Listener’s guide

A listener’s guide to Irish song

This article is the third in a series on singing in Irish. The previous two articles are Singing in Irish – Yes, It’s a Language and Singing In Irish – The Sean-Nós Tradition.

Audrey Nickel
Audrey Nickel

In previous articles, I’ve talked a bit about the Irish language and about the stylistic differences between traditional sean-nós (“old style”) singing and other forms of “Western” music. In this article, I’d like to introduce you to the songs themselves.

“A Listener’s Guide” seems to be a presumptuous title for a brief article on an ancient singing tradition.

That’s why I’ve subtitled this article “A Taste of Sean-Nós.” I’m hoping that this small sample of the many songs and singers in the tradition will encourage you to take a bigger bite and start exploring the subject in more depth.

What do sean-nós singers sing about?

Songs in the sean-nós tradition have the same basic themes as other folk songs. You’ll find songs about love (often unrequited!) and seduction, songs about sorrow and loss, patriotic songs, humorous songs, work songs and lullabies…songs that encompass the entire range of human experience.

An interesting feature of these songs is that they often have a back story or subtext…something that would have been well-known to the people of the region and time from which the song arose (and that is usually passed down through the generations within that particular region), but that may not be obvious at all to people from another time or culture (or even from another part of Ireland). That, combined with the unique way in which the Irish language expresses some concepts, can make these songs difficult for “outsiders” to grasp, even in translation. When I sing a sean-nós song for people who aren’t well-acquainted with the tradition, I try to place the song in context for them by giving the back story, as well as a rough translation.

A sampling of songs

In the brief sampling below, I’ve included songs and singers from each of the three main Irish-speaking areas of Ireland: Ulster (particularly Donegal), Connaught and Munster. (While Irish is spoken by some people in the fourth province, Leinster, it has less of a presence there, and Leinster no longer has its own distinct dialect).
Click on green title links or pictures to see videos.

Róisín Dubh

Starting in Connaught, in the west of Ireland, we have the great Connemara singer Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heany) singing one of the great songs of the tradition, Róisín Dubh (“Little Black Rose,” sometimes Anglicized to “Dark Rosaleen”), a political song in which Ireland is addressed as a woman. As Ó hÉanaí explains in the clip, overtly political songs were forbidden by the British, and thus were often disguised as love songs.


Here’s another clip of Ó hÉanaí singing a very different song: Cúnla. This is a humorous, playful song, in which a man named Cúnla becomes increasingly bold in his advances, only to be told each time to leave off and go away.

An interesting feature of this particular performance is that Ó hÉanaí begins and ends it by “lilting” – singing nonsense syllables in a way that was originally developed as a way to provide music for dancers when no instruments were available.

Tiocfaidh an Samhradh

Moving north to Donegal (Ulster), we have a rare group performance by Gearóidín Bhreatneach and her twin daughters Sinéad and Deirdre, singing Tiocfaidh an Samhradh (“The Summer Will Come”), a song of unrequited love.

The first verse translates roughly to “Oh the summer will come and the grass will grow. The green leaves will come to the branches. My love will come at the break of day, and she will keen for missing me.” Sadly, as it happens, she’s eloped with another man.

Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire

In this final clip, Munster singer Iarla Ó Lionard sings the beautiful sean-nós song Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire (The Keen of the Three Marys), in a slightly untraditional style, with accompaniment. This is one of those cases where people tend to join in on the repeated refrain ochón agus ochón ó (“O sorrow, O sorrow”). This heartbreaking song is a dialog between Jesus Christ and his mother at his crucifixion.
Coming next week, Singing in Irish: Harmony. An innovative choir brings a blend of Gaelic language and culture with choral singing in Northern California.

See the other articles on singing in Irish. Click the links below.
Part 1 “Singing in Irish: yes – it’s a language”
Part 2 “Singing In Irish — The Sean-Nós Tradition”
Part 3 “A listener’s guide to irish song: a taste of sean-nós”

Audrey Nickel lives near Santa Cruz, California, where she studies sean-nós singing with Mary Mc Laughlin. She also plays both the wire-strung Gaelic harp and the nylon-strung Celtic harp and sings in two choirs, including the Santa Cruz-based Irish Gaelic Christmas choir, Cór Ainglí. She shares her home with her husband and teenaged daughter, an Irish-speaking black cat, a poodle who thinks he’s a sean-nós singer, four harps, and 25 tin whistles.