Native sean nós singing on Inis Mor

native Éire sean nós,

winding melismatic tunes-

a fresh sound to most


Irish dance is world renowned, but it’s counterpart in song, sean nós, hasn’t quite reached the same global recognition.  Translated from Gaelic to English, sean nós mean ‘old style or old way’ and rightfully so as it’s used to describe this purest form of Irish music.

Each song is unique to the singer and is made up of very technical aspects of performance such as intonation, ornamentation, and tempo.  In many ways it reminds me of Indian/Hindi music.  Seemingly, it’s sung while also breathing, as long verses are expressed with barely a break for air; difficult is an understatement, though when they are well practiced, it flows with apparent ease.

This excerpt from Wikipedia–

Decorative elements common in sean-nós singing include:

  • Highly ornamented where the voice is placed near the top of the range
  • Nasalisation
  • A second form of nasalisation, used in the south, produces an “m”, “n” or “ng” sound at the end of a phrase
  • One syllable in a word can be sung to several notes
  • Brief pauses initiated by glottal stops, “slides” or glissandi (predominantly when sung by women)
  • Very long extended phrases
  • A tendency to draw breath after a conjunction or linking words rather than at the end of a phrase
  • The ending of some songs by speaking the finishing line instead of singing it
  • Varying the melody in each verse

A live experience is magically hypnotic.  A whole room immediately shushes when someone starts singing– always from their seat, no standing and performing (unless it’s a competition), just wherever they are at the time.  Though others may join in the song or offer encouraging words, the attention remains on the singer.  And some songs can be six or seven minutes in length.  That mightn’t sound like very long, but this can go on and on as a new singer starts just after one ends.  I’m always touched by how so many people who are gathered but not together can remain so respectful and attentive and enthralled.

The songs are passed down from generation to generation and as I have difficulty understanding the content of the songs, I have another Wiki excerpt to describe the meanings of the song lyrics:

Many of the songs typically sung sean-nós could be seen as forms of love poetry, laments, or references to historical events such as political rebellions or times of famine, lullabies, nature poetry, devotional songs, or combinations of these.  Comic songs are also part of the tradition.

Not everywhere in Ireland practices this tradition, but in the Gaeltachts (Irish speaking regions) the natives are raised with it.  We’re fortunate enough here on The Aran Islands to have sean nós singing taught in the schools starting at the age of five years old at latest, but most children are exposed to it from the crib by family members.  Two of my children have won awards for their participation in sean nós singing competitions–there is a video of my eldest daughter on my Youtube page.

The above video is an Aran native who frequents the hotel for some conversation, a bit of craic, and song.  I videotaped him earlier this week.  Other fine examples of sean-nós singing, sung by several phenomenal talents, may be heard here.

Snapshot 2 (14-06-2016 23-36)

A snapshot from my video for my photo entry.

This post was inspired by the photo word of the week ‘native’ and Ronovan’s haiku words ‘fresh & wind’.  I love sharing this bit of my world with you and hope you enjoyed it too.

Cheers, Melissa Xx


  1. What a great way to start my day with some Irish singing and a haiku from Melissa! I had never heard ‘sean nos’ before and love the emotion that comes through. You have also introduced me to a new word – melismatic – wonderful!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Delighted to take part this week! Sean nós (pronounced shanos, short ‘a’, long ‘o’, ‘s’ sounds true to itself, not like a ‘z’ as in the word nose) is a large part of the life here, particularly western Ireland. I had never heard of it before living here either and it’s definitely one of the most endearing parts of Irish culture.

      Liked by 2 people

    • In times past people would meet up in each other’s homes for these sessions, young and old together, sitting around a coal or bog peat fire, sipping on tea and eating baked goods. That would be a rare happening these days but it is not so unusual for a singsong to start up in a pub.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Laurie Graves says:

    Wonderfully, informative post! I love how Ireland, in general, has such a singing culture. And they’ve brought it with them to the U.S. Years ago, my eldest daughter went to a birthday party in an Irish bar in New York City. After the cake, it was time for singing, and as my daughter’s name is Deirdre, the patrons expected her to have more than one song up her sleeve. Alas, as we aren’t a singing family, she couldn’t oblige with even one song. Sigh. Sing on, Ireland, of old ways and new ones, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vivienne Nichols says:

    Brilliant post, Melissa. After a long morning walk, this was my pot of gold! Delightful and informative. But it was more.
    It also connected me with a powerful experience when repairing houses in the impoverished Appalachian Mountains. I worked for a lovely blind woman who would sit in her door & sing to me as I hammered and painted. It was long ago, but her voice has stayed within me. I found it unique & always wondered about it. Now, I know.
    So, it’s with profound respect that I enjoyed his music and the memory-and sure ancestry-of my friend.
    What a morning!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh Viv, I am so happy to hear that such a powerful memory was stirred by listening to Pat sing. Would be amazing if when you visit the islands next you might get to see him sing a bit of sean nós in person. He is a lovely man to chat with also…a true representative of the island Irishman!


  4. Colette Hayward (ne Concannon) says:

    A lovely post, reminding me of many summers spent listening to my Concannon cousins and others singing in various bars/homes around the island and at my parents home in London which was always a place of welcome to visitors from the island. You were right, there would automatically be a hush when someone started to sing in this style
    I’ve been enjoying reading your delightful blog, always something of interest. Looking forward to returning to Aran in August.


    • A gorgeous and tight-knit family you are from Colette. I work with Cliona at the hotel–greatest laugh ever!! I am so appreciative of your kind comment, it made my day!! A wholehearted thanks coming your way from Aran and perhaps our paths will cross on your return in August. Melissa


    • Aw, thanks Denis. This week’s photo word really worked for sharing a bit of Ireland, and then Pat just started a singsong and it all fell together nicely for me. Love when that happens. Cheers!


  5. I’ve always thought that such a large part of the attraction of sean nos singing is the Irish language itself. It is a guttural, back of the throat language, whose tones originate from deep within the solar plexus, from which singers are trained to use as their source, Yet conversely, the intonations of the Irish language are delivered rather softly, so there are hard edges and rolling consonants that are perfectly suited to the melody of a tune. The language itself is musical. Were you to take the same lyrics and deliver them in English, it would lack the notes of searching, haunting lament. And there is an elegiac, reverent delivery to this type of singing that is reminiscent of Ireland’s cloistered, tribal history. Sean nos singing is specific to Irish culture; an emblematic keeper of its storied past. When I lived in Connemara, many was the sessiun at Hughes, in Spiddal, when more than the room would still when one of the proud, locals rose to “give us a tune.” It seemed to me the veil that parts this world from the next would disappear entirely!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Ronovan Writes’ Week #101 Haiku Review with Links. – ronovanwrites

  7. Pingback: Photo Challenge Round Up: NATIVE | Wild Daffodil


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