An Ghailseach – “The Foreign Woman”

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 mins.)

A young Dublin man, out to see something of the world, arrived in Franco’s Spain just a few years after WWII. At a reception at the German Embassy in Madrid (foreign press invited and anywhere for a free meal) he met a tall attractive half-Basque, half-German woman. Lucila Hellmann de Menchaca was multi-lingual – bilingual in German and Spanish through her upbringing, she had also learned English and French. She knew only a few words in Euskera – her mother’s side of the family was not very patriotic and in any case, since the victory of Franco’s military-fascist coup in ‘39, the language was forbidden. They conversed mostly through English.

Deasún, tall with grey-blue eyes and dark curly hair and thin moustache, had been raised only with English language but was learning Irish and Spanish, the latter out of necessity and the former by choice.

They were attracted to one another and began dating; within around six months they were married and soon afterwards on their way to Tangiers, where Deasún had a job waiting for him writing copy for a USA radio broadcasting company. The Moroccan city was an “international zone” city according to the Tangier Protocol, which meant that it was effectively ruled by the British, Spanish and French and, inevitably, full of liberation political activists, smugglers, spies and double-agents.

In that multi-lingual society with the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day in Arabic and Berber heard in the street along with European languages, Luci was soon pregnant and, as her time neared, went back to Madrid to be near her family. Luci and Deasún first’s child was born in the German hospital in that city; then back to Tangiers soon afterwards, of course.

Their big guard dog, named Bran after one of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s famous wolfhounds, occasionally takes off to return days later with scratches and bite-marks. He was watchful of the child and one day complains, whimpering to Deasún who, when he goes to investigate, finds the crawling child stuffing the dog’s dinner into his mouth.

Deasún watches his son speaking his first words in Spanish from Luci and some in Irish from himself. Increasingly he feels the need to have his son develop his speech in Ireland; soon the couple are back in the Spanish state and, after a short interlude, visiting the Basque Country of Luci’s youth, crossing the border into the French state by train to the coast and boat to England. A short stay with a cousin there and they and their child are on the way to Deasún’s native Dublin by train and boat.

Some years later in Dublin, his family of sons and a daughter growing up speaking Spanish and Irish in the home and English in the street, Deasún composes the piece of music which he calls “An Ghailseach” (the Foreign Woman”). Luci and Deasún’s youngest son, Cormac, an accomplished flute and whistle player, learns the piece. Some years later again, in the Club an Chonnradh with his father, Cormac plays the air and Deasún is amazed to learn that the piece he likes so much was actually composed by himself.

An Ghaillseach, composed by Deasún Breatnach, played on low whistle by Cormac Breatnach; Garry Ó Briain accompanying on guitar and keyboard, mastered by Seán McErlaine, uploaded by Féilim Breatnach.

Cormac records the piece and it is played on an Irish-language radio programme to mark a century since the birth of Deasún. On the morning of the broadcast Cormac cannot listen to it for he is on his way to Stockholm, where the Amerghin Ensemble of which he is a part have an engagement to perform their music. The older son listens to the program just before he is due in the Dublin city centre on a historical conservation commitment. The tears spring to his eyes from the sheer painful beauty of the piece.

Luci and Deasún are years gone (they died within days of one another in 2007) but An Ghailseach has joined the extremely rich and varied body of traditional Irish music, where it will outlast yet other generations to come.

End.

FEATURES OF IRISH TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC AND SONG

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time text: 4 mins)

Replying to a query on Quora on the above question, I spent some time thinking and typing the reply and then thought I might as well make that effort available to a wider audience. I have participated in many Irish instrumental music and singing sessions over decades, mostly in London and Dublin and I have two brothers who are musicians and another who is a singer. I am myself a singer, not an instrument player, nor an academic but will attempt an answer. I would recommend consulting the Irish Traditional Music Archive and reading books on the subject such as Ó Súilleabháin’s and Ó Lochlainn.

Traditional Irish music has had many external influences and among the main forms of its dance expression, jigs, hornpipes and reels, only the latter is considered originally Irish. Polkas are particularly popular in Kerry and, I suppose, built around reels. There are also slip-jigs.

The best way to experience these is probably is probably at or viewing a set-dancing session. These are based in form on the “quadrilles” of the Napoleonic period (which can be found as far away as Latin America and Cuba) and are similar to English and US Old Timey square dancing. Probably all the variants of the Irish instrumental dance music will be heard performed among the various set-dances — virtually all sequentially in the deceptively-named “Plain Set”.

Note a number of features in this good exhibition of a part of a set: hard shoes, not trainers (one exception there) to give good floor contact and sound); also some individual flourishes in footwork and body movement etc but still remaining within the music. (Source: The Harp Irish Set Dancers)

The form of dance called “sean-nós” (see description of the singing form by the same name further down) is individual expression, fast footwork with what one might also call “ornamentations”, similar to tap-dancing. The arms are held loosely down to the side or elbows to the side, slightly extended but also loosely. The overall posture may be erect or slightly stooped.

In terms of instruments used today, not one is believed to be originally Irish except the harp (which incidentally is the symbol of the Irish state, the only state in the world to feature a musical instrument in that capacity though we are far from being the only nation with a harp tradition).

The harp is an ancient Irish instrument but also symbol and was re-used by the revolutionary and republican United Irishmen, who rose in insurrection in 1798 and 1803. The later Fenians too used the symbol in less stylised form. (Image sourced: Internet)

The harp (there two main kinds, the smaller knee-standing and the larger resting on the floor between the knees) was described by Norman travellers (spies) prior to their invasion of Ireland but were known also in Wales (observers remarked not only on the aesthetic quality of the performances but also on their speed). A kind of drum was referred to by the travellers and some kind of flute but without any detail on either. The proliferation of instruments in a traditional Irish session are therefore far from being originally Irish: fiddle (violin), uilleann pipe, flute, whistle, accordion (piano or more likely button), concertina, melodeon, bazouki, mandolin, banjo and …. guitar. This last is mostly performed as an underlying rhythm instrument, a function also of the bodhrán (a kind of one-sided drum) and one may also hear a pair of spoons or sections of rib bones played for percussion. The guitar-player is often also the singer and given space to do so accompanied by his guitar, presumably in recompense for his restriction to rhythm performance the rest of the time. In many sessions there has grown sadly a tendency to restrict the performance of song to this individual or some other in the circle of musicians whereas in the past a member of the audience would perform the song; this restriction has led to the growth of song and even voice-only sessions (such as the Góilín in Dublin).

We owe the typical instruments in traditional Irish music to northern and central Europe, the Middle and Far East and to Africa. Many other instruments have been brought into use in performing Irish traditional music (including, famously, the Australian didgeridoo) but, apart from the proliferation of variations on the whistle, they have as yet failed to win popularity among musicians.

(Image sourced: Internet)

Traditional march airs also exist and, to my ear, have a tendency to be fast for the purpose. I have speculated that these represented trotting horses of the elites or warrior-caste with lower-ranking fighters running alongside — but that is pure speculation.

There are many slow airs and waltzes, definitely an import, have been composed and are also played.

TRADITIONAL, ETHNIC

With regard to the ethnicity of the performers this is not of great relevance and Irish traditional music on instruments and in voice is being played well in many different parts of the world or in Ireland by musicians with a non-Irish ethnic background. Naturally too the Irish diaspora has spawned many excellent traditional Irish musicians (and, we can remark in passing, in many other genres too: rock, pop, blues, jazz, classical).

The term “traditional” itself can open up a debate but with regard to song, I was offered this interesting definition some years ago: “author unknown, performed over three generations.” Authorship is therefore an issue as is permanency (or at least persistency). One feature of traditional music throughout the world, according to Ó Súilleabháin is never to end in a crescendo (although occasionally one may hear a traditional song or ballad treated in this way, it is rare).

However, as with “tunes” or “airs” in instrumental music, songs are being composed all along within the traditional or folk form, sometimes re-using known airs, sometimes adapting them and on occasion composing new ones.

It is important to note that ballads are not considered a “traditional” form, having entered Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries but they are accepted in traditional singing circles.

Ballads and traditional songs were on many themes of course but given Ireland’s history, the national struggle was bound to feature often. (Image sourced: Internet)

THE SINGER AND THE SONG

Traditional-style singers not only eschew crescendos but also, in general, bodily gestures or dramatic pauses or changes of volume. There are emphases rendered on occasion but these tend to be subtle.

A form of singing known as “sean-nós” (literally ‘old style’) exists with regional variations. From experience and perception (but without formal study) I would say that the main distinguishing feature of this form is in the ornamentation of notes, viz. drawing some out to briefly twist around them (interestingly, one verb in Irish for “play” as in instrument or “sing” is “cas”, literally “twist/ turn/ weave”) and the ending of a line may have an additional note added. The Qawwali religious music of Pakistan and Indian shares many features as does parts of the Flamenco singing, albeit the latter is loudly expressive.

In terms of the great themes of Irish song (and at times of instrumental pieces) these are overwhelmingly love, patriotic struggle and emigration, with sub-categories, including some that merge two or even three of the main themes (hear for example “Skibereen” or the waltz-air “Slieve na mBan”.

PLEASE DON’T CLAP ….

A very important element of Irish traditional and folk singing is not only the performance but also the audience. The tradition is not for choral or duet etc singing with harmonies, though these exist but rather for the single voice. In this we differ from other Celtic nations such as the Welsh and Bretons but parallel the Scottish tradition as well as some other folk traditions, including some English and USA Old Timey expressions.

The tradition has been that a singer will be heard through to the end with perhaps some sounds of encouragement at various junctures (on occasion I have observed a noisy Irish pub become suddenly silent as the customers become aware that a song is being sung, remaining totally silent until the end of the song). Should there be a chorus, listeners may join in and a well-known and appreciated line may get listeners joining in too (think for example of the last line in the non-traditional form — but often sung in sean-nós style — ballad about the Great Hunger: “… revenge for Skibereen!”).

I should mention here that accompanying the beat in traditional music by clapping is certainly not “cool”, although traditional musicians performing on stage have been seen to encourage it (presumably in order to reduce the isolation feeling of the performers and to increase the enjoyment of non-perceptive listeners). In fact clapping overcomes the nuances of the performance as well as the concentration of the listener, therefore limiting the depth of the experience. “Tap feet by all means and clap at the end if you please” is the general rule.

I must note also in conclusion that Irish/ Scottish traditional music with some English folk contribution are the main influences in not only Old Timey USA music but also bluegrass and country & western, with spillover into some other forms. As such, this fount of music is responsible for the creation of the “white” or “European-origin” popular music of the USA, ie around half of the entire body. The other half is of African origin, in blues and jazz (in so far as these are not the same thing), giving rise to rock n’roll, swing etc. But both these “halves” have naturally had an influence on the other and in Ireland, traditional music is also influenced by — and contributes to — “crossover” variations of music.

I would comment also that socially and politically Irish musicians have tended to identify to one degree or another with the people and their resistance and were often persecuted for doing so. This was natural, given that they mostly came from the Irish population and that was where they found their audience. In that regard it is sad to note that some, including the Chieftains musician group and singer Imelda May, performed at a state banquet in Dublin a few years ago for the English Queen, who is head of the UK state and of the British Armed Forces, currently occupying one-sixth of our small national territory and also invading other parts of the world.

End.

USEFUL LINKS

Irish Traditional Music Archive: https://www.itma.ie/

Set-dancing: http://www.harpirishsetdancers.com/

Singing: https://www.facebook.com/AnGoilin/https://en.

Colm Ó Lochlainn: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colm_%C3%93_Lochlainn