larla Ó Lionáird

Master of the sean-nós singing style opens Féile An Droichead Irish language festival at the MAC

Like so many generic definitions in the world of music, sean-nós is difficult to pin down precisely. By fairly common consent, however, it is defined as an unaccompanied singing style in the Irish language, the basic melody ornamented and embellished to clarify the song's meaning and emotional content.

What's not disputed is that Corkman Iarla Ó Lionáird is a modern master of the sean-nós idiom, and his Moving on Music concert at the MAC, opening this year's Féile An Droichead, is predictably packed to the rafters.

In fact there’s just the one tune purists would properly term sean-nós in the concert, when an unaccompanied Ó Lionáird performs the second of two songs learned from his great-aunt Elizabeth Cronin, a famed exponent of the sean-nós style before the term gained wider currency.

Ó Lionáird uses the Cronin song to illustrate the old practice of ‘singing in’, quietly and conversationally, either to yourself or to a small number of people in an intimate domestic setting.

The contrast with ‘singing out’ for public performance purposes is stark, and of absorbing interest. It’s a fascinating snapshot of how deeply embedded in the minutiae of daily living the practice of unaccompanied singing was, among the rural Irish of distant generations.

For the remainder of the evening Ó Lionáird is accompanied by guitarist Steve Cooney, a pig-tailed, bardic figure who plays bare-footed, garbed in a sunburst, tie-die T-shirt that looks suspiciously like an impulse purchase from some long-forgotten Grateful Dead concert in the 1960s.

Stylistically the two dovetail seamlessly, Cooney employing a discreet finger-picking style tastefully adapted to trace sean-nós inflections. Typically he sketches in or clarifies the harmonic outline of Ó Lionáird’s melodies, occasionally thrumming a drone-rhythm close to the guitar bridge to warm the textures, or add a touch of extra impetus.

And what of Ó Lionáird himself? At 48 he is already something of a legend, but wears the burden of celebrity lightly, joshing with the audience and dropping anecdotes in an unassuming, quietly spoken fashion. The voice is, of course, a thing of rare beauty. Technically it’s a light, high-lying tenor, but it’s the timbral quality and Ó Lionáird’s method of delivery that really matter.

The pure, clear evenness of tone is very striking, as is the rock-solid breath control. This enables a consistently even, unimpeded quality of voice production, and a consummate command of the minute vocal inflections needed to embellish the melodic line in traditional sean-nós fashion.

Employing a light vibrato on extended notes, with small pinches of nasality used sparingly for expressive purposes, the overall impression exuded by Ó Lionáird is one of effortlessly natural musicality, the music flowing cleanly through him like water off a mountain rivulet.

Virtually every number is a highlight, but Ó Lionáird’s version of an air sung at the funeral of Ruth Ó Riada (wife of Seán) is particularly striking. Its plangent lamentations (so typical of the sean-nós idiom) linger hauntingly in the memory.

Ó Lionáird also includes two songs from the 19th century catalogue of Canon James Goodman, Church of Ireland clergyman, Professor of Irish at Trinity College, Dublin, and avid harvester of Irish traditional melodies (he collected over 2,000 in total). Both make a strongly emotive impression.

Ó Lionáird clearly enjoys his first visit to the MAC, and the undivided attention of a rapt Féile An Droichead audience. ‘It’s great to be listened to in this way,’ he says at one point. ‘It’s a beautiful building, a wonderful place. I’m awestruck by it.’ Should Ó Lionáird fancy a return visit to the venue any time soon, my guess is that it would once again be packed solidly to the rafters.

Féile An Droichead ran from August 23 - 26.