writers. Though the works were long thought to have emerged through the encouragement of Gaelic scholars and enthusiasts, a recent study has suggested that the Protestant mission active in nineteenth century West Kerry played an unrecognised role that was downplayed in the overtly nationalistic milieu of fin de siècle cultural activism. Whatever the sources of the stimulus, clearly these iconic books resulted from intervention on the part of outsiders, who convinced islanders they had something of importance to say. This was consonant with the ideals of cultural romantic nationalism, whose impulse to recognise the richness and depth of the vernacular culture of the “people” and the Irish-speaking people above all, achieved material expression in these works. The processes involved in the production of “native” autobiography are an interesting study in themselves, raising a series of significant questions. The Blasket books represented images of traditional life as lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, appearing as that way of life became more and more affected by modern living conditions. In the case of the Blaskets this meant the abandonment of permanent settlement on the island. As Ireland’s population declined after the Famine, island populations also plummeted, leaving many completely abandoned. The Blaskets, whose writers provided the most celebrated and definitive narratives of island life, were finally evacuated in 1953, when the remaining inhabitants decided they could no longer endure the reduced circumstances in which they found themselves.
The Blasket autobiographies, published in the late twenties and early thirties, might be viewed both as defining narratives of Irish island, or indeed rural existence and as the swan song of traditional island life. As a result, such a genre could be seen as obsolete, needing no further subsequent illustration. Myles na Gopaleen’s satire of 1941, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), ridiculed the idea of glorifying poverty, a pursuit to which many urban Gaelic enthusiasts, scholars among them, seemed dedicated. However, the genre proved remarkably resilient and a steady stream of books detailing island and Gaeltacht lives continued to appear, creating a whole library of documentation of Blasket and West Kerry life. Perhaps the most prolific of these has been Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé, whose many books detail not just rural life in West Kerry, but the immigrant experience in the United States through the medium of Irish.
A recent anthology, Ar an gCoigríoch (In Foreign Parts), edited by Aisling Nic Dhonnchadha and Professor Máirín Nic Eoin, shows how central the experience of migration, both within Ireland and beyond it, has been to Irish speakers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and how that experience has been memorably and vividly expressed in Irish language writing. Subtitled Díolaim Litríochta ar Scéal na hImirce (An Anthology of the Literature on the Story of Migration), this important book reconfigures ideas of genre in Irish language writing, cutting across literary conventions to focus on subject matter as a salient feature that unites many works, regardless of their categorisation as document or fiction. Furthermore, Nic Eoin, in a major study in 2005, has identified díláithriú cultúrtha, “cultural displacement”, as a major theme in modern Irish language writing, focusing on the profound cognitive and emotional dissonance of living and writing through Irish in the unsupportive English-only environment of a supposedly independent Ireland as a primary source of distress for these writers.
Autobiography and memoir, therefore, when viewed in a wider context of “migration writing” continue to be relevant. The well-documented Munster experience was, in time, supplemented by autobiographical accounts from other areas, with Máirtín Ó Direáin’s Feamainn Bhealtaine (May Seaweed) standing out as another impressive example. The Donegal Gaeltacht has also been particularly prolific. The Mac/Ó Grianna brothers were early exponents, with Séamus providing an idealistic and rose-tinted account of his early years in Nuair a Bhí mé Óg (When I was young), and a more jaundiced, ironic, but no less entertaining view in Saol Corrach (An Unsettled Life). Seosamh broke all previous literary moulds with Mo Bhealach Féin (My Own Way), surely a landmark in the literature on displacement, uncannily reminiscent of the Nobel prize-winner Knut Hamsun’s work Hunger. Later, Seán Ó hEochaidh and the renowned broadcaster Proinsias Ó Conluain between them published Micí Mac Gabhann’s account of his life, Rotha Mór an tSaoil, translated afterward by Valentin Iremonger as The Hard Road To Klondyke, and made into an award-winning dual language television documentary by Des Bell and Sylvia Stevens in 1999. As a reaction to Aalen and Brody’s The Last Days of Gola, which he considered reductive and condescending, Seán Mac Fhionnlaoich produced Ó Rabhartha go Mallmhuir (From Springtide to Neap Tide), giving an account of the beneficial aspects of life in his native island, during his own lifetime ( FNT 1975).
The present work, Róise Rua – An Island Memoir, is also excerpted in Ar an gCoigríoch and previously by Bríona Nic Dhiarmada in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing 5, underscoring the book’s importance as a representation of working women’s lives. It also has a connection with Proinsias Ó Conluain, in that he recorded the subject’s songs for Radio Éireann in 1953, some of which were subsequently edited by Cathal Goan and published as Róise na nAmhrán: Songs of a Donegal Woman (RTÉ 1994/96), of which more later. Originally published in Irish in 1987 as Róise Rua and, regrettably, long out of print, JJ Keaveny’s translation makes a welcome addition to the library of autobiographical/memoir writing from Ireland’s western seaboard available to an English language readership.
The speaker in the book may be compared to Peig Sayers in many respects; born on the Donegal mainland, she moved as a child to Arranmore Island, which remained her home for the rest of her life. Like Peig too, she spent many of her years doing hard manual work of one kind or another. Unlike Peig, however, she travelled quite extensively to carry out this work, to the Lagán district of central and east Ulster and to Scotland as a “tatty hoker”, a common occupation for young west of Ireland seasonal migrants up to the 1950s. The difficulty of this work is well described in Séamus Ó Grianna’s novel Bean Ruadh de Dhálach (A Redheaded Woman of the O’Donnells) interestingly centring on another redhead named Róise. This is ostensibly a fictional work, but one which provides details of the hardship endured by the novice in the potato fields. Also included in Ar an gCoigríoch, such parallels in fiction and non-fiction highlight the innovative approach of Ní Dhonnchadha and Nic Eoin in linking these supposedly disparate genres by thematic correspondences:
Théidh Róise i gceann tamaill. Ach bhí a druim ag éirí nimhneach. Chuaigh sí ar a glúine. D’éirigh na glúine nimhneach … Sa deireadh séideadh fídeóg. Bhí am dinnéara ann.
(Róise warmed up after a while. But her back was getting sore. She knelt. Her knees grew sore … Finally a whistle sounded’. It was dinner time.)
Chuaigh siad isteach ’un ’a sgiobóil agus thoisigh na mná a ghiollacht bídh. Ní thug Róise cuidiú ar bith dóbhtha. Chaith sí í féin ar shop cocháin. Bhí sí marbh tuirseach. Bhí a druim agus a glúine nimhneach.
(They went into the bothy and the women began to prepare food. Róise gave them no help. She threw herself on a bundle of straw. She was dead tired. Her back and her knees were sore.)
If modern Irish language writers experienced a profound sense of displacement in the unsympathetic linguistic ambience of the new state, such a sense of dislocation is not overt in Róise Uí Grianna’s narrative. The reader gets the sense that alienation of this kind had to be suppressed and kept at bay. Róise’s difficult circumstances deflect the focus in other directions. The sense of belonging to a group and a community is overwhelmingly strong, indicating its purpose as an effective support system for individuals, buttressing their connections to each other through constant contact and the exchange of news. Religious observance plays its part as a further element bolstering kinship and sociability and the consequent maintenance of a positive outlook. Sunday Mass is a highlight, especially when away, as it serves to put people in contact by bringing them together. Older religious ways, such as the singing of traditional hymns at wakes and funerals, also feature. Intractable situations are acknowledged as such and the compromises and solutions achieved are detailed. One might regard this as a typically fatalistic peasant outlook, or conversely, it might be viewed as a deliberately positive attitude that empowered the speaker to continue with life and to flourish despite adversity. Strict social control there was, but tradition emerges here as a dynamic and functioning system, not as dead weight, hampering those enmeshed in it. On the contrary, tradition provides the requisite supports to negotiate challenging circumstances and prevail. Indeed, in Róise’s narrative, a certain laochas – heroic resolve – pervades the accounts of working life and of the capacity to accomplish difficult tasks well. This satisfaction in achievement emerges clearly from the account of the work Róise did and the wages she received after her first half-year stint with the McGees, a Catholic family in Glenmornan, near Strabane, Co Tyrone, £5 10s; almost two pounds more than the £3 15s agreed when she was hired. Róise reveals the spirit of the people in other ways, with some noted examples of island wit and eloquence standing out in particular. A woman named Caitlín Bhán’s facility in oral composition and her eulogistic verse addressed to a yarn distributor’s family in Glenties, to persuade him to give out the yarn so the women might get back to Aran that night, provides one memorable vignette. Another is the retort made by Róise’s stepfather, the Búistéir, after he was ordered by the landlord’s court to demolish the house he had just built, because he had done so without permission. The Búistéir pointed out that despite the landlord’s superior landholdings, the day would come when both of them would have the same amount. Charley, the landlord, was stunned by this and asked the Búistéir to explain himself. The Búistéir answered that when they were both laid in the grave, each of them would have an equal portion of land. Róise remembered that the landlord permitted the Búistéir to retain the dwelling intended for demolition as a result.
The most memorable act of resistance related in Róise’s memoir concerns the attempt by the Mollie Maguires to end the landlord’s enclosure of their customary grazing lands in 1863 for his own exclusive use. An Búistéir was also involved in this event, and with nine others served a year in jail as a result. Again, the landlord was John Stoupe Charley, who had purchased Arranmore from the Conynghams in 1849. The Mollies broke into the landlord’s agent’s house, intimidating him to the extent that he and his family subsequently left the island. This incident formed part of a wider campaign against changes instituted by landlords all over West Donegal in the post-Famine period. Downtrodden the people may have been, but their tenacity and self-reliance were not in doubt. This pride is palpable down to the present, as GF Dudgeon’s short review of the work on Amazon reveals:
A wonderful [sic] well written (and translated) read. Roise Rua was my great-grandmother’s sister and I learned more about her life and the life of my ancestors from these pages than anyone in the present day family could tell me. It is a very warm hearted and enlightening book of the times that we, in this world today, could never begin to comprehend. The story I never wanted to end.
Although Róise had no children of her own, her memory has clearly survived among her sister’s descendants, a memory now augmented through the publishing of this book. Significantly, the reviewer lives in Scotland, emphasizing the diasporic outcome of the migrations so vividly described in the book.
A stoic acceptance of life’s calamities counters the conspicuous catalogue of untimely deaths throughout the narrative, and neither minimises nor overstates the sorrows endured. The most notable of these is the catastrophe that occurred in 1935, known locally as the Arranmore Drownings, in which nineteen islanders were lost while crossing from the mainland. Photographs of the event included in the book still provide a harrowing testament to the sorrow endured. Enormous as the event was, the drownings were a culmination of tragedy in lives marked by such loss. The proverb Níl leigheas ar an bhás ach pósadh arís‑ (There is no remedy for death but remarriage) is well illustrated. People clearly viewed marriage as a team effort and as a positive way to deal with the early demise of a partner. When widowed, Róise’s mother embarked on a second marriage with Antain Gallagher, known to all as An Búistéir, who had also recently lost his wife. This marriage endured and flourished and Róise’s affection for her mother and her stepfather is obvious. Filial duty may account for some of this, but another factor is the great respect Róise had for her parents as people who provided caitheamh aimsire, pastime, for themselves and their neighbours. Her home was a popular visiting house, her stepfather being noted for his storytelling and seanchas, her mother, like Róise herself, a fine singer. This talent for singing and storytelling was a form of symbolic capital. Her abilities surely made Róise a welcome guest when, during her husband’s work absences in Scotland, she went night visiting in other, more prosperous houses for company, and because her own fuel supplies were running low.
Róise’s singing may well have been the factor that ensured that her biography was written and has now been translated into English. Known as Róise Rua or Róise Mhaighréide (her mother’s name) to her fellow islanders, she acquired another sobriquet, Róise na nAmhrán, with the advent of Gaelic enthusiasts to the island from the turn of the twentieth century and especially with the arrival of Coslett Ó Cuinn. A Church of Ireland minister who had a deep interest in Irish language culture, he made a valuable folklore collection, much of it from Arranmore. This led eventually to Róise’s songs being recorded by Proinsias Ó Conluain for Radio Éireann’s sound archive in 1953. Some additional recordings were made by the Irish Folklore Commission by Leo Corduff while Seán Ó hEochaidh, also working for the Commission, transcribed her songs and her lore. And of course, Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí, the writer of Róise Rua, the text translated by Keaveny, became aware of her after he came to Arranmore as a national school teacher in the early forties. It was he who encouraged Ó hEochaidh to visit Arranmore to record Róise’s singing. Ua Cnáimhsí’s meeting and subsequent project are well described in the book. As well as writing her story down, which he did without the aid of a mechanical recorder, his contribution provides much significant historical detail on Róise’s oral testimony that is usually absent from oral accounts. The manuscript of eighty-six songs that he transcribed from Róise is still held by his family.
As mentioned earlier, a selection of twenty-five songs from Ó Conluain’s recordings were edited and published by Cathal Goan on cassette in 1994 and on CD in 1996, a godsend to Donegal singers interested in the traditional style. Years before, many had been aware of Róise’s songs through occasional RTÉ traditional music programmes and homemade recordings of these radio broadcasts. Goan’s publication was particularly welcome however, because it provided not only the recordings, but also the transcribed texts and extra verses collected by Seán Ó hEochaidh and available in the National Folklore Collection at UCD, but missing from the sound recordings. This was a landmark publication that engaged many traditional singers, which has spread Róise’s fame far and wide, a distinction she did not enjoy during her lifetime. The recording is now regrettably unavailable and much sought after. Róise’s songs have been recorded by a number of contemporary singers. Aoife Ní Fhearraigh, for example, has recorded one of her songs Ansacht na nAnsacht (Beloved, most beloved). Mary Smith, a renowned Gaelic singer from Ness on the Isle of Lewis, recorded a Scottish Gaelic version of Dá mbínn i mo bhádóir (If I were a boatman), which she translated herself. Róise did the same in her own time, picking up a Scottish Gaelic song from Neil McCurdy, a visiting lightkeeper, at the close of the nineteenth century. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh recorded this item with Altan on Harvest Storm and, earlier, two more on Ceol Aduaidh. Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill also sings two on her influential Gan Dhá Phingin Spré/No Dowry. In fact, the title of Ní Dhomhnaill’s CD is taken from the first line of one of Róise’s songs, her own version of the classic An Clár Bog Déil (The Bog Deal Board), once described by an American friend as a “sexy little song” upon having the lyrics of the first verse translated for her:
Phósfainn thú gan bó gan puntaí gan dhá phingin spré
Leagfainn fúm thú maidin drúchta le bánú an lae
Mo ghalar dubh gan mé agus tú seal a rún searc mo chléibh
I gCaiseal Dubh is gan de leaba fúinn ann ach an Clár Bog Déil.
I’d marry you without cattle or money or twopence of a dowry
I’d lay you beneath me on a dewy morning at the dawn of day
My dark disease that I and you, intended desire of my heart
Are not at the Black Fort with no bed beneath us but the bog deal board.
The speaker is presumably a man, professing his undying love for his “intended desire” while also being quite explicit about exactly how he proposes to express it. Róise was seventy-three years old at the time the recording was made and her voice was still reasonably good. She was able to negotiate not only the descending octave intervals in the first line, but also the exceptional intervallic leap from the high third degree to the low tonic. This striking feature is one reason why singers are drawn to the song, another being that a Munster version has long been recognised as a classic of traditional music and poetry. A version of the same air is used in Carna in Co Galway for this song and it is also used in that area for the local version of the perennial Róisín Dubh famously translated by James Clarence Mangan as Dark Rosaleen. Róise also sang Róisín Dubh, but to another air entirely.
A version of “An Clár Bog Déil” from Tory Island begins with a different verse, the first line of which is “Tá ribíní mo mhuirnín ar chúl a cinn” (My darling wears a ribbon to hold her hair back). Although the basic skeleton of the tune is the same, the two versions differ a good deal, the Tory version having a narrower compass than Róise’s. What this reveals is the extreme variability of the songs in their localised versions. Nowadays, because of the primacy of regional traditions in music and song, versions tend to get categorised as the Connemara version, or the Déise version or the Ulster version. This is because some versions of songs have become canonical over the last fifty or so years, a process helped by the Gaelic League’s annual Oireachtas competitions and by noted singers recording a version which subsequently gains wide currency. This version then becomes recognised as representative of a region, although other, less well-known versions also exist.
By pointing this process out, I do not mean to criticise it or to brand it as inauthentic – to me it seems a normal, ordinary part of a changing and developing tradition. There is a point to be made however: the versions that enjoy currency today, such as Róise’s Clár Bog Déil, have become so because of an engagement between modern technology and a romantic philosophical conviction about the intrinsic worth of this material, and a modern cadre of performers who can avail of the former and who still hold true to the latter. The fact that Róise’s singing was produced as a marketable commodity is important to note. The modern singers who learn her songs and record them on their own productions carry out another step of this process, carrying the music far from its origins. Róise’s unaccompanied singing is called sean-nós, (old style), a term usually used to denote traditional unaccompanied singing in the Irish language. It has been promoted through the agency of the Gaelic League’s Oireachtas, although many find it problematic. In Róise’s case, despite the commodification of her singing, it is fair to say that the market for her sean-nós will never be a large one. Those who follow it may be few in number but their dedication outweighs this disadvantage. Today’s singers choose Róise’s version because it is available, it has an appealing melody with a good traditional sound and because the verses are recognised as also having merit. Róise’s own story is a testament to her credibility and authenticity as a symbol of dúchas (heritage).
To return to Róise’s “memoir”, more accurately a biography, and her life, she probably learned An Clár Bog Déil at home from her mother or from another renowned island singer, Bidí Chaitlíne, a woman whose singing she mentions approvingly. She probably sang her own version in opposition to others with a conviction that her own was the best, illustrating once again the idea of gaisce. This term comprises an impetus to excel, and to perform renowned and memorable deeds, such as being paid more than the agreed wage, in return for being an excellent and dependable worker. Indeed, Seán Ó hEochaidh’s manuscript NFC 1333, in which he transcribed Róise’s songs and her stories about them, reveals that this was exactly the case. Róise’s discussion of a particular song links it to a female ancestor, Anna Ní Dhomhnaill, from Athphort, who reputedly rescued the island’s reputation at a local wedding. The groom’s party were from Cloughaneely and had brought a singer with them to Arranmore. Because she had given birth only a short time previously, Anna was not present at the celebration. She was sent for in order to sing for the Arranmore side. Her recent confinement made Anna reluctant to go. She was eventually persuaded, however, attended the party, sang Is dá dtigtheása liomsa thart siar go Cúige Uladh (If you were to come with me round westwards to Ulster), recognizable as a local setting of Uilleagán Dubh Ó (My Dark Uilleagán Ó), and saved the day. Clearly then, singing also formed part of the aesthetics of gaisce and the strength and resolve are as evident in Róise’s voice even in old age, as they are from the episodes of her life. The story of Peadar Breathnach (c 1825-1870) and his song Chuaigh mé seal tamaill ar cuairt (I went rambling for a spell) is also told. He made this song in Arranmore about his courtship of a young island girl. The sparkling witty lyrics convey all the sport and joie de vivre of a group of young people. Because of its infectious brio, it was hugely popular all over Donegal in its time, and remains a favourite with singers today.
Róise’s voice is remarkable even in old age and gives us a representation of an old style of singing, all her own, but typical of Donegal and perhaps more generally of Ulster. This style is more rhythmic than today’s sean-nós singing, because of course, Róise’s singing emerged unmediated from her own community and kinship context. The community was the final arbiter and gave the accolade or withheld it, as they had done in the case of Anna Ní Dhomhnaill, mentioned above. Today’s Oireachtas and Fleadh Cheoil competitions act as a stabilising influence, and, it must be said, as a standardising one. The received wisdom today is that singing must be slow, as in the “slow air” of instrumental competitions. This usually means that songs must be sung rubato, without a clearly perceptible rhythm, although a subtle pulse often characterises the singing. Although not explicitly stated either, melismatic decoration, present but by no means dominant in Róise’s style, is also a desirable quality in today’s competitive singing, and is regarded as a representative hallmark of a modern sean-nós sound. Few aspiring singers at present would risk singing Róise’s version of An Clár Bog Déil in a style that resembles hers closely in a competitive arena, for they would surmise, correctly, that their chances of success were slim. I remember some years ago the performance of a noted present-day Arranmore singer in the Oireachtas competitions. She did not secure a place among the finalists. As there were many good singers in the competition I cannot say that the judgement was unfair. However, one can imagine that there were at least two reasons for this. In the first place, it was the singer’s first time in competition and consequently, she would have garnered none of the recognition that would accrue to a regular attendee. Secondly, one can speculate that, because her style did not conform to competition norms, the adjudicators may well not have found it appealing. Again, pointing this out is not meant as negative criticism, merely as an observation. The regret is that she did not persevere. Conversely, however, a steady number of Donegal singers do participate in Oireachtas events and continue to win major prizes.
We do not know how Róise’s singing differed from that of her mother or of other singers because so little has been recorded in sound format from that period. However, by listening to the recordings made in the late twenties and early thirties by Wilhelm Doegen, a German scholar who came to Ireland to record speech in Irish, we can augment our picture of traditional singing at that time (dho.ie/doegen/home). This material, now available to all online, is indeed a treasure trove of language and song, containing many items from areas where Irish is no longer autochthonously spoken. In Connacht, for example, there are short pieces in Irish from Roscommon and Leitrim, where very little native Irish has ever been recorded, making these items uniquely valuable. In Ulster, we find recordings from Derry, Tyrone, Antrim, Louth (part of Ulster for linguistic purposes) and Armagh (Máire Ní Arbhasaigh singing Úirchill An Chreagáin [In Creggan’s Churchyard] is a highlight), although the majority of Ulster material comes from Donegal. Karl Tempel, the recording engineer, made some great records of folktales and songs among other items.
One of the singers was Pádraig Ó Baoighill, like Róise from the Rosses, from Leitir Catha in the hills south of Loch An Iúir. This man’s singing is clearly reminiscent in style and delivery of Róise’s approach and it makes an interesting point of comparison. To emphasise my point about variation in a thriving culture of orally performed and transmitted song, it is worth pairing his version of Thug mé rúide go mullaigh na Cruaiche/An Bruach Buí (I took a run to the top of the Reek/The Yellow Bank), with Róise’s treatment of the same song, titled Dá mbínn i mo bhádóir, (If I were a boatman) both variants of An Caisdeach Bán (Fair-haired Cassidy). The two singers lived less than ten miles apart and yet their versions of this song point to alternate sources and chains of transmission for hill and coastal folk. Ó Baoighill’s air is reminiscent of the one commonly associated with Raftery’s song Anach Cuain, (Annaghdown) as sung by singers in Connemara, but so unlike it as to be considered a different tune. This very air was the one that the late Darach Ó Catháin had for An Caisdeach Bán/Fair-haired Cassidy, a famous eighteenth century character whose song laments his lost vocation because of his love for a young woman. Róise’s version, on the other hand, can be related again to Tory island, unsurprisingly suggesting that transmission proceeded along inter-island patterns of communication. Although her melody has an aaba structure, with eight-line stanzas, the Tory melody is abab, based on shorter four-line stanzas. The two melodies, however, are clearly related. It seems that this song was immensely popular in the past, as I am aware of at least another three recordings of it from Donegal. One of those, sung by the late Áine Uí Laoi, like the Tory version, may be heard on the CD Seoda Sean-nóis as Tír Chonaill, still available from Cló-Iar Chonnachta.
By mentioning these multiforms of the same song, I am trying to give brief impressions of the song network that characterised the entertainment of people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For them, singing was a major form of entertainment. Some still continue with a passion for live singing although the custom has receded over a remarkably short period. A recent initiative on Raidió na Gaeltachta led by Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí, undertook to prepare Donegal singers to compete in the Oireachtas competitions in Killarney in November 2010. Each week the chosen group was mentored live on air by recognised exponents of the genre, and given tips on song choice, style and performance presentation. It made great radio. Two of the group, who, admittedly, came from singing families, were successful in winning prizes at the festival. This result augurs well for the future of sean-nós singing in Donegal, as the Oireachtas is seen as a prestigious national venue.
I have concentrated here on Irish language song but, as well as trying to learn Scottish Gaelic songs, Róise was an enthusiastic learner and singer of English language songs too. Many of these she learned during her stints away working on the Lagán or in Scotland. If music is a barometer of social change, these songs were accordingly prophetic, heralding the dramatic shift to English that took place in West Donegal during Róise’s lifetime. Although no direct mention is made of this shift in her account, the difficulty of acquiring English and people’s need to communicate when away, clearly provided compelling reasons for it. English was a vehicle to economic advancement and upward mobility. In Róise’s time, Arranmore had a population of 1,500, most of whom were Irish speakers. Today the population stands at 528 and although Irish is still a vernacular on the island it has been undermined by English to the degree that it is no longer dominant, a situation mirrored at present in many other Irish-speaking regions. This is a widespread situation in many parts of the world. Estimates predict that as many as half the world’s languages will no longer be spoken by the end of the twenty-first century.
My discussion of singing and how it has moved out of the fireside and community context onto the international arena of commodified music reflects the changes that have occurred in Irish society over the last one hundred and fifty years. The greater urbanisation and greater opportunities that have resulted have made many believe that the Irish language and its culture is old-fashioned, out of date and obsolete. Róise’s story and her wonderful songs show that culture is dynamic, functioning as an extra organ, a way for people to express themselves and achieve the good enough life, in spite of adversity. The Gaelic revival is often reviled as a backward-looking movement with no interest in emerging developments. Some evidence undoubtedly supports that view, but another perspective shows how people gave of their time to ensure that voices like Róise Uí Ghrianna’s could be heard telling their stories and singing their songs for all time. If we think that such bad old days have passed, we might spare a thought for workers from developing countries who live similar migratory lives and endure similarly restrictive working conditions in tourism and other industries, in the service of a globalised, neo-liberal capitalist agenda. Róise’s book and her songs help disrupt and dispel our convenient amnesia.
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Lillis Ó Laoire is Head of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at NUI Galway. He teaches courses in language, literature and especially folklore in the Irish Department. A Donegal native, he has won awards for sean-nós singing and has published a book on the singing traditions of Tory: On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island (CIC 2007). In 2009-10, he held an IRCHSS senior fellowship, during which he completed a book on the renowned sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, cowriting with Professor Sean Williams, of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song-Man, will be published by OUP in April 2011. IRCHSS also funded the construction of a website of materials from The Joe Heaney Collection at the University of Washington, Seattle. It is available at www.joeheaney.org