Seachtain na Gaeilge is upon us again and drawing to a close. It’s a wonderful opportunity to practice your cúpla focal. Whether that’s our universally known (and let’s be honest this was the most essential weapon we had in our artillery in the Naíonáin Beaga!) “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas”, the comic and pointed advertising of “Ciúnas, bóthair, cailín, bainne” or some of the carefully selected poems of “An Duanaire”. For a truly mesmerizing experience, find yourself a local seisiún and listen to some local musicians, dance, laugh and be merry. Take a sus beag with a bit of the Sean Nós tradition and repeat. Moreover don’t let the satire of Tommy Tiernan et al. put you off this tradition, it is just as visceral an experience as the knees up rhythms of the traditional jigs and reels that Ireland has to offer.
I had the pleasure myself of attending the Gaelsocoil, Scoil Éanna i mBaile Mhic Gonair for eight years. Our principal, Treasa Ni Eachthighearnn, had a beautiful way about the Sean Nos tradition and gave us little choice in adopting the same. Every year we would take part in one choral festival or another. the most memorable was of course the Slógadh Gael Linn which promoted Irish traditional songs and music. I remember some pretty spectacular victories in our day. I still have a little plaque sitting on my bookshelf over 20 years later. The school has long since maintained the standard Inion Ni Eachthighearnn set in her day, and has partaken in Féile na Scol, Slógadh, Feis Ceoil, Oireachtais na Gaeilge agus Cór Fhéile Idirnáisiúnta, they have also won awards in each.
One of the most vivid memories I have from our little choir was the Irish song “Maidin i mBearra” set to the tune of “Air from County Derry” / “Londonderry Air” (or Danny Boy for the uninitiated). “Maidin I mBearra” or “A Morning in Bere” was written by Osborn Ó hAimheirgin in the 1890’s and describes the beauties of Bere Island in West Cork. Bolt upright in our little lines in a back room we set about practicing our song and when we hit that high note every other student and conductor in the room stopped in their tracks agasp. We knew we had it and they looked scared. Still to this day I hear that note, perched above “ribhean” and I am reminded of those days. The confident grin that snuck across our principal’s face and the collective electrifying hum of the Irish tradition. She had an enviable talent in her day and its one I have not yet seen matched.
I was unfortunately unable to attend a Gaelscoil at secondary level. At the time the Irish language seemed to be growing but the demand for higher education in the language was not met and I was not keen to attend a boarding school. Over the years the language slipped away piece by piece as our needs were not catered for, and the choirs that we knew and loved, the Credo, our Maidin I mBeara, were replaced by the cold “Streets of London” and “Hey Jude”. It felt distant and at odds with the traditions we had been raised into. We got by with little or no effort and a depleted vocabulary (gan trácht ar an ngrammadach!). It was not until I met my leaving cert Irish teacher Frank Prendergast that the need for the language was met. Not in conversations about summer holidays and politics/economics, but with the love of the language, the heart of the language. I am grateful to him for that. It is because of him that I took my copy of “Peig” from the shelf, brushed off the dust and started from scratch. This book, along with a sizeable Irish-English dictionary (that every Irish student in UCC will be familiar with) have followed me everywhere. They were the first books on every shelf. And every year, always around lent, I feel the urge to remember and to learn. I make a pact with myself. I remember what I can, and I build new memories. More importantly, I preserve old ones.
Always around this time when I am admonishing myself for not keeping on top of my education, I am reminded of my primary school principle Treasa. She told us to keep our folders of songs and poetry because someday we would look back and regret throwing them away. Naive and defiant, I threw them away anyway. How could I possibly forget them? They would always be there. But piece by piece, the regret crept in to fill the spaces the words had left behind. And yet part of me remains defiant, because sometimes, when I am unaware of myself, I am wandering down hallways whistling or humming a tune I thought I had forgotten.
We had the benefit of knowing a language intimately. I don’t think you ever move on from something like that. So whether you are a gaelgoir, an enthusiast or simply interested in the Irish tradition (whatever you believe it to be), my advice to you is to get out there and enjoy the last of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Visit your local pubs and community centres and see what is being promoted locally. Talk to your grandparents about their experiences with the language and ask them if they know any songs. You may be surprised what you find, and what memories it awakens in you.
“Dia linn!! The notes need to rise and fall gently like a cradle. It’s a lullaby. You’re trying to lull the baby to sleep not scare it awake! Now again. ”
“lú lú la ló–ó , seo hín seo hó–ó ló”
“Orla! Unfold your arms you’re like a washer woman! Don’t forget to fade out on the down note. Arís!”
“Lú Lú la Lóóó – – ó.”
Ever the Grá, Ever the Air
Additional Notes and Bibliography
For further information on the many guises of “Danny Boy” and its list of collaborators over the years, I recommend visiting www.standingstones.com/derry3.html. The author has provided some interesting insights into the chronology.