Song of Granite – A beautiful and haunting portrait of the sean nós singer Joe Heaney which will give you a whole new appreciation for our Irish language and culture.

song of granite movie posterDirected by Pat Collins Song of Granite is a film about of the sean nós singer Joe Heaney. Sean nós literally means old style. It’s a type of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing and a style of Irish dancing. Shot entirely in black and white we’re shown different stages of Joe’s life, as a young boy growing up in Connemara, to his life on the building sites of London and finally to him working as a doorman at an apartment building in New York.

The young Joe, played by Colm Seoighe, is a shy freckled faced boy who enjoys a carefree existence roaming the rural landscape of Connemara in search of adventure. He looks up to his father in admiration when his father performs the old sean nós songs for the people of the village. Joe’s shy about his own singing ability. In one scene he is told off by his teacher for not opening his mouth wide enough when performing in front of his class, while in another he dances skilfully on a rock accompanied by an accordion player without a worry in the world. The barren landscape and the characterful faces of the people of the village are further heightened by the black and white cinematography.

We then move onto middle Joe. Like many other Irish before him he travels to England to work on the building sites, a world away from his early carefree life. Returning from a singing session he looks in on his family for one last time before abandoning them and leaving for New York. He finds work as a doorman in an apartment building and keeps mostly to himself. As an older man we see Joe still working as a doorman in New York but beginning to open up and confide his thoughts to a journalist.

Joe is portrayed as a lonely figure in the film. The only time we really get a glimpse into who he really is, is when he’s singing.  He seems to connect more with songs than people. It’s hard to understand why he would abandon his family and take off for New York without telling them or contacting them when tragedy hits. The film doesn’t try to explain why. It simply shows it and leaves the audience to question the man and the reason behind his decisions. One thing that is clear is that Joe is a man constantly longing for his home in Connemara. When he reaches out his bare hand to touch the granite of the apartment building he’s working at in New York he’s reminded of the granite walls in his home in Connemara. It’s an extremely powerful moment in the film.

What stands out most from Song of Granite is the beautiful cinematography by Richard Kendrick. It also made me appreciate the beauty of our native language and the stories told through sean nós. Some of the singing wasn’t subtitled so as a non-Irish speaker I didn’t understand what they were about. Rather than this being a negative, I quite liked it because it allowed me to listen to the musicality of the songs and the emotion the singer brought to the piece. I found myself engrossed in Joe’s story. However, at times I found the narrative a bit fragmented, particularly when it suddenly switched to a documentary with real footage and audio of Joe. It took me out of the story and I wasn’t quite sure if I was watching a film or a documentary. The film made me feel that this man was lonely and hadn’t fulfilled his potential in life. I discovered afterwards that Joe toured extensively and even lectured in two Universities in Seattle and Connecticut. Together with his decision to cut contact with his family, much of his loneliness was self-imposed. Joe died as somewhat of a recluse at the age of 64 after suffering from emphysema.

Despite the fragmented nature of the narrative I found Song of Granite to be a beautiful and haunting portrait of Joe Heaney which gave me a whole new appreciation for our Irish language and culture. The film won a well-deserved best cinematography award at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh and has been put forward for Ireland’s foreign language entry to the Oscars.

Song of Granite is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday November 24th

Review by Claire Millane, a Dublin based actor writer and one of the presenters of No-Budget.