David Whyte’s “Blessing” poems are interpreted through a visual journey across the Irish landscape in this short film by Emmy-winning filmmaker Andrew Hinton. Musician and composer Owen Ó Súilleabháin, who has collaborated with David Whyte for over a decade, offers a reflection on the music that inspired the creation of this short film.
Is giorra cabhair Dé ná an doras. Divine help is closer than the door. (Celtic proverb)
Four years ago, as I was searching for the oldest Irish traditional recordings possible for a composition, my father, Mícheál, emailed me scans of some intriguing letters he wrote in 1982. He had been going through old correspondence from when he was a lecturer in the Music Department at University College Cork. There, he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Irish national composer Seán Ó Riada.
When my father first started at UCC, he heard from a senior lecturer that somewhere buried in the archives of the library were some wax cylinders of the oldest audio recordings ever made of traditional Irish music.
The songs were recorded over 110 years ago by Richard Henebry (or Risteárd de Hindeberg, 1863–1916). Henebry was a traditional musician from a musical, Irish-speaking farming family in Waterford, a county in Ireland’s southeastern region. A Roman Catholic priest who served in Britain and the United States and an academic with a doctorate in Celtic studies awarded in Germany, Henebry was one of the earliest field recorders of Irish music using the wax cylinder technology of the time.
My father located the recordings, packed them up, and sent them to the National Sound Archive at the British Library in London to be transferred to tape. The results at the time were not great, and the wax cylinders were returned to Cork.
Just before receiving my father’s synchronistic email about Henebry, I discovered that a team at the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin had expertly transferred another batch of Henebry’s recordings to digital format.
The moment I heard these recordings, it was like squinting into an old telescope and seeing shades promenading on the shore, their ghost song carried in and out of earshot through the whipping wind and pulsing sound of surf.
The singer of the song on this recording is introduced as Pádraig Ó Néill. We know nothing more of him, but through his accent and style of singing you can hear that he is a farmer or a fisherman from that region.
The voices on these recordings are of a culture that lived intimately with the agriculture and aquaculture of their surroundings—a culture that was still sonically and spiritually in tune with a Celtic symphony of earth, the seas, and the seasons.
These sounds are vibrations that emerged directly from those singers’ bodies, resonating out in waves through the air.
Those air-waves were then captured, mirrored by the movement of a needle etching sympathetic grooves on a cylinder of wax.
That this keyhole view into the past has survived on what is the most fragile form of media is almost miraculous. Whatever inspired Henebry to capture those sounds also inspired generations after him to preserve and protect them.
The song that Ó Néill sings is called “Cé Phort Láirge” (Waterford Quay). It is one of many songs from the Irish tradition that sing about emigration, a mourning for something unjustly driven away.
When the chance came along to put music to David reciting his poetry, these haunting echo-soundings visited me.
David is a vibrant link in this human chain of vibration. He transmits these resounding frequencies both through his own physical body and in his body of work.
Astonishingly, it was only very recently that I realized that David’s own mother, a Sullivan from Waterford, walked that same quay her whole young life before being forced herself to emigrate to England in her teens.
The art of blessing, the art of calling in the invisible help of the divine, is ever present to the Celtic mind. As the old proverb says, this blessing is closer to you than the door—the root of blessing is to be found within, and not outside yourself.
True blessing is found from a sure-footedness on safe ground, on your home turf. It is my blessing that the vibrations, collected by Father Henebry and preserved against all odds by so many unknown hands, will act as the safe ground for David’s blessings, holding space for him to walk on air so that the horizon of a miraculous promise is revealed to us, if only we have the ears to hear it.