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Two men sit on a slightly elevated stage, engaged in conversation.
Kluge Center fellow Cormac ÓhAodha (l) discusses the Múscraí singing tradition with John Fenn of the American Folklife Center. Photo: Photo: Shawn Miller.

Researcher Story: Cormac Ó hAodha & the Heart of Irish Music

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 Cormac Ó hAodha, a resident fellow in the John W. Kluge Center, is taking a deep dive into the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection. Ó hAodha is looking at field recordings that Lomax, a major figure in 20th-century folklore and ethnomusicology, made in the Múscraí region of County Cork, Ireland. A native of Múscraí, Ó hAodha is now completing his Ph.D. dissertation on the Múscraí song tradition in the Department of Folklore and Ethnology at University College Cork.

Tell us about the Múscraí singing tradition.

The Múscraí Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region is a recognized heartland of the Irish language and traditional Irish-language singing.

There are hundreds and hundreds of songs in the tradition, and they relate to all kinds of things — from lullabies to love songs to songs praising place, the people, nature, the rivers and the mountains.

There really is no limit to the kinds of songs — they can be about loss and mourning as well as about celebration and happiness, the entire range of human experience.

Many songs describe the beauty of a woman who the poet meets in a dream. In these songs, this woman represents Ireland with her features recounted in verse, her long tresses of hair sweeping the dew from the grass as she walks at dawn and so on.

A singer’s individual delivery and skill in deploying stylistic ornamentation and musical decoration to the words is what, I believe, makes a good traditional Irish-language, or “sean-nós,” singer.

The “sean-nós” style is a cappella, ideally for an audience that understands and speaks the Irish language. The location can be anywhere, in the pub or at a house party.

I would describe what’s happening as the singer guiding, not dictating, the audience through a series of images described in the poetry of the words.

How did you come to perform?

Personally, I always found singing appealing, and I wanted to join the singers, both in my extended family as well as those in the community, in singing our songs.

I sang “Baile Bhuirne,” which is the name of the village where I live, at the Library’s 2024 Botkin Folklife Lecture Series in March.

It was made, or composed, around 1901 by Micheál Ó Murchadha and Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. I learned it from the singing of my mother’s first cousin, Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin.

Diarmuidín, as he was known locally, was among the finest traditional singers of his generation. He died in a car accident in 1991 at age 44. The next year, an annual traditional singing and music festival, Éigse Dhiarmuid Uí Shúilleabháin, was established in his native Cúil Aodha to honor him.

In 2022, the festival issued an album of his singing, also on Spotify, entitled “Diarmuidín.” For anyone who is interested in hearing the best of Irish traditional singing (songs in Irish, songs in English and even bilingual songs), I would highly recommend listening to Diarmuidín.

Why did you seek a Kluge Center fellowship?

I knew Lomax was in Múscraí in 1951 and that he had collected songs from Múscraí singers. When I saw the opportunity to come to the Library and work on the Alan Lomax Collection, I went for it.

Have you discovered anything unexpected so far?

I have discovered quite a lot, especially about initiatives and practices already underway at the Library and elsewhere to “repatriate,” or digitally return, culturally important artifacts and records to the creative sites from which they were collected.

In the case of my own work, that would be songs that are in national repositories in Dublin that need to be repatriated to the community in Múscraí in County Cork. I find all of this fascinating and hope to bring some of these ideas and approaches into practice on my return to Ireland.

What will be the end product of your research at the Library?

I’ll be promoting the notion of “slow archiving” — prioritizing collaborative relationships with community stakeholders when it comes to artifacts in the care of national institutions in Ireland, the majority of which are in Dublin, a seven-hour round trip by road from Múscraí.

Anything else you’d like to share about your time at the Library?

It has been an opportunity that rarely comes in an entire lifetime, and I am very conscious of that.

With the help of the wonderful staff in AFC’s reading room, I have had the privilege of listening to all of the radio programs on folksongs that Lomax made and that were broadcast in the 1950s and 1960s on American radio and, in the case of Irish folksongs, on BBC radio.

I simply cannot praise the staff of the Library enough. I am grateful to all of the specialists I have come into contact with at the Kluge Center, AFC and the Performing Arts Reading Room. My thanks also to my fellow Kluge scholars.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir (thank you all).

Read more about the Lomax collection.

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Comments (2)

  1. I would enjoy listening to the Works mentioned in these postings.

  2. Cormac Ó hAodha’s dedication to preserving and promoting the rich tradition of Múscraí singing is truly inspiring. His research at the Library, particularly on repatriating culturally significant artifacts, showcases a deep commitment to community engagement and cultural heritage. The notion of “slow archiving” emphasizes the importance of collaborative relationships with local stakeholders, ensuring that these treasures are preserved and celebrated in their rightful context. His gratitude towards the Library staff reflects the collaborative spirit essential for such endeavors. Ó hAodha’s work is not just about preserving the past but also ensuring its vibrant continuation into the future.

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