‘A lifeboat in a storm’

Lawyer Ciara McElholm told David Hennessy why it was now or never that she follow her musical aspirations, why history is a subject that speaks to her.

After spending as years working as a lawyer, Ciara McElhom from Fermanagh said it was now or never that she pursued her musical dreams.

Coming from a long line of traditional musicians as far back as three brothers who left Glenties for Tyrone during the famine, Ciara seeks to bring history to life on some of the tracks of her debut album, Amergin Fire.

Ciara told The Irish World : “A lawyer by trade, I woke up one morning convinced that music was my true calling. I come from an unbroken line of fiddle players stretching back to the 1840s.

“I attended a three week course in Bulgaria. Beyond my wildest imaginings, within three weeks, I had scored for and recorded with a full orchestra. I had never felt so alive or so joyous.

“After that, wild horses couldn’t hold me back.

“I really love to write from history.

“That’s the place from which I write most powerfully and ancient traditions and history.”

One track on the album that comes from a powerful image of history is The Song of Amergin.

According to the 11th century Book of Invasions, The Song of Amergin was so powerful that Ireland changed its mind on hearing it, allowing storms to abate and granting the Celts safe passage to Irish shores.

Ciara found the powerful story and beautiful lyrics filled her with an overwhelming desire to compose a melody for them.

She tells the story: “The book of Invasions tells that when the Celts arrived off the shores of Ireland, the seas repelled them.

“The hills, the mountains, the seas, the whole natural world was alive so when nature rejected the Celts, they felt that this meant that Ireland was not the place for them.

“And Amergin came to the front of the boat and he sang a song. And Ireland changed its mind.

“So the lyrics of that song were handed down in the oral tradition and transcribed in the 11th century Book of Invasions.

“When I heard this story, that our relationship with the island began with a song, I was so inspired I just had to bring that song to life again.”

Ciara says having the album to work during the pandemic was like a ‘lifeboat in a storm’.

“When I listen back now, I hear the emotional intensity of the surrounding environment and I think it did change the music.

“There was a stronger or more really obvious call for hope and optimism.

“It was almost like a lifeboat in a storm. You know what I mean?

“I knew that people really suffering.

“A lot of people were suffering more than I was.

“We were all suffering, but there were some people who really, really were suffering.

“And I just felt so empowered in a way that I was producing this music in the middle of everything.

“So that was definitely what kept my health and wellbeing at a better level than some of my friends.”

And how bad was the storm for Ciara? How has the last year been? “Just some fear and anxiety for my children, and just for their wellbeing.

“I have a number of friends, family, people, who have lived this last 17 months in a state of heightened anxiety.

“You know, I’m surprised they’re still standing.

“I was more relaxed about it, I think.

“I just wanted my kids’ emotional health and wellbeing to be okay even if their education suffered a little.

“Just the focus was on bringing them through it.

“Generally speaking, we just got on with it.

“I just tried my best and tried not to worry because there was no point in worrying, just followed all the restrictions and got on with life.

“And actually, I developed much closer relationships with the kids. I actually really bonded quite closely with my children over this period so there were positives.”

Even during her many years working as a lawyer, Ciara says the desire to be musical never left her: “From early on, everybody knew I identified with music and as a musician.

“It was just something that was really important to me always.

“And of course, I had this legal career and I really enjoy working in public administrative law.

“There’s an enormous impact on citizens. There’s a lot of positive aspects to the type of law I do and yet part of me, it was just this creativity, this desire to write never went away.

“It was always a feature of my conversations.

“So that was a theme through my life, and I woke up in my 40s and I said, ‘Well, listen, if you don’t do it, now, you’re never gonna do this’.

“You really have to just stop talking and start doing.”

After being so long in the making and being made with the additional challenges of Covid, Ciara has been overwhelmed by the response to the album.

“I was absolutely shocked to be honest with you how well it turned out.

“The feedback was so empowering.

“I was just so grateful that people saw me as a creative person and acknowledged the value of what I was creating.

“That is incredibly affirming for a human being, to have somebody see you and to see what you’ve created and say, ‘Actually, this is really, really good’.

“Some of the reviews compared me to Seán Ó Riada and Turlough O’Carolan who of course would have been childhood heroes.

“I am fascinated by the music of Seán Ó Riada. His deep respect for and immersion in our ancient tradition whilst incorporating modern techniques resonates with me as a composer.

“That is just so life affirming and it made everything worthwhile.

“I thought for so long I was just a Walter Mitty figure: ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to write a book. Oh yeah, I’m going to make an album. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah’.

“Suddenly, this wasn’t so.

“I really had something to offer.”

Not being able to play gigs has been the hardest part of the last year for Ciara.

“It has been so difficult.

“I live in Kimmage in Dublin so you can’t come out of your door for a musician.

“There’s loads musicians in this area, I don’t know why.

“During the first lockdown, we had garden sessions.

“That was permissible under the regulations but there was a six month period where we could neither meet in gardens nor in each other’s houses. I have to say that was devastating.

“The absence of it made me realize how important the presence of it normally was because you take it for granted.

“You just get so much release.

“It’s really hard when you can’t do it.”

Songs on the record deal with subjects such as the Battle of Clontarf and Viking raids.

Ciara plans to explore more historical subjects in her future project.

“I really identify with Donegal so I’m either going to do an album with Donegal style music or the alternative is going a lot further back into the Celtic-Arab connection.

“I’ve composed some pieces with interplay between Celtic music and Arabic music.

“Because it would appear from the genetic history as well that the music may have come thousands of years ago through from the Arabian Peninsula.”

Amergin Fire is out now, available from Copperplate.

For more information, click here.

 

 

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