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Oral Tradition 19.2 (2004) 187-213

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The Right Words:

Conflict and Resolution in an Oral Gaelic Song Text
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University of Limerick, Ireland


Although songs and singing are major genres of Irish oral tradition that have been studied from various points of view (Ó Tuama 1960, Partridge 1983, Ó Madagáin 1985, Uí Ógáin 1988, and Mac Aodha 1996), investigative studies regarding the terms in which texts are constructed in an oral context have been rare. Little knowledge is available regarding the dynamics of the interplay enacted between performers, texts, and receivers at a practical level in a living community. I will try to address here the question of what constitutes a correct text among one contemporary community of singers, based on an encounter in which such questions were highlighted.

Albert Lord's theory of oral composition in performance in The Singer of Tales (1960) has been subjected to critique and subsequent modification, particularly in the writings of Ruth Finnegan (1977, 1988). In her work she has drawn on studies from widely differing regions of the world to show that the theory of composition in oral performance describes but one of a number of ways that oral poetry can be created, performed, and transmitted. In a culture where variation occurs to a greater or lesser degree, the question of how orally performed items can be judged to be correct or wrong is important for such discussion.

Specifics of the Community

The community in question is that of Tory Island, a predominantly Gaelic-speaking island off the northwest coast of Ireland, where a lively song tradition has been maintained down to the present. It is three miles long and one and a half miles wide at its widest point and remains one of the [End Page 187] most strongly Gaelic-speaking parts of Donegal, with a strong tradition of narrative, music, and dance as well as song. In the late 1970s the islanders were under severe threat of evacuation, but this threat was resisted by some and the island still supports a population of about 160, although this is much reduced from former times. Those who left during the crisis period reside in various locations on the mainland, particularly in local authority housing estates in Falcarragh, the nearest large village on the mainland.

I have been visiting the island and working with some of the community's singers since about 1984, researching their rich tradition with a particular emphasis on Irish language songs. The material examined here gives an important insight into the mechanics and the aesthetics of the community and the individuals in question.

Oral Transmission—Evidence from the Field

In an early reaction to theories of oral-formulaic composition, James Ross (1959) proposed that Gaelic tradition, differing from South Slavic norms, emphasized accuracy and word-for-word repetition as the desirable requisites of transmission in orally recited tales, and that, consequently, the composition-in-performance paradigm did not hold for this culture area. Breandán Ó Buachalla (1998), citing Ross, has recently reiterated this position in his closely argued monograph proposing the acceptance of a purely literary origin for the renowned "Caoine Airt Uí Laoghaire," or "The Lament for Art O' Leary," long supposed to have been extemporized over the body of her husband by his young widow, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. This argument critiques what it considers to be an overemphasis on oral performance when hard evidence of the performance of texts surviving now only in manuscript traditions is singularly lacking.

On first consideration, Ross's claim seems to obtain in Tory island, where great care was taken to ensure that song texts were correctly performed in regard to the words themselves and the order of the verses (Ó Laoire 2002). After dances, people who had transgressed these conventions were roundly criticized, sometimes to their faces, with the words "chuaigh siad fríd an amhrán" ("they went through the song"), had got it ciotach ("wrong"), and so on, or even perhaps...


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