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  • Oireachtas na Gaeilge and Sean-Nós Song Competition, 1940–2012:Regionalism, Nationalism, and Gaelicness
  • Éamonn Costello (bio)

This article investigates the ideology of the Oireachtas na Gaeilge (henceforth Oireachtas) through the prism of Irish-language song competition, with particular emphasis on the most highly regarded sean-nós song competition, currently referred to as Corn Uí Riada. The Oireachtas, an annual festival to promote the Irish language, was established by the Gaelic League in 1897. Sean-nós translates as old style (or old way, fashion, or method), and it is currently widely used to describe unaccompanied traditional solo singing in the Irish language. The term sean-nós was first introduced by members of the Gaelic League and Oireachtas in 1903 to make a distinction between traditional Irish-language song and newly composed song in the Irish language, both of which were performed at the Oireachtas from its beginning. However, in reality, until 1924 the term sean-nós referred to repertoire rather than a particular performance practice of traditional singers, and quite often this included traditional repertoire sung in a Western-art style.

Distinct phases of use and meaning of the label can be traced across several decades. From 1897 to 1924 traditional repertoire performed in the Western-art style functioned as an aural metaphor for a middle-class cultural-nationalist vision of Gaelicness. However, over time sean-nós came to signify a more regionalist/communitarian and vernacular vision of Gaelicness. From the mid-1970s onward Western-art style began to fall out of favor with Oireachtas attendees, and during that period vernacular-style singing emerged as the singing style of the Oireachtas. Sean-nós came to refer to vernacular-style singing as well as traditional repertoire. However, cultural-nationalist ideology and ideas concerning high and low culture continued to [End Page 160] shape how song within the festival was conceptualized. Adjudicator-report sheets demonstrate that within an Oireachtas frame sean-nós was simultaneously regarded as both national vocal art music and a collection of regionally bounded vernacular vocal musics. Here it is argued that this contradictory view of sean-nós is a result of a semantic conflation of discordant views on the nature and definition of Gaelicness: on the one hand that Gaelicness is a national art music, and on the other that Gaelicness is essentially vernacular and subnational in character.

Song Competition in the Gaelic Revival

All forms of nationalism are predicated on the same basic core principle that members of the nation share a common bond, and the basis of that bond varies according to the form that nationalism takes. Nationalism of the Gaelic cultural-revival period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was primarily ethnolinguistic and cultural (Anderson 6). Its adherents viewed the Irish language as an expression and manifestation of Gaelicness and a Gaelic mentalité. The objective of the Gaelic League, and by extension the Oireachtas, was to preserve the Irish language where it was still spoken and to reinstate it as the common vernacular where it had ceased to be spoken in order to reconnect Irish people with the Gaelic mentalité. Song, because of its language component, was seen as a particularly powerful vehicle for language revival (Ó Laoire, "National Identity" 160).

At the beginning of the Gaelic Revival there was little contemporary Irish-language literature in existence, and one of the aims of the Oireachtas was to help foster and promote a wide range of Irish-language literature, including contemporary Irish-language song (Purdon 37). A competition for song composition was held at the very first Oireachtas in 1897, and singing competitions were added to the program in the following year (Ó Súilleabháin 95). From 1898 to 1924 competitors performed newly composed and traditional repertoire in various Oireachtas singing competitions (Imeachta 1898–1924). The 1898–99 programs, which were almost entirely written in English, used the term "folk song" in the description of the song-collection competition, but no specific nomenclature was used in either program to distinguish between traditional and newly composed [End Page 161] song in any of the singing competitions. Instead, all of the singing competitions were grouped...


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