Sean-nós, or old style singing, is without doubt the jewel in the crown
of the Irish traditional arts. It's practitioners are rightly regarded as representing
the pinnacle of artistic achievement in a world that is becoming increasingly
commercialised and compartmentalised. While the art form exists in a natural
setting along the west coast of Ireland it is in Conamara, West Galway and South
West Mayo, that it has reached a level of sophistication that sets it apart
from the others and it is from this area that the subject of this review hails.
The reasons why sean-nós has survived and developed in these regions
are many and complicated but primarily it is to do with the retention of the
Irish language as the vernacular; by far the majority of songs are sung in Gaelic.
Meaití Jó Shéamuis Ó Fátharta is a well known local personality from a small community just west of Spiddal, Co. Galway. He is highly regarded for his work with Radió na Gaeltachta both as a broadcaster and a collector of songs and tunes from around the country. Basically he has one of the greatest jobs in the world. Aside from his day job he is also known for his singing and playing (wooden flute and uilleann pipes). He won the Corn Ui Riada in 2001 for best overall singer, which places him among the greats that have won this competition before him. To outsiders these competitions may seem like 'finger-in-yer-ear' folk singing but to those on the inside it is very serious stuff indeed, a missed word here or an incomplete ornamentation there spells the difference between success and the lack of it, with the competitors carrying the hopes of their local areas with them.
This album contains seventeen selections: three sets of tunes, a demonstration of lilting, and thirteen songs, all traditional. Of the songs, all but one are in Gaelic and the majority of these are well known and loved standards given the Meaití Jó Shéamuis treatment. Meaití's singing is very personal and he is almost at odds with other well known practitioners of this craft but this is what makes sean-nós so great, it is wide open to interpretation. No singer sings the same song the same way twice. While sean-nós is in it's essence unaccompanied Meaití Jó Shéamuis enlists the aid of some friends for the tune selections, amongst them Johnny Connolly, Michael Deáirbí, the Neachtain sisters, Nancy Ní Choisdealbha and Tommy Ó Méalóid and despite the fact that the singing is of the highest order the highlight for me on this album is his flute duet with Nancy. The music is beautifully paced and is a reminder of how glorious the Irish tradition can be. This is easily one of the best duet pieces I've heard this year. All the other musicians acquit themselves commendably, as they should. They are all internationally regarded players and their musical bonds have been forged through years of playing together at sessions throughout Conamara and beyond.
The liner notes are excellent with full translations and clear text. Those unfamiliar with sean-nós will get an idea of the narrative involved and of the beauty and complexity of the poetry inherent in each song. An annoying trend in bilingual notes recently has been the printing of Irish in italics which seems to remove it from the norm and therefore the context. Thankfully this is avoided in this instance, in fact it is reversed. This is a good time to mention the publishing house of Cló Iar-Chonnachta. This small company has been tirelessly promoting the music and songs of Conamara for a number of years and they now have an extensive back catalogue unavailable through any other sources.
All in all a thoroughly excellent release from Meaití, it is easily in my top five releases for the year and a fine example of how sean-nós singing is not only being preserved but developed, as all living vibrant traditions should, into the 21st century. Visitors to Ireland should make a point of seeking out sean-nós singing along the west coast. It can be hard to find but when someone turns a song in a quiet pub on a rain swept night it can be a life altering experience.