Sean Williams brings traditional Irish music some respect

Sean Williams

Biography of Ireland’s Joe Heaney takes top ethnomusicology prize

By John McLain

Joe Heaney may have been the greatest Gaelic singer Ireland ever produced, but he had to leave home in order to be heard.

At the height of his powers in the middle of the 20th century, Heaney (1919-1984) evoked an Ireland many Irish wished to forget. Far from popular “Irish” standards like “Danny Boy,” which romanticized a country that never existed, or the rock-and-roll that let Irish youth escape into an emerging global culture, Heaney’s music embodied Ireland’s complex and rugged past—a history that included poverty, famine and colonialism. When Heaney moved to the United States in the 1960s, the sean-nós (pronounced shan noce) style of singing he had mastered, the memory of the culture and country he heralded, and even the Irish language in which he sang all seemed destined to disappear.

For almost three decades, faculty member Sean Williams has been keeping Heaney’s work alive through articles, the seven Irish Studies programs she’s taught at Evergreen, and most recently the book, Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man (Oxford 2011), a critical biography she co-wrote with Irish scholar and sean-nós singer Lillis Ó Laoire. “I wanted people to understand a type of music that looked like it was disappearing,” Williams says. “I wanted Irish people to have a sense of what they lost when he left Ireland.”

Heaney and other sean-nós singers contrast sharply with the English-speaking Irish tenors popular at mid-century. “Tenors were often feminized,” Williams said. “The feminized, colonized male is a hallmark of where the British have been—you render the exotic harmless and safe for English society. But the sean-nós singers like Joe Heaney are fishermen and farmers. They sing bass. They’re sexy and masculine, not feminized at all. They’re not colonized. They’re dangerous.”

Williams met Heaney in the early 1980s when he was a guest artist at the University of Washington and she was a graduate student in the ethnomusicology program there. He eventually taught her more than 600 songs. “He made it his job to disseminate the music as quickly and widely as possible because it looked like the people of Ireland were ready to forget all of it.”

Last fall, Bright Star of the West won the Society for Ethnomusicology’s coveted Alan P. Merriam Prize for the most distinguished English language book in the field. To Williams, the prize is an honor for her and Ó Laoire and an important critical recognition of Heaney’s contributions. More than that, it’s a vindication for the study of traditional Irish music, once seen as a career dead end for young ethnomusicologists.

It seems certain that the book and the award would have made Heaney happy. But he might have been just as pleased by another recent event in Williams’ life. “I met a student that I had almost 20 years ago,” she says. “He still remembered all the words of every Joe Heaney song that I taught him—in English and in Irish.”