Episode #14: Anthropologist Steve Coleman on Irish-Language Songs and Literature

Steve Coleman is an American anthropologist at Maynooth University who  studies the Irish language and the Gaeltacht way of life. As part of that project, in the 1970s he got to know the legendary sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, whose music we talk about here.

Steve also talks about how the linguistic anthropology approach can influence our understanding of one of the great Irish novels of the 20th century, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille.

Joe Heaney. Image from joeheaney.org

What kind of musical and literary tradition emerges from a marginalised and often radicalised community, whose cultural products are valued in theory more than in practice? And what influence did American listeners have on the way that sean-nós singing was packaged and delivered by Heaney and others?

The anthropological view looks at the ways that tradition, culture and everyday ways of life influence each other.  How much does language form a group’s world-view, and how free are its members to think beyond their linguistic limitations? And what happens when two languages, English and Irish, co-exist in comfortable and uncomfortable proximity over the centuries?

Joe Heaney next to the cover of the 1971 Gael-Linn LP of his work.

This interview includes some extracts of song performances by Joe Heaney and directs listeners to where they can keep listening to this unique musical tradition (see the link below also).




Further Listening and Reading

Steve Coleman (we don’t have a picture of him!) is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology in Maynooth University. See his staff profile here. This interview offers a preview of some of the ideas that will appear on his forthcoming book, titled The Welcoming Clay.