Dónal Lunny: Producing the goods

Dónal Lunny (Photo:RTÉ)

Dónal delivers the magic

As Dónal Lunny arrived to talk about his latest projects, the café’s musical clock struck three – not quite a fanfare but lots of melodious bells followed by some metaphorical whistles at which point Dónal was told that the counter service had ended for the day – in the middle of the afternoon!

Though the subject of our conversation was supposed to be his two most recent producing projects – A Lifetime of Happiness by Daoirí Farrell and Both Sides Now by the Kilfenora Céili Band, it quickly developed into a wide-ranging engagement coloured by experiences and observations drawn from a lifetime in music.

So going back to the beginning of each project, who initiated the approach? How did the dance start?
Well it was a ladies’ choice in the case of Daoirí. I asked him. I had heard Daoirí’s first album, The First Turn. I had no idea who recorded it or how. When I played it, I loved the quality of his singing but was disappointed at the quality of the recording. But I found out afterwards that it might have been the first excursion that the musician, Alan Doherty, made into the world of record production. It was recorded more or less in the proverbial bedroom with one Shure mike and some fairly basic software – maybe Garageband – under primitive conditions.

So it was actually a really good result considering the circumstances under which it was recorded. So I had to say I was sorry I thought bad of it. But at the same time I thought that Daoirí deserved to get a decent production and I wanted to get involved in the next album, True Born Irishman. I talked to him about it but both of us were extremely busy. He couldn’t wait for me and I couldn’t get out of what I was doing. So he went ahead, as you do, and he was right to do so. But I persisted – particularly when I found out what songs he intended to do for the latest album. Daoirí had a fairly clear idea of what songs he wanted to record.


He wanted to do Liam Weldon’s Via Exstasia – which I think is a monumental song. It’s on a par with the Shakespearean sonnets in terms of the imagery and the imagination. I knew Liam and he was a giant intellectually. Liam was a settled traveller and entirely self-educated. He was something else.

Of course, Daoirí did his thesis on Liam Weldon when he did his degree in Applied Music at the Dundalk Institute of Technology with Fintan Vallely.

Yes. Daoirí grew up in the same place as Liam in Bluebell near Ballyfermot. He knows Liam’s widow, Nellie, and indeed he asked her permission to record the song and she graciously granted it. So I thought that the song deserved to be rendered properly. Indeed I played on the original recording with Liam on Dark Horse on the Wind and I hadn’t got it cracked. I didn’t fully understand the harmonic sequence that Liam was following in his melody but I found it with Daoirí, I think. There are a few optional junctions you can take during the song. But I managed to get from one end to the other in a logical way.

Recording of ‘A Lifetime’: (from left) Mark Redmond, Daoirí Farrell and Dónal Lunny.


We recorded Daoirí’s album in several different studios. We started at the Ergodos studios in Portobello – a typical millennial studio where there is nothing except a pair of speakers, a few mics and a bare desk where you put your computer and whatever else you bring and you plug in and do it all yourself. We had a couple of sessions there. We recorded some out in Áras Crónáin in Clondalkin where Alan Doherty engineered for us and did a very good job. Then we did some downstairs in the Irish Traditional Music Archive with Brian Doyle and Ciarán Byrne. Then I took the lot home and mixed it on my computer using ProTools. I like what comes with ProTools.

At the same time Daoirí’s agent was very anxious to get the album as soon as possible. This was last August (2018). But I wasn’t prepared to let it go until we had it up to a reasonable standard. So she didn’t get it until late October or early November, but even then I hadn’t finished. So it didn’t come out until March. Very frustrating.


In all the songs on the album Daoirí is completely credible as the narrator retelling the story or as the poet describing a feeling or emotion. The combination of the song choice and his voice is perfect. We often come across great singers trying songs that don’t work for them. But Daorí is totally convincing in all of the songs he chose for this album.

Yes, he brought those songs to life. But in one sense you are giving him more credit than he is due because he is a total natural. There are singers who sing and you can just bloody well believe them. One case in point is Dolores Keane. Dolores always had truth in her voice. I produced one album for her on which she sang a Mick Hanly song, My Love is in America, and it was just amazing. Some takes were better than others and sometimes she might have a catch in her throat, But her singing was so instinctive it was like natural beauty. She never questioned it, herself, and never had to. I think among the best singers on a world level, she would be among an elite of about twenty on the planet at that time, I would say.

And Daoirí has that, too. He is brilliant. He takes pains to get the song right and he knows what he wants. He is the only singer I know who could definitely handle everything that Frank Harte recorded. Of course, Daoirí knew Frank from the Góilín Singers Club in Dublin – and includes a great song from Frank’s repertoire on the album, Valentine O’Hara, which he delivers with a beautiful arrangement.

HARTE AND SOUL: Dónal Lunny (left) and Frank Harte at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil concert in 2003 (Photo: TG4).

On Frank Harte

I worked with Frank Harte with great pleasure. He qualified as a curmudgeon – but we had a very good understanding. We abused each other verbally and freely. It was always great working with him. Frank took great pride in what he did and he was particularly proud of the fact that he didn’t sing professionally because then he couldn’t be bought. That was his attitude and damn right because it qualified him as an artist in a purer sense. Nobody dictated what he did, ever.

That went for his recordings too. He chose the songs. I did try to influence him here and there with very little effect. Sometimes I managed to nudge him away from some things and towards others but generally speaking, he just had such a great take on what he was doing. He always wrote such brilliant notes to go with the albums that I used to joke that he was giving away a free CD with his book.

His historical overview was fantastic. I didn’t fully realise the depth of his knowledge until we recorded his album, 1798 The First Year of Liberty, and I learned more about the 1798 rebellion from Frank Harte than I ever learned in school or anywhere else for that matter. At the centenary in 1898 there was some revisionism and the focus switched to Father Murphy from old Kilcormac as the Church tried to get in on the action whereas the real movers and shakers in 1798 were all Presbyterians and true friends of the populace. This was a fantastic thing but got covered up. So Frank brought it all out again.

Daoirí’s treatment of a well known – almost clichéd – song like The Galway Shawl is another example of his remarkable ability to invest every song with his own unique style and personality. It is particularly striking how he manages to extend the final note in each line to the point where he only allows himself a micro-breath before starting the next line. This has the effect of drawing the listener in so that you are hanging on each line.

There was another reason for that too – which is that the last note of the line resolved itself to a lower tone which was partly to do with the chord structure of the accompaniment. But it also has the effect you describe.

And, of course, The Galway Shawl at the start of the album is complemented by Rosie O’Reilly towards the end of the album – both stories set in the County Galway but with very different outcomes.

Daoirí has a keen interest in the Traveller tradition within Irish music and both songs capture elements of that tradition. The music of the travelling people has always fascinated him. I did suggest The Connerys to Daoirí. Originally written in Irish, it was translated on the spot by Séamus Ennis in Donoghue’s one evening at Frank Harte’s request. It was an amazing achievement. It could possibly have been made rhyme more perfectly – but Séamus’s translation related to the Irish as well: it was a lovely piece of work.

On Séamus Ennis

I remember one gig the Bothy Band played in Trinity where Séamus was our support. He took 45 minutes to take his coat and hat off and put on the pipes while talking all the time. It was brilliant altogether. Another memory of Séamus was in Lisdoonvarna where I was doing sound three of the years that it ran. Séamus was on on Sunday morning at 12 – the graveyard shift when everyone is hung over from the night before. There was a gentle drizzle and there were about 500 people under about a hundred umbrellas in front of the stage. Séamus appeared and sat on the chair in the middle of the stage. Two guys came scurrying out to set up two very fine looking microphones. I was down 90 feet away watching this and hoping that they would place them in sensible positions to pick up the pipes. So he sat there putting on the pipes. He began to talk after a while, got himself sorted and then he leaned forward, got the two microphones and pushed them as far away as he could and said: “I won’t be needing these, thank you.” He played acoustically without any amplification to speak of and it worked. It was absolutely magical.

I had also been in the studio when he recorded the album, The Pure Drop. Séamus had asked Liam O’Flynn along to keep an eye on the technical side. But Liam didn’t really know a lot about it. So he brought me along. Everything went well until the pressing. The recording was sent away to London to be cut and it turned out that one of the tapes had been wound front out instead of end out. So whoever unpacked the tapes and put them on, ran one side of the album backwards. A thousand copies of the album were pressed with one side backwards. I would have given anything to have one of them. But I never managed to lay my hands on one. I believe it sounded enchanting. There are a lot of tunes that sound great backwards. I learnt Merrily Kissed the Quaker backwards and it is another tune in itself. 


With Both Sides Now, it was John Lynch, the leader of the Kilfenora, who contacted me. We sat down together and chatted. He was very realistic. He didn’t paint any artificial pictures. I was interested in the previous producers and what they had contributed. I didn’t dissect their production or their recordings but I listened to some of the earlier recordings.

The Kilfenora seem to have been trying to broaden their musical horizons in recent years especially since John became leader.

I suppose if you have had one person leading a band for forty years, things might just get a little bit fixed. But they seem to have begun to develop incrementally in recent years. Obviously, there aren’t going to be any dramatic changes in direction. At their heart, they are a dance band. That’s what they do. That’s what they know. That’s in their DNA, quite literally.

They are all from the same area in Clare and it is remarkable given the history of the band for over 110 years that they maintain such a high standard of playing. They are very conscious of remaining faithful to that legacy – giving their core audience what they expect. The album is called Both Sides Now because they considered at length creating a double album: one disc would have all the traditional dance tunes while the other would have waltzes and songs. It made great sense and calling it Both Sides Now made great sense, too. But in the end, they thought that one album was the better way to go. I think it was a good decision.

On A Lifetime of Happiness you and Daoirí had complete discretion over how many backing musicians you would use on each track. With the Kilfenora, I assume most of the band’s thirteen members would expect to play on most, if not all, of the tracks.

Yes. the challenge was to build some kind of dynamics into the arrangement – layering the sounds from the various instruments to create a more interesting experience for the listener. Of course, a céili band is really a vehicle for dancing and the Kilfenora understand this. Beats per minute (BPM) is crucial. I hadn’t really realised this but they talk in BPM.

They take great pride in what they do. They are not a professional band in the sense that they all have day jobs. They meet every Monday to rehearse, whether they have any gigs coming up or not. In fact they transcend the amateur. They absolutely do. They were very aware of what they were doing when they asked me to get involved. I suppose they had expectations that I would influence things and I did here and there particularly in the mixing of the tracks.


I became slightly involved in some of the arrangements suggesting harmonies here and there. But the band selected the tunes – and the sequence of the combinations. They had all of that prepared in advance. The Kilfenora themselves have a couple of brilliant arrangers within their ranks, Tim Collins and Anthony Quigley. They would have had the biggest input into the structure of the arrangements. One of the fiddle players, Eimear Howley – who is classically trained with a good natural ear – also arranged some of the songs. Eimear also plays guitar when they play live. But in the recording sessions, it defaulted to me. I think they were pleased that I was involved as a player as well as producer. That became part of the spine of the arrangements.

Along with Edel Vaughan, John’s brother, Jerry, was one of the two guest singers on the album. The world of Irish tenors is relatively alien to me. So I was concerned about what songs he might choose. I thought I could really land myself in it. So I was thrilled when he suggested Crusader, written by my good friend Mick Hanly, and then Bill Caddick’s classic, John O’Dreams.

While it was always understood that as a dance band, they would stick solidly to the beat: there is still scope for creating unusual rhythms behind the melody by injecting some silences or gaps so that the backing instruments do not play on every beat. There’s probably no one better than Dónal Lunny to appreciate the potential of the silences – between the sounds – to inject different rhythmic pulses into the music. I would have gone after the opportunity to accentuate gaps to create contrasts.

Another one of the important elements in the arrangements was the cellist, Sharon Howley (pictured left) – Eimear’s sister. I think she’s phenomenal. She has a groove reminiscent of the good old Bothy Band. I was absolutely in awe of what she was doing – because she really drove the music. I think that Sharon, as a single element, delivers about 25% of the energy and drive in the band – which is just amazing.

The cello complements the bass line. But in contrast to the double bass which has a more punctuated style, the cello gives you those smooth legato sweeps.

The album opens with two classic sets of tunes as if the band is trying to reassure its loyal fans that just because Dónal Lunny is at the sound desk, we are not about to lose the run of ourselves. The third track, Dinky Doo, written and arranged by Tim Collins, has more of a syncopated feel to it – as though it could have been in the Bothy Band repertoire. It establishes that there will be some new elements in this album beyond what may have been expected.

One of the other noticeable developments on this album compared to its predecessors in the reduction in the volume of the drums as well as the removal of the two taps on the block that seemed to start every dance tune. While Dónal does not claim any responsibility for the latter change, he acknowledges that drummer, Seán Griffin, is a recent addition to the band and “with all due respect to him, he’s learning various approaches to both the tunes and the songs. One key thing about Seán’s playing was that he is very continuous. He plays every note of the tune on the snare. Dynamically it doesn’t add a lot of punctuation.”


It is complemented by John Lynch’s banjo which is a really vital component. The banjo defines the notes. John (pictured left) is very humble about it, himself – but his timing is perfect and that’s most important. Any sort of fluffy notes don’t matter. It is at the front edge of the tune, all the way, and it performs that function brilliantly. There are some phenomenal banjo players around whose precision is something I envy greatly and wish I had.

Yes, the great American singer and banjo player, Rhiannon Giddens, played Knockcrockery near Athlone last autumn – thanks to the persuasive powers of Declan Coyne from the South Roscommon Singers’ Circle. She was in the back room of a modest pub with her fretless minstrel style banjo, creating this amazing sound. To see and hear a virtuoso player filling the room with sound and making it really ring was very uplifting.

Yes, she’s great. I played on an album (The Wexford Carols, Heresy Records, 2014) involving Rhiannon for Caitríona O’Leary. Caitríona is a beautiful classical soprano singer, who crosses over into traditional music. She recorded the Wexford carols. The other people involved were Rosanne Cash and Tom Jones with Joe Henry on production. We recorded in Westmeath in Grouse Lodge. We moved in there for a week. But Rhiannon was great and good fun.

Rhiannon has an impressive new album out called There is No Other which she recorded in Dublin towards the end of last year with Francesco Turrisi. Joe Henry produced this one, too. I saw them on tour recently in Newbridge. While I was ready to be amazed by Rhiannon, it was my first time seeing Francesco live. He is a wonderful musician – an amazing percussionist, pianist and piano accordionist.

Yes. I know Francesco. He’s brilliant. But I think there’s an invisible threshold past which the piano accordion cannot travel in traditional music. It’s because of the evolution of music on the button accordion which has a very different feel: a very complex instrument requiring incredible focus and concentration. It’s hard to believe what someone, like Mairtín O’Connor, does.

ZoDoMo: (from left) Donal Lunny, Zoe Connolly and Mairtin O’Connor (Photo: Paul McCarthy).

Playing for keeps

Dónal Lunny has a keen appreciation of Mairtín O’Connor’s technical quality and artistic sensibility, as he plays with him now on a regular basis in a trio with fiddler, Zoe Conway, under the Zodomo banner. This is one of the many performing line-ups which Dónal participates in along with his mentoring role at the Irish World Academy of Music at the University of Limerick.

In recent months, he has played gigs as a soloist, in a duo on a short Irish tour with former Moving Hearts bandmate, Mick Hanly; and another with former Bothy Band fiddler, Paddy Glackin (with another date Upstairs at Dolan’s in Limerick on Thursday, July 4 at 8.30pm.) He also stood in for John McIntyre, at a recent gig with Zoe Conway in Drogheda when a hand injury incapacitated the guitarist for a few weeks.


Earlier this month, Dónal played with Moving Hearts at a reunion concert at the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre in the Naul with special guest, Mick Hanly. Two more gigs are to follow at the National Concert Hall in Dublin next month. The band was also set to appear at the Liverpool Feis in July until promoter, Vince Power, announced that the festival was being cancelled due to disappointing advance ticket sales. But the band has replaced the gig with a concert in Cork Opera House on July 6. Liverpool’s loss is Cork’s gain.

One of my favourite Moving Hearts gigs was the open-air performance outside the Bank of Ireland in College Green, Dublin, where you played tracks from The Storm album with the two piper set-up – Davy Spillane and Declan Masterson – and the full ensemble. The two pipers playing off each other on The Lark created a magical effect.

Yes. But I had to accept though that Davy ultimately was uncomfortable with that set up because I think he felt that his scope to express himself was being constrained. So I have to go along with him on that. For our latest excursion, we have an old friend of Davy’s, the Breton flute player, Michel Bonamy, with us.


Is Usher’s Island parked for a while?

Usher’s Island is on the runway: it gets to fly every now and again. But it depends for the most part on the availability of John Doyle and Mike McGoldrick. I’m bad enough with what I do. But I think they have beaten me to it every time with lack of availability. We need to make a plan far enough ahead and stick to it. We’ve discussed it. And we’ve all agreed that that’s what we should do. But it’s not nailed down yet.

The Cello, The Gloaming and the Afro-Celts

The cello is increasingly finding a place in traditional music. Apart from Sharon Howley in the Kilfenora, Kate Ellis also performs quite a lot now with traditional players, even though her first love is modern classical music. And then there is Ilsa de Ziah in Cork and, of course, Avril Crotty who plays on A Lifetime of Happiness with Daoirí.

Yes, Ilsa opened for Mick Hanly and me recently. I know Kate from playing with my daughter, Cora. They play together quite a bit. Kate is more in the classical field than anywhere else. But she’s great. She looks for things which are really different in terms of the harmonics. She explores the instrument, playing behind the bridge, to get some unusual sounds out of it – but always to good effect.

But I’d say that one reason that the cello is drifting into trad is The Gloaming, who have achieved something that no one else did. Seán Ó Riada’s achievement was to put traditional music on a par with other music forms so that it would deserve respect. The Gloaming, whether by accident or design, have actually penetrated the world of classical listeners in a way that hadn’t been done before. So they’ve actually brought a huge audience to traditional music, and hats off to them for doing so. A lot of what they do doesn’t appeal to me – but that’s neither here nor there. I still have great respect for what they have done.


I love Iarla Ó Lionáird’s singing, in particular. While Daoirí and Iarla are both remarkable singers, the difference between the pair of them would be that Iarla uses his voice very deliberately – much more so than Daoirí who is more instinctive. I think Iarla has a more objective approach to it – almost on an academic level. Of course, Iarla started singing as a small boy. There’s a very famous recording of him at a Fleadh Cheoil, when he was about eight or nine years old. It’s beautiful: he’s like a little thrush.

At one stage, we did some rehearsals with Iarla and Moving Hearts. I was really hopeful that we could expand the band’s repertoire to include songs in Irish as well. We did a few gigs with him as a guest. But it didn’t quite gel. That was not long before The Gloaming happened. But the ‘transplant’ didn’t take. I was very sorry it didn’t.

That’s a pity – especially after Iarla’s involvement with the Afro Celts, who have a fair old groove going.

They sure do. In fact Simon Booth Emmerson, the founder of the Afro Celts, had originally approached me about contributing the Irish element to the band while he’d look after the African element. But I wasn’t totally convinced by his vision for it. But I did some work with him subsequently. I worked with him when he was co-producing an album for (the great Senegalese singer) Baaba Maal (Firin’ in Fouta, Mango Records, 1994).

I was really looking forward to meeting Baaba at the recording but he never turned up. He was in Paris. So I went over to Real World Studios near Bath for a day and overdubbed my contribution. And that was it. But I did play with him when he came to Dublin. That was a blast because we didn’t even get a chance to discuss what keys the songs were in. You just had to go with it.

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