Wednesday 1 April 2015

Modern Irish events in ASNC, March 2015

'Songs of Donegal and other places': A Performance by Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire

As part of the international celebration of Seachtain na Gaeilge (1-17 March), Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire, an accomplished sean-nós singer and Senior Lecturer in the School of Languages and Literatures at National University Ireland, Galway, gave a memorable lecture (4 March) and song performance (5 March) in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.  Both events were enriched immeasurably by Ó Laoire's extensive study of sean-nós performances in his native Co. Donegal, and by scholarly research, fieldwork and insightful analysis of oral traditions in Ireland and Scotland.  Ó Laoire’s beautifully expressive voice, quiet concentration and distinctive interpretation of the nuances of each song gave added depth to his performance.

Lillis Ó Laoire

Events began with an engaging preliminary lecture on the songs of Tory Island, in which Dr. Ó Laoire described traditional life on the island and added personal recollections of his own life in the Irish-speaking village of Gort an Choirce, on the neighbouring mainland.  Selected songs from Tory were sung in the moderately ornamented or ‘plain’ style of sean-nós traditionally practiced on the island.  As Dr. Ó Laoire noted, singers in Donegal place a high value on the clear articulation of the ‘story’ (scéal) within the song.  The vivid language of such stories was evident in the images of islanders plying rough seas in Bádaí na dTrí Seoil, and French ships coursing the coast of Tory Island during the rising of 1798, an historical event recalled in Úna Bheag na hÁite.

Language and performance combine to express a song’s underlying ‘meaning’ or brí, an Irish word which, Ó Laoire noted, also has the sense ‘vigour’ and ‘life’.  The songs of Tory were certainly brought fully to life in Ó Laoire’s sean-nós performance, which echoed beautifully in a classroom full of attentive ASNC and Modern Irish language students, faculty and guests.  Pausing frequently between story and song, Dr. Ó Laoire invited his audience to raise questions.  The open discussion touched upon the importance of song within Irish-speaking community, a subject treated in Dr. Ó Laoire's monograph, On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island (first published in Irish as Ar Chreag i Lár na Farraige) and his most recent book, Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man (co-authored with Sean Williams), which was awarded the 2012 Alan P.Merriam Prize in Ethnomusicology.

On 5 March Dr. Ó Laoire gave a public performance of ‘Songs from Donegal and Other Places’, which highlighted songs in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic and ranged farther afield to Rathlin and the Isle of Skye.  A rhythmic lullaby from the Isle of Skye, Tàladh Dhomhnaill Ghoirm, reputedly composed by the foster-mother of the infant Dòmhnall Gorm Mòr (Donald ‘Gorm’ MacDonald) in the late sixteenth century, honoured the famed chieftain of Clan Mac Donald of Sleat.  Medieval themes were woven into the performance with a stirring rendition of the the Arthurian lay Am Bròn Binn (The Sweet Sorrow), and the beautifully chanted verses of the Seacht Súáilcí na Maighdine Muire 'Seven Joys of the Virgin Mary’, including the birth, the flight into Egypt and the miraculous turning water into wine (which becomes beoir 'beer' in the Irish). In a final linking of the song traditions of Ireland and Scotland, the audience joined in singing the well-known Fear an Bháta, versions of which show a linguistic mix of Scottish Gaelic and Irish and demonstrate the exchange of oral tales, poems and songs in Ireland and Scotland.

Following Dr. Ó Laoire's performance, former ASNC student Andrea Palandri, who is now pursuing a Research Masters in Modern Irish at University College Cork, made a special visit to ASNC to perform Irish music on the fiddle with fellow musicians Colm McGonigle (harp) and Conor Healy (flute).  The three performed reels and laments, and joined Lillis Ó Laoire in a performance of the well-known Connemara song, Cailleach an Airgid.  

Andrea Palandri (centre), with Colm McGonigle and Conor Healy

The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic extends special thanks to ASNC alumna Shelby Switzer, for her generous donation to support the events relating to Modern Irish language and culture in 2014-15.  When informed of the invitation extended to Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire Shelby responded with delight:  'This is all fantastic.  Dr. Ó Laoire is a wonderful choice, and I'm glad Andrea will be able to return to Cambridge.’  Her gift made it possible for Palandri, her former classmate, to participate in the event.

Modern Irish Recordings of tales and songs from Donegal

As part of an ongoing effort to create an archive of traditional Irish tales and songs from various dialects of Irish, Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire accompanied Dr. Margo Griffin-Wilson (ASNC Teaching Associate, Modern Irish) to the Cambridge University Language Centre and recorded a selection of sean-nós songs from Donegal and Irish prose tales from fiannaíocht, which celebrate the deeds of the hero Fionn Mac Cumhail.  Students in the Modern Irish classes will have access to the recordings on the Modern Irish ‘Moodle’ site.  The recording was made with generous assistance and expertise of Saimon Clark, Media Editor, whose time and efforts on behalf of the Modern Irish classes is greatly appreciated.

Oíche Ghaelach ‘An Irish Evening’

As part of the widespread ceremonies during Seachtain na Gaeilge 2015, Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall (a native of Co. Waterford), warmly welcomed Irish language teachers, students and musicians from various community organizations and universities throughout the United Kingdom to the Embassy of Ireland in London for the Oíche Ghaelach on 2 March.  Dr. Margo Griffin-Wilson, who represented Cambridge University at the event, met with Ambassador Mulhall and had the unexpected pleasure of meeting fellow Irish lecturers Dr. William Mahon (University of Aberystwyth) and Dr. Kaarina Hollo (Sheffield University).  The three studied Old and Modern Irish together in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now teach Modern Irish in the United Kingdom.

Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson and ambdassador Daniel Mulhall
The events of March closed with the annual H. M. Chadwick Lecture, which was delivered by Professor Catherine McKenna, the Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures, at Harvard University.  Professor Mac Kenna presented an insightful analysis of terms for poets and poetry in the works of medieval Welsh poets and was an honoured guest at the Departmental dinner at St. John's College—a fitting finale to the variety of lectures on poetry and performance during the closing weeks of Lent Term. 

Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson