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Wednesday 7 November 2012

Interview with Ellen MacIsaac on competing in sean-nos singing at the Oireachtas na Samhna, Letterkenny

CCE Ottawa Branch member, Ellen MacIsaac, who this past week competed for the first time in sean-nos singing at the Oireachtas na Samhna in Letterkenny, has graciously consented to a brief interview. This is what she told us in her own words.

Describe in your own words what sean-nos singing is all about.
For the uninitiated, sean-nos refers to a highly ornamented, unaccompanied style of singing in the Irish language. It has its own repertoire, regional styles, and adherents, quite apart from the English language tradition (In fact, you'll kind of insult Irish speakers by calling English language traditional singing "sean-nos"). It's an intensely personal, intensely emotional kind of singing that elicits intense opinions, discussions, and reactions. It's also all about community. You sing the songs of your community, you are supported by your community, and singing the songs in a session helps reinforce community ties.
How did you develop interest in sean-nos singing?
I got interested in the style when I went to Ireland to do my Masters' and my Doctorate [studies]. I wanted to understand the mythos that surrounded this kind of singing, and how people from outside of the traditional communities had gone about becoming part of the community of singers and known for this style of singing.

How did you qualify to go to Ireland to compte, and how do you prepare for competition?
I took part in the sean-nos singing competition at the Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada (, and got first place. The prize was the plane fare to come to Ireland to compete in the Oireachtas na Samhna, which is the festival on which the Canadian one is based. You have to understand, though, that the expectation is that you`ll have your songs memorized, so I spent most of the four months between the Oireachtas in Kingston and the one in Letterkenny memorizing words, practicing the ornaments, and figuring out the best key to sing the song in.
How was the competition organized?
The "old" Oireachtas (as people were calling it up in Letterkenny) has every competitor in a category sing a slow song. Based on how well they did, the judges call back five of the best to sing a fast song, and then make their decision of a winner based on that. In Canada, we tend to let everyone sing both a slow and a fast song. We don't have 20 competitors per category - yet!
Describe your experience at the competition?
The competition itself was like pretty much every other competition I've ever taken part in; it was nerve-wrecking to start with, but at a certain point the work I put in during practice took over and I just went up and did it. I won't lie, I was a little disappointed at not being called back for the second song, but I also realize that pretty much no-body gets the call back on their first time. The other competitors had been doing these competitions for years. But what was interesting to me was seeing how the singing style fits into the bigger whole of the culture - the singing, dancing, poetry, literature, music, all of it is one big continuum.
Do you have any advice for people that would like to compete at the event?
Yes, there's a couple of pieces of important advice for anyone who wants to give this a serious try:
a) Work at getting as much of the language under your belt as possible. The more you have the easier things will be for you pretty much all the way through.
b) It's helpful to pick a regional style and repertoire, and get familiar with the best, most representative singers of that area. Connemara style is the most commonly known, and the most popular style.
c) Mimic the style by mimicking the singers. Sing along to recordings.
d) Make sure to memorize your songs, at least one slow song and one fast.
e) Try to internalize the songs. Remember that most Irish have a "party piece" ready to go at the drop of a hat. Try to get so familiar with your songs that you can sing them at the drop of a hat.
f) Don't feel bad if you don't get the call-back on the first time; this kind of singing can take years to master, and even native Irish speakers take years to get good enough to get the call-back.
Now that you have experienced the competition in Ireland, would you like to try again?
I likely will.
Does Ireland provide any financial support to compete?
Yes, as mentioned before, they provide the plane fare to go over to Ireland to compete.

Thank you Ellen.
You're very welcome.

Ellen also provides this link to the television apprearance on a popular show. The day’s main news stories from a regional, national and international perspective live from Oireachtas na Samhna in Letterkenny (it is a big file so it takes a little while to upload).

The video clip is composed of three parts (separated by commercials). Fast forward the first two parts, if you wish. Part 1 is 18 minutes, part 2 is 14 minutes. Part 3: Description or Oireachas Canada is at 07:36, Gaelic Choir at 7:53, Aralt talking about Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada at 8:40, and Ellen's singing at 10:24.
Interviewer: Patricia Avendano

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Until next time / Go dtí an chéad uair eile!