Pat Collins’ film Song of Granite is a haunting, lyrical portrait of the Irish singer, Joe Heaney, and pays homage to the ancient Irish tradition of storytelling: sean-nós singing.
Joe Heaney gained wide acclaim for his music. Raised in remote Connemara in Ireland and eventually emigrating to New York,he recorded hundreds of songs and at one point performed at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s. A native Irish speaker, Heaney sang in the traditional sean-nós style (a form of unaccompanied Irish singing).
Song of Granite portrays Heaney through three different actors: as a boy (Colm Seoighe), in adulthood (Michael O’Chonfhlaola) and in late middle-age (Macdara Ó Fátharta). Each offer fragmented glimpses of the singer’s life in Ireland, Glasgow and America, and are poignantly interweaved with archival footage.
There is little biographical exposition in the film, though viewers should be gently reminded – this is not a biopic. As its title denotes, the film is about song and it is within this great expanse that Collins’ film ‘sings’. For Heaney, the songs are his link to the past, a past which lies in contrast with his present exiled self. As the film progresses, Heaney’s songs from home begin to movingly blur past and present, music and memory. Many songs are performed predominantly in Irish, in the traditional sean-nós style and Collins’ brave decision not to subtitle the songs, allows audiences to appreciate each haunting performance, unhindered. For, as Heaney explains to another in a bar: “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.”
Through his documentarian roots, director and co-writer, Pat Collins deftly sustains the film’s deliberate slow pace whilst loosely fusing the unsentimental narrative together. (As an Irish director, there is also a welcome nod to the Man of Aran here). Similarly, Richard Kendrick’s mesmerising black and white cinematography throughout, reveals the breath-taking and desolate beauty of Connemara. The landscape dominates the film, as if to remind viewers that we are all a small part of something much more vast and complex.
To quote the cover of the DVD, this is an absolute masterpiece.