The term sean-nós ("old style" or "in the old way") refers to a particular type of a cappella traditional singing performed exclusively in the Irish language. Once ubiquitous throughout the nation (before English was forced onto the population) Ireland's branch of Gaelic is now spoken primarily in seven Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking enclaves). These are located in Munster (the Southin parts of Kerry, Cork and Waterford), Connacht (the Westespecially in the Aran Islands and County Mayo) and in Ulster (the NorthCounty Donegal is the largest of all Irish-speaking regions.)
The waning of one of Ireland's richest resources did not go unnoticed. The highly influential Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League, formed in 1893), working against incredible odds, secured legal status for the Irish tongue, which in turn led to its formal recognition as the country's "national language" in the 1937 Irish Constitution. Then, in the 1960s, composer Sean Ó'Raida's wide-ranging Gaelic revival gave it another, more mainstream lease on life which endures to the present day. But despite compulsory Irish language courses in schools and English having been officially relegated to secondary status, there are still comparatively few native speakers.
It is therefore not surprising that sean-nós and its singers are considered national treasures. Both men and women sing it, and the three main styles roughly correspond to the areas where Irish is spoken on a daily basis and folkways are passed directly from generation to generation. This is not to say that sean-nós is not practiced outside the Gaeltachtaiartists from within and outside these traditions often merge techniques and individual forms of artistic expression abound. Aspects of sean-nós have also seeped into assorted genres of accompanied vocal musicmany female adherents had New Age possibilities long before the market existed.
The most obvious difference between the three main surviving conduits is that the Donegal branch, which is heavily influenced by Scots Gaelic music, and is more straightforward, less ornamented and sometimes harbors an implied drone. In contrast, the Connacht and Munster tributaries come across as far more sinuous and ornate. There are also subcategories, such as slow ballads and more rhythmic tunes drawn from dance music. But in each version the performer's task is to connect the lyrics to the melody; the interpreter must know when to add embellishments or leave well enough alone. The singer, seated or standing, often with closed eyes, may seem detached as the music unfolds with no clearly marked crescendo or climax. But when the song ends the audience often will jump, as though abruptly deprived of a life-giving current and jolted back to reality.
The acknowledged dean of sean-nós singers is the legendary Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney)his work is as astonishing for its emotional resonance as for the perfection of his voice and phrasing. Dolores Keane, Aine Ni Chellaigh, Cathie Ryan, Maighread Ni Dhomnaill, Mary Black, Padraigin Ni Uallachain, Darach Ó Catháin, Paddy Tunney, Nóirín Ní Riain, Liam Ó Maonlai (of the pop group Hothouse Flowers) and Iarla Ó Lionáird (of Afro-Celt Sound System) are also noted practitioners of this subtle and highly demanding vocal style. Christina Roden