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VARIOUS ARTISTS "Seoda Sean-Nis Tir Chonaill" Cl Iar-Chonnachta CICD118
LILLIS O LAOIRE "Blth Gach G,ag d dTig" Cl Iar-Chonnachta CICD075

It is perhaps a truism to say that the sean-ns singing tradition of Donegal has received nowhere near as much attention as its sister traditions further to the south. However, it has much to commend it, especially from the point of view of the Scottish listener: though the amazing melodic improvisation of the great Munster singers is lacking, and even melismatic improvisation is sparse by comparison with what one hears in Connemara, it is nonetheless sung in an noble - if relatively stark - style, to airs often very reminiscent of Hebridean melodies. And of course the language is more easily comprehensible than the southern dialects to Gaelic-speakers from Scotland.

Cl Iar-Chonnachta here presents us with an excellent introduction to this often-overlooked tradition. The two records complement each other very well, with Lillis O Laoire, expert in the idiom and a fund of great songs, introducing the one and performing on the other. The listener who is familiar with Donegal songs only through the work of revival artists such as Clannad or Triona, Mairead and Micheal O Domhnaill will recognize quite a few of the songs on "Seoda" - the likes of "Is trua nach bhfuil m, i nirinn" - sung by some of the finest singers of the present and of the recent past: Caitlin Ni Dhomhnaill, Conall O Domhnaill, Eamonn MacRuairi and the fondly-remembered Aine Ui Laoi.

These four, and Lillis O Laoire himself, give an enlightening insight into the virtuosity and breadth of Donegal singing. The style expresses feeling principally through exact breath control and precision timing, in a way that is strangely reminiscent of Highland piobaireachd (indeed, the notes even make this comparison explicitly in the case of "A Mhaire Bruithneal", sung by Aine Ui Laoi); and the repertoire ranges widely, from nonsense songs, through songs of love, loss and emigration, to a couple of fine examples of the great aisling songs.

One of these latter has to rank among the most fascinating on both records, even though (uniquely for the record in question) it's not from Donegal: O Laoire's rendition of "Ag Cuan Bhinn Eadair", written by Art Mac Cumhaigh from South Armagh back in the eighteenth century when the area was still a gaeltacht. As befits such an important song, the singer decks it out with more ornamentation than is the case elsewhere, and it makes for quite a tour de force with which to round off his selection.

Those already fond of the sean-nos will be interested to hear versions of songs sung in other regions, which coexist nicely on both records with songs peculiar to Donegal, and especially those from the rich singing pastures of Tory Island - which furnishes not only a large part of the repertoire here, but also one of the featured artists, the impressive Eamonn Mac Ruairi.

Donegal has long formed a kind of bridge between the Gaels of the north and of the south. Its vibrant fiddle tradition, replete with strathspeys and Highland tunes of all kinds, is justly famous. These two records furnish welcome evidence that both the language, and the tradition of unaccompanied singing in it, are alive and in good health.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 21 of The Living Tradition magazine.