Article originally appeared in The Observer on March 26, 2018.
Song of Granite (2017) tells the stirring life story of one of the 20th century’s greatest proponents of traditional Irish music—Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, known locally as Joe Éinniú or Joe Heaney. The film was shown at the Browning Cinema on Thursday, March 22. The event was sponsored by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.
Music has been an integral element of Irish culture for the known part of its history. Still, a despairing silence fell over Ireland after the Great Famine in the 1840s, and the land only began to regain its voice at the turn of the 20th century. A host of singers starting reviving the tradition, Heaney chief among them.
Song of Granite, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Pat Collins, lyrically tells Heaney’s story. Born in 1919 in Carna, Connemara, an Irish-speaking region of Co. Galway, Heaney didn’t grow up surrounded by instruments—in fact, they were only sparsely available in the area. Still, Connemara was rich in folklore and traditional music, and from a young age, Heaney began learning the embellished, unaccompanied practice of Irish singing known as sean-nós.
Actor Colm Seoighe portrays a young and reserved Heaney in Song of Granite. Growing up without a formal education in music, the singer acquired much of his musical knowledge from his father, who at multiple times is shown singing or whistling in the film. Heaney shows a clear inclination to the tradition, dancing, whistling and hesitatingly exhibiting his singing talents in a classroom.
Viewers continue to see this enthrallment with music as Heaney ages. The film follows his journey across several cities and countries. Mícheál Ó Confhaola portrays Heaney in his 40s, building granite walls and performing in pubs before he leaves for the United States, where he works as a doorman in New York. These pub scenes play particularly significant roles, both as large parts of Heaney’s life and as displays of major parts of the culture surrounding sean-nós.
Toward the peak of his career, actual footage and audio recordings of Heaney are seamlessly incorporated into monochromatic scenes. “It’s like a conversation across time,” director Pat Collins said in an interview with StudioDaily. These interwoven visual and auditory components provide the documentarian accounts of Heaney’s life that some viewers expected from the film.
Once he reaches his 60s, Heaney is played by Macdara Ó Fátharta. Heaney spent his last years in Seattle as an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington, where the Joe Heaney Collection of the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives remain today. The musician passed away in Seattle in 1984, and his body was flown by Aer Lingus back to Ireland, where his life and music were celebrated.
Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh, an Irish Fulbright student who will visit the Archives in Seattle, led a brief discussion following the showing where audience members were invited to make comments and ask questions.
Some viewers asked questions about Heaney’s impact on the sean-nós tradition today.
“Joe Heaney is the bearer of an age-old tradition,” Irish Language and Literature Department chair Diarmuid Ó Giolláin said, comparing the sean-nós to granite. “Every artist has a relationship with his or her own creativity, but also with the tradition.”
Mac an tSionnaigh shared his reaction to the film after seeing it for the first time.
“It was all stuff that I knew, from being Irish but also for having moved to the West myself to learn this culture,” he said. “It’s quite emotional for me to watch the movie, knowing some of the people who participated in it and with its representation of a life that I knew and loved so well.”
To this day, music remains an integral element of Irish culture, especially in the Gaelic-speaking region known as the Gaeltacht. The recurring stony themes in Song of Granite are representative of Heaney’s gravely voice, and also contain echoes of the rocky landscape that formed him and the resilience of the tradition that formed and influenced Ireland over centuries.
In Song of Granite, Collins has created more of a visual and auditory poem than a biographical account of Joe Heaney’s life. Collins managed to deliver the legendary performer’s tale in an appropriately elegant manner and to create a film that remains significant for Irish music, culture and language. Since the English language plays a secondary role in the film, Song of Granite served as Ireland’s submission for the foreign language category of the Academy Awards.
With its powerful story and lingering long shots of Connemara shown in stunning grayscale, the film flawlessly bridges across Heaney’s life and keeps the tale as timeless as the stony legacy of the sean-nós singer himself.