Trad/roots: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin's timely invocation of the goddesses
Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin's song Beannú was born of the realisation that we've forgotten much about Ireland's goddesses, so rich a part of the island's heritage, and of the general need right now for some spiritual solace
All the clichés about “these strange times” and “the new normal” are beginning to grind as we try to make sense of the Covid-19-endangered world we live in.
And while we mourn the ill, the dying and the dead, those who have managed to avoid any of the serious consequences of the coronavirus are finding solace in the simpler things they hadn’t noticed before or had taken for granted.
People are connecting with each other in a more meaningful way, rediscovering the nature that surrounds them and finding comfort in the arts that have survived the pandemic. We have been given time to look, not only around ourselves, but also into ourselves and finding new depths in our lives.
For Oriel singer, composer and songwriter Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, this whole process has led to her putting a new song called Beannú/Blessing online, although the inspiration came from far away.
“I’d been invited to the Irish embassy in Delhi along with Michael Longley and the late Ciarán Carson, where one of the Indian poets remarked about Irish goddesses because there are so many goddesses celebrated in Hinduism and Buddhism and I had to think very hard and all I could come up with was Brigid.
“So when I came home I did some research and I realised how much we’d forgotten and that’s what inspired me to acknowledge or to invoke Irish goddesses.”
The idea stayed in Pádraigín’s mind until this summer when she returned to songwriting and to the other ideas she had been working on, Beannú being one of them.
“I thought it was timely, during Covid-19, to invoke their blessing and to re-energise their memory but it was purely coincidental that I chose 19 different goddesses – that was not the plan.”
The goddesses each have different qualities which are manifestations of divine energies, which we all encompass within ourselves, both male and female.
“You have Cliodhna, the goddess of beauty, and Áine, the goddess of the otherworld, Bóann, the goddess of the river Boyne and so on,” says Pádraigín.
“Of course, many places and geographical features in Ireland were named after goddesses so they have come to personify the land. Indeed, three ancient names for Ireland derive from goddesses – Ériú, Fódhla and Banba. But there is no doubt that we have abused Mother Earth and if we were to see the world as a manifestation of the divine in the shape of human body – the paps, the mountains, the rivers – we might appreciate her more, as ancient traditional peoples always did."
When Christianity arrived in Ireland these goddesses took on a Christian dimension and Bríd or Brigid is an example of that.
“Brigid is a good example of that,” explains Pádraigín. “She was a mother goddess, a goddess of inspiration, of poetry, of feeling, of craftwork so her qualities were incorporated by the early Christians. There definitely was a Saint Brigid, there is no doubt about that, but many of the qualities attributed to her may have been inherited from the pre-Christian Mother goddess, Bríd.”
Beannú also is a lovely song to sing, evoking the sun and the moon, the four directions, which is a very shamanic practice but it also found in traditional songs in Irish.
“In some of the grieving songs, the keening woman would invoke the sun and the moon and the stars as also being weeping in empathetic grief,” Pádraigín explains.
The whole world of Irish song is encapsulated in her magisterial book A Hidden Ulster and her musical interests reflect different periods of her life.
“As a mother and a teacher of young children, I did a lot of work on children’s song. Then when I was in my young middle years I concentrated a lot on love songs and also songs of loss and grief, and then when I was in the Seamus Heaney Centre, I concentrated on the poems of the monastic period, the ninth-12th century, and setting them to song in collaboration with Ciarán Carson and Seamus Heaney, both now sadly no longer with us.
“These new songs now reflect a spiritual awareness that I’ve had for a long time and now I maybe have the confidence to sing it out.
"But there is also a feeling that I have served my dues to the tradition. I have done a lot in restoring song and it is now timely at this stage of my life, to focus on some of the songwriting that I have done over many years."
Awarded the TG4 Gradam Ceoil for her Outstanding Contribution to Traditional Song, Pádraigín has said she is planning a new album.
“Beannú is one of the songs and I’m working on another song from the keening tradition and another body of songs," she says. "Now I’m looking for funding to record them because recording songs is more expensive than maybe publishing a book of poetry because so many other people are involved and you need a studio – and the days when a record company did that for you are long gone."
However, the new technology has its benefits too as she found out when she put Beannú on social media.
“I was told there was no point in putting the song online unless there was a video to go with it, which was news to me,” she says. “However, I was amazed that, within a week, 360 people had shared the song with their friends. Most of my songs would get maybe 10 shares but in the words of my son, Beannú went semi-viral!”
Indeed, Pádraigin thinks that the various lockdowns will lead to a period of great creativity for people if they have courage and avoid being fearful and that will materialise over the next couple of years.
“I think it will be all right in the end in that artists will be more valued, because I think artists have been used for a long, long time, seen as almost superfluous and labelled under 'entertainment', when it is much, much, much deeper than that,” she says.
“Art is like food. It nurtures, it raises the spirit – it’s a real gift."
:: You can watch and listen to Beannú on Pádraigín’s website, irishsong.com