Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh was looking out the window of her father’s house in Dun Chaoin in the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry in Ireland. “We get the best sunsets here,” she said, “just gorgeous sunsets. My uncle who lived in Dublin used to call up and ask do you still have the sunset there? is it still bright in the west?”
West indeed Dun Chaoin is, about as far west as you can go and still be on the mainland of Ireland. As the northern neighbor of the Iveragh peninsula with its Ring of Kerry, Dingle does draw its share of visitors, especially in high summer. It also remains a bit less visited, more rugged and quieter than its neighbor to the south. People have been coming to Dingle since the Bronze Age, however, and there are dry stone walls and clochans — beehive shaped small buildings of stone — which date back to early medieval times. Winding roads and quiet places, rain and fog and sea and wind help define life in Dingle. So does music.
“There was always just music all around,” Nic Amhlaoibh says. “My father’s a traditional fiddler, and where I grew up everyone just played. I went to sessions in pubs from a really young age, and I was playing tunes, masses and masses of tunes.” Her instruments for those tunes were ( and still are) flutes and whistles, and she was drawn to the songs and stories of traditional singers in her home place as well. Though in the past she has lived in Dublin and in Limerick and travels the world these days as lead singer with the top traditional band Danu, Nic Amhlaoibh found herself drawn back to west Kerry as she began to raise her own family. That move also found her drawn to creating her second solo albumAr Uair Bhig an Lae/The Small Hours.
“Once we moved back here, it was clear I had returned to the wellspring, as songs started flying at me from all sides!” Nic Amhlaoibh says.
One of the songs, which dates back to the nineteenth century and may be even older, in fact mentions a pub which was in her family’s neighborhood and perhaps even was the house they were living in. There are five songs in English and six in Irish on the album. Dingle itself is a Gaeltacht are, a place where Irish is spoken as readily and at times more often than English. “I’m not really thinking about switching between languages, I’m thinking about the song itself when I’m working out what to sing,” she says. “But there’s a great musicality to Irish, and I think people respond to that, whether they’re understanding the words or not.”
On Ar Uair Bhig an Lae/The Small Hours Nic Amhlaoibh offers songs in Irish that draw on stories from west Kerry, including Bo na Leathadhairce, a song many in that area would have grown up knowing in school, as well as Cois Abhann na Sead, an air that is often played without words as the piper’s tune called in English River of Gems. With her songs in Irish, Nic Amhlaoibh lends her thoughtful storyteller’s gifts and graceful alto to Gold Hills, a song she learned while on tour in New Zealand, to Another Day from American bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, and to A Single Thread, from Irish songwriter Ger Wolfe. One way or another, you could say that each of the songs on the album has to do with the giving and sharing of ideas, and music, and respect for well loved landscapes.
Should you be wishing to hear music as you travel the Dingle peninsula in Ireland yourself, there is a pub in Dun Chaoin, Kruger’s, which often has sessions, and there are occasionally music performances (Nic Amhlaoibh and Scottish singer Julie Fowlis have given concerts there) at the Blasket Centre. Dingle town is the only place of any size on the peninsula, and home to a good number of pubs where sessions often take place. You might look out for An Droichead Beag, or O’Flaherty’s, or especially Johnny Benny Moriarty’s, where you may at times find Eilis Kennedy, a respected singer of international reputation and a co owner of the pub, sharing her songs with musical friends.
Photographs by Bríd Ní Luasaigh
Kerry Dexter is one of six 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 pieces about an evening in Belfast and teaching Irish music tradition.
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