West of Ireland to the World
Dingle Peninsula: rocky mountains, crashing surf, reminders of older lives lived out along its paths and fields, a land of legend, sea, community, and music, a reach of land which stretches far out into the ocean at the southwest of Ireland. “It’s about as far west as you can go and still be in Europe -- although I suppose the people of Iceland might have something to say about that!” says Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, laughing.
Nic Amhlaoibh grew up in Dingle, in Dun Chaoin, its westernmost town. “My father’s a traditional fiddler, and where I grew up everyone played. I went to sessions in pubs from a really young age, and I was playing tunes, masses and masses of tunes,” Nic Amhlaoibh recalls. She was playing those tunes on flutes and whistles. She was drawn to songs, as well. “You don’t really study sean nos singing,” she says of the bedrock style of Irish traditional singing. “You’re given the song, the words, and the melody, and you’re expected to listen really well,” she points out, and then find your own way in to honoring the song.
Though she loved all this and continued to play sessions when she went to university in Dublin, Nic Amhlaoibh at first followed another family tradition by studying art. Later she took a master’s degree course in traditional music at the University of Limerick. “Although I didn’t know quite what I was going to do with it,” she says. Meanwhile, the top traditional band Danu found itself in need of a new lead singer, someone who could sing in both English and Irish and who could bring top notch instrumental skills to the band as well. A friend from her Dublin session days, fiddler Oisin McAuley, suggested Nic Amhlaoibh. “I never thought I actually could go professional with my music,” she says, “but once the guys offered me the gig to go full time with Danu, I went for it, because it was what I really wanted to do.”
It’s proved a rewarding partnership, as the seven members of Danu have brought their music across the world and won awards and the hearts of audiences along the way. They plan their schedules so that band members are able to work on other projects, a practice all feel is good for the band when they join up again. For Nic Amhlaoibh, those other projects have included being a broadcast presenter, teaching at university, collaborating with other musicians, and making her own solo albums. Her recent solo album, Ar Uair Bhig an Lae The Small Hours, is a collection of eleven tracks which beautifully connects Nic Amhlaoibh’s love and understanding of the land, stories, and people of her native ground in the west of Ireland and her experiences on the road which resonate with all that. An Buachaill Caol Dubh The Dark Slender Boy is a love song whose origin goes back several centuries and which Nic Amhlaoibh learned from a neighbor. Gold Hills includes landscape, memory, and love. Nic Amhlaoibh first heard it when she performed with its writer, Australian musician Kate Burke, in New Zealand. Cois Abhan na Sead River of Gems is a love song whose thoughtful melody is often played as an air on the pipes. Another Day comes from American folk and bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien, and it makes a lively reminder that songs go on through the voices of many singers and through time. One such song is Bold Fenian Men, a haunting evocation of the uprising of 1867 which was itself composed nearly a hundred years ago and is often recorded. As with all the songs she offers, you’ll find Nic Amhlaoibh choosing phrasing and emotion well in service of the song.
Nic Amhlaoibh has also collaborated with Julie Fowlis, who sings in Scottish Gaelic. The two met on the road as they toured and became friends. On the spur of the moment they did a few songs together at a festival, which sparked them to explore connections and differences between the music of the west of Ireland and the Hebrides of Scotland. One result of this collaboration is the album Dual.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's web site is http://www.muireann.ie
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com
You may find more of Kerry’s work at Music Road, Journey to Scotland, Perceptive Travel, Strings, National Geographic Traveler, and other places in print and on line.
Feature photo courtesy and copyright Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh