This post is a special treat. To flesh out SOTI by including the experience of more singers, I’ve begun asking singers of note to share their experience of singing with others. Brían Ó hAirt agreed to be the guinea pig for this series, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with his reflection on the 2013 and 2014 Inishowen Singing Festivals, put on by the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle. I hope you enjoy, and go raibh míle maith agat, a Bhrían!
“Early in July, I received a message from Grace Toland–recently appointed director of the Irish Traditional Music Archives (ITMA) in Dublin. Grace is a local of Clonmany, Co. Donegal and a force behind the Inishowen Singing Weekend, so her message was as much business as it was friendly catching up.
She was inquiring if I had planned on attending the gathering in question in February in the seaside village of Ballyliffin, a short walk from her Clonmany. I participated the last two years but this year, try as I might, I’ve too much on my plate and too little in my bank account to set aside the time and travel funds needed to attend.
Mine was a quick and apologetic reply but as Grace’s message plucked a string in my mind, many more resonated awakening the fond memories of previous years spent in Inishowen. [Song of the Isles editor] David Wood had requested in the past—likely a year ago now—that I write about this incredible event. and it seems that there’s no better time than at present, when my mind is saturated with the scenery, weather, and songs of the people of Inishowen, to do just that. My apologies for not having done this sooner, David, but all good tea deserves a patient steep!
I’ve been a friend and singing partner of Len Graham of Glenarm, Co. Antrim for nearly a decade now. It was this friendship that brought about my introduction to Grace and her partner Brian Doyle at the ITMA in 2012.
Through Len’s advice, they contacted me with interest in bringing a singer from an American tradition to the weekend in 2013 and sought my insight. Without hesitation, I recommended my friend Elizabeth LaPrelle, a young Appalachian ballad singer and musician from Rural Retreat, Virginia. An invitation was sent to Elizabeth and quickly accepted.
Coincidently, as it fortuitously overlapped with the weekend in Inishowen, I planned a ramble of my own through Ireland for most of the late winter and early spring 2013. Knowing of my plans, Len arranged my travel and accommodations to the Inishowen Singing Weekend through the generosity of the ITMA and with the help of Grace and Brian. I was delighted at the chance to attend the weekend but also very excited to share in Elizabeth’s first trip to Ireland—remembering the particularly magical experience it was for me when I first visited in 1999.
As befitting a new experience, the Inishowen Singing Weekend in 2013 was anything but common. One of the worst winters in recent Irish memory shut down airports, roads, ferries, and access to electricity and water—bringing the island to a standstill on more than one occasion. But what it also brought to Inishowen, Ireland’s largest and most northernly peninsula in Co. Donegal, was a dramatic landscape beautifully textured with snow and ice, which highlighted its craggy hills, rounded mountains, and unobstructed views of the surrounding coastline—giving visibility to even Tory Island and Scotland.
Elizabeth and I braved the icy nip to reap views of Glashedy Island, the Hill of Dunaff, Five Finger Strand, Malin Head and a host of other sights available to us by foot or (EVEN BETTER!) from the welcomed comfort of an automobile. It was truly a breathtaking experience watching pillars of brilliant sunlight break through the clouds and illuminate the snow-swept landscape in a way that I’ve found to be so unique to Ireland.
The sheer warmth generated by the weekend’s festivities and its attendees, not surprisingly, stood in sharp contrast to the bleak and biting weather. Undeterred by the raging winter, singers and listeners from across the islands of Ireland and Britain, Brittany, America, Germany (I’m sure there were others I’m missing) and bursary students from as many universities arrived by the car-load. They filled the hotel in Ballyliffin—the epicenter of the event—to the brim, welcoming in a weekend of instructional workshops, convivial singing, thought-provoking presentations, lively discussions, and charming storytelling that coalesced into a veritable celebration of life through song.
Professionals and enthusiasts alike shared their songs and lent their support to each other—chiming in on choruses and the ends of their favorite lines, clasping at chair backs and offered hands, and filling in the elusive words that failed the memory of the singer. Truly an experience like no other, mine has impressed up me the unique richness of the Inishowen singing tradition and its highly esteemed place within the provence of Ulster, which in no little way still flavors and colors the repertoire of traditions in North America.
The event that year in 2013 also served as the launch of the Inishowen Song Project— an online, digitized archive of the songs of Inishowen. Singers Jimmy McBride of Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal and Jim MacFarland of Derry Town began their collection of these songs in the 1980s but with the help of the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Inishowen Developmental Partnership, this initial collection of 599 songs which included lyrics, pictures, and videos became available to a worldwide audience via http://www.itma.ie/inishowen. The digitizing process began in 2011, which illustrates the sheer magnitude of this amazing archive and, folks, it is still growing!
Befitting the occasion (the weekend’s theme after all was From Granny To Google) three other such sites, Tobar an Dualchais, the American Folklife Center, and the Joe Heaney Archive, also presented on their online collections and the unique circumstances and challenges that brought about their creation. It was a true testament to the power of technology and its ability to allow viewers access to fading cultural practices by mitigating the many barriers that divide us from them.
By the close of my first trip to Inishowen, I was awe struck and inspired and I had made up my mind to return the following year…and return I did (and to much better weather, mind you!). Just as magical as the previous year, 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the weekend and as was expected, the festival held to its homeplace and showcased the lives and songs of many locals of Inishowen.
It brought most of the singing sessions out of the hotel in Ballyliffin and into the local pubs of the area, which neatly illustrated the unique character and hospitality of its various communities. The pubs visited were literally bursting at the seams to contain the sessions and songs, which poured as generously as the drinks and sandwiches obtained at the bar. If such a thing were possible, songs were literally palpable in the heavy air of places like the Rusty Nail, McFeeley’s, and the North Pole.
My parting impression from my second visit to the weekend (now that I had grown accustomed to the format) was that while the schedule of events are marked and adhered to, time slows or even stands still, and it seems that all anyone can ever really do at this event is follow after the songs as they drift over the hills; for it’s more often the songs, not the singers, that draw the people to lovely dark Inishowen.”
—Brian Ó hAirt, Portland, OR 2/9/15