Enya - A Global Star with a Gaelic Sensibility

Skyscape

When I listen to Enya I am reminded of the following excerpt from a book about the current status of the Irish language in a changing world:

"Song is a translation of feeling and thought into sound so as to communicate more directly with the heart and soul of others. When this is successful we often get the meaning without understanding the words. The sound suffices to close the gap between language and understanding"

For most listeners the language in which Enya sings is secondary because the emotion is carried in the melody. The words for Enya's songs are penned exclusively by her lyricist Roma Ryan, and English, Latin, French, Spanish and Japanese have all featured in her albums. On Enya's most recent album Amarantine (2005) a fictional concept language, Loxian, was devised by Roma Ryan. Of all of these languages, there is one that Enya calls her own and that language is Gaelic. When Enya sings in Gaelic she sings her own heart.

Enya's use of Gaelic in her music provides the listener with a sense of place. As Irish is her first language, it is the language around which Enya's meaning structure has developed from childhood. When Enya sings in Gaelic we hear an achingly intimate voice, and we make a more explicit connection with Enya's own words and, ultimately, her own emotions than if she were interpreting the words of another.

When Enya sings in Gaelic we hear a very personal memoir of the singer's life with the subject matter often appearing to be autobiographical drawing on lived experiences and memories. The themes are often melancholic, and loss features strongly in these songs that echo the voice of the inner child far from home (S'fágaim mo Bhaile), a lament for lost youth (Na Laetha Geal M'Óige), or a prayer for calm and understanding (Athair ar Neamh). When Enya sings in Irish, we hear the voice of her past, the voice of her childhood, of her life history. The Gaelic songs offer an insight into an earlier time in Enya's life and they are utterly personal; they are a unique opportunity for the listener to hear Enya sing in the language of her thoughts and dreams.

One of Enya's most touchingly personal lyrics can be heard on the track Smaointe from the album Shepherd Moons. Like most of the artist's Gaelic songs, the track is a lament on the grief of a child losing grandparents and crossing from the inocence of childhood to the dark reality of adulthood. A similar theme is explored in Na Laetha Geal M'Óige from Enya's breakthrough album Watermark, in which Enya recalls 'the bright days of youth', the suggestion being that these days are now gone, replaced by darker days. The loss of innocence is to be lamented. Even on the buoyant, frolicking A Day Without Rain a Gaelic lament on the nature of life and death features titled Deora ar mo Chroí (Tears on my Heart): it seems in Gaelic music there is no end to the sorrow…

Enya's Gaelic lyrics are often simplistic, colloquial, candid and written as if by a child in a loose musical style reminiscent of Irish sean-nós music - a melancholic and lilting style of singing filled with typically Irish note ornamentation and rhythmic freedom. This sean-nós style in Enya's music is an instantly recognisable ethnic Irish sound, which to me, sounds like home.

However, as Enya's career has developed the use of Gaelic in her work has diminished, strengthening the suggestion that Gaelic is the sound of Enya's past, of her childhood, of days that have now gone but are still remembered. On her most recent album Amarantine there were no tracks at all in Gaelic (although, even in the alien sound of Loxian the echo of Gaelic still resonates). Perhaps Gaelic did not fit the themes of this most recent album, as the grief for the past has been dealt with on Watermark and Shepherd Moons.

Although possibly unaware of the fact herself, Enya is an ambassador for the Irish language. Why should a language need an ambassador one could ask? Well, like all minority languages Gaelic is a valuable part of the world's heritage and all minority languages deserve protection and conservation. One can almost hear the collective wail of all minority languages around the world as English continues to monopolise the global consciousness and Gaelic is one of these languages sacrificed in the advances of a global community.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Enya's use of Gaelic in her music is central to her standing as an artist in Ireland, or even a consideration for most people (for whom Irish is a school subject gratefully left behind), But I think Gaelic is central to Enya's identity, as a human being and as an artist. In fact, Gaelic could be seen as one of Enya's unique selling points, imbuing her music with that little extra something which excites the ear. If the Irish language were to become extinct tomorrow there are many Irish people who would lament its loss, but currently, English is the language of the majority on this island and the tide is not for turning.

In interviews Enya has spoken of her love for the language. For her the use of Gaelic is automatic, it's in her linguistic wiring, it's the language of her childhood, the family code, the mother-tongue that binds her to the community and to the country and it is the connection she shares with her ancestors and the oral tradition that has partly inspired her sound.

Enya's worldwide success has ensured that the sound of Gaelic echoes to the farthest shores of the globe. That she did not abandon Gaelic in the whirlwind of success is to be commended and is yet another mark of her singularity.

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Skyscape is a member of the Unity and Marble Halls fan forums.