Celtic Junction Arts Review

Inishowen Singers’ Weekend

Adrienne O'Shea

You can hear Adrienne O’Shea sing on June 17 during her concert at the Celtic Junction celebrating the release of her debut CD “Threads of Gold.” Get tickets.

This March, I traveled up to the Inishowen peninsula of Donegal to attend their annual Inishowen Singing Weekend as a student. Inishowen is a small peninsula in the very north of county Donegal that has been home to a long-standing singing and ballad tradition. They host monthly sessions that highlight the beauty of their local singers and their rich English language song tradition as well as an annual festival that gathers together singers from Scotland, England, America, Ireland, and beyond for a weekend of singing, learning, and camaraderie. Every year, the Inishowen Singers’ Circle offers support to students to give them the opportunity to attend the festival and immerse themselves in the Inishowen song tradition. As someone who grew up in America immersed in traditional singing, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to attend one of the longest-running and most well-known traditional song festivals in the world.

Positioned by the ocean in the small town of Ballyliffin, I was greeted by sun and sea and anticipation as I had no idea what to expect. Upon arriving in Inishowen, I was immediately welcomed by the other singers and longtime attendees of the festival. We began the weekend with a welcome address and lecture given by Minnesota’s very own Brian Miller, singer and archivist supreme, who I was fortunate enough to be up in Inishowen with. Brian spoke to the attendees about his research into songs from the Northwoods, including our beloved Minnesota, and shared songs from the United States. I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity and pride at hearing a fellow Minnesotan speak about our own branch of this song tradition at one of the oldest homes of traditional singing in Ireland.

Brian Miller’s presentation at the 2023 Inishowen Singing Weekend

My first jump into the deep end came with the opening singing session – the Home and Away. It had been explained to me that this session was called by two fear an tí; one to call those from Ireland and another to call those from abroad. This session alternated between two Irish singers and two foreign singers to welcome everyone into the weekend. With so many singers from so many places, I was told that the organizers worked hard to have everyone sing at least once in the weekend and to be ready when I was called. Everyone piled into the pub of the hotel, hot, sweaty, and limited to standing room only, to hear the very first songs of the weekend. As a young student and first-time attendee of the festival, I had no notion of being called that first night – I was ready to listen, soak up the atmosphere, and learn how the sessions worked.

Rita Gallagher sings

I was in awe at the care and intensity of the session. One by one, singers were called on and took turns singing alone and unaccompanied, everyone else in the room watching and listening silently and intently. I was amazed, and frightened, by the attention and pressure put on each singer who stood up to share, and I was rejoicing in the comfort that I wouldn’t be put on the spot that night. After leaving to grab some air and cool down, I came back to the whispered news that I was next to sing. I have been singing in front of people since I was a young child and had learned to conquer the fear and enjoy a performance. In that pub for the first time in many years, I found myself struck with fear and nerves, nearly unable to control my own voice. I frantically searched my mind for the appropriate song to share; something not too long, something with a repeated last line for the crowd to sing along with, and most importantly, something that I remembered all of the words to.

The singer before me finished and I could feel the eyes of the fear an ti on me, waiting to introduce an unknown girl from Minnesota to a room of lifelong singers. The few people I knew whispered words of encouragement and clapped their hands to my back as I stood forward and a small circle in the sea of people cleared as I was left alone with a film camera pointed up at my face. I breathed as deeply as I could to ease the butterflies in my stomach and warbled out the first few notes of “Maid on the Shore.” I heard my own voice ringing through the room and looked upon the faces of the people around me, preparing for their response to my first verse. Though I was sweating and fighting for control of my knees, I felt my confidence grow with each note and was warmed and encouraged by the sound of voices joining me on my last lines. My fear turned to excitement as I progressed, nearing the end of my song and feeling the attention of the room on my words. As I finished, there was a breath of silence before applause broke out and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I heard whoops and praise and the whispered words, “That was magic!” from the camera operator as he passed me. I could barely breathe and was overcome with the feeling of having had the honor of singing in such rare company.

The rest of the night passed in a blur of songs and chat, with the promise of an 11 am lecture awaiting us the next morning. The next day was filled with discussion, conversation, and songs, educating us on the unique tradition that exists in Inishowen and the beauty of the local style. People came up to me for the next three days, remembering the song I had sung, asking me questions, and complimenting me on my style and delivery. I felt uniquely humbled to be receiving such praise and kindness in the midst of such company. Sitting in the rare, yet very welcome, Donegal sunshine, I soaked up the singing and stories of people from around the world gathered together in tiny pubs. My head was ringing with songs and stories, and I followed them through the rocky landscape and rolling waves of the sea. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music being shared and the privilege of getting to experience it with those much more knowledgeable and experienced than myself. 

Brian Miller playing tunes at the session
Adrienne sings from her perch in a pub.

The richness and unique beauty of the weekend was summed up for me in the afternoon session on Sunday. I was fortunate enough to play tunes for a couple hours with fellow musicians before heading into a marathon four-hour-long singing session where I could barely stand in the doorway, packed shoulder to shoulder. The atmosphere was incredible; it felt like everyone from the festival was in the same room, making the walls hum with energy. Spirits were high, drinks and sandwiches were being passed around, and I was comfortable living in the sweet relief that I had sung my song and could now spend my time listening. This cozy bubble burst when I was tapped on the shoulder and informed that another song had been requested from me. The same flutter of fear and excitement, pride and doubt rose up in me as I racked my brain for the right song to share. Making my choice (a version of “Barbara Allen”), I slipped back into my corner in the doorway and faced a room full of expectant ears, eager to hear my second contribution. I steeled myself and opened my mouth, allowing my voice to rise to meet the room again. Again, a magic silence filled the room, lifting me high with the voices who joined me, and I felt again the unique pride and humility that accompanied such a performance. I thought of my own life as a Minnesotan, now at the seeming edge of the world, sharing my voice in the presence of fellow Minnesotans and strangers alike. A wash of relief and accomplishment again came over me as I finished, and I felt honored to have been asked to share my voice in such esteemed and welcoming company.

Brian Miller and Adrienne O’Shea, Inishowen Singing Weekend 2023

I was extremely fortunate to have been supported in my journey up to Inishowen by my school, The University of Limerick, and the Inishowen Singers’ Circle through their student bursary. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience filled with intense music and a unique opportunity to learn. I was incredibly grateful to have been called on to sing, and was even invited by the great Donal Maguire to sing one final time before departing. Being able to share that experience with Brian Miller and Danny Diamond as fellow representatives of Minnesota and our music was my genuine pleasure, and I was honored by the trust and encouragement the people of Inishowen showed to the younger generation and their honor of people and voices past. I am still searching for ways to recapture the feeling of singing as I did that weekend, and I hope to return in the years to come.

Thanks to Brian Miller and Adrienne O’Shea for providing the photos in this article.