Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Dun Chaoin, in the Dingle peninsula in West Kerry, is a place where sea meets land and light and mountainside. It is a place where legend meets story meets present day. It is an area known for its rugged beauty, deep connection with history, a place where Irish is spoken as much, if not more, than English, and music in both languages is part of the conversation. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh grew up there. Whether she is offering music from close to home or far way, West Kerry is a landscape you hear in her music.
Most often you hear her music in collaboration with other artists, particularly with her band mates in the top traditional band Danu, where Nic Amhlaoibh is the singer and has played flutes and whistles as well for going on a decade now. The members of Danu come from different parts of Ireland. One of the things that strengthens their sound as a band is that they take time to work in individual projects. Nic Amhlaoibh’s second solo recording, Ar Uair Bhig An Lae - The Small Hours, finds her exploring songs from nearby along with several which have caught her ear during her travels.
“Upon my return home to west Kerry at the stat of summer 2012, it was clear that I was returning to the wellspring, as songs started to come at me from all sides!” she writes in the album’s notes. One such is An Chiurach Bhleinfhionn, a song which may, it turns out, have been written about the location where she now lives. There are songs in Irish from West Kerry, from Cork, from the words of one of Ireland’s most famous female poets, songs which Nic Amhlaoibh learned from friends and neighbors along the way. There are songs in English as well. On tour in New Zealand Nic Amhlaoibh met Australian songwriter Kate Burke and has included her song Gold Hills, which fits in well in both word and idea with the songs in Irish. “I’m not really thinking about switching between languages, I’m thinking about the song when I’m working out what to sing,” she says. “But now that I’ve been at this for a while, and have had a few years to think about it, I see I’m almost a representative of the language, and in that sense I’m very proud to be able to sing in Irish, and if it gets people more interested in it, I’m very happy about that. There’s a great musicality to it, and I think people respond to that, whether they’re understanding the words or not.”
Nic Amhlaoibh herself has long been drawn to American bluegrass, so she has included a song from folk and bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, which is called Another Day. It speaks of life and generations going on and the song living on after the singer, an idea which resonates through traditional music and fits well with the stories told in the other songs on the recording.
Nic Amhlaoibh’s own music began as a young child. She was drawn to music, but her father, a fiddler, could not get her interested in his instrument. She liked flutes and whistles, though, and followed her interest in singing, learning from tradition bearers around her in West Kerry. “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.”
From that beginning, too, you are expected to find your own way and your own place with a song. That is an approach which allows Nic Amhlaoibh to serve the spirit of these songs as she brings her own ideas to them. This is nowhere more clear -- or more beautifully done -- than in Cois na Abhann na Sead, which is known as River of Gems in English, and with The Bold Fenian Men, a story drawn from the history of Ireland which many have recorded, but none better than that which you’ll find on Ar Uair Bhig An Lae - The Small Hours.
The album was recorded in West Kerry with engineering by Ivan O'Shea and Donogh Hennessy. Among those backing Nic Amhlaoibh on the recording are Oisin McAuley on fiddle and Billy Mag Fhloinn on bodhran.
my apologies to the Irish speakers here: I am writing on a computer which doesn’t allow for fadas -- and if you are wondering what those may be, they are diacritical marks, accent marks, used in Irish