MUIREANN NIC AMHLAOIBH: THAR TOINN/SEABORNE
For the last two years Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh has performed and collaborated with a number of traditional, classical, electronica and multi-media artists, as well as touring her previous album, Foxglove and Fuschia – from which the song Bean Dubh a Ghleanna won best traditional track at the inaugural RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards in 2018. Having previously declared the demise of the album in an age of online distribution services which encourage single track downloads, she has emerged from the studio with Thar Toinn/Seaborne which she describes as a ‘capsule project’ – a mini album or EP (take your pick) of six tracks – all connected by their associations with the sea.
“I’m obsessed with the ocean and our cultural connection to it,” she says. “The name Muireann actually means Sea Maiden. There are three mermaids on the Mac Amhlaoibh coat of arms, and I’ve grown up on islands and the west coast of Kerry and get in the sea every chance I get. I’ve really enjoyed bringing my two passions together for this project.”
Long recognised for her amazing vocal range as well as her quality as a flute and whistle player, Muireann delivers seamless vocal power moderated by a deep sensitivity. For this collection of songs, she has been joined by an impressive supporting cast. Among them are recent collaborators, Gerry O’Beirne and Dónal O’Connor (who will be touring the album with Muireann), Scots singer Julie Fowlis; accordionist Séamus Begley; violin and viola player Niamh Varian-Barry; cellist Maria O’Connor; guitarist Donogh Hennessy and Muireann’s husband, bouzouki player, Billy Mag Fhloinn.
The album opens with Faoiseamh Faoistine, a newly composed song with music by Gerry Beirne and words by poet, Domhnall Mac Sithigh – the lightness and freshness of the song belying the dark circumstances of its co-creator’s tragic death when his naomhóg capsized off the coast of Portugal in 2017. Air Failirinn Iú, in which a woman recalls the loss of her husband drowned at sea, is a Scots Gaelic song, collected in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The graduated layering of the voices and instruments – with strings arranged by Niamh Varian-Barry and sympathetic vocal harmonies by Julie Fowlis – reinforces the narrative development of the song. This is followed by the lighter Tá na Báid Go Doimhin sa bhFarraige/Síos Cois na Trá agus Amach Chun na Farraige, a local sea-faring song from Kerry to the familiar air of Lanigan’s Ball – followed by a spirited instrumental duet on a jig with Séamus Begley.
On Sweet Kingwilliamstown, Muireann is accompanied by the spare piano of Cork jazzman, Cormac McCarthy, who was to have taken part in Martin Hayes’ Common Ground project before it had to be abandoned because of the Covid-19 crisis. The song is said to have been written by Daniel Buckley from Ballydesmond, who survived the sinking of the Titanic but lost his life in 1918 as the last soldier to die in the First World War.
Blackwaterside, a broadside ballad of love and deception, has become one of the classics of traditional song on these islands. Though most likely originating in Ulster, the song was popularised by the influential British singer, Anne Briggs (who attributed her version of the song to a recording of the Irish traveller, Mary Doran, in the BBC sound archives). The song has subsequently been covered by the late Sandy Denny and Peta Webb and more recently by John Boden and Bryony Holden. Muireann’s magical voice, underpinned by Dónal O’Connor’s fiddle and Gerry O’Beirne’s guitar, delivers a moving rendition.
The final track in the collection is Port na bPucaí, which was released as a single last year. Long recognised as one of the classics of the piping canon, the haunting tune from the Blaskets was allegedly inspired either by fairy musicians or by whale-song resonating on the covered hulls of currachs. Muireann’s father gave her the lyrics he had received many decades ago from fiddle player, Muiris Ó Dálaigh, warning that they had rarely been performed because the metre of the verse did not appear to match the phrasing of the tune. However, Muireann’s persistence in matching the words to the air has produced a stunningly beautiful result bathed in other-worldly mystery by the drone-like qualities of the Yaybahar – a newly created instrument, conceived by the Turkish musician, Gorkem Sen, and built by its player, Billy Mag Fhloinn.
The production on the album – engineered by Gerry O’Beirne and Donogh Hennessy and mixed by Pádraig Rynne – is beautifully balanced and crystal clear. The album tour, whenever it happens, will be well worth the wait.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Former Danú front woman Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh has firmly established herself as a solo performer in recent years. An award-winning musician from Corca Dhuibhne in West Kerry, she is a leading exponent of sean nós. Her repertoire also includes songs from a wide variety of folk and contemporary sources. Her childhood on the Dingle Peninsula Gaeltacht, saw her immersed in a rich cultural environment and vital living tradition, which was to be hugely influential on the foundation of her distinctive vocal and instrumental sound.
“I live in Dingle, so there is music there all the time, the scene is so vibrant. It’s a musical Mecca. You couldn’t throw a stone down there without hitting a musician.” An accomplished and popular television presenter, Muireann has hosted a range of programmes for Irish and Scottish TV over the past decade including Gradam Ceoil TG4 and the celebrated traditional music series, Port, which she co-presents with Scottish Gaelic singer, Julie Fowlis. Having spent fifteen years touring the world, she has decided to return to her roots, raise a family, recharge herself musically, live among her people and, importantly as a creative artist, shape her sound.
“I think she is singing more beautifully than ever. Mysterious perfection” – Dónal Lunny