Niall Hanna keeping Geordie's songs alive
Traditional singing is here to stay, award-winning singer Niall Hanna tells Gail Bell as the Hanna family launch a new book celebrating the life and songs of Geordie Hanna, one its greatest exponents
WHEN Traditional Singer of the Year, Niall Hanna, takes a bow in the televised TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards - filmed at the Whitla Hall at Queen's University last week - the one family member not seated among the restricted audience, the grandad he never knew, will most likely be the one clapping loudest in his head.
As the 29-year-old grandson of the late Geordie Hanna - now the subject of a new book - the primary school teacher, singer and musician hopes he has done his bit to continue his grandfather's legacy and keep traditional singing alive for the next generation.
"It's important to keep the old songs going, although it wasn't until I was 18 or 19 that I started to see the real value of the songs that my grandfather sang," says the Co Tyrone man, an award-winning singer and guitarist whose Autumn Winds album was released as part of the BBC's Young Musicians Platform Award a few years ago.
"People aren't singing them as much now, unfortunately, and if they aren't being sung, they can easily be lost."
Hopefully that won't be the case now that the Hanna family has produced, with meticulous research, a book detailing one of our greatest traditional singing exponents in Geordie Hanna, The Man and The Songs.
Niall, who grew up with Sean nós coming out of his highly tuned ears, is delighted to have contributed to the recently launched publication, he and his classically trained fiancée, Rachel McGarrity, having provided the notation and sheet music for a number of songs that feature in the second half of the book.
"This book has been a long time coming - the project first got off the ground as far back as 2015/16, but when my aunt Alish (chair of the Geordie Hanna Traditional Singing Society - GHTSS) mentioned about compiling a book about Geordie, I was very much onboard with the whole idea," he says.
"Sadly, my grandfather had passed away before I was born, but I felt connected through the family having started up a traditional singing festival in his name and the Geordie Hanna Traditional Singing Society.
"I was always being told about his songs and his stories and how people remembered him, so I suppose I did get to know him a bit that way. And the first song I ever learned is the first song listed in the book - On Yonder Hill. It's a short wee song but has a real connection with people and place."
With emotional connection and sense of place at the core of evocative Irish song, family and identity tend to feature prominently in the lyrics.
As author of Geordie Hanna, Martin J McGuinness (a nephew of the book's subject) points out: "Geordie felt a great attachment to the [Derrytresk] townland and loved to hear it celebrated in so many of the songs of the Loughshore, including some that had been in the Hanna family for generations.
"Being born in England, I had never experienced that bond of attachment to an Irish home, or indeed the pain of having to break it... the sense of community and identity was much stronger here than what I had experienced in Lancaster."
That sense of community is vividly brought to life in the book - published with help from The Lough Neagh Partnership, Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership and the National Lottery Heritage Fund - and at the heart of it is Geordie Hanna himself, whether telling a yarn in a bar or bursting spontaneously into a poignant ballad of some sort in someone's house.
"Granda was a bit of a character by all accounts, as well as being a well-known and celebrated traditional singer," says Niall.
"He had a very warm personality and people were drawn to him - he also had this very unique way of singing; his ornamentation and phrasing, for instance, were unique.
"He was a storyteller too - he would have stood up in a bar or wherever he was singing and would have told a story about the song and people loved that. He didn't play an instrument and he sang unaccompanied, but that would have been the case for a lot of people from his generation.
"They would just have gone into each other's houses and started to sing unprepared, just off-the-cuff. It was a way for them to entertain themselves - by telling stories and singing songs."
And, according to the book, Geordie would also pause occasionally while working on the lough or in the moss and "and sing a song simply for his own pleasure". As well as these informal vocal displays, the sometime eel fisherman, sometime turf cutter and labourer, was well known on the 'proper' stage too, his singing career first credited with taking off at the 1976 All-Ireland Fleadh in Buncrana, Co Donegal.
That event segued into a marathon singing session in the bar, apparently, continuing from four o'clock in the afternoon to four o'clock the next morning, with chips and sausages being passed through a window at night to help keep the singers going.
Since that "watershed" Buncrana Fleadh, invitations to sing at various traditional singing events arrived from all over Ireland and beyond and Geordie quickly became an ambassador for Ulster traditional singing, travelling widely and singing for Irish communities in England, America and Canada.
Away from the singing, though, there were struggles with his being "a wee bit on the Kildare side" - a euphemism, says the book's author, for his, at times, "problematic" relationship with alcohol, and then there was the illegal cock fighting...
"They had their own culture which seemed to exist outside of what was officially sanctioned by the State, from which they felt alienated," states McGuinness.
"For example, there were still cockfights back in those 'rare ould times'..."
These took place on the Armagh/Monaghan border - "that way, if the RUC turned up, you could jump a hedge, land in the Republic and be beyond their jurisdiction. Or, if the Garda Siochána came, you would just stand your ground and give them a wary nod. That was the theory, anyway."
Geordie Hanna, The Man and The Songs is full of such rarities and has been a nostalgic labour of love for the entire family, says Niall – a former All-Ireland fleadh winner himself in the 12-15 singing category.
Never short of a witticism or two, what does he think his quick-tongued grandfather have make of all the fuss today, him being the subject of a book?
"I think he probably would have said, 'Holy smoke' - that was one of his phrases," laughs Niall.
"He would have been a very modest man and if you had told him he was the subject of a book, he probably would have thought you were taking a hand out of him. And then he would have started singing."
:: The Gradam Ceoil Awards will be broadcast on TG4 on Sunday October 31 from the Whitla Hall, Belfast. Copies of Geordie Hanna, The Man and The Songs (cost £20 and including complimentary CD) can be purchased via the GHTSS Facebook page or through geordiehanna.com.