Surreal, beautiful sean nos

Iarla O Lionaird

By John McKeown

Music review: Iarla OLionaird and Steve Cooney, Elmwood Hall, Belfast, October 23

Belfast’s Elmwood Hall, home to The Music Club for the duration of this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s, one of Europe’s leading international arts festivals, is a beautiful Victorian building.

It seems made for the music of Iarla O Lionaird, one of the great sean nos singers. The building and the voice combined give you the feeling you have wandered into a church and are listening to a one-voice choir.

The songs, of course, are sung in the Irish language which adds to that beautiful purity of sound. O Lionaird had for many years flirted with more massive popularity in the vocal slot in The Afro Celt Sound System. After several terrific albums with this multi racial group- which trod the boards of most of the world’s major festivals – he then went down the solo route, still staying with a modern slant on Sean Nos singing steeped in a fusion of electronic landscapes.

Live, O Lionaird uses that stunning voice and the guitar of Steeve Cooney, who first came to these shores from Australia, playing didgeridoo in popular folk rock band Redgum (he tells me after the gig that he still carries it around in the back of his van!).

Steve Cooney

On stage, in a cheesecloth shirt and bare feet, Cooney comes across as a quirky old hippy who hasn’t yet shed the trappings of Woodstock. Musically, his guitar playing is sublime, based more on traditional Irish harp playing than the guitar sounds of most Irish trad bands. He does incredible things with bits of paper to dampen any vibration on the strings, something which has to be seen to be believed.

Together, voice and guitar make that magical connection needed to bring an audience into submission. The big surprise of this session was the amount of humour that we got from the two seasoned performers between songs.

In many ways, the perfect gig.

For more on the Belfast Festival at Queens, see







Sign in or create your account to join the discussion

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways