Irish Gaelic Songs

I have to tell you, in all honesty, that I usually go into hiding around St. Patrick’s Day.

“Why?” you ask. “Why would a person who loves Irish music, especially Irish singing, go into hiding on St. Patrick’s Day?”

The reason is simple. I love traditional Irish music. And traditional Irish singing, in Irish Gaelic, is very, very different from what most people think of as “Irish music.”

Old-Style Irish Singing

What many people think of as “Irish singing” (songs such as “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”) actually come from the English and American Music Hall/Parlor Music tradition.

What they often don’t realize is that Ireland has a rich and ancient singing tradition that is very, very different from these all-too-familiar music hall songs. In Irish, it’s known as sean-nós — old style — singing.

What makes sean-nós “sean-nós”?

Sean-nós (pronounced “shan nohss”) means “old style.” It is a term that was devised to distinguish classical Gaelic singing from the music hall and art music singing styles that began to be popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here are some of the features that distinguish sean-nós singing from other forms of Irish singing:

  • It is always in Irish. A sean-nós song may have an English word here or there, but the bulk of the lyrics will be in the Irish language.
  • It is unaccompanied. While there is a trend nowadays toward adding accompaniment to songs in the sean-nós tradition, classical sean-nós singing is always a capella.
  • It’s almost always solo. You’ll occasionally hear two or three family members sing together, but even then the focus is on making the song sound as if it comes from a single voice.
  • No dynamic variation. Unlike other forms of western music, which can get louder or softer to emphasize parts of the song, sean-nós singing does not allow for dynamic variation. Instead it uses ornamentation for emphasis (more on this in a bit).
  • It’s metrically “free.” Sean-nós songs don’t always conform to a strict meter.

Performance characteristics

It’s not just the form it takes that distinguishes sean-nós singing from other forms of singing. It’s performed differently as well.

Unlike most performers, the sean-nós singer doesn’t interact with the audience, or attempt to convey the emotion of the song through gestures and facial expressions.  In fact, he or she typically sings with eyes closed, or fixed on a location beyond the audience.

In fact, you might say that the sean-nós singer is not so much a performer as he or she is a medium for the music.

Some other characteristics of sean-nós singing include a somewhat nasal tone, closing quickly to singable consonants (such as m or n) to produce a drone, and the aforementioned ornamentation.

Types of ornamentation

There can be many different ways to ornament a song, but there are three main types of ornamentation that you’ll find in sean-nós singing:

  • Melismatic. This may be as simple and understated as a grace note or as elaborate as any operatic melisma. Typically songs from Connacht are the most melismatic and songs from Ulster are the least melismatic.
  • Rythmic. Rythmic variation is an extremely common form of ornamentation in all three regions of Ireland: Ulster, Connacht, and Munster.
  • Intervalic. The simple practice of singing a different interval between notes in one passage than you did in the same passage in a different verse can have quite a dramatic effect.

Themes

The themes found in sean-nós singing can be as varied as in any culture. You’ll find songs celebrating the changes of the seasons, songs about lost or unrequited love (for more on this theme, see our blog post on Irish Gaelic Love Songs ), songs about war and betrayal.

One common theme in sean-nós singing is the “aisling” or “vision,” in which Ireland appears as a beautiful woman exorting her children to take up her cause.

The fairies appear in traditional Irish singing as well…and not in a good way. Contrary to the modern “new age” vision of fairies, the fairy folk in Ireland are generally to be feared and avoided (or at least approached with extreme caution!)

Knowing the back story

Unlike the ballad forms common to other cultures in the British Isles, Irish songs almost never tell a story…or at least, not a complete story.

Most of these songs were originally highly localized. The people singing them and the people listening to them already KNEW the story. The singer’s job wasn’t to re-tell the story, but rather to invoke the emotions behind it.

This, combined with the uniquely Gaelic idioms employed in such songs, can make sean-nós music a bit baffling to the newcomer.

It’s often not enough to know the language (or to have a good translation).  To get the most out of songs in the sean-nós tradition, an understanding of Irish history and folklore, as well as a grasp of native idiom, is extremely helpful.

Still, it’s approachable

If all this makes Irish traditional singing seem a bit unapproachable, it shouldn’t. As with most classical musical forms, the more you understand, the deeper your enjoyment.  But these songs can be appreciated for their beautiful tunes as well.

In fact, if you like Irish music at all, especially if you’re a musician who enjoys playing slow airs, you’ve probably already heard some sean-nós tunes. For example, some that appear in the popular tunebook “Ireland’s Best Slow Airs” include:

Buachaill Ón Eirne (“A Lad from the Éirne.” This tune also sometimes goes by the name “Come By The Hills”)

Éamonn a’ Chnoic (“Ned of the Hills”)

An Mhaighdean Mhara (“The Mermaid”) 

Róisín Dubh (“Dark Rosaleen”)

Coinnleach Glás an Fhomhair (“The Green Stubble Fields of Autumn”)

Many of these songs have also been recorded in more modern accompanied and harmonized arrangements by groups such as Altan and Clannad.

The Real Deal

Some day, however, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself sitting in a pub on a dark, rainy night in Donegal or Conamara when suddenly the rattle of voices and glasses falls silent, and a single voice rises softly from the corner.

In the midst of the reverent silence, punctuated by the occasional murmer of “maith thú!” (“well done!”) or “mo cheol thú!” (“bravo!”), you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a singing tradition as old as Ireland itself.

This is the real deal…sean-nós singing. And as you fall under its thrall, you’re likely to find that any other kind of Irish singing pales by comparison.

Sin é*

More Bitesize Articles on Irish Singing

For more on Irish singing, see the articles below:

Irish Singer Shares Irish Language Song, Interview

Irish Singer Shares More Songs in Irish

Irish Gaelic Love Songs

Did you find this post helpful?

Did you know these things about classical Irish singing before? Let us know your thoughts below.

* Saying “Sin é” — “That’s it” — is a traditional way to end a sean-nós song, and seemed a fitting way to end this article!

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8 thoughts on “Irish Gaelic Songs”

  1. Wow! Really interesting history of traditional Irish songs. Honestly, I’ve enjoyed both some of the more modern “Celtic” music as well as the little bit of traditional Irish singing that I’ve heard. I’ve heard both the English “Come by the Hills” and “Buachaill on Eirne”, and must say that I enjoy the Irish rendition much better! Though I’ve often wondered about the back story, because the translation I’ve read of some of the song didn’t make sense to me. Also, would the song “Mo Ghile Mear” fit into the traditional Irish category?

    1. Hi Jeb,

      The thing with Buachaill Ón Eirne and Come by the Hills is they’re two different songs written to the same tune. Because Buachaill Ón Eirne is the older of the two songs (by a good bit, actually), the tune takes its name from it, but the words, as you’ve already noted, are quite different from those of Come by the Hills.

      Celtic Thunder didn’t help with the confusion when they titled one of their tracks “Buachaill Ón Eirne (Come by the Hills).”

      In Buachaill Ón Eirne (“A Lad from the Eirne”) we have a young man extolling his virtues as a catch for some lucky young lady (he has a pretty high opinion of himself, actually, and isn’t above a bit of hyperbole to get his point across. In fact, he’s a bit of a rake). In the first verse:

      I’m a lad from the Eirne, and wouldn’t I bequile a fine young lass?
      I wouldn’t ask a dowry of her; I’m rich enough myself.
      Cork is mine, all of it, and both sides of the Glen of Tryone,
      And if I don’t change my ways I’ll be heir to County Mayo.

      In the last verse, he switches to appealing to her maternal sense:

      O my dear one, don’t marry the grey old man,
      But marry the young one, though he live only a year,
      Or you’ll be without son or grandson to follow you,
      And your tears will fall heavily morning and night.

      It’s not certain who the young man is in the song, but a friend of mine who is very well-acquainted with the sean-nós tradition says that some speculate that it’s one of the O’Nialls.

      Come by the Hills is a much more modern song. I can’t substantiate this, so don’t take it as given, but I was once told that the lyrics were written for Bord Fáilte (the Irish tourism board) for an advertising campaign. That may or may not be true, but it’s a pretty song in any case.

      Mo Ghile Mear is most definitely in the sean-nós tradition. It’s one of the songs from the Jacobite rebellion, of the type that is sung in both Ireland and Scotland, expressing a wish for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Having no musical talent whatsoever, this information was unknown to me. But, what I do know, is that the first time I heard sean-nos singing, I was absolutely spellbound and all that came out of my mouth was, ‘oh my gosh,this is the heart of my people, this is my heritage, THIS, is true Irish music. And I have not been able to appreciate the other ‘Irish music’ since then. It has capture this Irish heart!

    irishheart

  3. Audrey Nickel

    “Talent” is a myth, irishheart! If you love music, you can make it. It’s all about finding the right teacher and practicing. Don’t let a false sense of “not having talent” keep you from making music!

  4. I’d love some help with the phonetics of Clannad’s version of Buachaill Ón Eirne. I’ve been asked to perform it in a short while, and I’d like to attempt to do the lyrics justice …? Any help would be appreciated.

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