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The Singing Word
by Mara Freeman

"The merciful word, the singing word, and the good word. May the power of these three holy things be in Erin for evermore!"
Irish Triad

Among all the other instruments that contribute to the unique sound of Irish music - fiddles, bodhráns, whistles, to name but a few - none is so enduring in its appeal as the human voice. In the chieftains' halls, the voices belonged to the bards, who sang or chanted praise-poems to their masters, and declaimed the great stories to music at feasts and assemblies. Although the Bardic colleges were dissolved in the 17th century, these ancient songs could still be heard only a hundred years ago in Ireland. In 1873, the Irish scholar, Eugene O'Curry, recalls one of his father's friends singing the old lays of Finn and the Fianna, which date from the 12th century:

"He had a rich and powerful voice, and often, on a calm summer day, he used to go with a party into a boat on the Lower Shannon where the river is eight miles wide, and having rowed to the middle of the river, they used to lie on their oars there to uncork their whiskey jar and make themselves happy, on which occasions Anthony O'Brien was always prepared to sing his choicest pieces, among which were no greater favorites than Oisín's poems.

So powerful was the singer's voice that it often reached the shores at either side of the boat in Clare and Kerry, and often called the laboring men and women from the neighboring fields at both sides down to the water's edge to enjoy the strains of such music (and such performance of it) as I fear is not often in these days to be heard even on the favored banks of the soft flowing queen of Irish rivers."

In traditional Irish communities, practically everyone sang or played some kind of instrument because music was a shared experience, rather than a passive form of entertainment. In the evenings, especially in winter, people gathered at a specified house for songs, stories and "craic" - good fun. Donegal singer Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill recalled:

"Anybody that could sing - when he would come ... maybe there would be a couple of people - and they would ask him to sing a song. And maybe someone would tell a story - everyone would have to do something."

In the cabins, out in the fields or on the waves, the voices were of the ordinary people of Ireland, who recorded their own histories in songs of loves and betrayals, dreams and awakenings, banishments and reunions. The soft sounds of a lullaby welcomed the new-born child into the world while the anguished wail of the caoine, or keening, marked her passage out of it. Singing provided a much-needed counterpoint to such daily tasks as churning milk, grinding grain, herding cattle, and spinning wool.

For music and song was for everybody, not just for professional performers. People sang as they breathed: unselfconsciously and spontaneously. In 19th century Ireland, it could truly be said, "In every cottage there is a musician." In Ireland, Sailí Gallagher, a traditional singer from Donegal, told her interviewer: I always sing when I'm working - I never stop singing! I never stop - and somebody'll see us the other day, and I was makin' tea and I was singin' away, and they said, "Well, you're happy, anyway." But I never stop singing - I always keep on!"

©Mara Freeman, 2000.

Note: We are very grateful to Mara for giving us permission to reprint this article. We encourage you to visit her beautifully-designed website: Celtic Spirit

Images: Singing in the woods from All Posters and Prints.

 

Sun, Oct 1, 2017

Ireland's Most Haunted Castle

South-east of Birr between Kinnity and Roscrea, in Co. Offaly are the remains of Leap Castle. Originally an O'Carroll fortress, it guarded the pass from the Slieve Bloom into Munster. Said to have more than 50 ghosts, its dark and mysterious past includes the murder of a priest by his brother in the "Bloody Chapel" and the slaughter by their Irish employers of more than 50 Scots mercenaries in order to avoid payment. It has always had a reputation of being haunted and locals have described seeing the windows at the top of the castle "light up for a few seconds as if many candles were brought into the room" late at night. For more details read our article Creepy Irish Castles & Houses.
Photo Credit & More Details: H. J. Moncrieff


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A beautifully crafted book with plenty of substance for those who wish to immerse themselves in the seasonal customs and culture of the ancient Celts.
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