Cork woman Máire Ní Chéileachair started singing in public at age 40, but will collect her singer of the year prize at this weekend’s Gradam Ceoil awards, writes Pet O’Connell.
MÁIRE Ní Chéileachair may not have plucked up courage to sing in public until she was nearly 40, but since then, she has wasted no time in establishing herself as one of Ireland’s foremost sean-nós singers.
So the singer of the year honour, Amhránaí na Bliana 2018, to be bestowed on her during Sunday’s TG4 Gradam Ceoil concert, has been viewed not as any great cause for surprise, but rather a fitting acknowledgement of her achievements.
As if to applaud the consistency with which she has remained at the highest level of her craft, the Gradam announcement came hot on the heels of a remarkable feat accomplished by Máire at Oireachtas na Samhna last November, when she earned second place in the premier sean-nós competition for the Corn Uí Riada for a record seventh time.
High-profile occasions such as Sunday’s Gradam Ceoil awards at Belfast’s Waterfront, and the spotlight of the Corn Uí Riada, with every ornamented note under intense scrutiny, are a far cry from the intimacy of the Cork Singers’ Club where Máire first conquered her nerves sufficiently to perform in public.
Yet back in 1993, with the singers’ club in its infancy, the thought of even such a confined public showing left Máire “nervous and afraid to open my mouth”.
“I’d be literally shaking inside in the singers’ club and it took me a good while to get over the nerves of singing in public,” says Máire.
She next enrolled in a series of Scoil Éigse singing workshops run by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which emboldened her to compete in the Cork Fleadh Cheoil.
Success there and at Munster level saw Máire win an All-Ireland at her first attempt in 1996.
“That gave me great courage to keep going. I was nearly 40 at that time but it was a vehicle for me to channel my singing,” she says.
Though her entrance onto the sean-nós stage took time, Máire had been singing for friends and family since her childhood in Farran, near where her father taught at Kilbonane National School.
Her parents, both from the Gaeltacht area of Cill na Martra, nurtured her love of singing and Irish language. Máire later followed her father into teaching, working at Ashton School in Blackrock, and later as a lecturer in UCC, her alma mater.
“When I was small I was always given to believe by my parents that I could sing,” recalls Máire. “And I think of how important those messages are. Anybody that came to the house, I’d sing a song. They were ballads that time — the ‘Boys of the County Armagh’ and the ‘Homes of Donegal’, and of course we learned Irish songs at school.
“In my teens then, Seán Ó Riada’s music was in full flight, and Cór Chúil Aodha, and my ear was attuned to that. When television came first there was a programme on Cúil Aodha with Johnny Lehane and Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin. My parents would have known where they were from so I felt I half knew them. I liked listening to the songs and I was drawn to them.”
Máire continued listening, her early interest developing into attendance at concerts and sessions. “I went to every session under the sun for years and years. Muintir Mhúscraí used to come into the Cork Folk Festival from the ’70s on and I just loved listening to them.
“Singing is a listening activity, and I was listening all those years. I’d be listening to the Oireachtas too of course, but I didn’t sing myself in public.”
She listened also to the teaching of Lena Bean Uí Shé in Cork, and Cúil Aodha native Máire Ní Cheocháin, who would later advise Máire on songs for her first CD, Guth ar Fán, in 1999.
Having achieved Fleadh success, Máire entered the Oireachtas for the first time in 1997, and after winning Corn Mháire Nic Dhonnchadha and the Sean-nós na mBan competition, she first contested the Corn Uí Riada in 2002.
With her competition career on an upward trajectory, Máire found herself becoming part of the Múscraí sean-nós culture whose singers she had so long admired.
Asked initially to teach singing to students, she was offered a year’s position as singer-in-residence for Múscraí, while taking a career break from work.
“That was a big thing for me because then I got to know all the people that I was listening to. I put classes on for adults and children and I got to know the singers a lot better. It immersed me in the tradition of Múscraí.”
From this grew sean-nós scheme Aisling Gheal, which expanded through schools in Múscraí, with Máire continuing as one of its teachers. Alongside the scheme runs Gaeltacht hedge university Acadamh Fódha, whose singing faculty researches Múscraí’s traditional songs.
“Acadamh Fódhla is a very important part of my life as a singer because there are supports there from other singers,” she says. “Some of the songs that I sing have come from the research and from those who are no longer with us, from the recordings of Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, Peataí Thaidhg Pheig, and Cáit Ní Mhuimhneacháin, from Bess Cronin. How blessed we are to have those songs from the likes of them handed down.”
With work in progress in Peadar Ó Riada’s Cúil Aodha studio on Máire’s second CD, due for release this year, Múscraí has surely been equally blessed to count Máire among its singers, researchers, and teachers. Blessed too, to share in the delight at the gradam she describes as “a great honour and cause for celebration, but I wouldn’t be singing without all the support from everyone, and from the people of Múscraí”.
Musician of the Year: Frankie Gavin
Young Musician of the Year: Clare Friel
Lifetime Achievement Award: Patsy Hanly
Singer of the Year: Máire Ní Chéileachair
Special Contribution Award: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin
Musical Collaboration: Concert by Colin Dunne with Sinéad Rushe and Mel Mercier
Special Award: Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band
The Gradam Ceoil TG4 Concert at the Waterfront, Belfast on Sunday, February 4, will be broadcast live on TG4. See: www.gradam.ie