Ó GHLÚIN go glúin, from generation to generation, the sean-nós singing tradition is passed carefully down in Cork’s Múscraí Gaeltacht: from the 200-year-old songs of Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, to Bess Cronin, Peaití Thaidhg Pheig Ó Tuama, Máire Ní Cheocháin and Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin to today’s young singers. And to Nell Ní Chróinín, winner this month of sean-nós singing’s most coveted prize, the Corn Uí Riada.
In the rugged terrain where Máire Bhuí’s battle epic, ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’ and its ilk survive from an era when poems and songs were the social media of their day, the learning of songs rooted in their native place remains as close to the hearts of many young people today as Facebook or Twitter.
At 24, Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh native Nell Ní Chróinín is believed to be the youngest ever winner of Corn Uí Riada, the cup renamed in honour of composer Seán Ó Riada, who made the village of Cúil Aodha his home.
Though the main singing prize of the Oireachtas had come to Múscraí twice before — won by both Pádraig Ó Tuama and Máire Ní Cheocháin in the 1950s — Nell is the Cork Gaeltacht’s first winner since the cup was renamed after Ó Riada’s death in 1971.
As she lifted the cup aloft at Oireachtas na Samhna, the Irish-language gathering in Killarney, Nell, whose mother and grandparents came from Cúil Aodha, became the embodiment of the living tradition, and an Aisling Gheal, or bright vision for its future survival.
Having started singing in earnest aged nine, as one of the first pupils of the ‘Aisling Gheal’ sean-nós teaching scheme, which operates through schools in Múscraí, Nell is quick to acknowledge the musical legacy bestowed upon her.
“It’s not just me that won the Corn Uí Riada; it’s everybody that gave me advice and supported me; the local musicians and singers — all these are factors in the development of your style. It’s about where you come from, and singing is such a strong tradition in my home and in Múscraí,” says Nell.
Not only her mother, Síle, and father, Teddy, but their siblings, parents and grandparents were also exponents of that tradition.
In terms of Oireachtas honours, Nell can boast cousins on each side — most recently, Liam Ó Cróinín in 2011 and Conchubhar Ó Luasa this year — who earned their own glory in sean-nós competitions.
Thus, the winning of the Corn Uí Riada, with powerful renditions of ‘A Chuisle mo Chroí’ and ‘An Cóisire’, which she learned from Eoiní Maidhcí Ó Súilleabháin and Máire Ní Chéileachair, respectively, was an honour shared by her family and the Múscraí community.
“It’s a dream a lot of the people of Múscraí have had,” Ní Chróinín says of her win. “And I’ve always thought about it, too, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would be the one to do it. The names on the cup are those I would have listened to through the years.”
Bringing the Corn Uí Riada ‘home’ in its most literal sense meant one of the first ports of call for Nell, and her newly-won prize, was Seán Ó Riada’s house in Cúil Aodha, now home to his son, Peadar, and family.
Two days before Corn Uí Riada, Nell had also earned an Oireachtas prize for a lúibín, or two- person-sung dialogue, partnered by her childhood friend, Peadar’s eldest daughter, Ruth Ní Riada.
Having brought the cup full circle to the Ó Riada home, the next question for Nell, a teacher at Gaelscoil Uí Drisceoil, in Glanmire, is what her next challenge might be. “I might enter the Eurovision,” she jokes, though acceding to requests to record her first CD is a more likely proposition in the months ahead.
Upcoming gigs include November 21, Caladh Nua CD launch, Mills’ Inn, Baile Mhúirne; December 5 ‘Ceiliúradh an Oireachtas’, Cúil Aodha.
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