Sinéad O'Connor (b 1966)

Irish singer of pop, rock and folk music.

"Sean-Nos Nua" sleeve notes by Sinead O'Connor

1. Peggy Gordon

Luke Kelly made this song famous. But it was Elizabeth Cotton, an African-American woman from north Carolina who originally gave it to an American song-collector. It is usually sung my men in Ireland but I like it as a song sung by a female. I first heard it from a woman who was singing it as an expression of mourning for the loss of her female lover. I fell in love with the song as an expression of homosexual love, which often is not allowed in Ireland. It is a whisper of a song, which to me expresses the sheet fragility of homosexual love in a world that teaches, against God, that love is conditional.

2. Her Mantle so Green

There is a tradition in Irish songs, of a young soldier returning home from war in disguise to see if his woman has been true by pretending he is a friend of the lover, and that the lover has died. Rather cruel really! And for some reason all the men singing in these songs think it's ok to come home and pretend they're dead and get their woman in a terrible state and then say 'Ha ha, I was only joking'. For me, the song is really about the love of the people of Ireland for their culture and their experience of having to let the culture reform in order to be born again as something more joyous. This what I believe is taking place right now in Ireland, as represented by the narrator in disguise, shows that the Ireland we romanticised for so long about is going to be something much better than we were taught to long for, which was an Ireland united by bullshit, instead of united by love. From war or bad circumstance, Jah comes in disguise as people in need of our aid, with all the golden gifts they bring.

3. Lord Franklin

This is the story of Sir John Franklin (1786 - 1847) who set out (for some crazy reason) to discover the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean and was lost. It is told by his wife, Jane, who spent many years and all her fortune searching for her husband in vain. The song begins while she is on the way home in one of the searching ships dreaming that she is with her love and his crew. She wakes to find the dream untrue and the rest is her grief song.

4. The Singing Bird

To me, this song is a prayer and the Singing Bird is Jah. I first heard it sung by the McPeakes in sean-nos (that is to say 'acapella', for the posh people; or literally 'old style'). For me, the song acknowledges the greatness of Jah above all powers. It also acknowledges that prayers given in praise of Ja, bring a sense of connection with The Most High, love, peace and utter joy into one's heart. This song, when sung, is a meditation and has healing effects upon the singer.

5. Óró Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile

This song, for me, celebrates the return of any women to her power, having lost it to invading forces. It is an honouring of the female warrior spirit and of the right of women to be true to themselves despite what the world dictates what they 'should' be. A song celebrating the preciousness of female ferocity, strength and fire. It shows that a suppressed spirit only creates loss and depression and only by being one's true self can one find joy. This is represented by the coming of summer in the song. It was taught to all young school children in Ireland until recently, but its meaning was never explained. We were taught it was a rowing song. In actuality it is a war song in honour of Grace O'Malley otherwise known as Grainne Mhaol, a warrior noblewoman of Ireland who lived at the time of Elizabeth I, and whose ships were a formidable force on the Irish west coast.

6. Molly Malone

This I learned from my father, who loves Dublin and its history. It is a popular song about the old Dublin street traders, about a Dublin which has been lost in the mists of time. My dad would sing it in the car when we were children. In my opinion most other didn't seem to feel the real emotions of the song like he did. They'd blast it out until it blocked out the ghosts that were speaking. My father tender gentility to the song so that one could feel the ghosts.

7. Paddy's Lament

This song tells the story of an Irish immigrant to the US in the 19th century. In flight from hunger, he finds himself conscripted under Generel Lincoln in the American Civil War. General Thomas Francis Meagher, from Waterford, was organiser and commander of the Irish Brigade in the Union Army. I first heard the song twelve years ago when I was living in Los Angeles during the Gulf War. the incredible Mary Black was the singer. It was song so beautifully that needless to say it struck a large chord. It is the best anti-war song ever made, in my humble opinion. The ghost of the man speaking through the song is so present that I feel I could reach out and touch him and he'd be flesh and bone. You have to believe in ghosts to be open to singing it. Then he jumps right in and off he goes, little old man with a big message.

8. The Moorlough Shore

The Moorlough Shore is one of my favourite songs of all time. I first heard it seven or so years ago on a 'Saydisc' compilation which had an old man singing it sean-nos. It seems to a song which tells a store of impulsiveness and impatience, and the sorrow which can be caused by running away from one's problems. A young man doesn't get what he wants and is not prepared to wait. He leaves because the woman he loves won't go out with him straight away but says he has to wait seven years in case her husband should return alive from wherever he is at war. He runs away from his grief and her test of him and in consequence his old age is full of loneliness and longing for his home. The song really advises, that in life it's better to face one's losses and grief when they happen than to run away from them and regret running when it's too late to stop. 

9. The Parting Glass

A metaphor for life's bittersweet leave takings, this song is a traditional closing anthem. It is well known in both Ireland in Scotland. Before "Auld Lang Syne", it was the most popular parting song in Scotland.

10. Baidin Fheilimi

This is another song which is taught to all Irish school children at a young age. It tells the story of Feilimi  Cam Ó Baoill, a chieftain of the Rosses in the 17th century. He has to take to the islands off Donegal to escape his archenemy Maolmhuire an Bhala Bhui Mao Suibhne. Tory island was more inaccessible and seemed safer than Gola, but his little boat was wrecked there. For me, the song is one of defiance and bravery in spite of terrible odds. It is a song of encouragement that we should be true to ourselves even if being means 'defeat'. A song of the beauty of freedom. And a song of the power of the sea as a metaphor for the unconscious mind. It shows that we can never escape our soul.

11. My Lagan Love

For me, this is a song about love and sex. It's certainly one of the sexiest songs that I have ever heard. Obviously it's a love song, but, for me, it also has political undertones. The Lady represents Ireland and the song itself has a defiant ring to it. It was written in a time when it was against the law to write obviously about Ireland. So the poets and songwriters would refer to Ireland as a beautiful woman. And to their love of Ireland and their desire for its freedom, as being akin to the sexual love and desire for a woman who is compared with the land. She is a lily made of the twilight, the night and of magic. She is Ireland. 

12. Lord Baker

This song I first heard fifteen years ago on a Planxty record with Christy Moore singing it. Christy got it from a settled traveller named John Reilly, who lived in Roscommon. Christy altered some of the words, as he couldn't always understand John pronunciation. DK Wilgus and Tom Munnelly recorded 36 of Reilly's songs in 1968. Reilly died of pneumonia at the age of 43, six weeks after the recordings were made. Some of his songs were released later on a Topic album named 'The Bonny Green Tree'. for me the songs has similarities with the great 'Song of Solomon' in the Judaic and Christian holy scriptures. It speaks of a love relationship between a man and a woman and a promise made of undying love. But underneath, the subtext tells the story tells of the relationship between God and Mankind. They make a vow for seven years and seven more. I like the fact that, (usually), the woman represents God and sets Baker free, making him promise loyalty and love. Baker almost breaks his promise, as his faith weakens with age, and Turkey's daughter arrives just in time to prevent him marrying a false love who only cares for his material wealth. The song remind me of some very beautiful lines in 'The Song of Solomon' otherwise known as 'The Song of Songs' - 'Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; and jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which have a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would be laughed to scorn'.

13. I'll Tell Me Ma.

Another song learned in childhood. It was originally a Belfast skipping song but was also popular among Dublin children, such as myself. The naming of local people in the song contrasts with the deliberate failure to name the girl whom the song is about, which of course, only serves to increase her allure.

Last updated on 24/07/2010