Film: A life in Irish Song

Film life Irish Song Joe Heaney Pat Collins

Song of Granite director Pat Collins talks to Michael McDonagh about Sean-nos singer Joe Heaney

Ireland has selected the beautifully crafted black and white independent film Song of Granite as the Irish Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for next year’s Oscars although the foreign language shortlist will not be known until 5 January and final nominations on 23 January ahead of the Oscars ceremony on 4 March.

Song of Granite is a remarkable magical film based on the soulful life of legendary Sean-nós singer Joe Heaney () and directed by a legend of Irish documentary film making, Pat Collins.

Shot in black and white and incorporating some old footage of Joe Heaney, together with dramatic re-constructions set in wild Irish landscape, it is an immersive experience of a time gone by and of the ancient tradition of Irish language singing.

The film, with the music playing as much a part as the dialogue, makes such a strong emotional connection with the audience from the way the singing was recorded with no overdubs or technical enhancement.

At times it feels that we are in the same small room listening to the ethereal haunting music of a world that has almost gone.

Song Of Granite will be screened here as part of the Irish Film Festival London at the Regent Street Cinema on 2 December and there will be question and answer session and a chance to get a drink of legal potín to get you in the right mood.

Joe Heaney was a remarkable and talented man who recorded over 500 Irish traditional songs before he died in America in 1984.

Coming from Irish speaking Carna, an isolated village in Connemara, he got a scholarship to a school in Dublin when he was 16 but like many before him he came over to London in 1949 to find work on the building sites.

Whilst in England he would sing in the Irish pubs such as The Favourite and was recorded by both the BBC and Topic Records at the time, giving him some notoriety in the folk world for his wonderful interpretations of Sean-nós songs.

In 1965 after his wife had died of TB he was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Another folk singer on the bill that weekend was Bob Dylan who horrified the purists there by playing loud with an electric band. An outraged Pete Seeger tried to get an axe to cut the power and stop the ‘noise’.

This did not deter Joe who then settled in New York and went on to become an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut from 1982 until 1984.

A tribute to a remarkable career of ups and downs for a man from such a small village in the west of Ireland.

Each year in Carna there is a festival in his name (The Féile Chomórtha Joe Éinniú (Joe Heaney Commemorative Festival)

Film life Irish Song Joe Heaney Pat Collins
Pat Collins, director of Song of Granite

I asked Pat what had motivated him to make the film and why did he focus on Joe Heaney?

“I was interested in making a film about singing and about Sean-nós singing and the culture of Ireland as that has always been of interest to me from my time in Galway.

“And if you are going to make a film about Sean-nós singing then and Jo Heaney was the best exponent of it.

“He was such an incredible singer and an incredible man, the best there has ever been in my opinion. He was an artist and he made an Art form out of it and as he came out of Connemara and made his way to Dublin, Scotland, England and then Manhattan, where he worked as a doorman he was always singing in his own unique way and true to his owns style.

“In terms of making something about Sean-nós singing his story was the best way of reaching an audience.”


This film, though, is no conventional biopic and is much more about the songs and the timeless beauty of the Sean-nós singing than the person in profile. The masterful skill of Pat Collins as a filmmaker is his ability to reflect the stunning landscape and environment that had moulded and influenced the talent of the artist as he mingles with the local people around him in pubs and village streets.

The film sensitively portrays the passage of time for this man and his community and the country where he had his roots.

It is clear from this gently paced patient insight into this precious music that it is a slowly learned living ancient oral tradition. From learning songs as a shy child at the family fireside, with a loving mother and father, in the days before the distractions of TV, the songs and form are carried by the man through a tough life.

Film life Irish Song Joe Heaney Pat Collins

He is shown as a man always true to his style and aware of the bond with his roots even when singing versions of them in a Glasgow working man’s pub.

It occurred to me that the film is as much about music as it is about Joe Heaney so I asked Pat if this was so?

“It is both at the same time. Joe was an interesting character I suppose the film is more about the music than the man but it is about him as well and what I hope is universal.

“It’s not just for Irish people or Irish speaking people but is universal and can connect with anybody be they Irish or not and they do not have to understand the Irish Language.

“I could imagine that anybody from any country who has a cultural tradition of his or her own and has music could gravitate to it. Anybody who is interested in the artistic process can get something from it.

“Sean-nós singing is not for everybody I suppose but if you are open to it there are rich rewards there. Somebody asked me how I was going to get around the prejudice that Irish people have against Sean-nós singing and I said, God I’m not interested in that but I don’t think it is as much an active prejudice now, more a sin of omission.

Film life Irish Song Joe Heaney Pat Collins

“It is very much a living tradition and the quality of the young singers now is phenomenal but it is not heard in the main culture of Ireland and you could live there and not know that there is something called Sean-nós singing as you never hear it on daytime radio but it is there alright and lives on.”

The original script was co-written by Pat Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde and Sharon Whooley, taking us from a schoolboy Heaney (played exceptionally by Colm Seoighe) in his sparse village, through the stages in his life as a travelling singing labourer (played and voiced by singer Mícheál Ó Confhaola).

Through some evocative re-created imagined footage we come later to his last reflective years as an older man in exile. Throughout it all Collins captures so well the calm still nature of the man and the solitude of the beautiful Seannós singing.

Song of Granite is a deeply moving film experience from a master craftsman film director and in an age of brash noisy bullying brutalism lets hope that Hollywood sees this film as a visual oasis of peace and calm and a gentle lesson for us all in the value of simple natural ancient beauty and values.

I asked Pat if he thought it would win?

“I just got back from Los Angles yesterday where there was a screening for those who vote and a lunch and the people were very taken with it. I was surprised by how well it was received so we do have an outside chance”.

Song Of Granite is the perfect antidote to the current mood of division and superficiality and is a film that well deserves an Oscar for Ireland.

Judge for yourself at the Irish Film Festival London. More info is available here:

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