It was a shock to
find from the inset book that Gael Linn is 50 years old; that means that
I'm older than the company, when it seems to have been there forever.
Their primary aim has always been to promote the Irish language; when
they started to produce their series of 78s back in 1957, it was to feature
singers in Irish because there were very few recordings of sean nós singing
available. The records had a song - or songs, depending on length - on
one side and solo instrumentals on the other. This enticed people unused
to sean nós singing to buy them for the musicians, yet have the chance
to hear some of the finest singers then around.
The singers are from Conamara, Donegal, and West Kerry: Seosamh Ó hÉanaí,
Seán 'ac Dhonncha, and Máire Nic Dhonncha; Aodh Ó Duibheannaigh, Áine
Ní Ghallchobhair, Seán de hÓra, and Diarmuid Ó Flatharta.
The musicians are: pipers Willie Clancy and - greatly neglected, except
in piping circles - Tommy Reck; fiddlers Seán Ryan, Denis Murphy, Joe
Devlin, Johnny Pickering, Seán McLaughlin and Paddy Canny; Vincent Broderick
on flute; Joe Burke on button accordeon.
There isn't space to give my full thoughts on all the songs but Seán 'ac
Dhonncha's version of 'An Buinnean Buí' stands comparison with the version
I treasure by Ó hÉanaí, whose 'Beann an Leanna' here is a classic. Aodh
Ó Duibheannaigh has a fine version of the old Ulster song, 'Úrchill an
Chreagain'; while Máire Nic Dhonnchadha does a great 'Piob Ainde Mhor',
to prove that it's not all doom and gloom.
These songs aren't for listening to while you do the washing up; they
demand careful attention to get the full flavour of the artistry in the
singing. The slight but significant differences in the regional styles
are evident here; the vibrancy of Conamara ornamentation contrasting with
the almost stripped down Donegal style with its similarity to the Gaelic
singing of the West of Scotland and the more florid style of West Kerry.
One of the tests for judging slow airs is to try to marry the Irish words
to the tune. As you listen here, you'll notice slight changes in phrasing
which carry the song on, the words here being more important than the
tune. These variations are OK; the main thing is that the tune fits the
words. So these songs can be a valuable aid for playing slow airs - a
lot of which are played too slowly anyway.
My only regret is that - because of the limited capacity of 78s - some
of the songs are abbreviated. What remains of them is still worth listening
to; if one catches your ear and you're determined enough, you'll find
the words somewhere. Quite a few are in 'Abhair Amhrán', a wee booklet
These tracks were cut on to acetate discs, with 1950s recording technology,
so Harry Bradshaw has excelled his own high standards in re-mastering
them. Some of the instrumentals are a bit suspect as to speed and pitch,
but he's resisted the temptation to smarten them up. Who cares that much
anyway, isn't it the spirit of the music that matters, not the precision
of the recording? I listen to sessions I taped on an old cast-iron portable
back in the 70s, and still get a buzz from them.
There are some fascinating photographs in the 100-page inset book; Séamus
Ennis paying close attention to an old style step dancer; young Joe Burke
without the beard - I'm older than him, too; a very young PJ Hernan sitting
on his father's knee.
Nicholas Carolan provides the short but informative notes to both songs
and tunes. Words of the songs are given in Irish and English prose translation.
This is a really valuable source, a chance to listen to some great singers
in their prime. To me, this is about the singers; the instrumentals are
a bonus. If you've any interest at all in sean nós singing, this is a
must. Twenty-three songs; what more could you want?