Breathing new life into the Blaskets’ music – The Irish Times

Breathing new life into the Blaskets’ music – The Irish Times

Island life, particularly that of the Blasket Islands, figures prominently in our literary history. For a place that never recorded a population of more than 200, An Blascaod Mór has produced an impressive literature thanks to the writings of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Peig Sayers. These writers detailed the intertwining of music, song and dance in island life, but it was not until Claddagh Records released Beauty an Isleain, a collection of music curated by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, in 1992 that these musicians and their music reached the ears of listeners beyond the borders of West Kerry .

The island was evacuated in 1953 when the remaining islanders moved to the mainland. Singer and accordionist Breanndán Begley was deeply involved with the music of the islands and played a large part in sharing their melodies and songs, which were particularly influenced by the music of Muiris Ó Dálaigh.

Now Claddagh Records has made the decision to reissue this exceptional collection of Blasket Isle music along with an updated and expanded hardcover featuring lovingly researched and updated notes on all musicians. It has also invited descendants of the islanders who are contemporary musicians to contribute to the collection, fusing past and present to add further color and shade to the music of these most historic of our islands.

Ríonach Uí Ógáin, former director of UCD’s National Folklore Collection, is the driving force behind the original and current releases, and the intervening 30 years have done nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for Blasket Island music and song.

“My first visits to Corca Dhuibhne were in the 1960s,” she says, “and I was fascinated by the people, the music and the landscape of the mainland. Then I visited Blasket Island, which of course is of particular beauty. I was fortunate to meet and hear some former Blasket Islanders during my time there and after those early years I became a field collector and archivist and began making recordings related to my own particular area of ​​interest : Vocals Irish and music.”

The initial impetus for releasing a recording came from a conversation Ríonach had with Claddagh Records’ Tom Sherlock. Tom suggested the possibility of a series of CDs of music and songs from the Irish Isles and Ríonach’s field research led to the record label release of the Isle of Blasket recordings.

“It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance were to life on the Blasket Isles.”

“I had read the three books most closely associated with the Blasket Islands: An tOileánach by Tomás Ó Croimthain, Peig by Peig Sayers and Fiche Bliain ag Fás by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin,” Ríonach says. “It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance were to life on the Blasket Isles. There are very few paragraphs or pages in these works that do not mention the role of music and its interdependence in people’s daily lives. I had the great privilege of meeting some of the former Blasket Islanders who had moved to the mainland: people like fiddler Seáinín Mhicil Ó Suilleabháin, who spoke to me about fiddle making and the music of the Blasket Islands.”

What sets this extraordinary collection apart is the extent to which it captures the breadth and depth of the music created on this tiny island and how central it has been to everyday life.

“A Revelation”

“I think people who might not have known the importance of music and singing were surprised that you could actually listen to Blasket Islander recordings,” says Ríonach, recounting the reaction to the collection’s initial release bumped. “Some of the recordings captured the atmosphere of singing songs in a way that hadn’t been captured before. Certain pieces of music are associated with the island and I think that could have been a revelation too.”

Listening to Peadaí Sheáisí sing An Goirtín Eorna, it is remarkable how both singer and song simultaneously conjure up images deeply rooted in the island, yet imbued with a universality that has an affinity with musicians from Mali to New Orleans suggests. This is music that appeals to listeners far beyond the confines of Corca Dhuibhne.

Ríonach recognized the resonance of this music when she first heard it.

“There’s no doubt that it’s very universal,” she says. “Music and song were acquired almost unconsciously, and the music and songs were adapted to suit the psyche or thinking of the Blasket Islanders. Beannacht ó rí na hAoine [A blessing from God, also sung by Peadaí Sheáisí] was adjusted, for example. It was about emigration and could have been sung in almost any part of Ireland but was adapted for leaving the Blasket Islands, which must have been a very significant factor in the life of the Blasket Islanders, and many of the songs are well-known Love songs, but there could be a slight adaptation that would give them a great Blasket Island feel.”

Unlike the original release, this collection acknowledges the names by which singers and musicians were known locally.

“One difference between the 1992 and 2022 releases is that 2022 gave precedence to the local names of the people, such as Peiði Séáisí, Áine Cheaist, etc. the sort of naming custom that’s still very much practiced in the Gaeltacht,” Ríonach explains. “In the earlier release, the more ‘official’ name was used, e.g. B. Pádraig Ó Cearnaigh and Áine Uí Laoithe.”

“Father always told us you could always tell the islanders when they were walking through town because they were walking in single file.”

Aoife Granville is one of the contemporary contributors to this new collection along with her sister Deirdre. Aoife is a violin and flute player and singer with a PhD in folklore and ethnomusicology. She hails from Dingle and is steeped in the music of the Blaskets.

Aoife wears a floral dress and looks directly at the camera

“We always heard a lot from our father, but also from my grandmother, because her sister got married to the island and died giving birth, so my grandma went over and lived there for a few years,” Aoife tells the circumstances that must changed the life of their grandmother at that time. “There was always a great connection to the islands in the stories we heard. Dad used to tell us you could always tell the islanders when they were walking around town because they were walking in single file like they would on the island.”

For Aoife, listening to the island’s music as a collection in its own right underscored the richness of the islanders’ lived experience in many ways.

‘Strong Connection’

“I have a very vivid memory of Beauty an Oileáin first coming out, for although I would have heard some of them on Raidió na Gaeltachta, I hadn’t heard them as clearly and as well emphasized. So I always felt a strong connection and the more I played slow tunes and songs I just loved them and loved that they made traditional fiddles on the island and that they were amazing craftsmen too.”

Not surprisingly, maritime-themed songs and arias feature prominently in the islanders’ repertoire. Port na bPúcaí is an acclaimed slow air loved by the late Tony MacMahon and recently revived by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and the album’s title comes from a song written to celebrate a Naomhóg (Currach) race to whom occurred a Naomhóg by the name of Beauty.

“I love that a song was written about a Naomhóg race!” says Aoife, laughing. “I find it amazing. You can hear the rhythm of rowing in some of the songs and music. I always imagined that many of them would sing songs while rowing. So I think the sea influenced both the songs and the rhythms of the music. And I loved the connection to the underworld they often had and the piseogs around the sea. For example, it was a very bad omen if they heard a woman whistling the day before they went to their naomhóga.”

The inclusion of three songs by Róisín Ní Chéileichair adds further riches to this updated collection.

Man with cap and accordion

“The chain didn’t break,” says Rínoach with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. “Róisín Ní Chéileichair is a granddaughter of Dálaigh (Muiris Ó Dálaigh), who plays the accordion. There is also archival footage of Dálaigh, previously unreleased, where he talks about Port na bPúcaí and sings it. So there’s a lot to discover here.”

Beauty an Isleain, released by Claddagh Records, will be released on August 4th by Ionad an Blascaod.

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