Irish Independent: A Time For Voices

January 03rd 2000

Source: The Irish Independent

When the aid workers in Bosnia and Croatia in 1994 asked the refugees if they needed clothes or food, the reply was startling. `No, we want music.’ Nóirín Ní Riain’s was the voice which lifted those saddened spirits. If not a household name in Ireland, she is a household goddess in those places where traditional Irish or spiritual singing are held in high regard. Her mixture of traditional sanctity and modern subtlety took Peter Murphy back to the future. When Robert Lowell wrote the lines ‘Giant finned cars nose forward like fish / A savage servility slides by on grease’ (For the Union Dead), he could have been anticipating the moneyed barbarism of millennial Ireland as much as commenting on postwar Boston. Certainly, in an age of all-day rush hours and million-dollar Messiahs, the human voice has never been as obscured by the clamour of commerce.

Here, however, on a December afternoon in the Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise, some such voices have found an outlet. For the last hour in this small theatre, Nóirín Ní Riain has been presenting prizes for singing to children from special schools all over Ireland.

Now, having listened intently to the Dundalk delegation’s rendition of The Black Hills of Dakota, she leads the assembly through a rousing chorus of You Can’t Push Yer Granny off the Bus. Turn off the mobile phone and check your cosmopolitan cynicism at the door. This ain’t the MTV awards it’s a grassroots example of how the simple act of singing can make a difference to people’s lives.

I do certainly see the voice as being very important in this millennium,” Ní Riain confirms later, sipping a latté in a nearby coffee shop, the picture of composed Bohemianism in her silver Doc Martens. “Look at what happened here today. More people are realising that the voice is magic.

To illustrate her point, she sings a snatch of a melody, then asks, “Where does that note come from? That moment before [it comes out] is the most powerful, holy, sacred moment. It’s like a butterfly.

Such pronouncements are bound to polarise the casual observer. To some, Ní Riain is a peripheral but important figure in Irish culture, an artist and activist who, through albums like Soundings and Celtic Soul and her contributions to books such as Whoseday, Sacred Truths and Inner Voices not to mention appearances at events like the United Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 is set to become regarded as one of the more prominent women’s voices of 21st-century Irish society.

On the other hand, unbelievers might note her idiosyncratic dress sense and speaking voice plus the flakier aspects of the whole Celtic `mystic shtick’ and conclude that she’s for the birds. In short, Ní Riain walks a fine line between the orthodoxy of a primary-school teacher and the eccentricity of a New England hermit.

Yes, an ould biddy!” she laughs.

Do such characterisations irk her?

It can be very hurtful, of course, but I think now I’m stronger. I have a very strong sense of God in everything, and of having to hand back something to the world.

This is Ní Riain all over, veering from pragmatic acceptance to heady idealism in the space of a sentence.

That day’s prizegiving ceremony was but a pit stop for this artist-in-residence in Laois. That night she was overseeing a choir practice in Abbeyleix. The next day, a writers’ workshop. A couple of days after that, off to attend the premiere of Anjelica Huston’s second directorial effort Agnes Browne, in which she has a small cameo role. Then flying out to a book launch on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

It’s a busy schedule, but then, if the artist’s job is to reflect real life, she’ll have to move fast in order to match a society gone mad with haste.

I don’t think we’ve gone as mad as everywhere else, Nóirín argues. “Especially from the point of view of women, and of the voice; we have a huge history there, something real to go back to. Even The Hag of Beare from the seventh century, that is such a powerful poem. I mean, it’s about love, it’s about lust, legend has it she was lover to seven kings of Ireland, but then she’s in her old age in a convent, talking to God the cute hoor! And it’s exactly those same issues: ‘Women love only money now/ But when I loved/ I loved young men’.

I’m fascinated by how women cope today,” she continues. “It’s a very exciting and difficult time in redressing the balance between male and female, which was all wrong, how we can balance that so we can each share and be true to our own selves.

One imagines that Nóirín’s marriage to composer and academic Mícheál O Súilleabháin poses its own challenges in terms of the balance of power, if not rivalry.

I think that struggle exists for everybody, actually,” she avers. “In any true relationship, the person that you’re closest to and that you love the most, you’re also the most vulnerable with. We’ve very different fields of creativity, Mícheál and myself, so I think that balance is OK. We’re a very close family, we’ve a very good relationship with the boys, Eoin and Mícheál.

The sense of lineage, of being the bearer of tradition, is crucial to how Ní Riain approaches her life and work.

We are all from the same piece of clay,” she maintains, “and when you look at that, it’s so powerful an image. For me, hitting two years from 50 and questioning all those values of life and death, you say, `Whether my family decide to cremate me or to bury me, I’m still going into that soil one way or another.’ I would feel very much connected to the Hag of Beare or to Brigid primarily women from the Irish tradition. But then, I would also feel very close to Emily Dickinson, or to a Hindu saint. Suddenly you read or sing something by them, and you know it was part of you. Those deep songs, you never forget them.

There’s a beautiful story from the Talmud that says before we were born, in the womb, someone held a light behind our heads, and in that space we knew everything. But then when we’re born, an angel comes and kisses us on the lips, and with that we lose that wisdom and spend all our life trying to regain it. I find that really a very powerful image.

Ask Nóirín Ní Riain about her earliest memories of music, and she’ll tell you this: “One of my earliest memories is of wanting something, but not having the words for it, and making sounds in the hope that somebody would give me what I wanted. But of course they didn’t.

As childhood recollections go, this is probably textbook stuff, but nevertheless, for Nóirín, a native of Caherconlish, Co Limerick, music was her earliest means of self-expression.

I was a troubled child when I was young,” she admits. “I was quite unfriendly and unsociable and all that. But I was always singing to myself and always doodling, and I suppose it was kind of a comfort for me, y’know? Then my parents decided that they would get me singing lessons, even though they were both not into music at all, really. So they took me into Limerick city at the age of seven, to learn with a singing teacher. I was with her between seven and 12, and she was a very formative presence in my life when you’re learning singing from someone, it’s much more than just learning something else, it’s as if you’re passing on a lifestyle or an ethos or something personal.

After sitting her Leaving Cert in Dundalk, Nóirín initially considered doing law at UCD, but her music examiner insisted that she pursue music in Cork. At UCC, she earned an MA degree for her research in traditional religious songs in Irish, met Mícheál O Súilleabháin, and also her mentor Pilib Ó Laoghaire, from whom she learned many of the old-style songs of Munster, the fertile sean-nós tradition found in places like Ring in Co Waterford.

Over the last two decades, Ní Riain has become one of the country’s leading exponents of and authorities on Irish sacred music, largely through her work on a trilogy of albums with the monks of Glenstal Abbey.

Here we were, making sound together, and we weren’t male or female we were ‘its’!” she observes. “I remember saying one time that we were almost like a third sex, but some people didn’t like that. But it was extraordinary that while we were singing together, it was never a male-female kind of thing, it was always directed. I know it sounds clichéd to say, but it was a form of praying, really.

Here’s where the sacred meets the profane: Ní Riain acknowledges that the mantric power of such holy chants has more than a little in common with the Dionysian pulse of dance music.

I remember being over in Holland and Belgium,” she recalls, “and actually asking somebody to take me to these raves where, in the middle of all the lights and everything, the monks’ singing would come on just for a minute, and the kids would all stand still. I think there is something in us that loves repetition, it’s like that mantra, ‘Om’, or even the rosary. I mean, I’d still say 15 decades of the rosary every day I’d just be like a bitch if I didn’t, y’know?

Film-maker Philip King concurs. “There is a mesmeric power to chant,” he says. “What Nóirín does is she takes something that is ancient and develops it into something that is redolent of the past, but is applicable today. She is, if you like, a repository for an awful lot of the singing traditions both secular and sacred in Ireland.

Be that as it may, spend 10 minutes surfing the Internet and Ní Riain’s name commonly comes up under the New Age umbrella. Mention this, and the singer admits that the most cosmetic hallmarks of Celtic tradition are frequently appropriated as lifestyle accessories by fad-mad psycho-babblers.

I’ve been sharing so many workshops with singers chancing their arm and doing dangerous stuff,” she says. “Stuff verging on the psyche, which I don’t think you can do through singing, because that’s professional work. You can only be at the level of grounding the voice within the body; you don’t touch the psyche, that kind of interaction is dangerous and black and I’ve seen a certain amount of it, particularly in the States.

And speaking of states, altered or otherwise, in 1989 Nóirín participated in the Roaratorio a musical interpretation of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, written by composer John Cage and filmed by Philip King for Bringing It All Back Home. This involved the random utilisation of “mesostics” (anagrammatical soundings from the Joyce book), a series of 20-minute musical improvisations (courtesy of trad-masters like Paddy Glackin and Liam O’Flynn), and the I Ching. The result, according to King, “was like standing in Mulligan’s at about five to 11 on a Saturday night. The bus goes by, a baby cries, somebody says, `Ten pints o’ stout!’ and then you hear somebody whistling a tune in the corner or whatever. Sometimes it was a cacophony and sometimes it blended together into something quite ethereal.

The first occasion I met John Cage was just so much based on the communication of sound,” Nóirín remembers. “It was in downtown San Francisco, we were doing a concert for a mutual friend, and he came up to me afterwards in the Green Room and asked if I knew Joe Heaney, who, of course, was a great friend of his in New York he’d actually written the Roaratorio around Joe’s singing.

And I just stood back from him and started singing one of Joe’s songs that I learned, and his eyes streamed down, he started crying profusely, it was just the power of his memory of Joe and the sound. And also that whole thing of silence is very powerful for him, his piece 4.33, where the pianist just sits there, it’s `the music of what happens’. In the Irish tradition, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, when he was asked what music did he like best: the sound of the trees, the birds or the sea, he said, `No. My favourite music is the music of what happens’.

Or, if you prefer, the music that makes things happen. Whether or not you appreciate Nóirín Ní Riain’s music, you must concede the importance of taking traditional music and literature out of the drawing room and into the living community. That such songs are used as a mode of reaching the disenfranchised, be they children in special schools, inmates in Portlaoise Prison or homeless people, is crucial: art that can’t exist outside the vacuum of galleries and museums is no art at all.

What she does is like giving a voice to the voiceless,” Philip King testifies. “She’s Christian in the extreme, but in the true sense of the world. It is, I suppose, `Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ which in cool, modern, acquisitive Ireland is like, `Don’t be making me sick, man!’

Ní Riain herself rationalises it thus: “I suppose the older you get, you’re mad to pass on something. You feel, `Oh, Jesus, I won’t have that poor young one doing the same thing that I did.’ Singing and poetry brings out the best in most people. I could see that when I worked in the Muslim and Christian camps in Bosnia and Croatia in 1994. People went over there and asked if they wanted clothes or food, and they said, `No, we want music.’ I had to go in there and improvise for 40 or 50 minutes. And you’d look at people, and just for one moment, their eyes would lift, and you knew, `Okay, this is why I’m here.’ The stories from those particular times affect me; you’d think you were going around in a dream because you couldn’t bear to look at the poverty. And then to hear that a camp you’d just come from had suddenly been routed in the middle of the night again by soldiers…

Such scenarios are a far cry from the Temple Theatre in Dublin, the location of the Agnes Browne première party, two days after our encounter in Portlaoise.

Here, amidst the likes of Neil Jordan, Paul McGuinness and Jim Sheridan all laying into coddle and fish ‘n’ chips, you would have found Nóirín, chaperoned by her 19-year-old son Eoin, a musician and philosophy student. The singer recalls first meeting Huston in LA after a benefit performance of And Wisdom Is A Butterfly alongside Gregory Peck (the actress’s godfather), Gabriel Byrne and Fionnuala Flanagan. Next day, the two bonded over pasta in the Huston kitchen, and during the Agnes Browne shoot in Dublin, they met regularly for breakfast in her trailer. So, having had a brief glimpse of planet Hollywood, what does Ní Riain make of the idea of celebrities being the religious icons of a secular age?

I think that’s where it comes back to the integrity of the performer or composer,” she decides. “They have to realise that they are going to embody that role for people. That’s a huge responsibility; it’s hugely important that they’re prepared for that kind of thing.

And what’s her purpose on this earth? “There’s a little phrase I devised myself, it’s what I’m studying at the moment, it’s what I call ‘theosony’, which is from theology, the science of God, and sonance, the sound of God. In the beginning was the Word, but it’s defining that word, that note, that sound, that fascinates me. My obsession would be trying to make people conscious of sound leading as an avenue to God.


© Irish Independent 2000


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