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SEOSAMH O HEANAI "O Mo Dhuchas" (From My Tradition)
Gael-Linn CEFCD051

Some records are almost beyond criticism, and this is one of them. Seosamh O hEanai - Joe Heaney, as he was known to English-speakers - was recognized, even in his all-too-brief lifetime, as in some respects the greatest sean-nós singer ever recorded. Dubbed "the King of Connemara", he was idolized by such disparate greats of the musical world as Willie Clancy and John Cage, and received, towards the end of his life, the accolade of being offered the first-ever professorship of sean-nós studies (by Washington State University). Loved by all with whom he came into contact, his presence graced any session that he attended.

And yet, such was the disregard in which his idiom was held for most of his life (things are a little better now, though not much), that Joe had to spend most of his life in exile, chiefly in Brooklyn, though also, memorably, for a time in London. And, though he was much in demand for radio broadcasts, and featured on many recordings of miscellaneous material (notably some of the mighty north London sessions of the early sixties), he made only four whole LPs in his entire singing career. Of these, probably the best-known is the one that he made for Topic, which, like his US release on Philo, features him singing in English as well as in Irish; and, while his singing in English was good and highly influential - he did much to popularize such songs as "The Rocks of Bawn" - he was always more at ease in his native Irish. After thirty years away from the Gaeltacht, he still thought in Irish, and it was in Irish that he displayed his unparallelled knowledge and mastery of his dúchas.

Dúchas, featuring in the title of this record, is one of those words that are hard to translate; merely to render it "tradition", as here, doesn't really do it justice. Gael-Linn would perhaps be well advised to leave the titles of their records untranslated, though in the case of this re-release of the second, and the better, of the two LPs which Joe made for them (in 1976), there is hardly anything else that one can fault them for. In their zeal to do the national work of disseminating the language, they used to have no English whatsoever on their record covers: such was the case with "O Mo Dhúchas" when first released, and can have only served to narrow down even further the potential market for such a record. Now, thank goodness, we whose Irish is poor or worse have an illuminating preface by Seán Mac Réamoinn, and résumé,s of each of the songs, in English to help us. My only other minor criticism would be the unnecessary tarting-up of the front cover: the original had a certain monochromatic splendor which ought to have been kept.

It is good also to be able to hear the songs without the omnipresent crackle that seemed to characterize so many of Gael-Linn's older LP pressings. And what songs! The list includes two of the greatest tragic lovesongs in Irish, "Una Bhán" and "Dónall Og"; but there are also lighthearted songs such as "Peigín is Peadar" and "Cailleach an Airgid"; and even the religious tradition is represented here by "Amhrán na Páise". The songs are nearly all of Connacht origin, and range from the obscure to the well-known: Joe's renditions of songs in the latter category, especially his spinetingling performance of "Róisín Dubh", are as definitive as anything that can be imagined.

Definitiveness, indeed, is the keynote here. Once you've heard the likes of "Contae Mhaigh Eo" performed in Joe's rich voice (a little deeper than is fashionable these days, but what price fashion?), with his microsecond-precise timing, it's hard to imagine the song in question done differently, let alone better. This is very much as it should be, for I never knew anyone who lived for his songs as much as did Seosamh O hEanai: indeed, the man was inseparable from the songs. A humble, self-effacing person in himself, Joe was fierce about the songs and their importance, and wouldn't hesitate to administer a "Bí i do thost!" (Shut up!) to anyone who was foolish enough to interrupt.

Joe was the songs; the songs were Joe. As Seán Mac Réamoinn says by way of conclusion to his excellent intro, "Si monumentum requiris, audi". Listen, indeed. If you've any love for the unaccompanied tradition in Gaelic, this really is essential listening, and has to be at the heart of your collection. Non caveat emptor, as Seán might have added.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 22 of The Living Tradition magazine.