Understanding Ireland: Music from Cara Dillon, Cherish the Ladies, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Ireland’s stories are often told through song and tune. Learn about that on three recordings,from artists who know Ireland with different perspectives and from different landscapes.

Ireland River Roe by Dungiven, Derry by Kenneth Allen

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh grew up learning the flute and putting that learning into practice in the west part of Kerry, a county which is itself in the west of Ireland. She also learned songs from tradition bearers of sean nos, a style of singing which respects the storytelling aspect of the song, and whose history reaches back across centuries. “They give you the song,” she recalls of those times, “but you have to find your own way into it.”

Though she’s lived in Dublin and in Limerick and traveled the world with her music — she was lead singer of the top band Danu for thirteen years, for one thing — it was to west Kerry that Nic Amhlaoibh returned to raise her own family. “I thought for a while that might be the end of the music career for me,” she recalls. That hasn’t happened at all: she has won awards for her music, become a respected television presenter, and recently ventured into creating radio as well. She has also continued to record; Nic Amhlaoibh’s latest album is called Foxglove & Fuschia.

She chose that title from a song on the album called Where Foxglove. It’s written by Gerry O’Beirne and among other things references flowers often seen blooming along the roads in west Kerry. There’s a haunting version of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier the album as well on the recording, along with Murisin Deas is Nora, a song about lasting love from the Blasket Islands off the coast of west Kerry. Bean Dubh an Ghleanna is one of the classic sean nos songs of Munster. There are tunes, as well, including ones on which Nic Amhlaoibh is joined her husband, her father, and comrades from her Danu days. Whether her songs come from west Kerry or farther afield, in Nic Amlaoibh’s graceful voice and flute playing you will come to know the spirit of Ireland’s west.

Cara Dillon is from Dungiven, a small town a bit east of Derry in Northern Ireland.. Though work and marriage have drawn her to live and travel elsewhere, the stories, the landscapes, the memories of this place at the foot of the Sperrin mountains find ways into her music.

Cara Dillon’s work is grounded in the traditional music of Ireland, and the stories and songs she creates herself from that grounding. She has seen her music taken into club dance remixes, been asked to sing on Disney films, and found that her recordings are used as part of an English language learning curriculum in China. Whether performing with and orchestra or taking part in a pub session near Dungiven, it is to the story told in the song that Dillon and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman return, in their own writing and in creating arrangements for songs from the tradition.

“We always try to keep the song at the forefront of what we do, myself and Sam,” Dillon says, “because we both have such a great respect for the tradition. At times it is like finding a really beautiful gemstone and trying to find the right setting for it, so that it’s the focus of everyone’s attention. We work on the songs a lot, and sometimes people come up after the show and say, is that a traditional song, or a song that you’ve written? To me, that’s quite a big compliment.”

On her recording Wanderer, Dillon thought of her own experiences living most of her life away from the landscapes she had grown up with. It’s a mix of songs of leaving and songs of loving a landscape. As well Wanderer is a mix of songs from the tradition of Ireland, contemporary covers, and songs Dillon and Lakeman have written. Dillon’s voice and Lakeman’s piano make natural storytelling companions through the tracks on Wanderer. You will be drawn into stories grounded in landscapes of the north of Ireland, love songs, emigration songs, songs of hope and dreams.

These Northern lights shine, love
Reflect on the Foyle
They’ll light your way back to
Your own native soil

~from The Leaving Song, written by Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman.

The band Joanie Madden leads, Cherish the Ladies, has released its seventeenth recording, Heart of the Home. In the early 1980s, flute player and composer Madden was asked to put together a one evening concert of Irish women musicians in Manhattan. She agreed but “I thought no one would come,” she recalls. At that time there were plenty of women active in Irish music, but they were not that visible. Still breaking new ground while staying true to the traditions of Ireland, Cherish the Ladies is now thirty four years and counting of sharing the songs and tunes of Ireland across the world.

Many top class Irish musicians have been longterm or guest members with the band. The core group at present include founding members Madden on flute, and guitar player Mary Coogan, who are both daughters of Irish immigrants to the United States; keyboard player Kathleen Boyle, whose parents came from Donegal to Glasgow; Mirella Murray from Connemara or accordion, and Nollaig Casey from Cork on fiddle.

ireland heart of the home cherish the ladies

On Heart of the Home they invited Kate Purcell from Clare to sing Glenties, a graceful song about a town in Donegal. Nathan Carter, a top Irish country singer, joins in for the title song. Madden’s tune Farewell to the Catskills in another to listen out for. Kathleen Boyle composed The Murphy Boys, which is paired in a set the the traditional tune Planxty Johnson. There are other gems that will help you understand the heart of Ireland and its emigrants across the fourteen tracks of Heart of the Home.

Ireland carlingford town copyright kerry dexter

If you are preparing for a journey to Ireland, recalling a favourite trip, or dreaming of your next plan — or if you are fortunate to live in Ireland — this music from Muireann Nic Amhloaibh, Cara Dillon, and Cherish the Ladies will illuminate your time and be good companion to your thoughts, plans, and dreams. Should the chance arise for you to see any of these artists in concert — they all tour extensively — you will be well rewarded to take it, as well.

Photograph of the River Roe near Dungiven by Kenneth Allan; photograph of Carlingford town by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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