Nell Ní Chróinín is a seannós singer from the Múscraí Gaeltacht in County Cork. Since her earliest days, she has been immersed in seannós singing – the ancient singing tradition of the area. Nell’s mastery of her art has seen her recognised as one of the country’s top seannós singers. From taking prizes at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 2005 and 2006, to being named Musician of the Year at TG4’s Music Awards in 2012, Nell’s dedication to her craft has seen her win a host of accolades.
Since 2016, she has been a member of Danú, the highly respected and long-running Irish traditional group. Nell’s expertise and commitment to keeping seannós singing alive and well make her the perfect teacher for Alison’s Seannós Singing Courses. She spoke to the Alison Blog about why she started singing and why you should too!
Hi Nell, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your musical background?
My name is Nell Ní Chróinín and I come from a small village called Ballingeary in the Múscraí Gaeltacht in County Cork. The Gaeltacht areas are the pockets all over Ireland where the Irish language is spoken on a daily basis. It was my first language growing up and I was always interested in the language. When I started singing, all my songs were in Irish, which is natural for seannós singing.
The term seannós means “old tradition” and that’s essentially what it is. It’s the oldest singing tradition we have in this country. It’s hundreds and hundreds of years old.
Both my parents sing and I started singing from a very young age. There’s a very strong seannós singing tradition in Múscraí and so it was always around me when I was growing up. I heard lots of really well known local singers singing in the seannós style so, to me, singing acapella – unaccompanied – was never something that was out of the ordinary, even though it’s not very common generally.
Muscraí is obviously very important to your musical heritage. Can you tell us a bit more about its seannós singing tradition?
Múscraí has a strong tradition of seannós singing, even more so than the tradition of music. Sometimes if you’re at a session and if somebody sings on their own, people mightn’t listen. But in Múscraí, there’s a lot of respect for the songs, with singers taking centre stage before musicians.
Growing up I went to sessions and heard and witnessed singers singing on their own. Diarmuid O Súilleabháin was a great singer from Múscraí who died the year I was born. A festival was set up in his honour, which is mainly based around singing, and I used to go to it every year. It was great because you got to meet singers from all over the country. While there are lots of different styles of seannós, I grew up singing in the Múscraí style.
When I was young, there was a scheme set up called Scéim Amhránaíochta Aisling Gheal (the Aising Geal Singing Scheme), which was set up to encourage local children to sing the local songs and to preserve them because we have such a strong tradition of local seannós songs and songwriters.
I started going to the lessons when I was about ten years of age and my teacher was Máire Ní Chéilleachair, who’s a very well-known and well-established seannós singer. I went to these free singing lessons every week until I was about 17. They weren’t formal lessons like you’d have in classical styles of singing. Instead I got to learn about the history of the songs and about the locality because a lot of the songs were written locally and were about the area.
I’m glad I had the classes because I think I needed that formal weekly structure of learning the songs. That teaching scheme is still going today. They’re still teaching the local songs to kids as young as 9, which is great.
How did your musical career develop from those early days?
While I was taking the lessons, I was also entering competitions like the Fleadh Ceoil and Oireachtas na Samhna (traditional Irish music competitions) and winning under-age competitions, which helps get your name around the place. I liked going to festivals because you’d meet singers you’re own age which encouraged me because it was good craic.
By the time I stopped going to the lessons, I had sung at a couple of local festivals and people were interested in my singing, so I got asked to sing at more and more events. I just continued singing at festivals and building a bit of a reputation for myself.
How did you end up becoming a professional musician?
When I went to college in Limerick I did primary school teaching, I didn’t actually study music. I was involved in both the Cumann Gaelach and the trad society there and we had weekly sessions where I’d always sing a few songs.
On the weekends, I’d go to festivals, sometimes as a guest. As I got older I was asked to teach workshops and then, when I was in my early twenties, I was asked to sing on a CD with a band called the Raw Bar Collective. We recorded an album live in a pub and that was my first release.
Then in 2016, I was asked to join the band Danú. By then I was teaching full time so I had to make the decision whether or not I was going to leave teaching. I just felt that if I didn’t take the opportunity, I’d have been raging with myself. I know everybody likes the security of a steady job but there was something in the back of my head that said that if I didn’t do it then, then I’d never do it. So I left teaching.
What was it like joining such an established and well-known group as Danú?
I was a huge fan of Danú growing up and they’ve always had really good singers like Ciarán Ó Gealbháin and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh. They’ve always respected songs in Irish, which are the majority of the songs I sing.
It was a big transition for me because seannós singing is obviously acapella so I’m used to performing on my own. Going from that to performing with five other lads on stage was a bit of a change but I adapted. The lads made me feel very comfortable and they were very respectful towards the songs which is something that I’m very passionate about – that the songs are arranged appropriately to suit the lyrics, the mood and the voice. Because I didn’t have much experience of singing with accompaniment, the musicians were following me, rather than me following the music.
It’s really collaborative and I’m really enjoying it. We haven’t performed together since last March but I’m looking forward to hopefully getting back on the road with them again soon.
What is it you love about seannós singing?
I think that singing is a very personal thing. Not that playing music isn’t, but with singing you can’t hide behind your instrument. Your voice is your instrument. I might sing a song today, and I might sing it again tomorrow but I might not be feeling as good so I’ll never sing the song the same way. It changes from day to day depending on how you’re feeling.
When I’m listening to a singer, I love hearing the stories of the songs. In Irish, you say abair amhráin – “tell a song” – because you’re telling a story. It really catches you as a listener when you can hear the emotion of the song coming across when the singer is telling the story. It really makes for an effective singer if you can tell the story from the point of view of the person that wrote it.
Why would you recommend learning seannós singing to people?
For me, there is so much life and soul and heart in Irish songs. You can’t help tapping your feet to the fast tunes and, at the same time, you can be brought to tears by the slow airs and the sad songs.
Another reason is that Irish traditional music is such a small world and the singers and musicians are so welcoming and generous with their time. Seannós singing is an ancient oral tradition and it’s it’s our tradition that we’re proud of as Irish people. And we don’t want to see it die out so you want to ask people to join in in a session and encourage the younger generation to keep it alive. When you sing a seannós song, you’re taking part in an ancient tradition.