Exploring Ireland in Music: Three Albums

Music has a way of connecting people, across countries, cultures, and generations. Music can help share joy and sorrow, may provoke discussion or dance, reflection and memory. In times of change, music is a powerful source of solace. Whether you seek a lighthearted bit of laughter and fun or wisdom and insight from others who’ve come before, the music of Ireland is an everlasting and varied source for all these things.

shamrock northern Ireland St Judes' church Belfast by Albert Bridge

At Saint Patrick’s day approaches, thoughts of many across the world turn to Ireland.
Come along with me then and take a listen to three recordings which feature the work of musicians who draw on the traditions of Ireland for inspiration and keep those traditions moving forward in the present day, as well.

musicians Matt and Shannon Heaton copyright Kerry Dexter
As they began gathering and creating songs for what would become their album Tell You in Earnest, Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to focus on songs whose stories were framed in conversation between two people. Each of the Heatons has, and continues to, work in bands and ensembles and groups, and in their duo performance they are at times supported by other musicians. For this married couple, though, their work as a duo is their home in music. Thinking about the music they chose for this recording, Shannon Heaton points out that “ There’s something just really intimate and spectacularly expressive about a conversation between two people. Maybe a third party wanders into the story in a song, maybe a cello wanders in, but ultimately it’s about the essence of two people and what they can say to each other and how they can listen to each other.” The Heatons chose to honor and explore this idea in a variety of thoughtful, thought provoking, and at times funny stories in song. Each piece in its own way is drawn from or references traditional sources and ideas. Each is a song the Heatons has made their own, as well.

The Cruel Salt Sea began as a traditional song with more than twenty verses. As Shannon reworked. S it, she kept the thread of the story vivid but created a shorter ballad understandable by 21st century hearers, and as it turned out, with a new title and refrain. The song Her Mantle So Green hews closely to the tradition, while Easy Come Easy Go is an original song by Matt in which he takes a scenario that comes up in trad music in a direction that is both wryly funny and yet within traditional frames of reference. There’s a song they do in Thai, in a nod to Shannon’s connection from studying in that country, and a riff now and then that give the nod to Matt’s love of surf music. Rather than detract from the bedrock of Irish music present, these things fit in naturally.

Matt plays guitar and bouzouki and sings, Shannon sings as well (the couple’s harmonies are one of the highlights of their work) and plays flute, accordion, and whistles. Listen to the stories in the songs — they are all good ones — and take note of class instrumentation by the pair. That’s especially notable on the closing track — a happy love song — in which they set lyrics from Northern Ireland to a tune form Nova Scotia and bring the track to a close with a reel from a contemporary Irish composer.

The members of the band Danu come from across the landscape of Ireland, from east to west and north to south. So too does the music they’ve chosen to record on their album Buan.

The opening instrumental set joins slides and reels from two distinct musical styles of Ireland’s west, those of Kerry and Donegal. There’s a light hearted set of tunes, which the band members dedicate to their children, and several sets which include music composed by members of the band mixed with well as traditional material.

Irish musicians Danu at Celtic Connections by Kerry Dexter

There are songs in Irish and in English, from traditional sources and more recently composed. Donal Clancy sings lead on the song Willy Crotty, a contemporary song based on the true story of an 18th century Irish bandit of the Robin Hood sort. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh sings lead on several songs in Irish as well the traditional ballad Lord Gregory in English, and also in English, Passage West, a powerful contemporary song composed by John Spillane. On this recording, Danu is Eamon Doorley on guitar and bouzouki, Benny McCartthy on accordion, Oisin McAuley on fiddle, Donal Clancy on guitar and vocals, and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh on flutes, whistles, and vocals.

When she was growing up in County Kildare, just a bit south of Dublin, Heidi Talbot heard Irish traditional music, folk music, rock and pop from the music her brothers and sister brought, home, church music, and classical music. As she made her own way in the music world, for a number of years she was lead singer with the top Irish American band Cherish the Ladies,
and later toured adding harmonies to the work of Scottish star Eddi Reader.

Building her own solo career Talbot has drawn on traditional forms and ideas and often recorded songs from Irish tradition and written words to go with traditional melodies, On her album Here We Go 1, 2 3
it is her own songwriting which is to the fore as she navigates themes of loss reflection, grief, and resilience. While some have thought that subject matter too dark, Talbot treats her stories in a manner that suggest there is hope to be found even in the hardest and most inexplicable times. “It is as sad as you want it to be,” she says gently.

musicians Heidi Talbot and John McCusker copyright Kerry Dexter

Several of the songs arose, Talbot says, from events in her family life, from the loss of her mother to having her second child with husband and fellow musician John McCusker. They’ve also built a studio near their home, and recorded this album there. Though it was recorded over just ten days –”the quickest album I’ve ever made,” Talbot says of her fifth solo release — the songs themselves were several years in the making.

They prove to be thoughtful detailed, and at many time poetic considerations of ideas and stories that traditional Irish music often includes, events such as birth and death, growing older, losing love and finding it, and through all of that threads of hope and resilience. Listen out especially for Song for Rose (WillYou Remember Me), The Year That I Was Born, and the title track, Here We Go 1, 2, 3.

These three albums have several things in common: they will each teach you something about Ireland, as they each in direct and indirect ways draw on traditional Irish music, and they each are connected to contemporary life in Ireland. Even if you’ve no connection to Ireland at all, these are good stories in both word and melody. The stories are well told, by some of the best players and singers working in Celtic music. Through all the stories and emotions, dark and light, funny and sad, the power of music to uplift and connect is well present. Those are qualities to enjoy and explore at Saint Patrick’s Day and beyond. Danu, Matt and Shannon Heaton, and Heidi Talbot will help you do that.

Photograph of shamrock on the gate at Saint Jude’s Church Belfast by Albert Bridge: photographs of Matt and Shannon Heaton at The Burren, Somerville, Massachusetts, Danu with guests Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham, and others at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, and Heidi Talbot with John McCusker at The Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, by Kerry Dexter. Photographs of Danu and Talbot and McCusker were made at Celtic Connections with the kind permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues; photograph of Matt and Shannon Heaton made with the kind permission of the artists. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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