Annie Hession, was a celebrated traditional singer, mesmerising audiences at Feis and Oireachtas organised by the Gaelic League in the first years of the 20th Century. The eldest of the Hessions of Ballydotia, she was known variously as Aíne or Eithne Ni Oisin, and after her marriage to local Farmer John Keane, as Bean O’Catháin or Mrs John Keane. In the 1910s she popularised several traditional songs including particularly “Una Bhán” and “Sal Óg Ruadh”, and both inspired and collaborated with Carl Hardebeck the composer. Annie qualified as an Irish Teacher at “the Partry School” in Toormakeady, Co Mayo, and taught initially at Kilskeery, Trillick Co. Tyrone, then in Spiddal and later for a time at Collaiste Uladh, Cloughaneely Co Donegal. A regular singer on early Irish radio in the late 1920s and 30s, she took centre stage in the radio commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1936.
Oireachtas Winner 1902-1906
Annie first appears in the press the winner of first prize in singing at the 1902 Oireachtas (Freemans Journal 14.05.1902). The next year, she was 6 times prize winner at the 1903 Oireachtas (Connacht Tribune 16.04.1903) and, later that year at the Connacht Feis , she was a prize winner with her father Stephen (Tuam Herald 22.08.1903), and with her sisters Maggie and Ellen (Western People 29.08.1903) . Both she and sister Maggie took multiple awards in the 1904,1905, and 1906 Oireachtas (Irish Examiner 5.08.1904 and 17.08.1905). In 1904 they also both impressed audiences at regional Feis, at Achonry (Western People 27.08. 1904). 1905 found her in Ballinrobe organising festivities for St Patrick’s Day (again with Sister Maggie). Qualifying as a teacher at Partry College, Tourmackeedy in 1906, it was presumably also through her growing fame as a singer in Gaelic League Competition’s that she secured her first formal teaching post. .
Cill na Sgire, Trillick Co Tyrone 1907-1911
In 1907 she was engaged as a teacher of Irish Language and Singing in Trillick Co Tyrone, as part of Fr Maguire’s energetic programme of “irishification” of the Parish (Ulster Herald 11.09.1907). Her teaching and singing was much revered, with early reviews giving a flavour of the fervour with which she was received.
Thug Áine, Iníon Uí Oisín, amhráin uaithi agus shílfeá gur síbhean cheolmhar éigin a bhí ag tabhairt comhairle do chlannaibh na nGael í agus í ina seasamh ansin ar turtóigín fraoich, culaith bán uirthi, coróin dá gruaig dhuibh ar a ceann, an ceann féin ardaithe go huaibhreach is go huasal, meidhreacht ag lonradh trí mhánlacht ina gnúis agus ina súilibh agus binneas agus anamúlacht a gutha ár sámhchorraí agus ár spreagadh’ (An Claidheamh Soluis 6 Samhain 1909).
Annie Hession delivered a song and you would have thought that it was some musical woman of the Sídh taking counsel with the children of the Gael, and she standing there on a heathery mound, a white dress on her, a crown of black hair on her head, that same head raised proudly and nobly, merryness shining through graciousness in her face and her eyes and the sweetness and soulfulness in her voice soothing and inspriring us.(An Claidheamh Soluis 6 Samhain 1909).
Charlotte Milligan Fox, a collector of songs and founder of the Irish Folksong Society, visited Tyrone with her sister Alice Milligan in May 1910. At Trillick she found Annie Hession teaching the young women of the parish Irish Language and Song. In an Article of that same year, Miss Milligan Fox describes a gathering one night in a cabin serving as a nightschool in Knocknagar where Annie sang two songs; “The Hornless Cow” a humorous song, and “Una Bhan” a much sought after classic. The scene is described in full in the BBC documentary Folksong in Tyrone, which is based on an account in The Journal of Irish Folksong for 1910
Later that same year, in August 1910, Annie made a dash for the Connacht Feis in Loughrea and though tired from her journey entranced a large audience. Her perfomance is described in another post Storm by the Lake
Marriage to Sean Keane and collaboration with Carl Hardebeck 1911
The Census of April 1911 finds Annie boarding at headmaster Patrick McSorley’s House in Trillick Co Tyrone. In early July she performed at the Oireachtas in Dublin (07.07.1911 Freemans Journal) , where Lil Ni Dhonnchada later reported that “Her clearest memory” of the event was that “of Aine Ni Oisin’s singing of Una Bhan so exquisitedly sung by this Galway woman that Carl Hardebeck noted it down from her and included it in his Seoda Ceoil” (Irish Independent 17.10.1959). Later the same month, on the 31st July 1911, Annie married Mr John Keane (Sean O Cathain) in Tuam.
School of Irish Singing – Spiddal 1913
Once married, Annie continued singing both under her maiden name and as Mrs Keane/O’Cathain. In 1913 Annie, here Eithne Ni Oisin – Mrs O Cathain, “a famous singer and Oireachtas gold medalist”, is reported to have joined a School of Irish Singing in Spiddal with Tomas McDomhnaill as Director and Carl Hardebeck “best living authority on Irish Singing and Music” also a teacher.(Connaught Tribune 9th August 1913),
Their is a real sense of emotion to her many positive reviews; In 1913 the Catholic Review and Bulletin looked back on the Oireachtas concerts,
“Then too, the Oireachtas concerts when singers such as Mairead Hannigan, or in recent years Annie Hession, seemed to throw the glamour of the old Gaelic Life over highly strung audiences and to exert an influence that will be projected ….”
Irelands Premier Traditional Singer – 1915
Though now based in Cummer Co, Galway, Annie found time to return to Kilskeery; In August 1915 one Anna Ni Oisin “Irelands Premier Traditional Singer” was greatly appreciated at an Aeridheacht in Kilskeery (Ulster Herald 7th August 1915) this time for once in “delightful weather”.
On November 2nd of the same year Annie Hession “the famous Oireachtas Singer” took part in a concert at the Abbey Theatre , Dublin with Cathal O’Broin and “other artistes” (Kerry Sentinel 27 October 1915) . Here she sang both “Una Bhan” and “Bim ag Smaoladh ar na Smeara” according to the Irish Times, which also noted that she had been the principle singer at the 1915 Oireachas in Dundalk. This Oireachtas was the scene of the final split between political and cultural nationalists in the Gaelic League; Douglas Hyde stood down as President of the League, and whether connected or not Annie (though not Mairead) now disappears from newspaper references as the League and the country became embroiled in rebellion and civil war.
The Radio – 1920s and 1930s
Annie reemerges in 1927 when she starts to participate in early radio broadcasts on 2RN the National Radio Station of a now independant Irish Free State. In July 1927 she is listed as singing Irish Songs (Irish Examiner 16 July 1927) on the programme. The same month she is also reported to be judging at the Connaught Feis (23 July 1927 Connaught Tribure and 16 July 1927 Irish Examiner).
By March 1928 she was part of the the young stations St Patrick’s Day Broadcast; the Connacht Sentinal reporting that she sang “two delightful numbers Una Bhan and Maire Brun”.
Here we felt the richness of the Gaelic and at the sametime felt unmistakeably that there is a sean nos; that there is really such a thing as traditional singing. Not that Aine Ni Oisin’s voice is a wonderfully rich one, but that somehow it is good and sweet, and above all, has the power of awakening myriads of memories in one and revealing “The Hidden Ireland”.
Connacht Sentinel 20 March 1928
In 1928 she participated in the revival of the Feis Connemara, held at the Town Hall, the original grounds near Clifden having been abandoned due to torrential rain. The Connacht Tribune reported of this Feis that “the well known family of Irish Traditional Singers the Hessions of Cummer – Mrs Keane her sister Miss Hession and daughter Maire Keane” attended, and that Mrs Keane sang (yet again) “Una Bhan as well as two unpublised songs”.
In 1932, as Mrs Keane she is referenced singing a selection of Irish songs on the Radio(Connaught Tribune 16 April 1932). Only occasionally are the songs referenced; On the 5th of July 1935 (Irish Press) reports she sang “Una Bhan”, “Seoladh na Gamhnasa Bfasach”, “Sal Og Ruadh” and “Bean an Fhir Ruaidh”. In this report she is said to have “for years taught Irish Music at Cloughaneely” and to be “the first to have sung Una Bhan and Sal Og Ruadh in Dublin”. Cloughaneely, the site of Collaiste Ulaid near Gortahurk in Donegal, founded in 1910 and patronised by Anna O’Farrelly, Roger Casement, Padraig Pearce and others.
Her last recorded performance is in 1936 where she sang at the the 20th Easter Commemoration (Irish Press 16 April 1936). This was broadcast from the Peacock Theatre, in Dublin and she she is said to have sung “a number of unpublished songs as well as Mrs Costelloe’s Mullach Mor”. Here she is also described as having sung on all the principal concert halls of England and Wales.
BBC Documentary Folksong in County Tyrone Folksong in Tyrone BBC
Profile of Charlotte Milligan Fox at ITMA Charlotte Milligan Fox