Saileog Ní Cheannabháin

With her sean-nós singing influences rooted in the Iorras Aithneach region of Connemara, county Galway, among Saileog Ní Cheannabháin’s achievements is her contribution to keeping an important part of our western cultural heritage alive.

With Irish the first language at home, and music a steadfast part of family life, Saileog Ní Cheannabháin’s interest in sean-nós singing occurred without conscious thought, organically part of family life: “I never even thought I was getting into it, it was always there, it was more like, I want to learn that song that I heard when I was four or even five…you know it was never something I consciously decided on”.

A native Irish speaker, Saileog grew up in a household where Irish was spoken at home. She was educated through Irish and attended an Irish speaking school or ‘Gaelscoil’. Music was at the centre of her home with singing and playing music part of family life. Saileog’s parents were central in bringing music and the Irish language together at home. Saileog’s father is Peadar Ó Ceannabháin who is also a performer of traditional Irish singing and released ‘Mo Chuid den tSaol’ in 1997, a collection of sean-nós songs from Connemara. Peadar also lectures in Irish at University College Dublin. Saileog’s mother plays the classical violin, her brother and sister are both in bands, and also play a number of instruments.

Saileog Ní Cheannabháin

As Saileog grew up her father would sing Sean-Nós around the house, play Sean-Nós singing and tell stories of the songs and the singers behind them. Saileog explains: “He’d be singing around the house, and he’d play all these singers for us, and he’d tell us about them”. Sean-nós is a style of singing rooted in the Gaeltacht regions of Ireland. Songs are sung in the Irish language and traditionally unaccompanied. Saileog tells of how this is an important trait of the sean-nós style: “My favourite way to listen to a sean-nós song would be someone who has no accompaniment. I think that is what is special about it, to hear someone’s voice properly. You can hear them singing the song, and telling you the song, in their own way”. One Gaeltacht area is the Iorras Aithneach region in Connemara, in the west of county Galway. This is where Saileog’s sean-nós musical influences are rooted.

Saileog’s knowledge of sean-nós was built at home, but she also took lessons in the traditional fiddle, classical piano and theory throughout her childhood and teens. She also became interested in world music and wanted to broaden her knowledge and skills. This led Saileog to study music in University College Cork, where she graduated with her degree in music in 2009. She studied a variety of music for her degree, including Indian and South American music. She says: “I like experimenting, but I like to have a balance between the old and the new.”

While in University College Cork she won the Seán Ó Riada Prize for her study of the Songs and Singers of Iorras Aithneach. As well as her accomplishments in the study and singing of sean-nós, Saileog plays traditional music on the fiddle, viola and piano. She also plays classical music on the piano and teaches the fiddle, piano and singing. Last year, Saileog released her own CD of sean-nós songs, which were collected by Seamus Ennis in Iorras Aithneach between 1942 and 1945. Saileog has also been involved in music for theatre performances and was involved a production of the Tempest by the St. John’s Mill Theatre Company in county Kerry. She has sung and played at various festivals, including Féile Joe Éiniú, Scoil Geimhreadh Merriman, Cooley-Collins Festival and Scoil Samhradh Willie Clancy.

Saileog is a member of Ensemble Ériu, a group developed by concertina player Jack Talty and double bassist and flute player Neil O’Loghlen, both of whom Saileog met in University College Cork. The ensemble combines musicians from a variety of backgrounds, such as traditional Irish music and jazz. Ensemble Éríu formed just over a year ago and released its debut album in September.

Being a full time singer and musician is something that is continually worked at. Saileog points out the importance of building up networks, and festivals are good places to meet people and build connections. Having performed internationally in England, Scotland, Spain and France, Saileog also sees international opportunities for sean-nós singing and traditional Irish music more broadly: “Sean-nós and traditional music, traditional music is popular in most countries; they seem to love it in America and places like Germany or sometimes France. You’ll find there are a lot of places where you’ll find people who are into Irish singing, in Japan they love traditional music”.

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