Joe Heaney

The Rocks of BawnIrish Traditional Songs...
An Tigherna RandalIrish Traditional Songs...
Morrissey And The Russian SailorIrish Music In London Pubs
CúnlaThe Road From Connemara
Eanach CuainThe Road From Connemara
Eileanóir na RúnO Mo Dúchas / From My Tradition
Caoineadh na dTrí MuireO Mo Dúchas / From My Tradition
Seachrán ChearbhaillO Mo Dúchas / From My Tradition
I Wish I Had Someone To Love MeSay A Song...
Bonnie Bunch Of Roses-ONár Fhágha Mé Bás Choíche

Joe Heaney photo 2



Joe Heaney playlist



Contributor: Andrew Shields

Joe Heaney (otherwise known by his Gaelic name as Seosamh Ó hÉanaí or to those in his immediate locality as either Josie or Joe Éinniú) is widely recognised as the greatest male exponent of the art of sean-nós, or old style, singing to have come out of Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Sean-nós is an unaccompanied and highly ornate form of singing which places extraordinary technical demands on those who sing in that style. What marked Heaney out from other such singers was his combination of supreme technical mastery with interpretative skills of the highest order and an emotional depth which few of his contemporaries could emulate.

Heaney was born in 1919 in Carna, a village in Connemara in County Galway in the west of Ireland. The area in which he was born was one that was noted for its poverty. Indeed, the people there generally only scraped a living through subsistence farming or fishing, both of which, given the rocky, bleak and unforgiving character of the landscape, involved a great deal of hard labour. However, as the English folksong collector and singer, Bert Lloyd put it, the area was also one that was ‘fantastically rich’ in folklore and in song ‘if in little else’. The district was also largely Irish-speaking and, given its poverty and remoteness, it was an area where old traditions and songs had been kept alive in a way that they were in very few other parts of Ireland. Some of the songs that were still sung there were of considerable antiquity, a number of them going back to mediaeval times.

From an early age, then, Heaney was to be an avid collector of songs and stories, which he often gathered from his own family members, notably from his father, who was an accomplished sean-nós singer himself, and from his cousin, Colm Keane. He also gathered songs from his neighbours like the members of the MacDonnchadha family, who were recognised in the locality as extremely talented musicians themselves with an unusually large repertoire. In this way, Heaney began to build up a wide and varied collection of songs, largely, but not exclusively, in Irish and many of these were to be a staple part of his live performances and recorded work in later years.

Heaney was later to supplement these with folk songs drawn from other parts of Ireland and from England and America. In later years, he was even to record a small number of songs such as I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me, a variant version of The Prisoner’s Song, one of the earliest country hits as recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1925, which were probably not folk songs at all within a strict definition of the term.

Heaney first began performing in public when he was in his twenties and his technical excellence won early recognition when he won a gold medal for sean-nós singing at the national competition in his field, the Oireachtas, in 1942. The competition itself was an extremely prestigious one and winning it established Heaney’s reputation as a singer of the very first rank. Despite this, there was very little prospect of his being able to earn a livelihood through a career in music in Ireland at that time. In consequence, he had to seek other ways of making a living. After abandoning an initial plan to become a teacher, he worked as a fisherman in Carna for a number of years before emigrating to Scotland in the late 1940s, where he worked as a labourer on the buildings.

Throughout the later 1940s and early 1950s, Heaney regularly moved between England and Scotland in search of work and he rarely performed professionally as a singer in this period. This changed in the later 1950s, when he began to find work as a performer in the folk clubs which were then springing up throughout the United Kingdom as the second wave of the Folk Revival began to take hold there. Indeed, for many revivalists, Heaney, who was a genuine ‘folk’ artist in a way that most of them could never hope to be, was an inspirational figure. His impact in this regard was well captured by the great English folk singer, Louis Killen, who first saw Heaney perform in a club in Newcastle in the early 1960s. Killen was immediately struck by Heaney’s “incredible vocalisation… [his] deep resonant voice, the baroque complexity of his ornamentation and the centeredness of his performance.” He went on to describe the way in which the audience in the club was transfixed by Heaney’s commanding presence on stage and the way in which his performance drew them into the ‘ancient culture’ which he represented.

Heaney’s regular performances in folk clubs in England and Scotland at this time also eventually came to the attention of Ewan MacColl. As a result of MacColl’s admiration for his singing, he became a regular performer at the latter’s club, The Singer’s Club, and he was to be among those who sang there on the night of Bob Dylan’s first and only appearance at the venue in December 1962. It was also around that time that Heaney recorded his first full length LP for the English folk label, Topic. This album, Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic and English, showcased Heaney’s superb talents as a singer through a collection of largely Irish folk songs. However, the album did also include his distinctive version of the classic English folk song, My Bonny Boy, which was later recorded by Martin Carthy as The Trees They Do Grow High. From that album, I have chosen Heaney’s original recorded version of what was to become one of his signature songs, The Rocks Of Bawn, for inclusion here. The song had a particular resonance for him, as it described in a very immediate way some of the hardships which the people of his local district encountered in their everyday lives.

My second choice from that album is Heaney’s magnificent rendition of the Irish-language variant of Lord Randal. This was known there under its Irish language title of An Tigherna Randal or An Tiarna Randal (Heaney recorded it under both names) and also by its Gaelic name of Amhrán na hEascainne or The Song of the Eel. Martin Carthy was later to record the English language version of the song in a superb unaccompanied rendition on his 1979 album, Because It’s There. It was also probably from Carthy that Bob Dylan first learned the song in the early 1960s. He was later, of course, to use it as the basis for one of his greatest songs, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. A translation of the Irish language version of the song and a later recording of Heaney singing it can be found here.


I have also selected another relatively early recording of Heaney during his time in England for inclusion. This is his rendition of a well-known mid-Nineteenth century Irish ballad, Morrissey and the Russian Sailor which recounts the story of a probably fictional boxing match between a real Irish bare knuckle boxer, Johnny Morrissey (who later became a US senator), and a member of the Russian navy. The song has a macho swagger about it which perfectly suited the atmosphere in which it was recorded (an Irish pub in London) and the background noises here add to, rather than detract from, the overall effect of Heaney’s masterful reading of the song. The version I have chosen was included on a Smithsonian/Folkways compilation album, Irish Music in London Pubs, first released in 1965, which also included a number of other great Irish traditional musicians including Seamus Ennis and Margaret Barry.

During the mid-1960s Heaney also made regular trips to Ireland where he developed lasting friendships with a number of Irish ‘folk revival’ singers including Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners and Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers. As neither of these men had anything like Heaney’s direct knowledge of Irish folk music, he was to become an important source of material for both of them. Indeed, a number of The Dubliners’ most popular songs, including Seven Drunken Nights, were ones that they had learned directly from Heaney. The same was also true of The Clancy Brothers, who were later to records songs like Eileen Aroon, Red Is The Rose and An Bonnán Buí, or The Yellow Bittern to give the song its English title, which had all previously formed a part of Heaney’s repertoire. It was also largely at Liam Clancy’s urging that Heaney was to emigrate to the United States in 1965.

Before he did so, however, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, who both greatly admired him as an artist, recorded him at length both singing and telling stories about his life. In total, it has been claimed that these tapes ran to some five hours. Their original intention in making the recordings was to preserve these songs, many of which were either unique to Heaney or were ones where his renditions differed markedly from those of other singers. An edited version of these tapes was eventually released as a double CD, The Road From Connemara, by the English folk label, Topic Records, in 2000.

The album is a very valuable document in itself, as it features Heaney’s introductions to many of the songs, where he gives details of the historical background to them and, on occasion, gave information as to where his versions of the songs came from. From it, I have chosen his rendition of one of his signature songs, Cúnla. It is one of the more light-hearted pieces in his repertoire and tells of the story of an attempted and, perhaps successful, seduction on the part of the title character of the song. Although Heaney normally sang the song wholly in Irish as in this clip, in the version I have selected for the playlist he sings in a combination of both Irish and English.

From the same album I have also selected Heaney’s version of the well-known Irish traditional song, Eanach Cuain (or Anach Cuain) for inclusion. The song tells the story of an accident which occurred in 1828 when a boat sailing from Anaghdown in County Galway (the Eanach Cuain of the title) sank near Galway city, resulting in the deaths of some 19 persons. An English translation of the song can be found here.

After emigrating to America, Heaney spent several years in New York, where he worked as a doorman in a building on Park Avenue. Through his friendship with Liam Clancy, he also sang regularly in many of the pubs and clubs around Greenwich Village. Indeed, he even performed with Clancy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, although his performance there was somewhat overshadowed by the controversy which erupted over Bob Dylan’s ‘going electric’ at the same event. During these years, Heaney also made several return trips to Ireland. During two of these trips, he had sufficient time to record albums for the Irish record label, Gael Linn, which specialised in Irish traditional music and Irish language spoken word recordings.

These albums, Seosamh O’hEanaí, which was first released in 1971 and Seosamh O’hEanaí, Sraith 2 O Mo Dúchas: From My Tradition, released in 1976, were later released together as a double CD under the title O Mo Dúchas: From My Tradition in 2007. It is from this later CD that I have made my selections here. It was, perhaps, in the Irish language material which dominated both of those albums that Heaney’s consummate artistry and superb interpretative skills were best displayed. In singing these songs, he also effortlessly carried the weight of a tradition of singing which went back centuries.

It was perhaps these wider aspects of sean-nós – its connection with a deep seated folk memory of dispossession and of various types of economic injustice – which has led to its being compared to the Blues by some commentators. Like the Blues (and both Gospel and Soul music) sean-nós also bears witness to a resilience and strength of character which, in the final analysis, means that its impact is uplifting rather than the opposite. I have selected three songs from these two magnificent albums but in reality I could have selected almost any of the tracks from them as a demonstration of Joe Heaney’s prowess as a singer.

The first of my selections, Eileanóir na Rún, is the original Irish-language version of the great Irish ballad, Eileen Aroon, best known, perhaps, through The Clancy Brothers’ version. It was probably from that version or from one of the Clancy’s live performances that Bob Dylan first heard the song. He was later to perform it in concert on a number of occasions, most notably perhaps in Dublin in 1989. After that concert, according to Sean Wilentz, Dylan spoke with Liam Clancy about his sadness at the fact that ‘his audiences, even in Dublin, no longer knew the wonderful old songs’. However, the version that Dylan sang that night is not actually the original one but, in fact, is derived from a poem by Gerard Griffin, the Nineteenth century Irish novelist. While Griffin’s poem is based on the original song, it altered the original words considerably and adapted them to Nineteenth Century ‘Romantic’ conventions. A translation of the original Irish language version can be found here and, for comparison’s sake, Heaney’s rendition of the more well-known Griffin version of the song can be found here.

My other two selections from O Mo Dúchas are two of the oldest songs in Heaney’s repertoire. Of these, Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (translation here) is a very old religious lament which Heaney delivers with an enormous emotional power (a later video of Joe singing the song can be viewed here), while Seachrán Chearbhaill is a song with medieval origins which is known among sean-nós singers for its great technical difficulty. This complexity results from its rapid shifts between sung and spoken parts and its introduction of an entirely new melody at a different tempo close to the end of the song. As could be expected, Heaney surmounts these technical difficulties with ease and this version of the song is, in my opinion, one of his greatest vocal achievements (a translation of the song is available here).


Through his friendship with Liam Clancy and through his own live performances, Heaney had also become well-known to many of the musicians of the Folk Revival in America. It was largely through the influence of one of these, Mike Seeger, that, near the end of his life, he was to secure an appointment as a visiting artist at the School of Music at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, he taught many students, a large number of them from non-Irish backgrounds, in the intricacies and mysteries of sean-nós singing.

His impact on several of these students was a very profound one and a number of them have attempted to carry on his legacy in the years since Heaney’s death in 1984. Of my final selections here, the first, his deeply affecting reading of the American song, I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me (discussed above in the introduction) was taped by one of his students in class there and was included on the fine posthumous collection of such recordings and of some of his later live performances, Say A Song: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest, first released in 2006. My last selection, Heaney’s close to definitive reading of the fine Irish ballad Bonnie Bunch Of Roses-O comes from the bonus CD which was issued with Liam Mac Con Iomaire’s fine Irish language biography of Heaney, “Nár Fhágha Mé Bás Choíche” (or “May I Never Die”), published in 2007.

In conclusion, it could be regarded as one of the ironies of modern Irish history that, after the country had gained its independence in 1922 and had loudly proclaimed its commitment to the maintenance and preservation of its language and traditions, it did not prove possible for one of the greatest singers ever to have been born there to make a decent living in his native island. Indeed, it is arguable that Heaney’s brilliant singing received far greater recognition in those countries to which he emigrated than it did in Ireland itself. Fortunately, however, in more recent years Heaney’s immense cultural importance and the magnificent artistic legacy he left behind him both in terms of his recordings and in the large number of songs which were preserved through them has, at last, begun to receive its due acclaim there.


Extract from “Song of Granite” (2017) – the life story of Joe Heaney directed by Pat Collins


Robin Williamson introduces Joe who sings The Half Door, The Rocks of Bawn, The Old Woman Of Wexford at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1984


Joe Heaney and Séamus Ennis duet unaccompanied on Cúnla


Joe Heaney – The Archives
including biographical information, later recordings and videos of him either teaching or in live performance and translations of and background to many of his songs.

Bright Star Of The West
Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire’s great book on Heaney, “Bright Star Of The West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man”, which discusses his life, his repertoire and the influence he has had over later developments in Irish folk music. It also includes translations of and detailed discussions of the background to many of his best-known songs. One of the best books on a folk musician that I know of … AS

Joe Heaney biography (Apple Music)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Martin Carthy, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, Bob Dylan, Séamus Ennis, Ewan MacColl, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger

TopperPost #283


  1. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 23, 2014

    Andrew: Amazing. I had absolutely no idea about any of this. That is what makes this site exceptional and your piece is brilliant! Thank you for introducing me to this master. I love the Irish ‘sound’, but never took the time to search and listen. I will now.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 23, 2014

    Jerry, thanks for this. In my opinion, Heaney was one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century in any idiom. Re. ‘Eileen Aroon’ there is a story that when Handel was in Dublin for the first performance of The Messiah, he heard it sung and said he would have traded all of his own works to have written it…

  3. Peter Viney
    May 23, 2014

    I’ve just spent the last couple of years catching up on my ignorance of Peter Bellamy for English folk music (even though I saw him twice in the 60s) and now I’ve read this wonderful piece and have to get started exploring Joe Heaney for Irish … where will it all end?

    • David Lewis
      May 23, 2014

      Peter: wait till you come across Cretan music. Or Calabrese. Or kwela from South Africa. The joy of it is that it never ends.

      • Peter Viney
        May 24, 2014

        General point taken, David. but having suffered a two day Cretan wedding with a bedroom right above the dance floor, I will differ on detail! Malia, 1975. They were just building the first hotel. Bouzouki upset me for a decade after that.

  4. Andrew Shields
    May 23, 2014

    And now I will have to go and find out about Peter Bellamy…

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