Combining dramatic re-creation with musical performances, Ireland’s foreign-language Oscar entry Song of Granite is a lyrical paean to Gaelic culture and the ability of music to colour the distance between the past and present.
In 2012, Pat Collins received critical acclaim for Silence, his cinematic ode to the soundscapes of the Irish countryside. Following a sound recordist as he travelled from Berlin to Connemara, the film was an aural conversation with the landscape; a ramble through themes of change and transformation that followed the footprints of the region’s many myths and memories. Those same ideas chime throughout Collins’ follow-up Song of Granite, an unconventional account of the life and times of traditional Sean Nós singer Joe Heaney.
Questioning whether identity is set in stone, or altered by changes to our environment the film is split into three acts, begining in Joycian fashion by presenting the viewer with a portrait of the artist as a young man. However, this reconstruction of Heaney’s youth in County Galway, rendered in breathtaking black and white by cinematographer Richard Kendrick, doesn’t attempt to unearth the mysteries surroundng the man, but rather explore the traditions and ways of life in 1930s rural Ireland.
From here Collins chronicles Heaney’s adult life, from the hardships he experienced in post-war Britain, to the modest fame he achieved in America working as a doorman by day and performing in the evenings. His songs, performed in the traditional Sean Nós style; unacompanied and predominantly in Gaelic, are as rugged and spartan as the film’s title suggests; characterised by a spiritual yearning for the land of the past.
Gradually, the film’s three acts begin to fragment, with Collins abandoning the conventional path of the musical biopic, and losing himself in the terra incognito that separates truth and memory. It’s in this moment, where songs of home begging to blur the line between past and present that it becomes clear Song of Granite is more than just an impressionistic portrait of a folk singer, with Heaney merely a talisman of what happens when one’s native customs are threatened by the colonising imposition of a foreign culture.
“When you’re focused on it, when you’re in the emotion of the song, you won’t hear or see anything else around you,” explains Heaney to a fellow ex-pat whilst performing in a smoky New York bar, and this sense of displacement is replicated by Collin’s refusal to subtitle the lyrics to any of these songs. It’s a minor act of political rebellion against the Anglicization of Gaelic culture, but one that forces the viewer to loose themselves in the raw emotion and experience the ability of songs to move us, and bring us back home.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble