As an Irish publisher, I’m always interested in Irish stories no matter what the medium used, hence I’d heard of the film Song of Granite long before I finally got a chance to see it earlier this month. A movie by Irish art-house director Pat Collins, Song of Granite tells – or rather illustrates – the life story of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (known in English as Joe Heaney), the famous Irish sean-nós (unaccompanied, old style) singer from County Galway.
No one could deny Heaney was an accomplished singer and the folklorists adored him as his repertoire reputedly included over five hundred different songs in Irish, many whose origins had been lost and which were impossible to date definitively.
Collins approaches the story in an interesting way, splitting the film into three parts: Heany’s childhood in Carna, his life as an emigrant labourer in Glasgow and his later his years in America where he eventualy died in 1984. On a cinematographic level, the first part of the movie is certainly the most spectacular with many scenes – including the opening scene of the boats – reminiscent of the famous ‘Man of Aran’.
Although Collins approaches Heaney’s story in an indirect manner, it seems to suit the subject of the movie. Heany, by all accounts, was something of an elusive and prickly figure. Never entirely comfortable with his life in the city and his growing reputation as a singer, he often disappeared without warning, deserting his family for periods of over a year, sometimes returning back to the country where he worked on simple labouring jobs. It’s never stated directly that he’s fleeing the city but there’s one telling shot where he’d looking down at his kids in Glasgow, where they’re trying to play football in the concrete confines of a narrow alley-way. After the panoramic freedom and grandeur of Carna, the comparison is obvious.
The singing, of course, forms an essential part of the story and is present throughout the film. My favourite scene is one very-well recreated pub-scene where Heaney (played by Micheál Ó Confhaola) sings while getting that supportive touch of another sean-nós singer, something that’s totally distinctive to that particular art-form.
One aspect of Heany that came across (and which I wasn’t aware of) was his refusal to sing songs derived from the Irish music-hall stage (the ‘Oirish’ songs overseas audiences were used to hearing, and which many people demanded). Most people feel comfortable when another culture is presented to them in a familiar (i.e. in their language, in concepts they’re accustomed to dealing with etc.) and I really appreciated the way that Heany appeared to see himself as much more than that.
Either way, if you’re interested in sean-nós singing, Joe Heany’s life or a beautiful and poetic rendition of an earlier time and art-from, than this is very much the film for you.