Co Cork enthusiasts dig deep to revive old sean-nós songs

Conditions faced by some Irish tenants today may give rise to sharp exchanges of words, but those seeking clemency in the face of eviction rarely resort to writing poetry in praise of their landlord.

Indeed it was not an entirely successful technique for 19th-century poet Donacha Bán Ó Loingsigh, whose Irish language verses lauding baronet George Colthurst failed to secure leniency for their composer.

His words have, however, provided Cork’s Acadamh Fódhla, an “indigenous academy” of learning, with fascinating historical insights – and with one of 12 sean-nós songs which, after painstaking research, have now been published in a collection marking the academy’s 20th year.

Among light-hearted airs and songs of place and drinking, ‘Donacha Bán agus an Rudaire’ serves as a reminder of the harsh realities for tenant farmers two centuries ago.

Living in Na Fuithirí, between Béal Átha ‘n Ghaorthaidh and Cúil Aodha, a few short miles from where the Acadamh now meets, Donacha Bán flattered to deceive, praising the landed ‘rudaire’ in hopes of currying favour.

“The land up there was very poor and Donacha Bán was in danger of being evicted,” said Máire Ní Chéileachair, former éarlamh (patron) of the Acadamh’s Dáimh Amhránaíochta sean-nós faculty. Donacha Bán was “advised to write a poem in praise of the rudaire, hoping that he would soften his stance from him as regards the rent and have mercy on him”.

“George Colthurst had no Irish but he got it translated,” she added, but alas for Donacha Bán, his fine words buttered no parsnips and the landlord “didn’t soften – he knew it wasn’t sincere praise”.

A poet held in high esteem by his contemporary Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, composer of ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’, one of the “big songs” of Múscraí sean-nós tradition, Donacha Bán responded to the rebuff by composing somewhat less complimentary verses about Colthurst.

Maíre Ní Chéileachair, of Acadamh Fódhla at Reilig Ghobnatan, Baile Mhúirne. Picture: Dan Linehan

Though most of those lines are now lost, the survival of ‘Donacha Bán agus an Rudaire’ is, like other songs in the Acadamh collection, due largely to the efforts of previous collectors and researchers such as Seán and Donncha Ó Cróinín. Their ‘Seanachas Amhlaoibh Í Luínse’ was among the books from which Donacha Bán’s verse was sourced by Acadamh member Seán Ó Luasa, whose land is at short remove from that once farmed by the poet.

Ó Luasa and wife Síle – their son Conchubhar is, like Máire Ní Chéileachair, a past winner of the Corn Uí Riada, sean-nós singing’s coveted prize – are two of the seven researchers of ‘Acadamh Fódhla, Dáimh Amhránaíochta: Saothar Amhrán’, their recordings of the songs appearing on an accompanying CD.

“We study songs in the Dáimh Amhránaíochta and the idea came up that we would put together a collection of the songs we had studied,” said Máire. “The purpose was to document the research we have done and make it available to others.

At weekly meetings, members take a song and try and find as many versions as they can. “We’d work on the text and we’d take each version and go through the verses in one, and extra verses in another one, particularly looking to the metre, and from the point of view of the Irish, the cruinneas [accuracy]. Then we go through the melody, checking that the meter fits, and come up with a distilled version. It’s a meticulous examination of the text; all the versions that are studied are [in the book] and more are listed.

“Our sources could be written, in collections such as the Martin Freeman or An tAthair Pádraig Breathnach collections including ‘Ceol ár Sinsear’; audio sources like CDs; and the singers themselves,” she said.

One such was the late Máire Ní Cheocháin Uí Chrualaoi of Cúil Aodha and Ballincollig, whose songs were the subject of a masters thesis by current dáimh éarlamh Carol Ní Chuimín, and whose daughter Gobnait is among the Acadamh researchers.

Three years of study unearthed forgotten verses of Múscraí songs such as ‘An Jug Mor’, an alternative version of ‘Baile Mhúirne’, plus ‘An Bhannda Bhraonach Theas’ and ‘Céide Glas Laoi na Seol’ in praise of the rivers Bandon and Lee .

The book is the second edition of songs collected by the Acadamh, which was founded by composer Peadar Ó Riada and includes schools devoted to studying land lore, history, and energy. Its Dáimh Amhránaíochta evolved from sean-nós singing scheme Aisling Gheal, whose students will be just some of the beneficiaries of the Acadamh’s research.

“Songs aren’t being passed down in the same way as they were in previous generations, by families and neighbours,” said Máire. “We hope this is a resource to fill that gap for singers and those interested in sean-nós.”

  • A celebration of ‘Acadamh Fódhla: Dáimh Amhránaíochta, Saothar Amhrán’ will be presented by Muireann Ní Dhuigneáin at Baile Mhúirne’s Ionad Cultúrtha on March 10, 7.30pm. The book/CD is available from An Gadaí Dubh, Baile Mhúirne, €25, or www.peadaroriada.ie

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