The stark landscapes of Galway, on the West coast of Ireland, form the backdrop to Song of Granite. It’s an elegantly understated, and original, documentary about a remarkable life. Joe Heaney, the now long-gone but much loved sean-nós singer, who died in 1984, is celebrated here again after a spell of obscurity. Heaney was born in Carna, near Connemara, and grew up in this harsh but beautiful environment before launching himself into a peripatetic life. The landscapes in this film, directed by Pat Collins, are a recurring visual motif. They also help explain Heaney’s life.
Sean-nós, literally translated from Gaelic, means old style. In this simple description, there is a whole world to discover. It’s acapella singing from the West Coast of Ireland, its origins lost in time. The film shows how powerfully sean-nós is performed. Usually sung by just one person, with others listening intently. Surrounded by rapt listeners, the singer holds hands with an onlooker, sometimes a fellow singer; a profound connection is held fast.
Heaney had an extraordinary but harsh life. At times, he worked on building sites in Glasgow and London, or as a porter in New York. Sometimes, he would disappear. Later in life, as his musical knowledge and talent were recognised in the American folk music world, he taught at Universities, and performed with John Cage. By the end of his life he left a strong musical legacy, and a better documented history of sean-nós singing. Heaney then fell into relative obscurity.
Heaney has been spoken of as a shy person. Song of Granite shows this as a rich interior life, the images dwelling on the lines of his face, his cheekbones, his striking eyes. In the earlier part of the film, he is first portrayed as a child, a boy of about seven. He appears in the distance, out of the sparse rocky landscape, through the open doorways of an austere stone and lime-wash cottage. His father, sat still in front of the cottage, sings. It is a grave melody, and all around him are equally still and grave.
The father is being recorded, out in the open air. This is reminiscent of the tapes made by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Sussex folk singer Michelle Collins, mentioned in a recent documentary about Michelle Collins. It is a good time for documentaries about folk music, from both Britain and Ireland, bringing back histories which might otherwise disappear.
The scenes in Song of Granite are presented as a series of tableaux, and paced like slow, calm breathing. Heaney is first seen as a child, then towards the end of his life, as an old man, in a granite landscape hardly altered over centuries. In the final scenes, Heaney young and old share the frame, together yet separate. Perhaps it is an image of afterlife.
Pat Collins has chosen a distinctive look for this film, something very different to the film which one might, mistakenly, think of as a point of reference for Song of Granite: Flaherty’s Man of Aran, filmed in . The similarities are only superficial. Both films show similar landscapes, and both are in black and white. Both are semi-documentaries, in that they incorporate fictive elements. But the ethos is altogether different, as is the point of view.
One of the reasons Pat Collins has given, for filming in black and white, was to replicate a sense that the film is contemporary to the actions it depicts, matching the period it charts, the decades between the 1930s and 1960s.
The result seems inspired by the work of Ansel Adams. The strong contrasts, the pin-sharp focus, the way every blade of long grass comes to life in its own distinct way, the high luminosity and pellucid skies, the infinite detail. The eye and mind get lost, but the heart is drawn back in by the voice, the song.
Those images show that Heaney was born in a world which seems timeless but could not last. He was born in 1919, and would have been fifteen when Flaherty’s Man of Aran was shot. While that latter film was in some ways inauthentic, it does give a feeling for what Heaney’s youth might have been like. Perhaps it was less still and reflective than what is shown, here, in the more recent Song of Granite.
It’s an intriguing thought. It is possible to imagine of Heaney’s life as subsumed by aesthetic choices made by Collins. It is a deeply personal vision. Collins has adopted an approach anchored in a poetic documentary tradition, where a sense of time and place is conveyed by fleeting impressions and narrative elisions. Song of Granite comes to life as a beautifully assembled scrap book, full of striking images, and unspoken emotions.
This is an inspired approach. It can be tempting for documentary filmmakers to anchor a narrative in didacticism and chronology, a run-through of collected biographical facts, from birth to death. Pat Collins and his co-writers, Sharon Whooley and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, have gone about things differently. As their project progressed, the film reflects increasingly the elusive way in which Heaney had led his life. The essence of his character, as one imagines it, comes to the fore.
Song of Granite’s writers had mentioned that the original script for the film had been far more word-based, and had included more interview material and dialogue. In the making, however, the story was honed into something that was more based on the senses, than on the word. Singing took over from the talking, and the singing sessions documented in the film were recorded live. This offers a powerful sense of capturing something ephemeral but vibrant.
The film is a deft montage of material: genuine archive footage, and some reconstructed but in such an oblique and understated way that it blends in beautifully, without seeming to mislead – it’s a form of poetry, found material and bespoke material put together. There are also some interviews, shown in an oblique way. There are allusions to the past, but the film is careful not to push – its intent is elsewhere. We hear his children speaking of him, his absences and disappearances, the sorrow of his wife dying while he was not there.
It is all recounted in a low-key, indirect manner: the film seems to adapt to the pattern of Heaney’s life, respecting his absences and re-appearances, not delving much into private or domestic matters. Song of Granite is much more about Heaney’s life in music, a poetic exploration of it, and the spirit of his life’s work. It attempts to imagine his memories, the sense of a life lived, wherever he was – even when he was in Glasgow or New York – within those stark landscapes of granite, and long windswept grasses.
Just like old folk songs get lost, or their origins forgotten, there are moments from Heaney’s life which are forever gone. And sometimes, even Heaney would mis-remember, in interviews, the story behind a song, offering a different account of its genesis. Traditional folk music and oral traditions can help history survive, but like all documents from the past, they sometimes degrade or disappear or are transformed into something else. The mystery of lives long past remains, and this is true of Heaney’s life too.
Song of Granite feels like a deep dive, an immersive experience, of memories unfurling towards both the end and the beginning of a life.
Director: Pat Collins
Director of Photography: Richard Kendrick
Screenplay: Pat Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, Sharon Whooley
Music: Delphine Measroch
Sound Design: Sylvain Bellemare
Cast: Colm Seoighe, Mícheál Ó Confhaola, Macdara Ó Fátharta, Leni Parker, Alain Goulem, Jaren Cerf
First published in Scenes Journal, 2018