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Donegal Woman Saving the Songs ‘At Risk’ of Disappearing

You may have heard of Rocky Road to Dublin and Whiskey In The Jar, but what about An Muiltín or Gailtín Tigh Mhór?

The latter are lesser-known songs from County Donegal and Catriona Ní Ghribín has been working to make sure more people get to hear them.

She spends her days performing and teaching Irish traditional songs, some of which she has rescued from fading away.

“A lot of songs in Donegal weren’t written down perfectly well,” she said.

“There was a lack of ability to write in Irish or in English or the notate the music. Most people just learned by ear. That’s still the main way of sharing songs.”

Catriona spent much of 2020 and 2021 collecting and notating songs from north-west Donegal as part of a research masters at Queen’s University Belfast.

She was able to record herself singing 20 songs which she deemed to be at risk of disappearing.

“Songs can get lost if they’re not written down and sung,” she explained.

“In some instances, I know I had notated them for the first time because I had taken them from handwritten lyrics rather than manuscripts.”

Speaking before teaching a group of young people at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in west Belfast, Catriona said teaching the songs was just as important as writing them down.

“It’s one of the most important steps in the research. I collected the songs, I documented them and then I put them on Bandcamp to make it widely available,” she said.

“Now I’m teaching them to anyone who wants to learn them.

“It’s kind of my way of disseminating them back out to – in Irish we would say ‘béal an phobail’, the mouth of the community.”

Having grown up in Gweedore in County Donegal, collecting songs from the north-west of the county in particular, was important to her.

“I’m very grateful to be from that area. That’s where I learned all my music and how to speak Irish,” she said.

“When you’re doing a research topic that’s quite as big as that, you want to be one step ahead and know the place – the landscape, the people, and just be part of the culture.”

A snapshot of the 2020s

In her pursuit of songs to add to her collection, Catriona turned to some prominent names in Irish trad, such as Brian Ó Domhnaill and Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh, to gather authentic material.

She also encountered a few challenges along the way, like deciding which version of the songs to write down.

“The way the oral tradition works is that the more you share the songs around, the more they vary,” she explained.

“The songs are changing all the time so my work is kind of like capturing a snapshot of what they were like in the 2020s.

“It’s important to remember not to look at them as precious because they are going to change – that’s what the tradition is.”

With an offer to pursue a PhD in music collection and preservation, Catriona has been considering whether she could expand the scale of her work.

“A lot of collectors collect in their own area, their own local tradition, so I would find it quite daunting going into a different area,” she said.

“I’m just working on trying to get funding at the minute.”

‘It has to be a living thing’

Maurice Bradley, a piper and fiddle player based in Ballinascreen, County Londonderry, also collects Irish trad music and says Catriona’s work is very valuable.

“If young people are learning these songs, recycling them the way they want to – the tradition is still alive. It may be different but the important thing is it’s still alive,” he said.

“There are older musicians who have a fantastic repertoire. It will all be lost unless it’s recorded and written down and passed on.

“It has to be a living thing. You can’t reconstruct it after it’s lost.”

Source : BBC