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Gaelic songstress Sarah MacInnis emerges from ancestors’ shadow

MacInnis is one of a new generation of Cape Bretoners contributing to a Gaelic revival sparked in part by her grandfather, the late Buddy MacMaster.
Celtic Colours-60 Sarah MacInnis
Sarah MacInnis performs a rendition of Angus Y. MacLellan’s An Innis Aigh at Celtic Colours International Festival’s opening concert last year in Port Hawkesbury. (COREY KATZ)

Sarah MacInnis cannot recall her grandfather — perhaps Cape Breton’s most revered musician — ever flaunting his greatness.

Nor did the late Buddy MacMaster push Sarah, or any other of her siblings, to take up the fiddle or even embrace Cape Breton music.

But he was delighted that the girls took an interest in it, that they looked forward to West Mabou Hall square dances, and that they danced.

Here and there, he would join Sarah and her sister, Elizabeth, for an informal fiddle lesson, offering a few helpful pointers.

“You could tell he was proud of us,” recalled Sarah. “He was the most humble person I’ve ever known, and I’d like to emulate that.”

You could say Sarah is coming into her own. At 18, she is fluent in Gaelic and has quietly gained a reputation as a fine Gaelic singer.

At Celtic Colours International Festival’s opening concert last year, she stole the show with her rendition of Angus Y. MacLellan’s An Innis Aigh.

A celebrated tribute to Margaree Island, it is a sacred Cape Breton piece and Sarah did it justice, accompanied by Symphony Nova Scotia. It was also a tribute performance to the late Raylene Rankin. At 15 years old, Raylene sang a beautiful version of the song, which is featured in the Cape Breton film Song of Seasons.

Soon after Sarah's performance, she was fielding offers from as far away as Europe.

She is also a talented piano player and step dancer, belonging to a new crop of young Cape Breton musicians who are pushing their culture forward.

You can catch Sarah and her talented fiddle-playing sister, Elizabeth, performing together Monday evenings at the Glenora Distillery.

Come the fall, Sarah will make her third appearance at Celtic Colours, when she performs in Christmas Island.

“It’s humbling to be a part of,” said Sarah. “The music is so powerful and uplifting, and it’s real. I think that’s what draws people to the festival and the music. People want to be a part of that.”

The MacInnis girls of West Mabou come by their talent honestly. Their mother, Mary Elizabeth MacInnis, is an accomplished fiddler, step dancer and piano player who has nurtured her children’s talents.

Beyond a connection to the music, Sarah feels a deep sense of commitment to those who, in some cases, endured incredible sacrifice to preserve their Gaelic identity and all that flows from it.

“It was important to my ancestors, they fought for it, they died for it. At the Battle of Culloden, when they lost, the people weren’t allowed to practise, they weren’t allowed to have their culture, their music, even their language. So they came here to keep it.

“I feel like I’m honouring them by keeping up their culture, and I’m still having fun doing it. My youngest sister, Theresa, is 14 months old. Sometimes I’ll be singing Gaelic songs to her, probably very similar to the way our ancestors would have sung to their children.”

Her reference to the Battle of Culloden is an important one. Scholars trace the beginnings of Scottish Gaelic's slide toward extinction to that very battle in 1746, when a British army dismantled a Highlands uprising led by the Catholic pretender Charles Edward Stuart.

British troops ruthlessly suppressed the people of the Highlands and western isles, killing many on the spot and imprisoning or deporting many more.

Years on, their descendants arrived on the shores of Cape Breton.

Outmigration has played a big role in the decline of a once-burgeoning Gaelic culture in Cape Breton. But for the past few years, a modest resurgence is happening, especially on the western side of the island. Core language classes have been introduced in schools, and community-based initiatives, such as Na Gaisgich Oga, a mentorship program launched by the Gaelic College in St. Anns, have helped.

Sarah has benefited from both.

Mary Elizabeth insists the revival is a product of a shared community endeavour. In fact, a traditional community gathering held in West Mabou five years ago sparked Sarah’s passion for Gaelic language. She noticed fresh and familiar faces at the milling frolic, where they sang Gaelic choral songs in rhythm.

“I used to think it was something only old people did. I was wrong, of course,” Sarah said. “I saw one of my friends, who’s one of my best friends now, at the milling table singing a song with one of his brothers. That inspired me.

“It was my peers that inspired me to start taking to it, to start speaking Gaelic. Once I got into the language, I started getting into the songs as well. Now, I’m just really proud that I can keep up the language.

“It really is a beautiful language. Seeing that it’s not just for older people, younger people have a part in carrying on the tradition, too, that’s kind of become more and more obvious to me over the years. That it’s important for young people to keep the culture alive.”

The MacInnises have always been committed to the weekly West Mabou Hall square dances. Mary Elizabeth performs as often as she can. Sarah and company are happy to tag along.

“I don’t often miss one,” said Sarah. “I like dancing, I like being around my friends. I like being a part of something that is so, well, ancient.

“I feel like Gaelic culture is making a comeback. For example, I think of the square dances. A couple years ago, I’d go to the West Mabou Hall sometimes and I’d be the only person my age there. Maybe there’d be a few little kids. Now and again, there’d be some young Gaelic speakers. Last night I was there, and I bet there was as many people my age as there were older people.”

Her efforts and those of her siblings have not been lost on their mom.

“It has given her a greater respect for her ancestors,” said Mary Elizabeth.

“She sees that other people value what dad did, and the fact that he tried to share it with people. I think that’s what really motivates her, too.”


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