Song of granite image 2

Collins picked singers to portray Heaney

Colm Seoighe plays Joe at 10 years of age.

By Daniel Neely

On this Saturday, “Song of Granite,” a cinematic dramatization of the life of the immortal sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, will screen at NYU’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Film Center as part of Irish Screen America’s Film Festival 2017. Fans of traditional music will want to take particular notice of this production not only because it is Ireland’s selection for best foreign-language film at the 90th Academy Awards next spring, but because the clip that has circulated, which depicts Heaney’s father singing a song into a folklorist’s primitive cylinder recorder and young Joe’s curious response, is absolutely breathtaking both visually and for the apparent realism in how the encounter is depicted. This short clip suggests we will be given an insightful, nuanced film about music, song, and Irish traditional culture. I am extremely curious to see what else the film has to offer.

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Sean-nós (“old style”) singing is a complex, ornamented, and often haunting style of unaccompanied solo song found throughout the Irish Gaeltacht. Singers sing both in Irish and English and individual style is highly conditioned by the community from which the singer comes. It is considered one of Ireland’s most important cultural treasures.

I recently had a chance to speak with director Pat Collins about the film. Curious to know how this project came about, he told me that maybe 20 years ago he’d heard Heaney singing “The Rocks of Bawn” on the radio and it captivated him. He taped the song off the radio and even learned to sing it himself. “Not very well,” he said, “but I used to try.” It was around this time he saw Michael Davitt’s 1996 documentary “Joe Heaney: Sing the Dark Away” on Irish television. Later, he was drawn to Liam Mac Con Iomaire’s and Sean Williams & Lillis Ó Laoire’s biographies. Heaney and his singing – sean nós singing – simply stuck in his head. “I’d always wanted to do something on singing and I thought Joe Heaney’s story was the perfect vehicle.”

Heaney’s story is compelling, indeed. “Carna, the place he came from, was very much a small, rural community in the west coast of Ireland,” Collins said. “Heaney learned a lot of his songs from his father and his uncle, and from the community and his neighbors as well. It was an unbelievably rich place. Someone said there are more unrecorded stories and songs there than in any other part of Europe. Heaney was born in 1919 and so learnt the music from the source, let’s say, but he took it beyond, singing in Newport, performing with John Cage. And yet, he maintained his uncompromising approach to the tradition and sang like he always sang all the way through.”

The complexity of Heaney’s life played a major role in the film’s structure. “In many ways, Joe is unknowable. He had a complex relationship with his wife and kids, and was very much in exile in America. While he wanted to return home, he never was able to make it.” Because of this, the film is organized to give very little narrative explanation, instead focusing on three different stages – and the singing that unites them – to evoke a sense of the depth of Heaney’s life.

Collins gives great credit to the three Joes that feature in the film. “Colm Seoighe, a young boy from Connemara near to where Joe grew up who can act and sing sean-nós, plays Joe at 10 years of age. Michael O’Chonfhlaola plays Joe in his 40s and is one of the great traditional singers in the country now. Like Seoighe, he’s from Connemara. The well-known actor Macdara Ó Fátharta, who is from the Aran Islands, plays Heaney in the third stage of his life.”

Collins said it was very important that people who played Heaney were accomplished singers as they made every effort to remain true to the singing style. The spoken Irish was important as well. Collins’s writing partners here were Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Sharon Whooley. The three have worked together before with great results; their film “Silence” won the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award at the 2012 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Mac Giolla Bhride’s influence was particularly important, as Collins speaks only a small amount of Irish. Mac Giolla Bhride, however, is not only a native Irish speaker – he’s from Gaoth Dobhair in Co. Donegal’s gaeltacht – but he comes from a very highly respected family of sean nós singers. Collins explained that it was Mac Giolla Bhride who kept vigil to ensure that the Irish in the film’s script and in its songs was well executed.

There is lot to look forward to with “Song of Granite.” It will show this weekend and will be given a limited release in New York and other select American cities on Nov. 15. And what of the Oscar talk? “It’s a nice thing, but there’s a long way to go before it actually gets nominated,” Collins said reflectively. “I do feel like it’s a boost to the film in terms of reaching an audience, a bigger audience. We’ll see.” We will indeed. I look forward to attending the screening next weekend and plan to share my thoughts in next week’s column – stay tuned! To learn more about the screening, visit