They also serve who only shut up

An Irishman’s Diary about the lesser-celebrated Irish aural tradition

‘On Saturday last, Brendan Kilty ceremonially presented two capons - oversized chickens, basically –  to the Mayor of Dublin. After which, as usual, he invited songs from guests.’ Above, No 15, Usher Island, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘On Saturday last, Brendan Kilty ceremonially presented two capons - oversized chickens, basically – to the Mayor of Dublin. After which, as usual, he invited songs from guests.’ Above, No 15, Usher Island, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 01:00

Whenever I’m asked for a song at a party – and the risks of that happening are at an annual peak around now – I always refuse politely, on the grounds that I’m not a singer. Which is more or less the truth. And yet a thing I’ve noticed over the years is that many of those who do volunteer songs, often with minimal persuasion, can’t sing either.

Or at least they don’t hit the right note any more often than I would when performing in the shower, or the car. Because there’s the thing. Like most people, I am in fact a singer – a very enthusiastic one, on occasion. It’s just that I have deemed it wise to limit my performances to environments where I can’t cause suffering to the ears of others.

Maybe one of these years, I’ll make my belated debut at a party somewhere, and feel liberated by the experience. Then the floodgates will open and I’ll never be able to shut up again, like some people I know. But in the meantime, I’ve accepted my vocation as a listener to the songs of others. Parties need a few of those, too.

It’s a funny thing, the human voice. On the one hand, it’s a musical instrument, amenable to organised improvement like any other. And yet it’s the only instrument you’re allowed to play in public, without training. Not everywhere, of course. In the world of traditional music, for example, there are often strict rules (unwritten, but policed via a scale of sanctions ranging from dirty looks to violence) regulating its use.

At the Willie Clancy Summer School in Clare – the annual Haj for fiddlers and flute players everywhere – vocal performances tend to be confined to a single pub, Marrinan’s, which serves as a kind-of isolation unit for sean nós singers. All other pubs are thereby left fee for jigs and reels: barring the odd outbreak of song, which is usually treatable.

The norm in trad sessions, in fact, is for there to be no singing at all. But in the world of house parties, the near-opposite applies. There, it’s the non-vocal instruments that are discouraged, except as accompaniment to voices.

Only in family get-togethers will people (small people, usually) be invited to play their instruments. And even then, some evidence of training is expected. In the case of stringed instruments, a child performer should have reached at least grade 5, ideally, or else be a very close relative.

But almost any kind of singing will be tolerated at a party, if not encouraged. I have sometimes heard singers who are patently tone-deaf. And not only will they be listened to in silence, but some eejit (me, probably) will say “well done” afterwards, with a straight face, thus bolstering the unjustified self-esteem of which the person in question is not lacking anyway, and risking encores.

I’m happy to say this is not usually a problem at No 15 Usher’s Island in Dublin, which is often the scene of house parties, several of which I’ve attended. I didn’t make it to the latest one, unfortunately. But I’m sure there was singing involved. And I’d be equally confident that it was of a high standard.

The address in question is the “House of the Dead” (jamesjoycehouse.org) where James Joyce’s real-life aunts lived and where he set his most famous short story. The area also has a long, pre-Joycean history. And as No 15’s restorer and curator, Brendan Kilty seizes on every respectable excuse to host a commemorative get-together.

He had two such excuses last weekend, the impending centenary of the publication of Dubliners, and the 350th anniversary of William Ussher’s signing of a lease for the island (when it really was an island), for which the annual rent included “two fatt capons”.

So on Saturday last, Kilty ceremonially presented said capons – oversized chickens, basically – to the Mayor of Dublin. After which, as usual, he invited songs from guests. But I know from experience that Kilty is himself more a listener than a singer. And he usually drops a gentle hint beforehand that those who can’t hold a tune should not feel under pressure to do anything except listen too.

Which is only right. No 15 was a music school, after all, and Joyce himself was a trained singer. His greatest story turns on a song. Not only that, it gives a rare starring role to a listener, Gretta Conroy, whose cinematic version is now immortalised in a picture on No 15’s stairway; where she is stopped, mid-descent, forever haunted by the music from the room above.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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