The book written by Martin J. McGuinness about the life and tremendous legacy of his uncle Geordie Hanna was worth the wait. It’s a beautifully written, warm and vivid depiction of the legendary singer, and of the community, and the songs that he cherished – an engaging telling of the life and music of a man who was as authentic as his voice was unique, and who brought the songs and the singing style of the Lough shore to the attention of the world.
This is a stylish volume, with heft in hand, and a handsome cover photo of Geordie whose eyes, even in black and white, are bright and curious. Admiration and attention and great affection are evident in the project, as is the love of his family and his community for this extraordinary singer.
Geordie Hanna of Derrytresk on the Lough Shore is an iconic figure because to hear him sing opened your soul to the authentic sounds not just of his voice but of his place and his tradition.
The music in his voice was mirrored in his speech, and this book also gifts the reader with a CD ‘Geordie Hanna Sings’, originally recorded in 1978 by Eagran Records and remastered for this purpose. On the CD, we hear not just the renditions of songs like ‘Old Arboe’ and ‘The Stately Woods of Truagh’, but four playful stories related by Geordie in his inimitable style. He told those stories as if he was sharing with you a most marvellous secret.
I listened to the stories before turning to the book, and because Geordie’s voice is made all the more tuneful by its warmth and sense of wonder, it had the effect on me that I went on to read about his life in his own voice, the sounds of East Tyrone enriching and enlivening the conversations and insights curated so skillfully by Martin McGuinness and the Hanna family.
The recollections of Geordie match how my own father, Séamus Mac Mathúna, who loved him dearly, always described him. He said Geordie Hanna had a very unique voice and a pure and gentle soul. He was a man who brightened any gathering. When he first met Geordie, at the Fleadh in Buncrana in 1976, they sang with a tribe of others ‘for four days and four nights in the Atlantic Bar”, as he later wrote in tribute to him.
McGuiness writes that those who heard Geordie sing recalled that he sang “from the heart and to the heart”, and that, while he was the most natural of singers, his complete immersion in the song and in the expression of its meaning underscored how important the song itself was to him.
Identity and tradition were mightily important to Geordie Hanna. He understood the richness of these local songs: not just that they exalted the people and time and place, but that they were part of an ancient soundscape passed down from a people who were cultured and sophisticated and whose traditions were rich and abundant in ancient glories. As another great singer, Paddy Tunney observed of him: he “dug deep into the Dúchas of our Race and gave unstintingly of the treasures he found there”.
Singers like Geordie, and Paddy Tunney and Mickey Flanagan and many others, were traditional singers in the true sense of the word. They carried the ancient sound of seannós, including the gracenotes and ornamentation, into english-language songs, preserving at least in part some of the airs that were forged in the time of the bard scoileanna and before.
Martin McGuinness quotes from an article in the Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann publication, Treoir, which observed Geordie as “a powerfully built man, with a keen searching glance and compelling presence” whose singing had “a depth and expression” that held “his listeners spellbound”.
He also writes that Geordie’s life was lived in paying attention and being astonished by the everyday. That’s very true of the emotion in his singing. It always brought to mind for me what Kavanagh said about the richness to be found wherever life ‘poured ordinary plenty’.
The Hanna family, this history notes, had been known for their singing for generations, and there’s a lovely sense of the warmth and closeness and affection of family in this account, as there is of the excitement and the “magical space” created in the house gatherings where songs and music would ring out until the small hours. As David Hammond observes in a piece written to Geordie’s beloved wife, Anna Mae, these songs were “like all traditional lore, sacred, because they were relics of a people gone before”, Geordie, so Hammond observes, could have only learned this awareness “in a family that treasured it and in a community that kept it alive.”
What he kept alive is not to be confused with the overproduced, plastic sounds that fill up much of the airwaves these days. McGuiness recalls a man in Coalisland saying that it was “a pity your Uncle Geordie never learned to play the guitar” or got a “wee drum machine” so that he could have made a “lock of pound for himself”.
As McGuiness says: “For me it was rather like someone saying of Séamus Heaney, “wouldn’t you think he’d leave off writing them poems and try his hand at a thriller instead”.
It’s a sharp and insightful observation. Many of the songs we now know well – ‘Erin’s Lovely Lee’ and ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’ being just two examples – were passed on by Geordie’s wonderful delivery, his unique phrasing, and deep understanding of the stories and the songs. He needed neither guitar nor drum machine to enhance his peerless delivery. As Paddy Tunney wrote: “Geordie was not moulded in tradition, he was quarried out of it. ”
McGuinness brings us through Geordie’s life growing up in Derrytresk near Lough Neagh, and captures that sense of mischievousness and fun for which he was well known. The 50s were tough times economically in Ireland (though Mary Ellen Hanna talks of harder times still: the Hungry Thirties) but Geordie and his wife Anna Mae raised a fine family. Asked by a BBC producer how many children they had, Geordie replied “Ach, just the twelve”. Coming from a big family I loved that. He understood the real riches in life.
There’s a huge sense of family and community in this book, including remembrances of Geordie’s sister Sarah Anne, another superb singer, whose Derrytresk home became “something of a Mecca for lovers of traditional music”. They were bearers of a fine tradition, not just of the Lough shore but of their people, and they shared it generously. At a time when everything was becoming more and more homogenous, they had, as is observed in this book, the freedom to be themselves.
Being himself certainly made Geordie Hanna well-loved and his talents widely appreciated. He was a legendary figure amongst traditional singers, he had an extraordinary repertoire of songs, and an idiosyncratic style which he used to such good effect on the songs he loved so well.
In the book’s epilogue, Alísh Hanna and Brian Hagan recall with wit and affection the annual gathering held to remember Geordie. The first of the ‘Geordie Singing Weekends’ took place in April 1988, and over the years thousands of singers, musicians and collectors made their way to Derrytresk to remember and to sing. It was a tribute Geordie would have loved, singers together sharing and loving the songs.
The Hanna family have kept Georgie’s tradition alive, and his spirit is evident in this marvellous book which includes a collection of the songs that Geordie was best known for. His children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, still sing of the Lough Shore. It must gladden his heart.
On February 6th a concert in celebration of the life of Geordie Hanna featuring his grandsons and grand nephews Niall and Ciarán Hanna, Brian Hagan and Cathal O’Néill, Rita Gallagher, Daoiri Farrell, Len Graham, and others took place in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry. Hosted by Professor Malachy O’Neill, it featured an excellent discussion with the author of ‘Geordie Hanna, The man and the songs‘ – and of course the songs themselves, the magical songs.
As my father wrote in ‘A Lament for Geordie Hanna’:
Then each one that loved him will smile and remember,
And we’ll share gentle memories as we all go our way
And the joy that he left us once more will enrich us
As we meet once again by the shores of Lough Neagh
He is, no doubt, charming the angels with his rendering of Old Arboe, a place close to Heaven itself in the songs of praise of Geordie Hanna.
WATCH AND LISTEN
Geordie Hanna ‘Old Arboe’ – and Sarah Anne O’Neill ‘The Lisburn Lass’
Geordie Hanna sings Caroline from Edinburgh Town
The Hanna Family sing Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore
Séamus Mac Mathúna sings ‘A lament for Geordie Hanna’
Niall Hanna sings ‘The Stately Woods of Truagh’