Live Reviews: Seán Ó hÉanaigh

Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin 2 / 11 March 2008

The immediate impression as you entered Bewley’s Theatre for singer Seán Ó hÉanaigh’s performance was one of relaxed conviviality. People at different tables visited each other or called out greetings. The chatter here was briefly interrupted by a hoot of laughter from over there. The friendly atmosphere changed little when the singer and his two accompanists came out.

It was obvious that Ó hÉanaigh was held in great affection: his modest and gently humorous manner helped to explain why. The songs were mostly rooted in the everyday life of Connemara from the 1980s to the present day, love and the pain of separation being common themes. With this concert taking place during Seachtain na Gaeilge – it was one of a series of early-evening events organised by Gael Linn – you might expect to hear sean-nós or something else from what certain musicologists might call ‘the ethnic repertoire’, but one of the pleasures of dealing with real music, as opposed to the water-tight categories into which it is sometimes forced, is the way musicians feel and make connections between one kind of music and another without any need to ask for permission.

The connection between Connemara and Nashville makes perfect sense. The 1980s saw huge levels of emigration from the West of Ireland. That meant parents saying goodbye to their children, young lovers separated, emptying villages. You could very well use or adapt traditional Irish- or English-language song forms to convey this kind of experience, but it is just as reasonable to pick up on another musical language from across the Atlantic that deals with similar themes. Na hAncairí are probably the classic expression of (what can we call it?) Country and Gaeltacht, driven by the resonant emotion-filled voice of John Beag Ó Flatharta. Many of Ó hÉanaigh’s songs (some country-flavoured rather than pure country) date back to the 1980s, though he has returned to writing in more recent times. His biggest hit, ‘Conamara’, was recorded with his group Éinniú in 1993.

I cannot honestly say that his voice is up there with John Beag’s or that his lyrics are up there with the best of Gillian Welch or Mary Gauthier, but he turns a song nicely (with effective backing) and communicates well with the audience. And he was probably at his best in this kind of intimate venue. With a quick google, you will be able to sample ‘Conamara’, and if you want to hear Leonard Cohen’s ‘So long, Marianne’ in an attractive Irish-language version, you should make your way to his next gig and request it. He’ll probably oblige.

Published on 1 May 2008

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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