Sean Williams Discusses the Legacy of Irish Singer Joe Heaney

Sean Williams teaches ethnomusicology, the study of music in cultural context. She plays more than 30 musical instruments and has traveled to—and lived in—many parts of the world. She teaches with colleagues from all over campus, and takes students to Ireland in her “Ireland in History and Memory” program every three years. Her 2011 book, Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man, won the top award in her field. Her work focuses on the many ways in which music and culture intersect through spirituality, urbanization, food, immigration, gender, language, and politics.

Here, she discusses the legacy of Joe Heaney (1919-1984) who was an Irish traditional singer and story-teller from Carna, Ireland.

Heaney was a leading and magisterial exponent of the sean-nos (‘old-style’ unaccompanied Irish-language) and had a repertory of several hundred songs that he learned from his father, aunt, and neighbors. This repertory included religious songs as well as local love songs and political ballads. In 1947, Heaney emigrated to Scotland and later moved to England where he worked as a labourer. He became popular among folk revivalists while in England, and when he returned to Ireland in 1957, became one of the first sean-nos singers to record commercially.

In the late 1950s, Heaney moved to the United States and worked as a doorman in New York City while performing at folk festivals and leading academic workshops. In the 1970s, he served as a visiting artist at the University of Washington, Seattle, where the archives of his music remain to this day.

Listen to Joe Heaney sing Caoineadh Na Tri Mhuire (The Lament of the Three Marys)

Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man

Bright Star of the West traces the life, repertoire, and influence of Joe Heaney, Ireland’s greatest sean-nós (“old style”) singer. Born in 1919, Joe Heaney grew up in a politically volatile time, as his native Ireland became a democracy. He found work and relative fame as a singer in London before moving to Scotland. Eventually, like many others searching for greater opportunity, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a doorman while supplementing his income with appearances at folk festivals, concerts and clubs. As his reputation and following grew, Heaney gained entry to the folk music scene and began leading workshops as a visiting artist at several universities. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Heaney America’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts, the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. Although Heaney’s works did not become truly popular in his homeland until many years after his death, today he is hailed as a seminal figure of traditional song and is revered by those who follow traditional music.

Authors Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire address larger questions about song, identity, and culture. They explore the deep ambivalence both the Irish and Irish-Americans felt toward the traditional aspects of their culture, examining other critical issues, such as gender and masculinity, authenticity, and contemporary marketing and consumption of sean-nós singing in both Ireland and the United States. Comingling Heaney’s own words with the authors’ comprehensive research and analysis, Bright Star of the West weaves a poignant critical biography of the man, the music, and his continuing legacy in Ireland and the United States.