Nioclás Tóibín - Rinn na nGael

Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 104; 69 minutes; 1999 CD reissue of 1994 cassette

Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha - Rogha Amhrán

Cló-Iar Chonnachta CICD 140; 1999

“That guy sounds more like me than I do.” Woody Guthrie on first hearing Rambling Jack Elliott

Cló Iar-Chonnachta - the name means West Connaught Print - began as a cottage industry devoted to the propagation of Gaelic culture generally, and to that of South Connemara in particular.  In pursuance of this policy they have, for a good many years now been producing recordings of Connemara singers, with occasional forays into other Gaeltachtana, (Gaelic speaking regions).  During that time the Cló Iar-Chonnachta catalogue has grown into a substantial listing of one of the most formidable folk traditions anywhere on earth.  Unfortunately, their releases, in being oriented towards local consumption, have tended to reflect the limited technological resources of many of their purchasers.  That is, they have traditionally been issued on cassette, with all that this implies in terms of sound quality, life expectancy and packaging standards.  It is good therefore, to see some of their more prestigious offerings being issued in CD format.  In my view, the sean-nós, as the Gaelic folksong tradition has come to be known, deserves far wider recognition, within Ireland as well as abroad, than it has ever been given.  If the present availability of cheap portable CD sound systems encourages digital release of the stuff, I can only exult. 

Of the two discs considered here, Rinn na nGael is a straightforward re-publication of a cassette which first saw the light of release in 1994, the year Nioclás Tóibín died.  It represents one of those forays outside Connemara, for Tóibín was from the Déise country of East Waterford.  His name may not be very well known among English speakers, even to those session goers who count themselves custodians of a great and noble heritage.  Nevertheless, during the 1950s and '60s, Nioclás Tóibín was one of a small group of performers who absolutely dominated the world of Gaelic singing.  If the news that he was the only singer, ever, to win the Oireachtas gold medal three years in succession, fails to impress you, then most of the contents of this disc certainly will

If you have just clicked that sound clip button[1] then, within the limitations of Internet technology, you will have gained a fleeting impression of one of the most majestic singers who ever carried the torch of Gaelic culture.  Whatever they possessed in terms of virtuosity and passion, singers in the sean-nós were a pretty undisciplined lot; for the strictures which govern Western art singing held no writ on this outpost of Atlantic Europe.  Unlike quite a few of his cohorts, however, Nioclás Tóibín possessed superb diction and breath control and rhythmic sense and pitch.  His use of ornamentation was less elaborate than that of singers from Connemara.  Nevertheless, what embellishments he did employ were executed consummately and effortlessly.  Other aspects of his art were so remarkable that he seemed at times to defy the limitations of the human voice.  He sang huge soaring melodies - some of them staggeringly beautiful - very high up the vocal range, in a clear thrusting tenor voice, with no apparent strain or exertion.  Déise airs are often massive in scope, with stark and sudden octave leaps, which rear up like the sides of mountains.  Listening to Nioclás Tóibín handling some of these tunes, I am reminded of the old maxim about the aerodynamics of the bumblebee; namely that, if it realised how short its wings were, it would not be able to fly. 

If that makes Nioclás Tóibín sound a bit of a cold fish, forget it.  He may be one of the most commanding singers I ever heard - he was also also one of the most moving.  The nineteen tracks on this record ignore the English language element of his repertoire.  Otherwise, they give a fair idea not just of how he sang, but of what he sang about.  To say that Nioclás Tóibín was a Déise singer does not entirely convey his importance in the Gaelic world, nor does it convey the historic significance of this record.  He was in fact from the last surviving Gaeltacht of that region, the Parish of Rinn Ó gCuanach, at the southern tip of Co Waterford.  Rather like rock pools when the tide has gone out, surviving pockets of Gaeldom tend to preserve repertoires which were formerly found over a much larger geographical spread.  Thus, these songs are not just representative of Nioclás Tóibín’s immediate parish.  They are surviving examples of the Déise tradition as a whole.  While some are purely local to the Déise, others have enjoyed a far wider currency.  Roisín Dubh, for instance is known all over Ireland, as is Eochaill, while An Crúiscín Lán is of the same root as that which the monoglot Canadian O J Abbott used to sing in a mixture of English and reasonably correct Irish.

To judge from the present sampling, and from evidence I have encountered elsewhere, the Déise seems unusually rich in varieties of song themes.  True, the first three tracks are love songs of a kind which prevail everywhere in Gaelic Ireland.  True, also that the fourth, Crúiscín Lán, is a drinking song, and celebrations of intoxicating liquor were a common genre among hard-drinking Gaelic poets.  However, the disc also contains an attack on the clergy, and a fragment of an aisling or vision poem lamenting the subjugation of Ireland.  There is the wonderfully angry Amhrán na Prátaí Dubha, one of the few contemporary utterances in either Irish or English to recount the horrors of the famine, and there is the splendid Na Connerys.  This song is one of several which Tóibín sang about the celebrated Connery brothers, who wrought such havoc among English occupationists, until they were shipped to “The New South Wales”.  Its melody will be recognisable to aficionados of the Anglo-Irish song tradition, for a rather ham-fisted translation of Na Connerys became popular around the fleadh competition scene a few years ago.  (Perhaps the most surprising item is something called Mo Thig Beag Aerach (My Airy Little House), which celebrates the pleasures of country living rather in the manner of the English art song, Linden Lea.  In fact, it is reminiscent of those contented country lad songs, which originated on the English urban stage, but which keep turning up in the repertoires of contented country singers, English ones, that is.  Here’s the conundrum.  Mo Thig Beag Aerach was a composition of one Pádraig Ó Miléadh, a famous local songwriter, who wrote several other songs which have passed into local tradition.  I gather that Ó Miléadh emigrated at one stage in his life and found work in a South Wales coal mine.  One wonders if his peregrinations might have brought him into contact with one of those contented country lad songs, and led him to compose one of his own? 

The luxury of a CD booklet means that Éamonn Ó Bróithe’s notes to the original cassette have been considerably expanded.  Moreover, they are now supplemented by translations and transcriptions of the song texts.  Unfortunately, space appears to have precluded a rendering of Éamonn’s notes into English, but copies of these can be obtained from Cló Iar-Chonnachta - see the bottom of this review for their address.  The texts have been translated not by Éamonn, as I would have anticipated, but by one Bill Caulfield.  I have not come across the name before and am hesitant to launch into battle while my own command of Gaelic is next door to non-existent.  However, instead of supplying literal transfigurations, which would have followed the originals exactly, he has seen fit to produce a set of texts which are clearly designed to be sung.  Translation between English and Irish is notoriously difficult, and I do not see how a satisfactory level of accuracy can be maintained while simultaneously trying to accommodate the problems of meter and rhyme.  As an example of the kind of problem this throws up, Mo Thig Beag Aerach has four verses, the last lines of which are virtually identical:

Verse 1  Mo thig beag aerach sa ngleann so thíos
Verse 2  I mo thig beag aerach sa ngleann seo thíos
Verse 3  Le mo thig beag aerach sa ngleann seo thíos
Verse 4  Is mo thig beag aerach sa gleann seo thíos.

These are as the booklet reproduces them.  To complicate matters, something seems to have bedevilled our West Connaught printer - these lines appear to contain at least two typographical errors.  Even so, it comes as a surprise to find them rendered into English thus:

Verse 1  The sweet little house where I belong
Verse 2  In my sweet little house in the glen alone
Verse 3  As my sweet little house in the glen below
Verse 1  And my sweet little house in the glen below.

According to my Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, gleann translates as glen.  Since this word crops up in all four of the Gaelic lines, I do not understand why its equivalent fails to materialise in the first English one.  Also, thíos means below, rather than belong or alone, and even an amadán sa Gaeilge like me would render aerach as airy rather than sweet.

If we don’t get great translations, then we certainly get great songs and great tunes.  Do we always get great singing?  Well, I am sorry to have to report that this disc does not consistently show Tóibín at his magnificent best.  There are searing performances like the items you can hear on the sound clips, and they are matched by others like An Bhutais and Pilib Séimh Ó Fathaigh.  For that matter, the aforementioned drinking song, An Crúiscín Lán, and the nonsense song, Amhrán na nIontas are both carried off in spirited fashion.  It was also a treat to hear the whimsical Seán Ó Dí.  Incidentally, I was tickled to find that melodic interaction with Scotland extends as far south as this headland of the Gael.  The melody of Seán Ó Dí turns out to be a variant of the tune known in Scotland as Tramps and Hawkers, while Donal O Sullivan once claimed the air of Amhrán na nIontas as a relative of The Campbells are Coming

Unfortunately, La Fhéile Pádraig and Aréir is mé ag Machnamh show the singer in an altogether poorer light, while in Na Prátaí Dubha he sounds quite exhausted.  I’m not sure where the problem is coming from, although I suspect the recordings were made over quite a long time span - but recording dates are not given.  Indeed, the only discographical data supplied relates to the sources.  Some tracks were made by Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the national broadcasting station.  Others come from Raidió na Gaeltachta, which was set up in the 1970s for the inhabitants of Ireland’s Gaeltachtana.  Certainly, the variety of acoustics creates the impression that these are a mixture of field and studio recordings.  Equally, I am left with the impression that some were made towards the end of Tóibín’s life, at a time when he was past his best.  By the way, there is an irritating crackle on Aréir is mé ag Machnamh.  Is this just my copy, or was it something the re-mastering process couldn’t get rid of. 

If this disc is less than vintage Tóibín, can we establish a rationale for buying it?  After all, we are dealing with a full price release in a crowded market, where the buyer could reasonably expect consistency of excellence.  Well, I can say that the record lasts for over seventy minutes.  Also, Gael Linn made a very fine LP of Nioclás Tóibín back in the 1970s, and they released two stunning extended players during the previous decade.  Arguably, his best work ever is on those two EPs.  However, none of the Gael Linn material appears to be currently available, and one thing the world badly lacks is recordings of great Déise singers.  Most important, those tracks which blow the head off the listener far outweigh the ones which do not. 

Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha was born in 1939, which makes him only about eleven years Nioclás Tóibín’s junior.  Yet he seems a much more contemporary figure.  That is not an impression we could attribute to stylistic differences between the two singers.  Rather, it stems from the fact that whatever singing Dara Bán engaged in before 1985, he did among the privacy of his own people.  If he served a long apprenticeship, he could hardly have served a better one.  He is a neighbour of the household of Joe Heaney, and a justly celebrated member of what is probably the most distinguished community of singers in all of North West Europe; the district of An Aird Thoir in Carna, Connemara.  Indeed, the booklet repeats a famous aphorism, namely that Heaney is supposed to have remarked of Dara Bán’s singing, "That man is better than I am!"  Whether you agree with such a statement is a matter of taste, but do not approach this disc expecting to hear a clone of the Joe Heaney style.  Dara Bán is a creative artist and a highly individual one.  He probably learned from Heaney, and would certainly have learned from others like him, but his style does not replicate anyone I can think of from Connemara.  Still less does he sound remotely like Nioclás Tóibín.

Listening to the two discs in conjunction, one is struck by the enormous diversity of styles which are embraced under the common emblem of the sean-nós.  Where Tóibín’s vocal tones are open throated and high and hard and clear and penetrating, Mac Donnchadha’s are nasal and subdued and relaxed.  They sound amiable and intimate; companionable even.  The assertive rhythms of Tóibín’s singing find no parallel with Dara Bán, for he courses through the songs like a meandering mountain stream.  The neat, conservative, regular ornamentation, which hallmarks Tóibín, is not replicated by Mac Donnchadha.  Like Tóibín, his use of embellishment seldom strays far from the melody, but it is much more continuous.  Again, the image it produces is that of the tumble and flow of a brook or streamlet coursing down the side of a mountain, with only the bed of the stream to guide it.  It would be erroneous to think this, but the overall impression is that Tóibín was a singer of the open air, where Mac Donnchadha is a singer for the kitchen hearth. 

To emphasise the difference further; someone whose experience of Irish music was limited to jigs, reels and hornpipes would probably not recognise Nioclás Tóibín as Irish.  However, the same listener would have difficulty identifying Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha’s singing even as European.  I do not subscribe to the theory that sean-nós singing styles have their origin in mediaeval trade routes, and in attendant contact with singers of the Middle East.  Historically and sociologically, too much has happened to affect the course of Irish tradition in the intervening centuries, for such early contact to have maintained an enduring hold.  For the matter of that, there are crucial differences between the culture and social structure of early Christian Ireland, and those of more exotic climes, which the theory does not adequately address.  Nevertheless, listening to singers like Dara Bán, I can understand why it arose.

Our inexperienced listener might also conclude that Dara Bán’s was the more archaic heritage.  Again, that would be erroneous, as examination of the contents of these discs reveals.  Unlike the Tóibín, this is a selective reissue of two cassettes.  It too has a booklet with Gaelic texts and concomitant translations.  This time the translations are literal, rather than singable.  Neither the original transcriptions, nor their English renderings are credited, but I presume they are the work of Lillis Ó Laoire, who wrote the introduction.  Unfortunately, there are no explanatory notes in either language.  This is regrettable, for some of these songs are obscure indeed.  True, a number of Connemara warhorses are corralled here.  Cailleach an Airgid, Neansín Bhán, Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair and An tAmhrán Bréagach have all been recorded by other Connemara singers, even if they don’t sound quite the same when Dara Bán sings them. 

Other songs, though, are less familiar.  What for instance is one to make of the strange opening track, An tlolrach Mór, with its obscure references to Yellow Charlie and Big Red, and a battle over a stolen cockerel which sounds like a lifting from some Fenian epic?  For the matter of that, fans of Sinéad O’Connor will raise an eyebrow at the closing verse of Ceaite an Chúil Chraobhaigh.  It is related to a song known in Irish as Cé sin ar mo Thuama? (Who is that upon my Grave?), a translation of which Ms O’Connor sang into pop history as I am Stretched on your Grave.  To compound the lack of introductions, the translator has chosen to leave people and place names in their original Irish.  That is understandable, for the bastardisation of Gaelic names by English invaders is a sore point among Gaelic revivalists.  However, it does pose a problem for the reader of these translations.  For example, I have no idea who An tlolrach might be, and neither the Gaelic dictionary, nor Lillis Ó Laoire seem willing to inform me.

I have not come across An tlolrach Mór, or Ceaite an Chúil Chraobhaigh before, and have no idea how far back these songs go in Connemara tradition.  However, there are other songs which mention the Garda Síorchana, Dáil Éireann and Raidió na Gaeltachta, all of which post-date the founding of the modern Irish State.  There is a reference to the blanket protest in Long Kesh, and to various artefacts of modern society, such as telephones, cars and, lorries.  There is a line which announces that a stone of flour now costs 7/6d (37.5 new pence) and there is even one which tells us that there is craic and food to be had in the big hotel at Carna.  I am at a disadvantage with the first of these claims, for I have never bought a stone of flour in my life.  Nevertheless, I know the latter to be true; I have both revelled and repasted at Carna’s big hotel. 

Overall, then, where most of Nioclás Tóibín’s songs are rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the songs on this disc show that, in Connemara, song is still very much a contemporary force.  That is welcome news, but who is writing them?  I could find no acknowledgements anywhere in the booklet, or on the CD label, and would have thought disclosure to be good manners, to say nothing of good copyright recognition. 

So, which to buy?  Lovers of great traditional singing will regard both releases as eminently collectable.  If you’re new to Gaelic tradition, my earlier reservations notwithstanding, you may find the Tóibín a little more approachable.  However, the sean-nós does not yield up its secrets easily.  Buy the Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha and you could have difficulty comprehending some of its wiles - stick with it, and you will have a friend for life.

This review by Fred McCormick was originally written in 2000 for Musical Traditions.

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[1] The Musical Traditions version of this review has Real Audio sound clips.