A letter from Seamus Heaney

Week II

Irish traditional music is one of the great survivors of history. Maybe it was because we are an island, way off on our own in the western Atlantic, and until the latter decades of the last  century, out of hearing from the mass cultural movements of popular cinema, radio and TV, especially the modern music from Europe and the US, that something distinctive has survived. As a boy I would only hear traditional music sessions in a few Gaelteacht areas, or from the welcoming Standún family in Spiddal, or at the Féiseanna at An Taibhdhearc, which was more memorable for the day off from school than it was for the music.

Radio Éireann played traditional music at times, but my memory is that the airwaves were dominated by the  sentimental singing of people like Delia Murphy, known as the Queen of Connemara, and her If I were a blackbird, which seemed to have been played endlessly. 

Then suddenly it all changed. Irish showbands presented a unique mixture of pop music and slow, waltz dance, tunes (great for testing the waters to see if there was any hope for more, later ). These died out in the seventies when British and American pop ruled the day. And then, maybe because of the dominance of British and American music, there was a look back at our traditional music, which, like Riverdance later, reinvented itself into the raucus voices, and humour of The Dubliners, and from  the US, The Clancy Brothers.

Pubs and hotels provided evenings of traditional music, which were well supported, and guaranteed a fun night out. The music became so popular that it effortlessly fused with rock and roll, punk, and other genres, as in certain recordings of Horslips, Thin Lizzy, The Corrs, Enya, Clannad and Van Morrison. The international success of The Chieftains, and others, made Irish folk music a global brand.

The Keane sisters

Reading Mary Murphy’s homage to  the Keane family in the north Galway parish of Caherlistrane*, it tells us in microcosm how our unique music style survived. It is a true, oral, tradition, passing from generation to generation; and it is uniquely rural in that journey. 

The Keanes are an extraordinary musical family. Although the late sisters, Sarah and Rita, enjoyed a life-long musical partnership, and are still regarded with reverence and love in the parish, no one is surprised that their niece Dolores, and nephews,  Seán and Matt, are internationally famous musicians today. 

Sarah and Rita’s mother played the concertina, as well as ‘the knitting needles’, and their father played the accordion. In the 1950s and 60s, six  family members were involved in the popular Keane’s Céilí Band. They frequently performed for audiences of up to 1,000 at dances in Tuam and Loughrea. Some of these were ‘all-night dances’, from 10pm to 4am, breaking at midnight for supper.

The Keanes farmed 80 acres at Caherlistrane, and, Galway journalist Judy Murphy tells us, they developed a routine where they’d leave home in the evening after finishing farm work, and return, after concerts, in the early hours of the morning to be ready for another day’s work. “We didn’t need much sleep then,” said Sarah.

Wholehearted Irish

Their mother May, was an assiduous collector of traditional songs and tunes, and passed on her passion to her children. ‘She had a suitcase of songs’, recalls Seán. ‘She collected bits and pieces of lyrics and tunes.’

One particular one, Erin’s Lonely Home, has lodged in his memory. He was only small, but he clearly recalls his grandmother and a neighbour, having a hot and heavy argument about a line in the song. “Neither would give way to the other about a word, or a phrase and it ended up with my grandmother balling a piece of paper up in her hand and throwing it into the fire!”

The lyric that caused such passion and contention so long ago has stayed with him to this day: “ There are seven links upon my song, and every link a year.” Years later Seán was singing on Inishboffin and heard a man called Michael Joe Holleran sing it. “It was the very same one but it was a different air.”

Dolores, Seán and Matt today still draw on a wealth of material passed on through their paternal aunts.**

Journalist Tom Gilmore remembers the two aunts with warmth and affection in their later years. ‘Sarah and Rita’s thatched house in Carragh was so welcoming, with the open fire and freshly baked brown bread. They never liked anyone to see them eating. They never took a drink but always had drink in the house for visitors. They were wholehearted Irish people. They were two separate personalities. Rita, as far as I remember, did most of the driving. They were always together, nearly a unit, even though there were a few years between them, Rita being the older of the two. Singing in Irish was no bother to them because that entire area was still speaking Irish as recently as the 1940s.’

Seán Keane recalled the Keane sisters saying of their music: “Oh God, it keeps us alive!”

NOTES: * Caherlistrane, by Mary J Murphy, Knockma Publishing, on sale €20.

** In the late 1960s the broadcaster Ciarán Mac Mathúna made recordings of the Keane sisters, which proved very popular with listeners, and resulted in the recording of an album Once I Loved (Claddagh Records ) in 1969. Their only other album, , was produced in 1985. They both have been rereleased on CD. 

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