The power of song during Covid-19

Cork singer Nell Ní Chróinín joined a host of the country’s top female music stars, to release a version of ‘No Frontiers’, in aid of Women’s Aid, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
The power of song during Covid-19
Nell Ní Chróinín

SEAN-nós singer, Nell Ní Chróinín, from the Ballingeary Gaeltacht and now living in Kilkenny, is proud to be part of the release by TG4 of a new bilingual version of the Jimmy McCarthy song, No Frontiers.

Part of the ‘Meitheal na mBan’ online series to support Women’s Aid during the pandemic, it features some of the country’s top female singing talent including Mary Black, Róisín O, Bronagh Gallagher, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Cathy Jordan, Wallis Bird, Loah, Cliona Hagan and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.

No Frontiers, a global hit, was chosen for the cause because it is iconic for so many women in Ireland. It has a theme of hope and inner strength, an apt message for the current climate.

While Nell, married to a primary school teacher, says her home is a happy place, for some women, the Covid-19 pandemic and recent lockdown has left them in danger.

Instead of home being a safe place, it can be the site of domestic abuse, with this problem surging all over the world during lockdown. The gardaí have seen an increase of 25% of call outs in the pandemic.

For over 40 years, Women’s Aid has been on hand to listen, believe and support women whose partners or ex-partners are emotionally, physically and sexually abusive. Now, their services are needed even more.

Nell was keen to be involved in the performance of the song.

“It can cheer people up and encourage them to donate to Women’s Aid.”

The power of song is something that Nell can attest to, having left her secure job to perform with the traditional Irish music band, Danú.

Thirty year-old Nell qualified as a primary school teacher in 2010.

“In 2016, I left my full-time teaching career and joined Danú. I’ve been job-sharing and working with the band . I was teaching in Cork for a while and then in Carlow. Come September, my contract is gone.”

While Nell says that leaving her job was a risky thing to do, she felt that the time was right.

“I don’t have kids or too many commitments. I felt I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t take the opportunity and do it.

“Danú is a band I’ve looked up to growing up. I’m delighted to be part of it. My family and my husband are very supportive which is great.”

Nell, who plays the flute and fiddle, is the vocalist with Danú. She is the only woman in the seven-piece band.

Nell Ní Chróinín
Nell Ní Chróinín

“I don’t mind being the only woman. I’m very lucky that the lads in the band are lovely to work with. They’re like brothers. We all look out for each other.

“They’ve been going for years (since 1995). Thankfully, when I joined, I slotted in very well. We all get on like a house on fire.”

Normally, Danú tours to the U.S twice a year.

“We go to America at the end of November for three weeks and come back in time for Christmas. We also go there at the end of February and we’re usually in America for Patrick’s Day. But this year, we had to come home early because of lockdown. We had a week left when we had to leave. It was weird being over there. It felt surreal being away from home at that time. We flew from St Paul’s Airport in Minneapolis. The flight was practically empty, the airport was empty and the shops were closed.”

Lockdown saw Nell doing a lot of painting and decorating around the house with her husband as well as gardening.

“Then I got the call to do No Frontiers for Women’s Aid. I was delighted to be part of such a huge line-up.”

Nell had to adapt to the technology to capture her performance.

“Normally, if you’re doing a programme for TV, you have camera people and sound people doing their job. But for this, I had to do the performance as well as the sound and two camera angles myself. It was a learning curve for me. You can get used to anything once you figure out the whole concept and the different bits.

“We did four episodes and each artist got to perform their own song and No Frontiers was the finale. I did a song in Irish, Ar Maidin Inné (Yesterday Morning). It’s an ancient song written by a poet in the 18th century. It’s an Aisling, which is a type of poem or song. In these songs, Ireland is depicted as this beautiful woman. It’s a little bit sad. It’s obvious that Ireland was under British rule. But at the end of this song, there’s a glimmer of hope. Help is on the way and she’ll be back to her own strength. The reason why I chose this song is because it has hope in it.”

From a singer’s point of view, Nell says that performing for an online audience isn’t the same as singing in front of a live audience “where you get a bit of feedback. It’s completely foreign to sing in front of a screen. It’s hard to adjust. I suppose this is what we’ll have to do for the next while. The summer is usually the busiest time for me with festivals all over the country. They are always great fun and are a great way to meet up with people that you only see once a year. I’m missing that social side.”

Growing into a sean-nós singer, Nell describes this style of unaccompanied singing as “a huge part of the culture in the Muscraí Gaeltacht. It’s one of the oldest styles of singing. There are different styles all over the country. We have our own style in Muscraí. It’s different to trad or folk singing. You have a lot of ornamentation. As in all types of singing, the story in the song is important. For us in Muscraí, it’s really important to get the story across and to honour the people who wrote the songs. And I want to honour the people I learned the songs from. Some of them may no longer be still alive.”

When Nell started performing, a singing scheme was established in her locality.

“A load of people came together who decided that the younger generation weren’t really singing the local songs. The singing tradition wasn’t really being maintained. So singing classes were set up where teachers went into schools and taught the local songs, written by local people. That was in 1999. It’s how I got into learning the songs of Muscraí. And I had always been surrounded by sean-nós singing. My parents have a massive interest in it and I would have gone to loads of singing sessions, growing up. It felt normal for me to be doing unaccompanied singing.”

Nell, who also likes classical music, as well as folk and country music, likes to be emotionally moved by music. “It might be the lyrics that I’m drawn to. Other times, it might be a melody.”

The grandchildren of the late Sean Ó Riada would be around the same age as Nell.

“They’re all great singers and musicians and are mighty for keeping the culture going in the Muscraí area.”

One of the many downsides of the pandemic is the absence of spontaneous music sessions in the pub. As Nell says, technology is all very well “but nothing beats being in the company of other musicians.”

Meitheal na mBan is on YouTube and the TG4 player (following a recent TV screening of the performances.)

It’s completely foreign to sing in front of a screen. It’s hard to adjust. I suppose this is what we’ll have to do for the next while. The summer is usually the busiest time for me.

More in this section

Sponsored Content