Ireland: it is a land of legend, of myth, of mountain and sea and river and green field, a place that captures the imaginations and heart. Ireland is a dream destination for many people, those who have distant or immediate Irish connections and those whose connection arises through reading, music, and the stories of friends.
All good things these. Ireland north and south lives up to expectations of beauty, hospitality, and story which live in the imagination. Along with that, it is a twenty first century place, two countries in one island, with people whose day to day life works out in situations that are not at all quaint. History and story do live alongside and are interwoven with the present, though. Recognizing that duality will make your dreams, travels, and memories of Ireland that much richer. Listening to the work of these four musicians will help you explore these things. too.
From her first solo recording in the 1980s, Mary Black has been making music that brings in many sides of the sounds of Ireland, from recently composed songs to traditional ballads, from songs of the land to songs of emotion shared across country and culture. With a father who was a traditional musician from the north of Ireland and a mother from Dublin who sang show tunes and musicals, Black holds a family history that opened her ear to a range of music. She continues this in her album Stories From the Steeples. There is a newly composed song which sounds as though it could have comes from tradition called Marguerite and the Gambler. The same is true of Walking with My Love, a lively duet in which Black joins with the song’s writer, legendary Irish folk musician Finbar Furey. Lighthouse Light speaks of journeys and the traveling life, while All the Fine Young Men is a song for peace which Black, the mother of sons, renders with insight. Her sons and daughter join in on the the story of faith, love and friendship in The Night Is On Our Side. Black well knows how to tell a story in song, and how to choose her stories well.
Cathie Ryan has that gift for finding and sharing a story’s heart as well. Her album Through Wind and Rain gives perspective on resilience, celebration and walking the changes in life’s roads through love songs, songs of friendship, stories of hard times, tales told in Irish and English, and a lift of laughter now and again. Ryan sings in a natural and powerful storyteller’s voice that invites attention and connection to the stories she tells. Liberty’s Sweet Shore is an emigration story written by John Doyle, who adds his thoughtful guitar work ot the album. Fare Thee Well is a ballad of love and change that resonates through Irish and Appalachian history. Mo Níon Ó is a graceful celebration of family connection written in Irish by Mairéad ni Mhaonaigh and translated by Ryan who sings it both languages. Ryan’s’ own song Wishing Well holds hard times, laughter, celebration, and resilience all in one.
For her recording Noble Stranger, Nuala Kennedy takes in story from traditional song and energy from contemporary views of tradition. Kennedy, who plays the flute and sings, has made a fine collection that reflects her time growing up in Ireland, her current base in the swirling music scene of Edinburgh and her time spent in New York City, as well as her travels with her music. Her choice to record Paddy’s Lamentation, a song which comes from Irish men being recruited just as they arrived in America to fight in the Civil War, came from that New York experience, while a lively fast paced take on the traditional song My Bonny Labouring Boy comes from Kennedy’s native Ireland and her time growing up there. The two part instrumental set Asturias includes tunes from Scotland and tunes from Spain, while Gabriel Sings is an original song from Kennedy, filled with vivid images which cross past and present.
Caitlin Nic Gabhann’s instrument is the concertina — and sometimes her dancing feet. On her album Caitlin, she and guitarist Caoimhin O’ Fearghail explore reels, jigs, airs, hornpipes, and waltzes new and old in a series of sets that moves naturally among the varied rhythms of Irish traditional music. In her notes, Nic Gabhann explains how she came to learn or to compose each tune, which offers an a thoughtful journey in itself. Listen to the music first, though, as she moves through the lively reels Lucky in Love and Little Bag of Spuds, slows things down with her own composition of a waltz called Heartstrings, and picks things up with Flying Column, The Eel in the Sink, The Shallow Reel, and The Leeside Sessions.
–> Update: Each of these artists has released more recordings since this post was written. You may want to look for Caitlin Nic Gabhann’s work as a member of the trio The High Seas. Nuala Kennedy has an album of traditional music called Behave the Bravest. Mary Black collaborated with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra to re-imagine some of her favourites for the album Mary Black Orchestrated. Cathie Ryan continues her exploration of tradition and her song writing on the album Through Wind and Rain.
While Irish music is mentioned, people sometimes think first of drunken pub songs or ethereal new age sounds. Both of those have their place, to be sure. When you are ready to explore Irish music a bit further, though, take a listen to the work of these four musicians. You will be well rewarded.
Photograph of Irish hillside and photograph of Cathie Ryan by Kerry Dexter. Photograph of Mary Black courtesy of Mary Black.
Kerry Dexter is one of five writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including An Evening in Belfast and teaching Irish music tradition.
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