Sean nós (say shan-nose) means old style in Irish, and I have often wondered just how old old really is. The very first time I remember seeing Irish sean nós dancing was in early 1989 at my very first Irish set dancing weekend in Donegal Town, Co.Donegal. The snow was all aflutter outside the big windows of the hotel ballroom and three auld fellas shuffled along, “doing a bit of shtep” during the céilí -that’s how I recall it. It was relaxed, simple, very rhythmic and obviously, memorable.
Picking up the thread from my last post Irish dance history: A contrary tale: Part 2 , I have been exploring more about the potential roots of Irish sean nós heritage, which it seems, may possibly originate from North Africa. Bob Quinn, in his 1981 documentary series The Atlanteans, illustrates his theory that dwellers on the West Coast of Ireland, particularly in Connemara, are not Celts but what he terms “Atlanteans”. They are ancient descendants of sea-faring people from Algeria and Morocco- the Berbers – who travelled all along the Atlantic coastline – West along Spain, Portugal, Basque country, Brittany in France and then North -West to Ireland – settled in parts and continued using the sea as a big super highway, that was much safer than travelling across land.
I found the evidence presented in the documentary compelling and curious, with potential multiple connections between ancient Irish and Berber civilisations starting with traditional singing, dancing & music, musical instruments including the Irish drum bodhrán which has a double in the Berber bandir, sailing boats – Galway Hookers with púcán sails & Felucca with lateen sails, stone circles, standing stones and carvings in similar contexts in both countries, art and fine jewellery pieces thought to be Celtic have an eery resonance in the Berber style, and on it goes.
I decided to have a look for myself and see what the new prism of Google and YouTube could provide to help convince me that this connection with North Africa has truth to it.
Quite a lot, I think.
Irish sean nós singing is an unusual, highly-ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing and in my view, has a deep, reflective and soulful quality about it. The sean nós style of singing was the aspect of Irish culture that pricked Bob Quinn’s interest to wonder where it came from. See for yourself – beautiful Irish singing by Róisín Elsafty (who ironically has mixed heritage Irish & Arabic – a modern day Atlantean) and a young American woman singing a traditional Berber song:
Irish sean nós dancing is a loose, rhythmic, percussive style of dance, where dancer and musician are strongly connected through the act of music playing and dance, creating a gentle and intimate energy.
I searched “Berber dancing” on YouTube and I am delighted and intrigued at what I find there:
It too has a mesmeric quality – the clapping, percussive rhythms and deep contemplative immersion gives great genuine pleasure and satisfaction to those doing the singing and dancing, and those others present. Further into my bit of research, I found this as part of a description of the Berber drum:
The bandir or bendir is used in the special ceremonies of the Sufi. The Sufi (islamic) tradition is strongly characterized by the use of music, rhythm, and dance to reach particular states of consciousness.
Singers, dancers and musicians alike often have their eyes closed for much of the time they are singing, dancing or playing – signalling that this is very much an internal process- connecting deeply within. This quality is like to be familiar to Irish musicians and some Irish set dancers, when you get “in the zone”, a sweet spot that nourishes and pulls you back for more. It does remind me of the traditional Irish water wells (An Tobar in Irish) – it has a depth that you can fall headlong into and also drink deeply from.
For me personally, exploring the roots of Irish sean nós and its’ potential connections to North Africa has been extremely revelatory, making pieces of a bigger more, complex picture of dance, music, my Irish heritage and personal journey fit together more snugly. And, during this research, after a flash of insight, I typed into Google:
Q: Is Nora an Algerian name?
A: The exact origins of this name is unclear, some say its a derivative of the word honor, or Honora. But the popular belief is that it comes from the Hebraic/Arabic word Noour or “Light”, correctly translated in means “Bright Light”.
Not definitive then, but more possibility of a link to North Africa, more than just the likely Scandinavian/Viking link that I had originally thought to be the origin of my own name. Then, a memory stirred somewhere – of my namesake, Nora Barnacle, whom my father named me after, the muse and then wife of writer, James Joyce. Could there be a connection there? From my visits to Connemara, I know that it is often known as Joyce country but I was a bit unprepared for what I found in the next Google:
The universe sometimes has an interesting way of revealing itself to you.
Nora Stewart (Barnacle)
THREE FREE Irish sean nós dance routines for you to learn at home: PLAY ALL