O'Neill (née Hanna), Sarah Ann (1919–2012), traditional singer, was born on 19 August 1919 in Derrytresk, Co. Tyrone, the eldest of nine children (five sons and four daughters) of Joe Hanna, a small farmer, and his wife Elizabeth (née Hughes). Her mother also had three sons from her first marriage. A childhood characterised by backbreaking farm work was enriched nonetheless by her family's love of music. Travelling musicians and members of the extended Hanna family frequently gathered in their house to sing, dance and play music. Her father was fiddle player who also sang as he milked his cows. Sarah Ann likewise sang from a young age often while doing chores. Later she regularly attended dances where she would sing on stage when the band stopped for tea.
She attended Kingsisland primary school until she went aged fourteen to Belfast to work first as a waitress and later as a domestic servant. Returning home upon the outbreak of war in 1939, she found employment in the house of a local doctor before working in a bakery and then a bar. In 1942 she married John O'Neill, a farmer from her native townland, being a housewife thereafter. They had five sons and seven daughters. She sang around the house and at social occasions, having learned, mostly from memory, a repository of local ballads from older family members, typically remaking them in her own fashion. In general, however, she sang the contemporary hits preferred by her age group.
Her younger brother Geordie Hanna (1925–1987) was also an enthusiastic singer, with most of his songs coming from either his father or the McMahons, a renowned local singing family. He worked in the nearby Coalisland mine for twelve years until an accident forced him instead to fish for eels in Lough Neagh and cut turf. Picking up traditional songs from older turf cutters, he immersed himself in the social and cultural traditions of his birthplace, the flat, peaty wetlands west of Lough Neagh. He had five sons and seven daughters with his wife Annamay, and depended mainly on the social welfare assistance, living in considerable poverty. Yet he radiated serenity as the subject of a 1971 RTÉ documentary about deprived catholics in Northern Ireland.
He lived about a mile from Sarah Ann, visiting her regularly for a singsong. Whereas Sarah Ann sang unselfconsciously and purely for pleasure, Geordie also loved songs for what they revealed about an area and its people. He sought out the company of singers and musicians and enthralled on these occasions as much for his idiomatic turn of phrase, as for his singing. Over time he developed a reputation as a wit, singer and storyteller, and frequented Mackle's Hotel in Maghery for recreation and song-swapping.
As the traditional music revival gathered momentum in the 1950s, Mackle's Hotel drew influential broadcasters and folklorists intrigued by Geordie (and Sarah Ann's) English language repertoire of songs unknown outside their home area. For the first time, Sarah Ann saw herself as a specifically traditional singer. A night of traditional music and song staged in the hotel in the late 1950s combined with the circulation of a recording of their singing established the siblings' reputation among a select but growing circle of aficionados. They began receiving invitations to sessions and fleadhanna cheoil held all over Ireland where they availed of the opportunities to extend their repertoires.
Neither sibling sang in a manner that conformed with any other Ulster standard; instead they sang in the family style, Geordie more so than Sarah Ann. This combined a distinctive use of ornamentation in terms of placing and shape with a breaking up of the tune and words into short phrases delivered with great force, allowing for a heartfelt rendition with no overstatement or straining for effect. Sarah Ann used far less ornamentation, though always appropriately and effectively. The subtle differences between them highlighted the individuality and creativity of traditional singing at its best. When they sang together, Sarah Ann complemented Geordie by tidying up the words and by lilting tunes to unsung verses.
In the mid-1960s Sarah Ann arranged a session in her house that went so well that these marathon nights became regular occurrences, as her famed hospitality attracted noted singers and musicians from across Ulster. One such occasion became the focus of a BBC television programme, which stressed the religious mix of the participants. She recalled another night where a group of strangers, fresh from attending a cockfight, woke her up to treat them to tea and singing. Although her husband neither sang nor played, he loved listening to her and supported her musical endeavours, travelling with her to every fleadh.
Gaining recognition as the finest singer in the Ulster fashion, Geordie performed regularly on television and radio and at various fleadhanna and traditional singing workshops from the late 1960s. He had a masterful command of melody and phrasing, his rich intonation and considered approach drawing upon the unusual nature of the English spoken locally. (This was a legacy of seventeenth-century Warwickshire settlers as well as nineteenth-century migrants drawn from across Ireland by a peat project.) Yet his was also a highly personal, inimitable style. He won the two most prestigious Ulster singing contests, the John Player Company contest and the Bellaghy contest. In 1976 he participated in a fifteen-concert tour of the USA as part of a troupe of Comhaltas Ceoiltóirí Éireann singers and musicians.
Despite assiduously attending fleadhanna, Sarah Ann had as of 1978 participated in only one singing competition. More retiring than her brother, she only sang when asked, even then preferring to do so from the corner of a pub rather than atop a stage. She achieved wider prominence in 1978 when Topic Records released an album of songs in the local lough shore tradition by her and Geordie entitled On the shores of Lough Neagh. In 1979 Geordie released a second album Geordie Hanna, which was a mix of singing and storytelling, the latter conveying much of his warmth of character.
By then Geordie and Sarah Ann were firmly established as one of the main attractions at music festivals and fleadhanna. Because traditional music had all but died out earlier in the century, singers of their generation outclassed awe-struck younger performers. Listening to them at close quarters proved an inspirational and formative experience for many budding singers. They were among the few northern singers to perform the traditional 'raw bar' and it was due mainly to their example that by the twenty-first-century Ulster folk singers were as likely to sing unaccompanied as with a guitar.
Latterly, Geordie could afford to build a large bungalow for himself and his family. Having attended the Tyrone County Fleadh in Dromore a few weeks beforehand, he died in hospital on 23 July 1987 and was buried in Brockagh graveyard, Co. Tyrone. His two late 1970s albums were supplemented in 2002 by The fisher's cot, a homemade album of him singing, telling stories and being interviewed. (Most of The fisher's cot was recorded in the house of his neighbour and friend, the political activist Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin)). The Geordie Hanna Singing Event, held annually in Derrytresk in his honour, became an important event in the Ulster folk calendar. His daughters Ailish and Rosaleen gained repute as traditional singers as did his grandson Niall Hanna who released an album Autumn winds in 2018.
Following Geordie's death, Sarah Ann long continued as a mainstay of the traditional music revival, being one of the few women of her generation active on the fleadh circuit by the 1990s. At sessions, she always tried to gauge the audience's mood by starting with 'The rambler from Clare', a United Irishman ballad. Her favourite was the idyllic 'Dobbin's Flowery Vale', which she sang in her own air. She mostly sang Ulster songs, but would incorporate any traditional song she liked into her repertoire regardless of origin. A gifted and engaging storyteller, she remained an old-fashioned countrywoman and never embraced television culture.
She was the subject of a TG4 documentary in 2006 and won the 2009 Gradam Ceoil from TG4 for her lifetime contribution to Irish music. Described as one of the last of a scattered remnant who ensured that there was traditional music left to revive, she died in Craigavon Hospital, Co. Armagh, on 13 April 2012 and was buried in Clanoe graveyard, Derrytresk. Her son John was a gifted singer, but died in 1994 aged thirty-five. Singing very much in her manner, her grandson Cathal won the English language traditional singing contest at the 2011 all-Ireland Fleadh Ceoil and in 2015 released an album of traditional songs collected by her and Geordie.