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New Hibernia Review 8.1 (2004) 122-145

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Melodic Ornamentation in the Connemara Sean-nós Singing of Joe Heaney

The Evergreen State College

Sean-nós is an Irish song genre characterized by unaccompanied performance in free rhythm, relative lack of vibrato or dynamic change, and especially by the use of rapid, melismatic ornamentation. Songs may be performed in Irish-Gaelic or in one of several different dialects of English, and the choice of language has an impact on the proper ornamentation of each song. Although each singer ornaments songs in an individual way, larger stylistic differences—particularly the use of melismatic ornamentation—appear to separate Connemara sean-nós from the singing of other areas. This article offers an analysis of Connemara-style sean-nós through an examination of one singer's repertoire. Defining the characteristic aspects of sean-nós ornamentation will further the development of a grammar for stylistically correct melodic ornamentation.

Joe Heaney (1919-1984) was one of the great sean-nós singers of Connemara. Having moved to the United States to make a living, he spent the last years of his life as artist-in-residence at the University of Washington, Seattle.1 During his residency, Heaney's greatest challenge was in teaching the correct ways of performing vocal ornamentation. He usually explained ornamentation in such statements as ". . . there's nobody living who can tell anyone where to put grace notes into a song; you just do it." Although he claimed no explicit understanding [End Page 122] of melodic ornamentation in sean-nós songs, Heaney often spoke of it in metaphorical terms or in terms of feelings about the underlying meaning of the song.2 Writing in Blás, Steve Coleman notes that

Scholarly inquiry into the "sean-nós" tradition has quite consistently focused on ornamentation. Likewise, the popular media in Ireland as well as the folk and Gaelic revival movements have taken ornamentation as a sign of the uniqueness, antiquity, or otherness of the tradition. This had led some critics to comment on the fetishization of ornamentation.3

While ornamentation is indeed only one of many dimensions of sean-nós singing to explore, it is invariably the issue that looms large in aesthetic decisions about a particular performer's skill.4 Heaney himself gave his closest explanation of melodic ornamentation during a discussion of the "pulse," or poetic rhythm of the lyrics, when he said, "You get away from the melody a bit, and then come right back to it on the pulse." With this single statement he revealed a clue as to the placement of melodic ornamentation, an idea corroborated by Ó Canainn, O'Boyle, Zimmerman, and others for at least a hundred and fifty years.

. . . [T]hese airs are not, like so many modern melodies, mere ad libitum arrangements of tones, unshackled by a rigid obedience to metrical laws, they are an arrangement of tones, in a general way expressive of the sentiments of the songs for which they were composed, but always strictly coincident with, and subservient to the laws of rhythm and metre which govern the construction of these songs and to which they consequently owe their peculiarities of structure.5

Melodic ornamentation is influenced both by syntax and by poetic stress patterns, and depends on the language in which the song is sung. Songs in Irish are generally ornamented on unstressed syllables. Similarly, songs in English dialect using Irish syntax and stress are ornamented on unstressed syllables [End Page 123] whenever possible. English-language songs that do not follow Irish patterns of stress and syntax are more strongly influenced, in terms of ornamentation, by melodic contour rather than by stress and syntax.6 The central problem in the issue of bilingual performance is this: how do sean-nós songs differ in terms of ornamentation when performed in English instead of Irish?

The problem is further complicated. Sean-nós songs performed in English are not all performed in the same type of English: singers and speakers use at...


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