Imagining Ireland at the Barbican Hall

Imagining Ireland Barbican Hall 2018
Saint Sister

The much anticipated Imagining Ireland arrived at the Barbican last week with an array of talent

Two years ago the first Imagining Ireland Concert took place at the Royal Festival Hall attended by President Michael D Higgins, writes Michael McDonagh.

That line-up included Elvis Costello, James Vincent McMorrow, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Kevin Roland. On that occasion in their attempt to hold a musical Conversation between Ireland and England and present a fresh reflection of the new Ireland it did not completely connect with many of the Diaspora audience on the night.

In some cases self indulgence, pretentiousness and the over serious approach of performers probably missed a trick or two. So, with that in mind, your reviewer approached last week’s Imagining Ireland concert at the Barbican hoping it would be different.


This time there was no President, although there was Ireland’s Ambassador Adrian O’Neill and Ireland’s Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan.

What we got was a lovely, charming, and relaxed concert from some of the less well-known known, but nevertheless very talented, singers and performers coming out of today’s multi-cultural Ireland.

Host and co-curator Paul Noonan of Bell X1 warmly welcomed everyone and promised a ‘creative snapshot of songwriting in post Facebook Ireland’ celebrating the country’s vocal and story telling traditions.

Songwriting in Ireland has never been so diverse and this show, not needing the anchor of a big band of backing musicians, opted instead for the Crash Quartet’s strings to bind it all together. Ena Brennan customised excellent arrangements for each performer no matter what the genre.

Imagining Ireland Barbican Hall 2018
Stephen James Smith

First up was the sweet voice of Maria Kelly who sang two songs, Torn in Two and Stitches. She was followed by the louder, humorous, songs of Seamus Fogarty singing about a night on the lash in Carlow (accompanied on backing vocals by Lisa Hannigan) and a song about the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose skeleton is displayed in the Hunterian Museum when his dying wish was to be buried at sea.

This was followed by the sweet melancholy soul of Loah, whose gentle confidence and style on the stage, singing in both in English, in her Irish accent, or in her Sierra Leonean language revealed what an outstanding talent she is.

Dublin based performance poet Stephen James Smith gave us an amusing and moving narrative about inheriting a shirt from a dead Limerick man.


A few in the audience took offensive at some of his graphic imagery, delivered in his street style, but his work was an honest reflection of where we are now.

To those of us of a certain generation there seems something absurd about a young white man from Dublin swaggering around the stage waving his fingers impersonating some black gangsta from downtown LA. But the taste of Dublin rap we got from Mango & Mathman who mixed their decks with some impressive Crash Quartet string accompaniments and backing vocals by Loah, got strong applause from the audience. Doubtless, our generation’s parents had comparable misgivings about The Rolling Stones.

The second half started with a long poem My Ireland from Stephen James Smith accompanied by Ella Smith on fiddle. In complete contrast we were treated to the beautiful ethereal voices and harp of Saint Sister.

Then, in contrast again, Brian Deadly performed his blues based songs on his electric guitar, including a powerful song inspired by his two grandmothers.

Imagining Ireland Barbican Hall 2018
Lisa Hannigan and Saint Sister

A highlight of the concert was Lisa Hannigan, who is always a joy. She ended her short set with a divine a capella version of the Seamus Heaney poem Anahorish with Secret Sister.

Then Paul Noonan took to the keyboards and performed some of his own songs and BellX1’s single . Finally, everyone performed The Flood and Thin Lizzy’s Dancing In The Moonlight, giving us another opportunity to hear the soulful voice of Loah. Imagine Ireland was brought to us by Culture Ireland and The National Concert Hall in Dublin and was curated by Gary Sheehan and Paul Noonan with a montage of photographs by Gregory Dunne.

This concert marked the first major event in the Culture Ireland GB18 programme. Check out what’s coming up next at:

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