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Beautiful songs inspired by Donegal's very own mermaid

As the story goes, when the legendary Celtic warrior Finn MacCumaill was asked by an ancient Druid what was the most beautiful music he had ever heard, Finn answered, 'It is the music of what happens.'

In saying that, he was referring to what is termed in Irish, ‘sean-nós’ (meaning ‘old style).’

It isn't certain who gave ‘sean-nós’ singing its formal title, but it is the oldest known form of singing in all Ireland.

According to Bridget Haggerty in an article on ‘Irish Cultures and Customs,’ what makes sean-nós distinctive is that the songs are sung in Irish unaccompanied, with no musical support. Often, the singer seems to stay detached in a world of her/his own, as if in a trance.

Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county, is one of the few regions where this genre of singing has been preserved, and participants to a recent ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ were very fortunate to have had the chance to listen to such singing and talk to one of the nation’s most talented sean-nós singers, Noeleen Ni Cholla.

Proud to have launched her first album entitled ‘An Mhaighdean Mhara’ (meaning ‘The Mermaid’), Noeleen said about ‘La Aoibhinn Cois Tra’ ('A Pleasant Day Beside the Beach'), one of her very own songs, “I composed the lyrics and melody myself, a love song that ends on a happy note, unlike most sean-nós songs which usually have sad endings.”

A native Irish speaker from Gaoth Dobhair, in rugged and inspiring northwest Donegal on the famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ where the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ takes place in late-June, Noeleen started singing at an early age, when she was about seven-year-old. Since then, she has won many local, national and international awards, including first place in the ‘International Traditional Singing’ competition at the ‘Pan-Celtic Festival’ in Carlow in 2012. She also represented Ireland at the ‘Festival Interceltique’ in Lorient, Brittany (2011, 2012 and 2013) and is often invited to sing as a special guest on national Gaelic language radio and television.

From songs about a man in love with a milkmaid who would do anything to be with her even if it means living in poverty on a mountainside, to songs about a mermaid - which some people say still lives in Gaoth Dobhair - who fell in love with a local man and bore his children, Noeleen’s voice rises crystal clear.

It is little wonder Ireland’s leading national daily newspaper, ‘The Irish Times,’ wrote about her, “Ní Cholla’s debut album is shot through with a quiet confidence that reflects a lifetime rich in both singing and listening.”

Praising a local tutor who encouraged her, Noeleen said, “Sean-nós singing is the beautiful, ancient art of Gaelic singing which I love knowing that my ancestors many generations ago probably also participated in this unique oral tradition. I take comfort in knowing that I may have a connection with my ancestors in this way and that I grew up in Gaoth Dobhair, a place rich in sean-nós singing where the Gaelic language is alive and vibrant.”

Good news is that Noeleen’s enrapturing melodic singing voice will soon be heard in North America for she will be a guest artist in New York state at the ‘Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice’ on August 7th. She will also be performing at other gigs in the area until August 10. “I will also hopefully then be travelling to Canada to sing at ‘Feis an Eilein,’ a Scottish Gaelic festival in Nova Scotia from August 14-21.” On September 22nd she will be guest singer at the Sunflower Folk Club in the Sun Flower Bar in Belfast.

We are happy to offer a copy of Noeleen’s CD to one new Friend of the Ireland Writing Retreat. To enter the draw, become a Friend of the retreat before Sunday April 30th.

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