The Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a workaday thoroughfare, a main artery connecting the city center and the red brick houses, schools, and streets of West Belfast. It is a road with a name and a physical presence which resonate with the bloody history of the divisions between loyalist and nationalist, between those who support the British crown presence governing the north of Ireland and those who do not. It’s also a road of connections: murals marking the fallen of the IRA stand around the corner from those honoring a fiddler; a quiet pub sits next to a noisy night club, and a mural honoring Bobby Sands includes his words “Our revenge is in the laughter of our children.”
On a crisp October evening, several of those children were laughing and playing around the front of Cultúrlann Mc Adam O Fiaich, the Irish language cultural center of West Belfast, which was launched in 1991. The building is a restored red brick former Presbyterian church, which holds a cafe and meeting place for the community, a bookstore featuring Irish language materials, and, upstairs, a performance space where singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan was getting ready for a show. Ryan had last played Belfast more than a dozen years before, when she was lead singer with the internationally known Celtic band Cherish the Ladies They had played at the large folk festival in the city, but when it came time for her to book a solo gig, Ryan knew she wanted an intimate venue. She also knew just the place she wanted to play. “When I called up to book the gig,” she told her audience, “they said, ‘Oh, we’re changing directors, you’ll have to call back.’ I marked the date on my calendar and set my clock in America and got up early and I think I was the first call on the first day. If we were going to play in Belfast, I really wanted it to be here. It is such a gift to the community it serves.”
Ryan extended her own gifts that night, sharing songs in both English and Irish with a responsive audience. “Well, there aren’t very many of you, but you sure are good lookin’,” Ryan joked as she took up her bodhran and, with Sara Milonovich on fiddle and Greg Anderson on guitar, invited the listeners into her set with Peata Beag do Mháthar, a lively song in Irish that many would have known from childhood. Touching on the American side of her heritage (Ryan was born in the States to Irish parents), she shared a graceful take on one of her favorite American ballads from the Appalachian tradition, Rough and Rocky.
Putting away with the sad ballads, at least for the moment, Ryan detailed her search for a happy Irish love song, pointing out to laughter from her listeners that most of them feature women falling on the strand and tearing out their hair over love, or men going to live high on a mountain overlooking the place where their lover lives with another man. So, failing in her search for a happy Irish love song, Ryan said she’d decided to write one — even though the one she came up with did involve a woman having to cross a rope bridge over an eighty foot drop into the sea to get to her lover. The song and the bridge are called Carrick-a-Rede,. The place itself is in County Antrim, not that far from Belfast. It turned out that many in the audience had visited the famous place, including one woman who revealed that she’d gone with her husband, “but he wasn’t my husband at the time and I probably should have left him there!” which sent Ryan off into gales of laughter as she began the song. This she followed with what could also be called a happy Irish love song, the traditional riddle song known in the south of Ireland as You and I In the One Bed Lie. As Ryan pointed out whilst joking with her audience about how romantic men from the north can be, in the northern counties the song is known by a different name: He Rolled Her To The Wall.
Taking a quieter path, Ryan sang the title track of her third CD, Somewhere Along the Road,explaining that she’d heard it early one morning from Galway singer Bridget Fitzgerald after a long night of song swapping in Boston. That was the last song Fitzgerald sang before leaving for work, “and she took my heart with it when she left,” Ryan recalled. “I knew I had to sing it.” She came by her next song of the evening in a funnier way: her mother heard it on the radio and told Ryan that she’d heard a song about herrings, about people following the herrings, and it was by Karine Polwart and Cathie should record it. “My mother’s from Kerry,” Ryan pointed out, “so I knew if I didn’t I’d never hear the end of it!” Already acquainted with Scottish musician Polwart, who has sung on several of her records, Ryan called her up, she related, and said, “Could I have your song about herrings? My mother says I have to record it.’ Do you suppose she’d like a song about herons as much?’ Karine said.”
A song about persistence, patience, and waiting for things to unfold, Follow the Heron is set in the natural world of spring coming after winter, to a lovely, lilting melody. Ryan made the most of this, supported by creative fiddle lines from Milonovich. Irish musician John Spillane’s The Wildflowers, along with Dermot Henry’s musical setting of Francis Higgins’ poem about aging but definitely not fading, As the Evening Declines, rounded out the set, which the trio concluded with Home By Bearna, a fast-paced traditional tune about, as Ryan remarked, a woman who goes to church every Sunday and then to the pub right after.
Though most of the people in the audience were unfamiliar with Ryan’s work at the beginning of the evening, the break found them buzzing with excitement and happiness at the quality of the music, enjoyment of the stories, and anticipation of what would come in the second set. The trio had a full range in store again, from a slip jig set in Irish to an original about the pirate queen of Ireland, Grace O’Malley. Ryan stepped back to give Milonovich and Anderson the spotlight as they played tunes by two American composers, Liz Carroll and Chris Thile, to lively appreciation and prolonged applause. Ryan then offered the thoughtful, reflective title track of her recording The Farthest Wave, a song she had composed while living in Ireland. “I find Ireland very inspiring for songwriting,” she had said in an earlier conversation.
As the evening drew toward its close, Ryan encouraged the audience along to sing with her on the chorus of So Here’s to You, a song about parting ways and the hope for reunion. “I sang in Monument Valley once and a Native American told me that when you sing, you leave an echo in that place. So now you have all left your echo in this place. Thank you,” she said as the song ended.
Rarely one to close a set on a quiet note, though, Ryan took up her bodhran again to start off the fast-paced Sean Bhain, or Fair John, which, she explained (it’s in Irish) has a chorus which goes, “fair John tease me, fair John catch me, fair John tease me, take me to the haystack.”
Clapping and stamping their feet, the happy crowd was not at all ready to let Ryan, Anderson, and Milonovich go, though. Returning to the stage, Ryan remarked that one of the things that she loves about Ireland it that you so often hear, and see, the words slan abhaile, which mean “safe home.” She offered the audience the band’s good wishes and blessings for safe journeys home, singing Dermot Henry’s song Slan Abhaile, then taking up her bodhran to join in as Milonovich and Anderson ran through a lively set of tunes to conclude the evening, which had by that time become as much a conversation among friends as a performance with musicians and audience.
photographs copyright kerry dexter
Cathie Ryan tours internationally. More about this on the tour pages of her website.