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Keeping the tradition alive  

Iarla Ó Lionáird

Iarla Ó Lionáird told David Hennessy about his special gig with Julie Fowlis in London this weekend, how the future of The Gloaming is uncertain following the death of their guitarist Dennis Cahill and the time he got to sing for the Queen.

Iarla Ó Lionáird will come to London this weekend for a special one-off concert with Julie Fowlis, the well known Scottish folk singer.

Iarla was formerly a member of Afro Celt Soundsystem and is well known for being part of Irish/American supergroup The Gloaming.

Iarla sings primarily in his vernacular, Irish, which is something he shares with Julie who sings mostly in Scottish.

The very special gig, part of Kings Place’s Voices Unwrapped series, will see both showcasing their native languages.

Iarla boasts a long and unique career both internationally and in Ireland and continues to defy categorisation with his musical output ranging from traditional sean-nós singing to his work in the opera The Hunger.

Iarla has performed on revered stages like New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall and has been the recipient of awards such as a Meteor Music Awards, a TG4 Gradam Ceoil Award, RTE Radio 1 Irish Folk Music Award, BBC Radio 2 Folk Award.

The Irish Times said of him: “O’ Lionáird’s real triumph is his voice: as soft as a feather bed and as searingly sharp as a blade when the mood calls.”

Time Out New York said: “His voice will astound you. It soars and it’s as profound, simple and beautiful as wild horses. Genius is the operative word here.”

Julie Fowlis.

Iarla told The Irish World: “It’s been a while since I played Kings Place.

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“I played that venue before quite a few years ago but this time it’s going to be very intimate.

“It’s only me and an acoustic piano player, Ryan Molloy and we will be joined for a few songs by the wonderful Julie Fowlis.

“All the songs I’ll be singing will be in Irish, I think there’s maybe one song that has a bit of English in it.

“It’s going to be acoustic, very intimate harmonium: Piano/ voice.

“So it’s like a recital in a way.”

Is that a more enjoyable type of gig to play? “Yeah, because you can get really into the songs.

“When you’re performing in a bigger group, it’s much more difficult to understand what they’re doing in real time.

“I think when you have very few people on stage, you can feel everything, you can hear everything.

“We’re doing traditional Irish songs, sean-nós songs.

“Ryan is a very sophisticated, beautiful accompanist and Julie’s a wonderful singer. I can’t wait to meet her again.”

In May 2015 Ó Lionáird hosted a five-part radio documentary series about singing entitled Vocal Chords where he interviewed subjects like Sinead O’Connor and Christy Moore as well as Julie.

“I did an interview with her some years ago for a podcast series I was doing.

“It was fascinating talking to her.”

Julie grew up on North Uist, a Gaelic-speaking island off the coast of Scotland.

“I interviewed lots of people and I wanted to interview Julie as well because I love the tradition that she’s from and I love the musical tradition of the island and Scotland generally, and I think she’s a fantastic ambassador for that.

“I suppose I have a special fondness for people who carry a tradition because I think in some ways, it can be a thankless task. And it’s a challenging one to make it work in the musical world out there.

“I think anybody who makes that part of their mission, I have a huge respect for.

“They’re keeping something magical, something fragile alive.”

Iarla knows all about tradition growing up steeped in his own. His mother and grandmother were sean-nós singers and Iarla joined Sean O Riada’s male voice choir Cór Chúil Aodha as a child and sang in the choir, directed after Sean Ó Riada’s death by his son Peadar, until he was in his early twenties.

“That was the musical language that I grew up learning first.

“I have said myself in jest more than once that I probably went well out of my way to destroy my own credentials on more than one occasion.

“But having said that, in more recent years, I’ve been focusing my work on either performing concerts like this where we are really focused on the tradition or working with composers in the orchestral setting, where they want access to my particular vocal skills and styles.

“I’ve inherited a lot from that tradition that I’m thankful for.

“It’s given me a skill set. It’s given me an insight into the older song culture that I can continue to explore.

“It’s a very rich culture. But in my case, at least, I don’t feel that it has made me narrow minded in that sense either because I think that musical form is very capable and very amenable to exploration.

“For me, making music when I was younger, having fun and exploring was more important in a way than any sort of idea of preservation.

“There is a bit of a balancing act there.

“At the end of the day, how many old songs will you learn in any given year?

“How many new songs will you write and record?

“I like to mix it up a lot. I like to be writing new stuff.

“I’m writing new stuff all the time for myself and collaborating with others.

“At the same time, I also then like to lean back into the old stuff.

“Old songs have a certain magic and richness that’s very hard to conjure up.

“Maybe in The Gloaming, I struck a balance that was very productive for me there in that I would sing some traditional songs and I would write quite a few contemporary ones.

“But again, within the frame of the Irish language and that pleased me immensely.

“But it’s a dance, you know?”

Ó Lionáird was born and raised in Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht and his love of the Irish language is also rooted in his upbringing.

We asked for his take on what we see as something of a resurgence of the language of late with the Belfast Irish language group Kneecap having success not just in Ireland and Irish language film The Quiet Girl breaking box office records.

“There is a resurgence. I think what probably characterized that resurgence more than anything else is the amount of artists starting to explore their own relationship with the language, using it as raw material, as inspiration for their songwriting whether it be in rap or in other forms.

“This is very exciting stuff.

“Urban music being made through the Irish language, I mean who would have thought that?

“Nobody in their right mind would have predicted such a thing.

“What it shows, I think, as much as anything is the negativity surrounding the language has receded.

“When I was growing up certainly, there was massive negativity even in my youth as a musician.

“There was tremendous weight of negativity and shame and all sorts of non-positive feelings about the language, they seem to have receded.

“They seem to have dissipated.

“There are a lot of younger artists deciding to sing and write songs in Irish.

“There is a massive resurgence in filmmaking. Massive, it’s only just starting.

“So I think it’s fascinating.

“I mean, I was thinking about this recently.

“Film is such a potent art form because it embraces all of the forms including music, and I saw The Quiet Girl: A wonderful film and I can’t praise it enough.

“But we have spent time all of us watching Danish stuff on Netflix watching French or Spanish, even Korean film, which is fantastic.

“I heard Bríd Ní Neachtain, the great Irish actress, say, ‘Why can’t we do something similar?’ And we are beginning to and I think it’s about time.”

Speaking of film, you may have seen Iarla’s short but powerful appearance in the film Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan.

When Saoirse Ronan’s character spends her Christmas volunteering at a soup kitchen for old Irish men down on their luck, it is Iarla who stands up to sing an a capella version of the Irish song Casadh an tSugain, a powerful scene as it transported those men and Ronan’s protagonist back to Ireland.

“I was the youngest old man in that room,” he laughs.

“It was a fascinating experience, a privilege to do it.”

However Iarla had been initially reluctant but then obliged when he knew it was the wish of writer Colm Tóibín that he appear.

“The director John Crowley approached me.

“And truthfully, the first thing I said was, ‘No, I won’t, I can’t. I don’t want to appear on film. I’m happy to sing on the soundtrack or anything like that’.

“And they were quite insistent.

“I think the way it was put to me was that Colm would be unhappy if I didn’t do it, because he really wanted me to do it.

“I think perhaps the seed of the idea was actually Colm Tóibín himself wanted me to do it, and Colm is somebody I have the pleasure of knowing personally.

“He was the one that sent the director to seek me out so that was a huge honour and my resistance failed after that and I did it.

“But it was a very pleasurable experience.

“They flew my wife and I to Toronto for three days. We got to meet all of the stars, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan and Jim Broadbent to name but a few.

“I got to see the process of film making from the inside out, which was truly fascinating.

“I’m eternally grateful to John Crowley, and Colm for providing me with that experience.

“And a lot of people have talked to me subsequently about how emotional they found that scene and those poignant reminders of loss and the finality of the emigrant experience back in those days, not like today.

“I’m sure you frequently go back to Ireland because you can.

“As we both know that would have been a very rare occurrence back in the ‘50s and ‘40s.

“If you left home, you left for good.

“I think that those messages in that film are very powerful.”

Iarla has also been heavily involved in the soundtrack for Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson.

A twice Grammy nominated artist, Ó Lionáird has performed and recorded with such luminaries as Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, Robert Plant and Sinead O’Connor.

What is it like to work with such big names? “What I have always found is that they’re (just) people, but of course you would be pinching yourself.

“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of these people and working and recording with them and you learn a lot from watching great artists do their thing.

“But also I was struck by how humble they are and how in touch with their core musical world. They are not aloof in any way and that’s something I remember very clearly.

“But you would be pinching yourself, I’ve admired so many artists down through the years.

“And still do. And Julie is one of them.

“Julie is an incredibly talented vocalist.”

In 2016 Ó Lionáird appeared in The Hunger, an opera by Donnacha Dennehy about the famine.

And he will be returning to opera to work with composer Dan Trueman with the words coming from poet Paul Muldoon.

“I’m in awe of people who do that sort of work regularly because it is an incredibly demanding skill set to be able to move, act and sing. Honestly, I’m in awe of people who work in that medium.”

Iarla was a co-founder of the acclaimed Irish/ American supergroup, The Gloaming along with Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Doveman and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

But the future of the band is in some doubt after the passing of guitarist Dennis Cahill in June.

“We’ve stepped back.

“We don’t know yet what we’re going to do, what our next move will be.

“Our future is not clear.

“It is a very difficult time. Especially difficult, of course, for his family and his friends, and I hope I could rank myself as one of them.

“Dennis was a wonderful man, a right character as well.

“But a very, very beautiful musician and a gentleman through and through.

“A very witty person and a very gentle person.

“A masterful musician and we all miss him very much.”

Since being established in 2011, the band has been acclaimed and honoured with awards and nominations.

“If we never sit on stage again, we had a good run and I enjoyed every minute of it and it was a huge privilege.

“What struck me more than anything else was it was really quite extraordinary to be giving so many people so much pleasure.

“That’s what I take from my experience of the audiences we’ve had down through the years.

“It’s quite amazing and humbling, the joy that we brought to them, you know?

“In particular when we toured abroad, we often played in London.

“We played many, many nights in Union Chapel.

“I always looked forward to those shows, there was tremendous emotion in the room.”

The band released their self-titled first album was released in 2014, winning the Meteor Choice Music Prize for Irish album of the year.

Iarla also won the Best Folk Singer award at the RTE Folk Awards in 2019 but awards and the like pale in comparison to what he is talking about here.

“It’s the effect you have on the people that stays with you.

“I don’t know what it is. I mean I can’t explain what they’re going through or what they’re getting from it, except to say that many of them have shown us and told us that they do.

“I never thought music would take me to so many places but music can do that and I’m thankful for all the times I’ve had doing it.

“I don’t know what the future is for The Gloaming. I honestly don’t know.”

Iarla also had the honour of briefly meeting the Queen and Prince Philip when he performed for them at the state banquet as part of her historic visit to Ireland in 2011.

“I’d say I was very aware of it being history to be honest.

“We all knew it was a big thing.

“It’s probably even more significant now  because relations between Ireland and England aren’t quite what they were back then. They have worsened a bit.

“It’s a pity, it’s very regrettable.

“I think the queen was a benevolent person. I think she had a sense of duty and I think she did her utmost to help relations between Ireland and England.”

Iarla plays a special one- off gig with Julie Fowlis at Kings Place on Saturday 24 September, more information here.

For more information on Iarla, click here.

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