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Reviewed by:
  • Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man by Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire
  • Colin Harte
Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man, by Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire, pp. 250. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. $35.

The life and music of the legendary Irish sean nós singer Joe Heaney is explored by Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire in this critical biography, which won the 2012 Alan P. Merriam Prize presented by the Society for Ethnomusicology. The [End Page 155] volume masterfully explains the history and development of Heaney's singing in relation to such larger contextual issues as the definitions of Irishness, masculinity, and the evolution of various Irish-American communities.

Throughout his career, Heaney was forced to confront different perceptions of what constituted Irishness. Raised during the tumultuous years of post-Independence Ireland, his mastery of sean nós singing developed as Ireland and Irish America came to terms with the significance, meaning, and function of their cultural heritage. Heaney's fluency in Irish and acclaimed singing ability rooted in the cultural mores of Connemara meshed well with de Valéra's vision of a rural, Gaelic Ireland. However, for many Irish citizens and for Irish Americans seeking upward mobility, the performance of sean nós singing served as a painful reminder of poverty, economically driven emigration, and an enforced disdain for traditional life. Thus, Heaney's music simultaneously represented both a connection to a rich cultural and linguistic tradition as well as an unpleasant reminder of the cultural traditions that many ambitious modern Irish persons—both at home and abroad—were attempting to shed.

The authors construct the binary relationship between the cosmopolitan, passive, English-speaking Irish tenor and the aggressive, curt, Irish-speaking sean nós singer. These diametrically opposed archetypes represent different portrayals of Irish masculinity. The drawing-room art music of Thomas Moore and, later, the singing of Count John McCormack, represent an Anglicized, urban, commercial rendering of popular songs that appropriated and transformed earlier Irish melodies. In contrast, Heaney is posited as continuing an Irish musical tradition whose performance and repertoire is rooted in a rural past. The sean nós singer is a rugged representation of Irish masculinity inextricably connected to the land itself. It is no accident that the angular contour of Heaney's face was often likened by audiences and reviewers to the outline of the Connemara landscape.

Williams acknowledges that this critical biography could function as a companion text to Liam Mac Con Iomaire's Irish-language biography Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár Fhágha Mé Bás Choíche (2007) but this work admirably stands alone. For one thing, we must admire its achievement in analyzing Heaney and his work from varied perspectives. As a critical biography, Heaney's music and life is presented in relation to such key ethnomusicological issues as identity and gender, rather than in mere chronological order. Despite the value of that format, the second chapter concerned with repertoire would have benefited from a further discussion of Heaney's musical interactions and activities during his stays in England and Scotland. He frequented singing clubs in London and was active in the music community in both locations, and so a detailed description of who he sang with, the repertoire he acquired, and the degree to which these experiences shaped his performative practices, would have been illuminating. [End Page 156]

Co-author Lillis Ó Laoire's translations provide an essential component to understanding the lyrics and meaning of Heaney's songs fully. An accomplished sean nós singer and fluent Irish speaker, Ó Laoire is ideally situated to analyze the complex, often polysemic lyrics of Heaney's repertoire. Ó Laoire's scholarly contributions to this critical biography proved invaluable and provides a multi-layered analysis of Heaney's music and life.

In the years before Heaney's death in 1984, folk enthusiasts and academics, as well as the larger Irish-American community, began to realize a growing admiration and appreciation for his music. As memories of emigration and difficult assimilation grew distant, many Irish Americans had begun to relax their harsh perception of sean nós singing. Heaney began teaching his...


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