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Fighting the good fight

Singer and broadcaster Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh spoke to David Hennessy ahead of her appearance at this Friday’s IMDL Irish Hooley at Islington Assembly Hall.

Renowned singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh comes to London this week for Irish Music and Dance London’s Irish Hooley at Islington Assembly Hall.

Muireann and Dónal O’Connor will be joined on the bill of IMDL’s annual fundraiser by At the Racket, Eimear McGeown and The Trad Gathering.

Muireann told The Irish World: “I can’t wait.

“I’m looking forward to hearing At the Racket as well and Eimear McGeown who’s a brilliant flautist. I follow her online and she just blows me away.

“She’s just so incredible, so really looking forward to hearing her live for the first time and meeting her.

“I was over there maybe a year ago, we played in the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and had an absolute ball.

“I’m really excited to get back. I met a great community of people there that evening.

“With COVID, all travel had been stopped for quite a long time so it’s wonderful to start being on the road again, and seeing new places and new faces.

“I want to really thank Karen Ryan for inviting us over.

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“We’re delighted to be featured in the hooley.

“It’s gonna be great.”

Muireann is a multi-award winning traditional singer and musician from Corca Dhuibhne, West Kerry.

She toured the world as lead singer of Danú.

A leading exponent of the sean nós style, her repertoire includes songs from a wide variety of folk and contemporary sources.

She also has a successful broadcasting career on both television and radio.

Muireann’s latest recording was Róisín Reimagined with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and which explored the connections between classical and traditional music and reimagines these timeless songs for a new era.

This was what kept Muireann busy through the COVID period.

“I think as a singer, I’m always looking to explore the possibilities of my own voice and also what I’m trying to say as an artist.

“I suppose that’s something that’s more on my mind the older I get.

“Being a traditional singer is very much about the transmission of what you’ve heard all your life and being a vessel for the tradition which is something I respect deeply and I feel very connected to.

“But equally at the moment I’m very interested to create, to add my own personality and my own point of view to the music I’m making and maybe something like Róisín Reimagined, which was quite challenging and risky in a lot of ways, being well received was a little boost for me to be more exploratory and more experimental going forward as well.

“I feel very comfortable in the space I’m in as a singer and in  particular as a singer in the Irish language and as a musician.

“I don’t really have any huge ambitions in terms of taking over the world or anything like that.

“It’s just very, very fulfilling for me to keep creating, and keep learning and just keep making new music.

“I feel completely changed by the whole experience anyway, not just by COVID but by the experience of making Róisín Reimagined.

“I think as an artist, it pushed me further in a lot of ways. It opened up a lot of new possibilities for me.

“I just feel like I’m in a very different space as an artist, and just with the work that I’m doing in general, but in a good way. I’ve learned a lot.

“I’ve learned a lot and I can make my (RTE) show and music here from my home.

“I had to learn how to get to grips with technology, we all did.

“So you know all of those things that have impacted us at the time.

“It was all so frantic and it was all so stressful learning how to upload things and edit things and work with this new technology.

“But now we have these skills so going forward, things are different.”

What was it like to get Folk Singer of the Year among other awards? “I was totally thrilled.

“It was a good year musically for me.

“These things come and peaks and troughs, and there’ll be other years where no one will pay me a blind bit of attention and that’s the way it goes.

“I was absolutely honoured to receive the award.

“It’s not about awards but it’s always nice if one comes along.”

I’m very interested to know what comes next. I mean, are you already working on the next thing? And is that going to be as experimental? “I’m very interested myself,” Muireann laughs. “That’s where I’m at now.

“I have lovely shows coming up with my trio, Donal O’Connor who’s coming over to London with me and my guitarist Gerry O’Beirne.

“We also have some Roisin Reimagined things in the in the works.

“I’ve also started to spend some time working on music of my own which I suppose is a new path to go down and see what comes of it not necessarily with an endgame in sight but again, to just try and add a new colour to the palate and see what happens.

“Every year and a half or so I tend to get itchy feet about things and I just need to get into the studio and just start trying things out.

“It’s always been that way, doesn’t always have an endgame and very rarely is there a plan.

“But with Roisin Reimagined the way that happened out of a little kernel of an idea that developed and amazing people came on board with, like the Irish Chamber Orchestra and all our wonderful soloists and composers.

“These things have a habit of growing legs and you just kind of have to go with it.

 “Just have to keep moving.”

Nic Amhlaoibh grew up in Dún Chaoin, a village in the Gaeltacht of West Kerry so her native language is Irish.

What do you make of the resurgence of the Irish language with The Quiet Girl film and the Belfast Irish language rappers Kneecap.

“I was just at Body and Soul festival with them a few weeks ago,” she says of Kneecap.

“I’m still coming round, my God.

“The young ones are mad, they’re brilliant.

“It just gives me such joy to see them just celebrate the language in such a different way.

“When I was younger, there wasn’t that same attitude towards the language and I felt very trepidatious about doing it, about stepping outside of what was, I suppose, considered acceptable. A lot of that would have been my own hangups as well.

“But we were always told we were the last people to speak the language and it was all dependent on us to preserve the traditional music, the traditional singing, the language and we were not to sully it, we were not to tarnish it, to change it or pollute it.

“It was all about preservation and fighting the good fight, and I absolutely agree with all that.

“But this new positivity and carefreeness that these new Irish language artists have is very, very refreshing and hugely inspiring for me to think we can do what we want, the language is part of us.

“So whatever we do, if we do it through the language then that’s valid.

“That’s a new idea for me.”

Muireann has had some special moments on previous trips to London but notices those who leave Ireland are now in a much happier place.

“It reminds me of home,” she says of the London scene she has encountered.

“Even though we’re in one of the biggest cities in the world but that’s the Irish, we just create community wherever we go.

“The (ICC) centre that we played in last year was a far cry from the place it was many years ago when I used to come over.

“To see the development and the support that the Irish community is getting over there and giving these spaces and the arts and the music is fantastic.

“There’s something really gorgeous as well about bringing the songs and a little bit of home over to the people.

“Back in those days, there were a lot of people I met who had very hard lives.

“And I think things have changed.

“There were Irish people that were over there who were very, very lonely, and really missed home.

“That used to really affect me always when I came over.

“I noticed the last time I was over, it was very different.

“It was a happier sort of feeling.

“Now I meet Irish people who are out in England who are out there for other reasons other than they absolutely had to leave Ireland.

“That’s the big difference, is that they’re choosing now to go.”

What have been the highlights of your long and great career? “That’s an interesting question because I’ve played on so many stages in so many different iterations.

“There are two highlights for me.

“One is definitely Roisin Reimagined, probably the time we played it at Celtic Connections because I was so very proud to bring our sean-nós singing over to a big stage in another country.

“To play there was an honour, and a very special moment for me.

“The other highlight is much more low key.

“It’s just when I’m here at home and I’m playing with my dad and my daughters and my wonderful neighbours and the Begley family that’s what keeps me going.

“That’s the well I come from.

“That’s what continuously inspires me.

“I’m so lucky, I can just walk down the hill here, down to the village and have one of the best sessions you’ll ever hear.

“That is the sign of a healthy living culture that’s still keeping all of us going and we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing were it not for those traditional musicians and that community and those sessions.

“That’s what it’s all about at the heart of it.”

Muireann began playing piano and fiddle before taking up the whistle and would accompany her father, traditional Irish fiddle player Feargal Mac Amhlaoibh, to sessions.

“There’s so much more to becoming a musician and there’s so much more to the session than what you can learn in a formal lesson or online or from a book, then you’re just learning the notes.

“There’s a lot more nuance to it than that, and there’s even session etiquette that was drilled into me by my father, these things are important.

“We had every sort of musician come through Dingle  here and growing up, you didn’t know who you were gonna end up sitting beside of an evening and playing with and that was an education in itself.”

Muireann is still hit hard by the loss of the well known Kerry trad star Séamus Begley who passed away in January.

“I’m still coming to terms with the loss of Seamus,” Muireann says.

“We all are. He was my musical mentor.

“And he never had airs or graces. He wanted to play with everyone.

“It’s an honour now to continue on, playing his music and singing his songs and play with his wonderful family who are doing such incredible things, doing him proud.

“We just can’t believe he’s gone. It’s like Mount Brandon disappeared from the landscape here. He was just omnipresent and he was our King.

“I thought he’d live forever, certainly for much longer than he did.

“Yeah, it shook us. It’s shook us all and this place has changed utterly since his passing.”

Is it poignant to get together with other musicians who miss him to play in tribute to him? “It really is.

“I played a concert recently with Meabh, his daughter and Donogh Hennessy for the Doolin Folk Festival, and you just feel like he’s there.

“That helps, when we all come together.

“We were practicing for the gig actually, the three of us had never played together as a trio but it just came together so quickly because we had all the same tunes and songs from Seamus, all the little variations all the stops and starts and twists and turns he had on things. We had them all.

“It was actually a thrill to play them with Don and Meabh because it reminded me that we need to keep doing this so that we don’t forget.

“Collectively, we’ll keep his special style of playing and singing going.

“He changed everything when he came along, with Cooney especially, and everything just exploded. Suddenly West Kerry music was on these big stages and our songs that we just kind of sang amongst ourselves, there they were and he made them sound so amazing.

“He understood the nobility of them and he brought that true emotion to them. And then he could play hell for leather and send the crowd wild.

“He was an exceptional performer and so charismatic and so generous in his sharing of the music.

“I am one of those people who paved the way for without a doubt.

“I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing were it not for Seamus.”

Muireann was there recently for Ryan Tubridy’s final Late Late Show. Part of a host of Irish musicians, she says things got a bit ‘wild’ in the green room.

“It was great. There were 16 traditional musicians- picked at random it seemed- and we were all in the green room from about six o’clock after soundcheck until it was time to go on at about 11 o’clock.

“The minute we finished the soundcheck Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Sharon Shannon took out the instruments and got everyone playing, as they always do, and just led the charge in a wonderful session.

“It was magic. We were dancing and Moya Brennan was singing.

“It was a little bit wild actually.

“I could see all the people in RTE coming down to have a listen.

“They said, ‘We heard there’s a session to beat all sessions happening here!’

You say there was dancing, was Ryan dancing? “No, he was actually working.

“We were the ones that were going wild. They shouldn’t have opened the bar so early.”

So what’s next for you? I’ve asked about the next musical thing but what about your TV and radio work? “I’ve just finished two series: One with Julie Fowlis that’s a retrospective of Transatlantic Sessions.

“And I’m doing another one for RTE called Seisiun which is going around to different iconic venues in the country, hearing the performers that play there regularly and meeting the wonderful people that keep these venues going. These people are unsung heroes. Without them none of us would be doing any shows at all and a lot of the time, they’re doing it just for the love of it.

“And I’m going to be co-hosting the RTE Fleadh show this year with the bold Dáithí Ó Sé.

“It’s nice doing the bit of telly, I enjoy it especially if it means I get to meet other musicians and hear music.

“That’s really my one and only passion.

“My mother said during COVID I needed to just find a new pastime, some other interest.

“It turns out I only have one but there’s lots of different ways of enjoying it thankfully and being able to be a performer and make the radio show and the bit of telly, it all ties back to the music.

“So I am in a very lucky position now, really grateful and enjoying it.”

IMDL present their annual fundraiser featuring performances from At the Racket, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh & Dónal O’Connor, Eimear McGeown and The Trad Gathering on Friday 30th June at 7pm at Islington Assembly Hall.

To book, click here.

For more information on Muireann, click here.

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