Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile / Keening and other Old Irish Musics

Book Review


Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile – Keening and other Old Irish Musics.  By Breandán Ó Madagáin.  Indreabhán, Conamara:  Cló Iar-Chonnachta.  2005.  In Irish with succeeding translation into English.  x + 145pp.; 6 photographs; 2 illustrations; partial texts of 38 keens, laments, lays, hymns, and songs and a CD of their performance.  €16 (paperback). 



As the Irish Language portion of its title makes clear, this monograph focuses on ‘Keens and Other Old Musics’ (the literal translation).  It is not, as the English portion of the title might suggest, an examination of musical compositions in Old Irish or of the Old Irish period. 


This is a survey volume.  Its twelve chapters in Irish consist of only 69 pages inclusive of song texts followed by a corresponding number of pages of English translation.  Nevertheless, in so short a space, Ó Madagáin manages to introduce both by text and performance (on the accompanying CD) a wide variety of the musical forms which survived into Ireland’s Early Modern and Modern Periods.  Because, as the author points out, “The tradition of Irish poetry was basically a sung tradition, whether that of the learned bardic poets, or the unlearned keening of the ordinary folk...” [p. 10],  Ireland’s musical tradition includes not only syllabic poetry but also keens (‘the Irish cry’), laments, Ossianic lays and syllabic hymns, work songs, lullabies, love songs, extemporaneous compositions, religious songs, political songs, and macaronic songs.  Ó Madagáin devotes a chapter to each (except lullabies, which are included with work songs in a single chapter), performs examples on the accompanying CD, and additionally provides a short chapter on the degree to which this music was esteemed by its audience and a short chapter about the poets Ó Bruadair and Ó Rathile. 


In reading this work, we soon realize that it wasn’t easy for Ó Madagáin to assemble information about Ireland’s early musical forms.  As he demonstrates by use of contemporary observations from 19th century witnesses, the Great Hunger of the 1840s had a devastating effect on Ireland’s native language and its native song tradition.  Whole genres like plough whistles, plough songs, hymns in syllabic meter, and the performance of Ossianic lays basically disappeared almost overnight.  Further, to the extent recorded at all, the words and musical notation of these compositions were usually recorded separately.  Few antiquarians were interested in Irish music; few in the Irish Language.  Even fewer had enough skill or interest to record both.


Accordingly, the author has spent many years attempting to re-construct the tradition by finding those fragments of music and poetry which survived separately, by attempting to match them back together, and often by testing the success or failure of his efforts by means of performance in front of his own students. 


Although (I'm sorry to say) Breandán Ó Madagáin is not a great singer, he is the right person for the task.  He was a lecturer in the Irish Department of University College Dublin from 1966 to 1975, Professor of Irish in the National University of Ireland, Galway from 1975 to 1997, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a recipient of the international scholarship of ethnomusicology, and chairman of the Board of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from 1995 to 2005.  Further, this book provides ample evidence that Ó Madagáin is a careful researcher and cautious interpreter of his subject.  For each of the 38 texts and related performances, he is scrupulous in informing us of his primary sources, whether or not reconstruction was required, and if required, the theory and method by which it was done.


The importance of his work cannot be over-stated.  For example, we often read of the political passions aroused by Irish fileadha (prophet-poets) in the 16th century.  But the surviving poems can be considered to be only half, or less, of the performances by which such flames were fanned, given that these poems were originally sung or chanted by a professional reacaire (‘reciter’).  Undoubtedly, Ó Madagáin’s own example better illustrates the point.  With regard to the love song I m’aice cois Mháighe (‘Near me by the Máigh’), Ó Madagáin observes that “Without the music this would have been no more than an undistinguished quatrain.  Together with the tune – the music enhancing the metrically stressed syllables throughout, both legato and staccato – it becomes an artistic gem to excite the listener…”  [p. 107]   By such example, Ó Madagáin makes clear that we cannot fully understand what earlier audiences experienced of the Irish poetic and musical tradition without witnessing its performance ourselves.


On the assumption that readers will be primarily interested in older elements of this tradition, it should be noted that Ó Madagáin’s individual chapters on the Marbhna (‘Elegy’), Laoithe Fiannaíochta agus Iomann (‘Ossianic Lays and Syllabic Hymn’), and Ó Bruadair and Ó Rathile are especially relevant.  Not only do they deal in large part with the older, syllabic forms of poetry, they also discuss examples of related performances provided on the CD.


In so short a volume, obviously intended only as an introductory survey, it would be surprising if there were not a number of purposefully-made omissions which would have more fully satisfied the reader’s interest.  For example, Ó Madagáin does indeed make occasional reference to the supernatural associations of the keens, work songs, and lullabies, and does note in the case of one particular lullaby that it was said to have been originally sung by a human captive of the Aos Sí (supernatural ‘People of the Sí’).  However, although the supernatural aspects of keening are especially numerous, he refrains from delving into this fascinating subject. 


For example, he does not tell us that it was once widely believed that performing a keen without cause might cause death; or that humans might be lamented and even keened by animals; or that mná sidhe (‘women of the Sí-folk’) sometimes romantically linked themselves to specific families in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man; or of the many reports of supernatural keenings heard by humans which foretold the deaths of members of these families.  The keen can be better understood and appreciated by knowing its full context, i.e., the beliefs of the people who sang them.  Therefore, I hope that more of these beliefs will be reported in a future edition of this work.


With regard to the structure of the book, the choice was made to provide the full Irish Language text first (pages 11-78), followed by the English text (81-149), followed by an excellent and extensive bibliography.  Because some of the vocabulary of the older compositions is not easily comprehended by readers of Modern Irish, and because the large and growing number of Irish Language students around the world would prefer to quickly find the translation of an Irish word on the facing page (i.e., the ‘dual-language’ format), I hope to see use of the dual-language format for this book in future editions. 


But this is an extremely minor flaw.  The book’s main drawback is that it leaves you wanting to know more, and that’s not a drawback at all.  Instead, it’s indicative of the author’s success in choosing and presenting his subject.  All in all, this is an extremely useful, informative, and pioneering work which deserves wide circulation not only in the academic community but among the many interested in the Irish musical tradition around the world.  



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