Trad/roots: Songs of lament and loss

Robert McMillen

IT is 1,977.8 miles from Belfast to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and 2453.6 miles to Mariupol, where hell is being recreated as you read this after the Russian invasion of the country.

There is a famine in Yemen, where missiles worth billions of pounds are raining down on the poorest people on earth.

Here, in the industrialised, rich, western world, parents are having to chose between keeping warm or feeding their children.

Humans destroying the entire planet are no longer the stuff of science fiction and James Bond villains. It's in the here and now reality.

Because there is nothing we can do about a lot of the world's problems, we turn to music and song to assuage the fear the way a mother would sing a lullaby to a child or in the Irish tradition of keening.

Ceara Conway, an artist and singer from the Conamara Gaeltacht, does just that in her art work, often mixing her glass works with dialogue or, more latterly, with song and her new album, Caoin, is about how this old Gaelic tradition can help us through some of today's traumas and setbacks.

Ceara was born in An Cheathrú Rua, a village famed for its regatta of Galway hookers, the region's famous boats, and Ceara herself has happy memories of growing up.

"Oh, it was gorgeous on many levels, particularly because we were so near the sea. So I have a lot of memories of growing up and spending most of my days on the beach," she recalls.

"Growing up in a small community, my father had a shop so I often laugh when I tell people that it was almost like a stage for me.

"You know, if you've got a new dress, the first thing you did was go up to the shop so that you could show it off and my mother also had the post office so you are a little bit in the public eye.

"We knew everybody. I was working in the shop very early, very early on and I loved the whole communication aspect of it."

As well as running the post office, Ceara's mother was also a great painter and she inspired the visual arts in young Ceara.

"My mother would have met artists like Walter Verling, who used to come to An Cheathrú Rua to paint, and he actually gave her a lot of tuition," she says.

"She was offered a scholarship in the Rhode Island School of Art in New York, but she couldn't take it.

"It was of the time when parents said, to women in particular, that they couldn't do something like that."

"We often talk about how different our lives would have been had she gone to New York, but she inspired me because I would have grown up seeing her painting and all of our creative work around the house," recalls the fluent Irish speaker.

Luckily, things had moved on from those barbaric, misogynistic times and Ceara herself went to work for a stained glass studio before heading to colleges in Galway, Edinburgh and New York.

She has created many public art pieces in Ireland and elsewhere in a busy professional life but it was only 12 years ago when she first discovered she also had a wonderful singing voice.

Ceara has gained recognition for her singing in traditional repertoires across cultures from Irish traditional sean-nós, to Portuguese, Arabic and African song and Georgian Chant.

That voice can be heard on Ceara's debut album, Caoin, which means cry or a lament for something longed for; for me, songs are conduits for that grief or longing, no matter where you're from or what your native language is.

"Yeah, definitely," concurs Ceara.

"For me, it's what I would call the language of emotionality or the language of sound.

"At the moment I'm participating in Kathy Scott's Scoil Scairte, described as 'a nine-week journey into the heart and soul of the Irish language'."

"We obviously look at Irish traditional songs but in the final week we were looking at the universality of song and I sang an African song, an ancient Greek song, an Irish sean-nós one and an Arabic one. And in each, you can sense you the underlying emotion that is being communicated. That's the beauty of music," she says.

Ceara has been composing, performing and using songs, as she says, "to connect with audiences on issues that we experience individually and collectively, for example exploring the sense of loss we experience in relation to experiences of death, migration, feminist issues and the environmental crisis," and that is particularly true of the title track of the new album, An Caoineadh, a lament that Ceara says she "appropriated" as part of a series of public lamentations called Making Visible which commented upon the grief experienced by women living in the Direct Provision System in Ireland.

"We worked together with the women in direct provision in Galway for a number of months, letting them choose the themes they wanted to look at and what kept coming up was grief and loss, loss for their families, for the country, for not being able to speak the language, not feeling part of the community not being able to work, there were so many," she explains.

"This was the first project in which I used music and singing as an artform and it started to made sense to me once I came across the whole keening tradition in Ireland.

"The role of the keening woman is to ask for things on behalf of the community or to speak out on behalf of the community. It's not always about eulogising the loss of the deceased, sometimes it's about giving out about things.

"It's about saying, 'You haven't done enough of this' or 'We need more of that'. And it made absolute sense for me to draw upon that role of the keening woman.

"At the beginning of Making Visible, I'm surrounded by the audience and I say, 'This atrocity is happening in our community and it's not okay.'

"So it's drawing upon the role of the keening woman, but using it in a contemporary context," explains Ceara."

"There was traditional song and we chose An Caoineadh because Veronika Ncube was one of the asylum seekers involved in the project.

"Veronika is an opera singer but obviously had to curtail her practice because she came to Ireland, but her son was killed and she couldn't return to his funeral. Because she knew if she did that she'd ever be allowed back in again so An Caoineadh is a lament for a dead child which Veronica, Nóirín Ní Riain and myself sang as part of the project," says Ceara.

Given what is happening around the world at the moment, perhaps we all need a collective keen.

::You can find out more abut Ceara Conway at but do look her up on YouTube to hear two songs from the album, An Caoineadh and Anach Cuain, and much more.

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