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Sean-nós roots revisited

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IT was a moment of chance that brought singer Micheál hOibicín back to the sean-nós songs of his Connemara youth. The singer hasn’t looked back, recording his first album An Rógaire Dubh, along with a host of well-known traditional musicians, at the age of 64.

“It’s a new life for me at my age. I was often wondering what I would do when I retired. The music wasn’t planned, it just happened that way,” he explained.

Michéal hOibicín

Born in Connemara, sean nós was a way of life for the young Micheál, with the title song of the album being one his own mother used to sing to him as a child.

“There was always singing in the houses of the locals. At that time every house had ‘the book’ with the songs written in them. And if you didn’t have a song, you would get out your book and copy it from somebody else,” he recalled.

However, on moving to England in his 20s, working in construction, the music took a backseat. Unsurprisingly for a young man from Connemara in the 1960s, Micheál had little English when he moved across the waters but that didn’t deter him from making a new life.

“I had the words alright and I was able to write a letter but to speak it and put a sentence together was difficult. We had learnt it at school but once we went outside the doors, it wasn’t spoken. But the way it was there, half of Connemara were over in London. On the jobs you didn’t hear much English spoken anyway.”

Micheál spent more than 30 years living in London with his family and when they decided to return home, there was one place they knew they would settle – Clare.

“When we were living in London, we met a family from Clare, the Donnellans and their son, Michael, used to go over to England for the set dancing, my son was a step dancer as well. When we used to come over on holidays, we would call to visit them and we just fell in love with Ennis. So I said to my wife, if we ever come home, I’d like to live in Ennis. There’s no regrets at all about that decision, it’s the best place I could be,” he said.

While in England, there was little music in Micheál’s life but his return to Ireland saw him begin to play the bodhrán, then meet with Martin O’Brien the concertina player.

It was while out at a session that Micheál’s return to sean nós was sealed.

“Eoin O’Neill was at Martin’s session and he asked me did I know any of the Gaelic stuff of Connemara and me not singing for 40 years. I said I knew one and sang it and after that, he was always asking me to sing a few songs and it went down well. Then he said to me if I could record three songs, he would be able to play them on the radio [Clare FM]. A few months went by and nothing happened, then he said to me we’ll go down to Ennistymon and record three songs, so we went and ended up recording six, so then he said we’d make a full album with music on it. The CD started without really being planned,” he said.

“I’m grateful to Eoin for spotting the little bit of talent that I didn’t know I had and to Quentin Cooper who did a fantastic job with the recording. A a lot of work went into that CD.”

Having not sung for 40 years, was it difficult to come back to the sean-nós style? “It wasn’t difficult. What I had to do was to start learning the songs again that I had forgotten. All my songs were gone but some of them I knew a few words here and there,” he said.

Explaining his love for singing he said, “It’s hard to put words on it. When you’re singing you relax so much and you’re in a world of your own. Nothing is in your mind but living the song. You don’t worry about who’s there or who’s not there, the people, the crowds, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you’re singing a sad song, then a half an hour later it’s something funny. There’s a real mixture about it that I love.”

As well as Micheál’s vocal talents, the album features contributions from Eoin O’Neill, Quentin Cooper, Martin O’Brien, Adrian Rahill, Jon Sousa and Paidí Breathnach. The CD also features artwork by well-known Clare artist Andrew Newland.

Adrian, who played harmonica on the album, said, “There was such fun recording the CD, a great vibe. The whole feeling on those afternoons I never came across before and everything worked out just right. With this album, we have Micheál singing in his first language, that’s the difference. If I sing those songs I’ve only learned the Irish by reading it but this man knew all the words before he even heard the song. We had three afternoons in the Courthouse Studio and the amazing thing was each afternoon was better than the next, the fun we had. Everything was done in one take, it was just right first time. As Quentin and Eoin said, that was a record, it was the quickest ever it was done from start to finish.”

The CD features a number of favourites, including the title track An Rógaire Dubh – the black crow, which his mother sang to him as a young lad in their home in Lettermuckoo.

As well as the Irish sean nós, there are also two English recordings, The Rocks of Bawn and The Shores of Amerikay.

When asked if he prefers to sing in English or in his native tongue, he said, “I don’t care, I just love the air of a song. It doesn’t matter what song it is, so long as it has a nice air, that’s what makes it. I have no favourite song on the CD, they are all my favourites.

“They’re songs that you can just sit down, close your eyes, put your head down and sing. You’re living the song and you can visualise the things that are happening in the song”.

Following on from his resurgence into the world of sean nós, Micheál has also began sean-nós dancing.

“That’s something I never did before and it’s all going well, I keep in time with the music anyway,” he laughed.

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