Amhranaiocht ar an Sean-nos

Traditional Singing

By Tomás Ó Maoldomhnaigh

The first and most obvious thing to explain is the term ‘Sean-nos’. This does not necessarily refer to any musical terminology but to a way of life as experienced by our people who witnessed many forced changes to the old ways. It is a rather vague way of describing their daily routine at work and play. Songs were made to accompany the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions-love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration.

‘Sean-nos’ is generally understood to refer to songs in the Irish Language, while the term ‘Traditional Singing’ means songs sung in the English language, is much older than Traditional singing in the English language. Again most of songs composed in Englisg were connected to people, communities events both local and emigration.

The term ‘Sean-nos’ (in the old way) as applied to traditional singing in the Irish Language, encompasses a style of singing, which is rooted in the Gaeltacht regions of the country. There are three main styles of Sean-nos, corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken as a community language, the Gaeltachtai of Munster, Connacht and Ulster. Munster Gaeltachtai includes parts of Kerry, Cork and Waterford, the Connemara region of Connacht and the Ulster Gaeltacht in Donegal. It would not be correct to say Sean-nos is not practised outside these areas, but only those three distinct styles can be recognised. Singers from the Galltacht and indeed from outside Ireland may blend them, depending on where they learned.

The most obvious difference between the styles, to someone not familiar with Sean-nos, is between the Ulster style and the other two. Donegal Sean-nos has been heavily influenced by Scots Gaelic song, where the melody is much less ornamented-that is through the use of grace notes, and may also contain a steady pulse throughour the song. Both the Connemara and Munster styles are highly ornamented, both with forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist and with other more complex forms. In all styles, the preformer connects the text to his interpretation of the melody. There are also categories of songs in all three styles, namely, slow of non-rhythmic sonhs and songs that are sung to melodies with a very strong rhythm mostly drawn from the dance music, e.g. Jigs, slip-jigs, reels etc.

The first obvious thing to notice abour Sean-nos singing is that it is unaccompanied and performed as a solo art. The singer tells the story in the song by combining many vocal techniques, especially through the use of ornamentation and variation, in linking the melody to the text. Sean-nos singers use different techniques to ornament the performance of a song, One syllable in a word can be sung to several notes and the notes can be varies from verse to verse. Sometimes the notes to be ornamented can be adjacent to each other and at other times the gap between them is wide. The latter practice is confined mainly to Munster. Different notes can be stressed for a particular effect, or a note can be held over several beats.

Previous generations learned the songs in the home and in the locality. However, that way of life has changed dramatically and stusents must now source songs in other ways. Organised classes, publications, recorded material on tape and CD seems to be the alternative methods in which to learn the art. Sean-nos can only be accurately and effectively learned by ear. An understanding of the story-line and text, together with a knowledge of the historical background and lore, will add greatly to the eventual performance of the songs. Listening to a wide range and variety of traditional singers will obviously benefit singers in developing a personal style.

The following sources may be of help to singers wishing to learn the art of singing in a traditional style.

Amhranaiocht / Traditional Singing: Resources

Recordings made by CCE

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann,
Culturlann na hEireann,
Belgrave Square, Monkstown, Co. Dublin.

Phone: 01/2800295. Fax: 01/2803759.

Material also available includes:

Some samples of commercial recordings on tape and CD