A Singing Group Widens Its Circle of Trad Enthusiasts

“I can’t sing this sitting back on the sofa,” says Corinne Male, readjusting herself on her plump beige couch. “It’s got too much range.”

Through a laptop screen, Male is settling in to sing “The Bloody Gardener” from her living room, inspired by her experience that week of an unreliable workman.

She’s one of 75 attendees at a weekly online singing session hosted by An Góilín.

In normal times, this traditional singers club would gather each Friday evening in The Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square, and settle into a night of unaccompanied singing and, even more importantly, listening.

Founded in 1979 in the Pembroke Inn on Lower Pembroke Street, An Góilín provides a space for fans of traditional music to share their voices and knowledge of songs with an avid community of listeners.

“It happens to me regularly still that I hear songs that I’ve never heard before,” says Antaine Ó Faracháin, a traditional singer and club member since its early days. “It’s very vibrant in that sense.”

An Góilín started 40 years ago because there wasn’t a lot of space for traditional singing in folk clubs and music sessions in the city, says Ó Faracháin.

Especially if you wanted to join in yourself, he says. “That was probably the original idea that it would give a chance to people who wanted to sing songs.”

Since March, An Góilín has migrated to Zoom, where members are finding a wider audience tuning in and piping up.

Traditional Singing

A traditional Góilín singing session in The Teacher’s Club goes something like this.

You pay three quid at the door, and people gather chairs and spread out. A green flag with An Góilín emblazoned in gold reminds them why they’re there.

The Bean or Fear an Tí opens the night with a couple of songs. Followed then by songs by committee members, and club stalwarts, before opening to the floor.

The club’s main fare is traditional songs, sung mostly in English and Irish, but all songs no matter the tongue are welcome, says Ó Faracháin.

It’s a space where traditional singing styles like Sean Nós still fill the air, says O’Faracháin, and a place where these traditions are shared and renewed for each generation.

“It is a living tradition,” he says. “It is passed down from generation to generation – that is true, but it’s also passed from person to person who is alive in the present.”

There’s a subculture of people who would have found the group after listening to Luke Kelly, the Clancy Brothers, and Frank Harte, says Jerry O’Reilly, a club organiser and frequent Fear an Tí, or “chair” of the singing sessions.

Photo courtesy of Maire Ni Chroinin

At the Teacher’s Club on a typical Friday night, listening is as important as singing, if not more.

You might only have a chance to sing one song and the rest of the time it’s just you in a room listening to the songs sung around you, says Máire Ní Chróinín, a committee member.

It’s in such a space, where listeners are enraptured to the naked voice echoing in the open room, where magic happens, says Ó Faracháin.

Songs trigger memories, emotions, or that collective feeling of all being tuned into one lone voice, he says.

The songs can sometimes assert themselves on the room. One song reminds you of another, and another, says Ó Faracháin. “Sometimes a theme can generate just by a spark that goes around.”

Ní Chróinín got involved in An Góilín after stumbling across the group on a weekend away with a set dancing group 30 years ago, she says. She was invited back to their Dublin sessions.

The first few years of solo singing were nerve-wracking, she says. “Holy god the adrenaline rush.”

“It’s not X-Factor. It’s you and your voice. And you’re exposed in a way that you’re absolutely not if you’ve got a music accompaniment backing you,” says Ní Chróinín.

But it passes with time, she says.

An Online Session

Four decades of regular Friday night sessions halted in March. Later, the club noticed the Inishowen Singing Weekend using Zoom.

“We quickly picked up on that then,” says O’Reilly, the Fear an Tí for last Friday’s online singing session.

The protocols of a regular singing night had to be suspended. Normally, the first voice to pipe up after another finishes a song claims their right to sing, but that would have meant pandemonium online, says Ní Chróinín.

For the first few weeks or so of the online singing session, it wasn’t a well-rosined process.

“People that you knew wanted to sing didn’t even know how to put the hand up,” says Ní Chróinín. But they quickly worked their way through the issues.

Last Friday night online, the singing session kicked off at 9pm with hosting duties led by O’Reilly.

Songs about migration and miscarriages of justice, labour conditions, sport and Christmas blend one into the next . The chat box is alive with praise for the singers and songs.

O’Reilly makes his way down the list and some participants can be taken by surprise that it’s their turn to sing.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” says Male, before shaking it off and introducing her song choice.

After an hour, it’s time for special guests Pippa and Will Noble, traditional singers from Yorkshire in England, performing live from Will’s childhood bedroom in his family home.

The pair delve into some traditional Sheffield carols for the season. One is a song Will sings at the Carol session at The Royal at Dunworth, he says. “It’s a song I’ve been singing for 25 years.”

Pippa sets up her cello. “You were missing it a bit this time weren’t you,” she says.

Will stands to sing, a little uncertain whether he can be seen by the listeners on Zoom, until a thumbs-up appears on the chat. He bellows a rousing rendition of “The Mistletoe Bough” in his deep baritone.

The Future

“I’ve always believed anyway that you shouldn’t let technology dominate culture but you should use technology so you can facilitate culture,” says Ó Faracháin. “And that’s basically what we’re doing.”

We’ve always wanted to open up the Góilín more, says Ó Faracháin. To a greater spread of ages, nationalities and genders.

“The platform has helped that development,” he says. More younger people have tuned in from all over the world, and more have attended online than usually in person.

In the future, they probably won’t Zoom it every week, says Ó Faracháin. “But there is nothing to stop us doing it maybe every three weeks.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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