“Song of Granite” (2017) tells the moving life story of one of the greatest proponents of traditional Irish music of the 20th century, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, known locally as Joe Éinniú or Joe Heaney. The film premiered 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 part of Irish culture for the known part of its history. Yet a desperate silence fell over Ireland after the Great Famine in the 1840s, and the land did not begin to regain its voice until the turn of the 20th century. A host of singers begin to reconnect with tradition, Heaney in the lead.
“Song of Granite”, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Pat Collins, tells the story of Heaney through lyrics. Born in 1919 in Carna, Connemara, an Irish-speaking region of County Galway, Heaney did not grow up surrounded by instruments – in fact, they were few and far between in the area. Yet Connemara was rich in folklore and traditional music, and from an early age Heaney began to learn the embellished, unaccompanied practice of Irish singing known as sean-nós.
Actor Colm Seoighe plays a young and reserved Heaney in “Song of Granite”. Growing up without a formal education in music, the singer gained much of his musical knowledge from his father, who sings or whistles repeatedly in the film. Heaney shows a clear penchant for tradition, dancing, whistling and hesitantly showing off her singing skills in a classroom.
Viewers continue to see this enthusiasm for music as Heaney ages. The film follows his journey through several cities and countries. Mícheál Ó Confhaola portrayed Heaney in his forties, building granite walls and performing in pubs before leaving for the United States, where he worked as a porter in New York. These pub scenes play a particularly important role, both as large parts of Heaney’s life and as demonstrations of the main parts of the culture surrounding sean-nós.
Towards the peak of his career, live footage and audio recordings of Heaney are seamlessly integrated into monochrome scenes. “It’s like a conversation through time,” director Pat Collins said in an interview with StudioDaily. These intertwined visual and aural elements provide the documentary tales of Heaney’s life that some viewers have come to expect from the film.
Once he hits sixty, Heaney is played by Macdara Fátharta. Heaney spent his final years in Seattle as Artist in Residence at the University of Washington, where the Joe Heaney Collection of the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives is now housed. The musician died in Seattle in 1984 and his body was brought back by Aer Lingus to Ireland, where his life and music were celebrated.
Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh, an Irish Fulbright student who will be visiting the Archives in Seattle, led a brief post-screening discussion where members of the public were invited to comment and ask questions.
Some viewers have asked about Heaney’s impact on the sean-nos tradition today.
“Joe Heaney carries a centuries-old tradition,” said Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, chairman of the Irish Language and Literature Department, comparing sean-nós to granite. “Each artist has a relationship with his own creativity, but also with tradition.
Mac an tSionnaigh shared her reaction to the film after seeing it for the first time.
“It was all things I knew, to be Irish but also to have moved to the West myself to learn this culture,” he said. “It’s quite emotional for me to watch the movie, to know some of the people who were in it and with its portrayal of a life that I knew and loved so well.”
To this day, music remains an integral part of Irish culture, especially in the Gaelic speaking region known as Gaeltacht. The recurring stony themes of ‘Song of Granite’ are representative of Heaney’s deep voice and also contain echoes of the rocky landscape that shaped him and the resilience of the tradition that has shaped and influenced Ireland over the centuries. .
In “Song of Granite,” Collins created more of a visual and aural poem than a biographical account of Joe Heaney’s life. Collins has managed to deliver the story of the legendary performer in a fitting and elegant way and create a film that remains important to Irish music, culture and language. Since the English language plays a secondary role in the film, “Song of Granite” served as the Irish candidacy for the Foreign Language category of the Oscars.
With its powerful history and long lingering shots of Connemara presented in stunning grayscale, the film seamlessly ties Heaney’s life together and maintains the story as timeless as the stony legacy of singer sean-nos himself.