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"Primarily what we write about is people, and no matter how bad a situation gets, I think there's always hope for people." — Edge

U2 Connections

Bob Quinn / Traditional Gaelic Music

by Angela Pancella

Bob Quinn lives in the Connemara region of Ireland, the Gaeltacht, where Irish is still spoken. He is, or was, a film-maker -- he made Caoineagh Ui Laoire in 1975, PoitÌn in 1978, and Bishop's Story in 1994 -- his work is very unsentimental, tough, in reaction against the "happy-go-lucky leprechaun" stereotype of the Irish. But what interests me the most is his investigation of sean-nos, "old-style" singing. 

Sean-nos is not an easy thing to define; there are many different styles to it, though all unaccompanied. The style that got Quinn's attention has a lot of ornamentation and note-bending, deliberately going a little out of tune. Also very long melodic lines. When first he heard it (he is not native to Connemara) it reminded him of nothing so much as Arabic prayer-chants; it had a feel to it that was definitely non-European. He used this as a starting point to a theory that the Irish owed more of their culture to contact with North Africa and the Moors through the sea-trade routes than is usually discussed. He started rethinking the whole idea of Celtic migration, often pictured as sweeping west across Europe to the outpost of Ireland, imagining instead how "land's end" places like Ireland had lively trade with other seafaring peoples. Land travel wasn't a defining part of their culture, but sea travel was, and so "Celtic" design has many points of similarity with Arabic art (the swirling geometric patterns), the Moors also being a seafaring people. 

I am making major paraphrases of Quinn's theory because it's been a while since I've read his book. I just remember my boss, Bill Christman (who visited Quinn in Ireland) telling me how Quinn was writing this outside of any academic study of the subject, and was not really taken seriously because he was outside the serious research field. 

Bill also told me how Bono paid a visit to Quinn one time after hearing about his work, but that Quinn was less than impressed by him. ;) I did find this in the Wire Archives later, from a Muse online interview with Bono and The Edge: -

From dSIDES: 

[Bono]: We're not really North Europeans. The roots of our music are Celtic, Middle-Eastern, Abyissian, that's where it all comes from. We are not Europeans so we shouldn't try to be. Let's not be intimidated it.' 

Edge smiles wryly at Bono's wired flow. 'I love Bono's theories about the idea that it came from North Africa, Bob Quinn had similar theories about where art and music came from to get to this country. it's a very compelling argument but it's still a mystery." 

Another Bob Quinn-U2 connection, though it may be another Bob Quinn -- kinda doubt it though. Ossie Kilkenny, their accountant, when he became the chairman of the Irish Film Board, succeeded Bob Quinn, who had resigned some months earlier. 

Sean-nos -- read an interesting article about the "old singing" here: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sean-nos.htm ;

What it says about the importance of emotional content in the music's performance, as opposed to simple technical proficiency, could be applied easily to U2. It calls to mind what Bono says about U2 being Irish in spirit, even if the "flesh" of their songs don't seem Irish at first listen: 

"From this point of view, the song - not the singer - takes precedence; and whether a singer can put his song across determines to a much greater degree than technical polish whether he does or does not "have the nÛs." When Hi'daÌ spoke of singing as "telling a story" however, it was not in the same sense that a ballad-singer or a seanchaÌ might use the phrase - it is not, in other words, the process of relating a narrative. Most of the songs in the Irish tradition are lyrical rather than narrative in form, and the 'story' of a song is more often implied than stated. There is, as Hi'daÌ told me, "some kind of story" attached to each song; but the traditional singer can - or could at one time - assume that this story was familiar to most of his listeners. It is not, then, the narrative of song that the singer must convey in his performance, but, rather, its emotional content." 

I also found some information about a couple of CDs featuring sean-nos singing: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mustrad/reviews/sean_nos.htm ;

It seems like finding recordings of sean-nos is a little tough. Luckily one sean-nos singer has brought elements of this traditional form into his modern work. Iarla O Lionaird, who as a child won all sorts of contests in sean-nos (a bit of a prodigy), has gone on to be a singer with a group called the Afro-Celt Sound System, which mixes up Irish sean-nos and Senegalese rhythms and other such bits to make real the African-Irish link theorized by the likes of Bob Quinn and Bono. He has also recorded a solo album, Seven Steps to Mercy, which was produced by Michael Brook. (You know Michael Brook. He invented Edge's Infinite Guitar and did the "Captive" soundtrack with him. Eno appears on Brook's records from time to time as well.) I saw somewhere that O Lionaird has worked with Edge, but that might just have been somebody making the leap from Michael Brook to Edge. Can anyone here tell me for sure? O Lionaird's got a new one out on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, "I Could Read the Sky," a film soundtrack that also features Matrin Hayes and Dennis Cahill (current faves of Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer) and Sinead O'Connor. Nice article on Iarla O Lionaird here: http://www.muse.ie/archive/interviews/iarla.html