Carna, Connemara - When you are looking for a gathering to spend a May bank holiday weekend there are some wonderful choices along the Wild Atlantic Way, especially when your interests veer towards traditional music and dance festivals.
At the newly resurgent Shannon Airport I ran into people from Boston and Maryland at the car rental counter who were heading to the Cuckoo Festival in Kinvarra, Co. Galway and Féile Chois Cuain in Louisbourg, Co. Mayo. But I set my own sights on sampling the Féile Chomórtha Joe Einniu (Joe Heaney Commemorative Festival) in the village of Carna in Connemara where the iconic sean nos singer was born and buried.
For 28 years Heaney, here in Carna, has been remembered annually through this wonderful boutique festival hosted on the southern flank of the inspirational landscape that defines this part of Ireland. It recognizes his accomplishments and furthers the important work and attention he brought to the native culture of the Connemara Gaelthacht throughout his life.
Heaney’s extraordinary story and life’s journey took him through the British Isles and eventually to America where I first became aware of him back in the 1970s when he was still living in Brooklyn while working as a doorman in New York City. He was recorded by both Topic Records in England and Gael-Linn records in Ireland as one of the pre-eminent bilingual sean nos singers of any era.
Wherever he went he carried an intense love and dedication to his native language, Irish, and its songs and stories. Eventually folk music enthusiasts and ethnomusicologists qualified him as an authentic original source recreating “history’s page” for Ireland’s Gaelic heritage.
He immigrated to America in 1965 after receiving an invitation to the Newport Folk Festival in the height of the revival years for folk music. In his later years both Wesleyan University and the University of Washington in Seattle validated the knowledge he carried by bringing him on staff to teach and inform their students and research in Irish studies.
Heaney’s legacy was further burnished in 1982 when he received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for the massive contributions he made towards the propagation of Irish culture in the U.S.
After Heaney’s passing in 1984 at the age of 64, his burial in his native Carna was so well attended and remembered even a year later on the anniversary, the local school principal Michael O Cuaig decided that an annual festival dedicated to the celebration of the Gaelic heritage that Heaney epitomized would be very much in order.
With his own passion for the rich culture that defines the value of Ireland’s Gaelthacht, O Cuaig designed an annual program that while rooted in preserving the past, trumpets its present day vitality and important focus on passing along these traditions to younger people as well.
O Cuaig’s easy-going approach to presenting artists and the audiences who gather each year into an entertaining and informative mix helps sustain Gaelic culture at a time when that support is necessary even within Ireland.
Irish may be the principle medium for his introductions and for the singing and speaking elements over the weekend, but the positive and welcoming atmosphere present here knows no linguistic bounds.
And even multiculturalism can come very much into play as this year a performance group from Norway attended and performed, and a number of Europeans (and Americans) also were enticed to attend the festival which has a very firm grasp on what it is about.
The weekend got off to a good start when a local artist with nationwide recognition as an actor, poet and playwright, Joe Steve O Neachtain offered the opening address and told the audience about the importance of Irish culture in the national identity looking forward for the 1916 centenary.
A special ceremony and presentation was made to the widow and family of the late Tom Davis, a noted archivist and recorder of many historic Irish music events for decades who passed away last year.
In a poignant moment and reflective of the ethos of the Heaney festival in general, a rare recording made by Davis of Heaney singing “My Own Native Land” was shared with the audience, many hearing it for the first time since it doesn’t appear on any commercial recordings.
Though I wasn’t present for that occasion, the sheer depth of the song and the gra for Ireland reflected in the lyrics makes for a very fitting anthem from the Heaney repertoire that sends chills up the spines of all those who share its sentiments.
Many folks who follow the music and dance scene know that Connemara has long been both a reservoir and bastion for the sean nos tradition for singing, dancing and, of course, the Irish language, so this particular festival holds a pride of place in doing so.
Along with presenting wonderful Irish singers like Treasa Ni Cheannabhain, Padraic O Ceannabhain and Roisin Elsafty (and the Donegal singer Rita Gallagher who taught and sang in English), the solo dance tradition was well represented by Roisin Ni Mhainin and Patricia Ni Fhathata and Proinsias and Breandan Hernon, all part of the marvelous revival we have seen in recent years in the sean nos singing and dance traditions at the Oireachtas.