Genetic Memory and My Irish Friend, Anthony

There’s a case to be argued for genetic memory, the Jungian theory, that certain memories and proclivities are bequeathed to us at birth from our forbearers. As a Scots-Irish descendant on every branch of my family tree, it seems my blood is imbued with a haunting, genetically ingrained longing; some deep-seated calibration to my ancestral lineage, which has spawned poets, writers, and musicians, who have seemingly come into this world with aptitudes waiting to be developed throughout life. I was drawn to the arts long before I had the facts on my antecedents, just as I’ve carried a mysterious affinity with certain proprieties specific to the United Kingdom: its cool, misty climate, sweeping vistas; its close proximity to the sea. I’ve lived with this overarching, ineffable partiality for as long as I can remember, and every once in a while, some magical happenstance springs forth and brings it straight into my home.

Last May, Anthony McCann paid us a visit. He is Irish as the soil, younger than me, and someone who was part of my daily life years ago, when I lived on the western coast of Ireland. We worked side by side for a common goal in Galway. At the time, he was casting about for his bearings in life, but for me as an outsider, this young lad was emblematic of what it means to be Irish. Anthony comes from a line of historians: some amateur, others by trade. I sensed he would put this to use one day, which he did, for today he is a professor of ethnomusicology, who lectures at universities throughout the world, which is why he had cause to be in Santa Barbara, California, one hour’s drive from my home.

It’s funny to see people out of context; most times it brings to mind a fish out of water, yet there are those unique souls who can walk into your life as you’ve been leading it and make you question your vantage point; Anthony McCann is one of those. He sauntered into my Southern California living room, all long limbed and russet- haired, with that lightning-quick spin on his “How ye been keeping?” I’d told my husband I needn’t prepare for his visit. Anthony is the kind of guy who feels at home wherever he goes because he’s in possession of those distinct Irish traits common to all from that self-sufficient island all covered in green: he’s comfortable in his own skin, present in the moment, devoid of pretense, under no expectations, and able to rise to any occasion.

Now, the Irish are not a lot to offer themselves freely, but neither are they the sort to be coerced after dinner. And I, being wise to honoring my guest, leaned comfortably back in my chair and said, “Anthony, give us a tune.” I felt the air shift in my kitchen to a whirring, vibratory force that hovered like a mantle upon Anthony’s shoulders. He centered himself; I could feel it, and watching him furrow his brow to a serious line, it seemed he reached back through the veil of time and aligned himself with something ancient; something that was his right to claim, for Anthony is no imposter; he simply slipped into something already there on his skin. It began with a hum in the back of his throat: a low, resonate, otherworldly invocation that set a pace, which he rode like the swell of a wave. With pitches and free-falls, he regained a flat center line, which was all the more poignant having been contrasted with his vocal ornamentation. It was an old tune, yet in that moment it belonged to none other: “Una ni Chonchuir bhain,” or “Blonde Una O’Connor,” sung in Irish sean nos, in the lament that “I loved her, she didn’t love me; I missed my chance, oh woe is me.” I couldn’t recall if I’d heard the tune before, but something within me remembered the spirit of its intention. It didn’t seem to be a singular expression; it was an intonation that spoke for us all as initiates of an ancestral inner circle, and I knew in that moment something archival had been trigger within me; that one doesn’t have to be born in Ireland to own its spirit. Ireland’s spirit is vested in its children at birth: a sacred, atavistic, spectral commodity residing as genetic memory passed down through family lines.


Views: 1098

Tags: Music, Singing

Comment by Bit Devine on June 15, 2015 at 4:25pm

Sean-nós is certainly a force all of its own. You simply cannot listen to anyone sing in that style without being transported... to the isle... back in time... It is both primal and current... 

Seamas Mac Mathuna once wrote: "Sean-nos singing is at once the most loved and the most reviled, the least often heard and the least understood part of that body of music which is generally referred to as Irish Traditional Music ... It is the least understood because, technically and emotionally, it is the most complex part of that body of music, and many of those who dislike it do so because the techniques of sean-nos singing are not the techniques which they have come to regard as the "proper" or "correct" ones. For the feeling and emotion of sean-nos singing is not expressed by the standard European 'bag-o-tricks', and so it is that to some not unbiased ears it sounds 'uncouth', 'untuneful', and 'unmusical'.

Comment by Claire Fullerton on June 15, 2015 at 5:47pm

Thank you, Bit.  It  is precisely because Sean-nos singing is a little "uncouth, untuneful, and unmusical" that I love it so. Seems to me its beauty is in the individual ornamentation.

Comment by Bit Devine on June 15, 2015 at 9:39pm
I have always said that it is like the wild rugged coasts from which it comes...raw, untamed and breath stealing
Comment by Doni Logan on June 16, 2015 at 9:43am

You said it so succinctly, Claire Fullerton, in that one doesn't have to be born in Ireland to own its spirit.  Over the years, I have met many Irish people and find them to be as engaging and delightful as your Anthony McCann.  ONE DOESN'T HAVE TO BE BORN IN IRELAND TO OWN ITS SPIRIT ... wow, how explicitly stated!  Love it!  May I use this line in any of my future postings on this one or other websites?

Comment by Claire Fullerton on June 16, 2015 at 10:33am

I'm so glad the line hit a note, and yes, you may quote me!

Comment by David Lawlor on June 17, 2015 at 8:17am

Beautifully written and described, Claire. You captured the power of Sean nos so well. Great writing

Comment by Claire Fullerton on June 17, 2015 at 10:15am

Off of the likes of yourself, David Lawlor, I couldn't be more chuffed!

Comment by David Lawlor on June 17, 2015 at 10:28am

As we'd say in these parts, 'would ye give it over!'

Comment by Claire Fullerton on June 17, 2015 at 10:45am

All right, now you're going to have to explain this one precisely, David Lawlor. I'm laughing at this, seriously, and assume it means something along the lines of "stop with the flattery" in a humble, aw shucks kind of way; perhaps something along the lines of "go long with yourself?"

Comment by David Lawlor on June 17, 2015 at 11:19am

Yep, you got it in one - or three, or four by the looks of things.


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