The songs that bind

The enduring importance of song on Tory Island reveals deep truths about our relationship with music, writes Catherine Foley

The enduring importance of song on Tory Island reveals deep truths about our relationship with music, writes Catherine Foley

Why do we love to listen to someone perform a great song? Why is music so integral to social interaction in our lives? Lillis Ó Laoire, a sean-nós singer and a lecturer in the school of Irish at NUI Galway, attempts to understand the reasons why people sing and why people revere certain songs.

He maintains that music is integral to our interpretation of tragedy, whether it is experienced on an offshore island or in a city suburb.

In his newly published book, On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean, he looks in particular at the tradition of singing on Tory Island and examines the dynamics which create songs there that can contain "worlds of meaning".


His book, revised and translated into English following its successful publication in Irish by Cló Iar-Chonnachta in 2002, looks at this small Atlantic island, three miles (4.8km) long, situated just nine miles (14.5km) off the Donegal coast and inhabited by an Irish-speaking community. Ó Laoire examines aspects of the singing traditions on the island, which he has been visiting since 1984, collecting songs and stories and "often just looking, listening, and learning".

"The stories we compose, from inchoate occurrences, simplify situations in order that we may derive meaning from them," he writes. He compares the practice of singing on the island at times of grief and great tragedy with the reaction of people in Britain to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and in particular how the song Candle in the Wind, composed by Elton John and his collaborator Bernie Taupin in memory of Marilyn Monroe, came to express how people felt at the time.

"I do not consider it an exaggeration to make a connection between the songs A Phaidi a Ghrá and Candle in the Wind," he writes. Despite "major differences" between the two songs and the contexts, he says that "the narrative impulse, the desire to make sense of things, is a strong human need, and it is in the performance, the play mode, of these narratives that transformation into structure is effected". Although the outpouring of emotion was seen as unusual in Britain at the time, "in Tory, by contrast, it is approved of and expected".

A Pháidí a Ghrá is a song about a young woman lamenting the loss of her lover, says Ó Laoire, going on to explain the sad reason why this was "the song most frequently requested by the Dixon family during the singing periods at dances in the schoolhouse".

Pádraig Dixon had died prematurely in America, Tory native Séamus Ó Dúgáin tells Ó Laoire. He was buried in America because "at that time, nobody would be brought home", so there was no corpse at the wake on the island. When the young man's grieving mother came down, she asked for the song to be sung. Ever afterwards, all the family were taken with A Pháidí a Ghrá and it took on a significance in their lives.

Pádraig Dixon was "a young man (24 in 1909) and, according to all accounts, a jolly, fun-loving fellow, fond of music and dancing - as indeed were his siblings".

When Dixon's mother died in 1942, Ó Laoire believes that this renewed the energy of the original events and invested them "with yet more meaning". The Dixon family, by asking for the song to be sung again and again, were "continuing to maintain a deep personal connection between the song and their dead brother".They were publicly acknowledging "some of their own and their fellow islanders' commonly shared dilemmas of existence". The turn of events "cast the song in a particularly symbolic role in later years, serving not only as an imagined link with the character of Pádraig Dixon, but as a concrete connection to both the occasion and the death rituals".

SONG, Ó LAOIRE SAYS, can constitute a world, "in its own terms, in which everyday norms may be suspended". He describes how early exposure to musical culture on the island has led certain individuals to be singled out for special encouragement to express themselves. He describes nights at the island's dances, where favourite singers were always asked to perform. He maintains that the challenges of island life are revealed in slow, sad songs, and that the tensions of this hard existence are alleviated by humorous, ribald songs that provide "a deliberate contrast".

"In studying the Tory situation, both socialisation and encouragement to learn were major elements of the process of acquiring acceptable, valued custom and behaviour," he writes. "The elements of music and of song poetry seem the most potent operators in this web of meaning, for the Tory islanders and for others too."

Ó Laoire points out that "important links exist between a concept of tragedy and the performance of song in Tory and elsewhere, at dances and at other occasions. Both songs and music formed part of a Tory child's earliest experience."

Those that Ó Laoire consulted in his research, including singers Séamus Ó Dúgáin, Teresa McClafferty and Éamonn Mac Ruairí, testified that when they were children "it was a reasonably normal sight to see someone playing a musical instrument or singing a song".

"The talent for music was nurtured in Tory children from infancy," he writes, "inasmuch as they often had opportunities for listening to vocal and instrumental music, and they were allowed to participate in such practices of their own free will.

"Music is still in great demand by islanders and visitors alike, and accomplished young accordion players continue to emerge. There are also a number of good singers among the younger generations."

The dance was a great social occasion, he says. Up to the 1950s, the school house was the location. "The young single men about the age of 21 . . . were responsible for organising the dance from start to finish. The first thing they had to do was get the priest's permission, sometimes quite a sensitive task, since some priests were opposed to such entertainments."

An Maidrín Rua (The Little Red Fox), a combination of music, song, and dance, was a central feature of any good dance. "The joy and the high spirits associated with the dance were not the only reasons for the peoples' enjoyment. The elders who had ceased to dance directed their complete attention to the songs during the period when they were sung."

Teresa McClafferty tells Ó Laoire that "if a pin fell on the floor you would hear the sound . . . because nobody was saying a word. They would listen that carefully to the song, you see. There was no commotion or noise or anything."

The slightest mistakes in song performance were criticised. And, he adds: "the night was considered to be better the longer the old people stayed, which, it seems to me, demonstrates a highly developed sense of the delicate maintenance of balance necessary for the night's success."

THE DANCE SPACE comprised a special location with firmly applied rules regarding proper conduct to all participants, be they performers or not. The aim was to "provide the optimum conditions for the attainment of an oíche mhór, 'a big night', that would be remembered for a considerable period".

Eamonn Mac Ruairí recalls how Séamus O Dúgáin (Jimí) would be "called out" to sing. "If the night were going down, you could be sure that he was going to do something to bring the night up again," says Mac Ruairí.

Specific words were used to describe the atmosphere and the mounting excitement of the night. "Concepts of 'teas', heat, and 'fuacht', cold were directly linked to others, those of 'cumha', a grieving or pining feeling, and 'uaigneas', loneliness, supernatural fear, and to the negotiating by which the mimetic reality of the dance was reconciled with the reality of the world outside . . . All wished to avoid the coldness instilled in uaigneas, a sign that the protective barrier between the configured time of the dance and the mundane concerns of the everyday was being breached, indicating a return to its struggles and strife."

The night had two halves divided by song performance, regarded as the high point, and signalling the departure point for the elders. It seems as if this was the time at the dance during which the emotional "temperature" was most apparent.

In conclusion, Ó Laoire maintains that such attitudes to song and performance need not be considered "cultural fossils" or outmoded survivals. They represent an aesthetic based on popular conceptions of the human condition, the idea of "buaireamh an tsaoil", the sorrows of the world, and the links established between the two, whether these are experienced on offshore islands or in city suburbs.

He believes that reverence and love for this ancient music tradition in a small community like Tory "reveals that it is a structure deeply ingrained in the human imagination, notwithstanding superficial transformations effected by modernism and, indeed, by post- modernism".

On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island by Lillis Ó Laoire, with accompanying CD, is published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta in association with the Scarecrow Press, Inc. Available from, €35