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Sharing the tradition

Dublin violinist Aoife Ní Bhriain and accomplished Welsh harpist Catrin Finch told David Hennessy about their musical project that explores the musical links between their two countries.

In the lockdown of 2021, the producers of Irish-Welsh Other Voices Aberteifi Festival (the Welsh manifestation of the iconic Irish Other Voices TV music series that originated in Dingle) had the idea of pairing Wales’ Catrin Finch, the most accomplished British harpist of her generation, with the virtuosity of Irish violinist Aoife Ní Bhriain.

It was an exciting combination right from the start, both having revered reputations.

Both had extensive professional concert and orchestral experience. Both had performed in some of the most renowned and prestigious halls and festivals in the world. Both had cabinets stuffed with trophies.

Aoife grew up in the north Dublin suburb of Bayside.

Her father Mick O’Brien was a schoolteacher and is one of Ireland’s leading uilleann pipe players. Her mother Fidelma is a music teacher who comes from a large family of Irish dancers and musicians.

Her paternal grandfather was the renowned accordionist ‘Dinny’ O’Brien, her uncle the equally famous tin-whistle virtuoso ‘Donncha’ O’Brien.

Aoife has worked with leading orchestras (The Royal Philharmonic, the Royal Chamber Orchestra, Stargaze Ensemble, Concorde Ensemble, Crash Ensemble, RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, Dublin City Chamber Orchestra and more), whilst also starring in Riverdance, winning the All Ireland Fiddle championships seven times, The Sean Ó Riada Gold Medal (2010), collaborating with maestros of the trad scene like Martin Hayes and breathing new life into the old trad tunes collected by the mid-19th century revivalist Canon Goodman as part of The Goodman Trio, with her father Mick and flautist Emer Maycock.

She has been based in London since 2019 and lives in Putney.

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Catrin grew up in the tiny village of Llanon on the shores of Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

She came to London to stud at The Purcell School and then The Royal Academy, graduating with the Queen’s Commendation for Excellence and won the Lily Laskine International Harp Competition, the world’s premier prize for harpists.

Catrin was nominated for a classical Brit Award in 2004 and later won Germany’s Echo Klassik Award.

Her solo harp rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (2009) and Blessing, the album she made with John Rutter (2012) both went straight to the top of the UK Classical charts.

In 2000, the future King Charles III decided to revive the ancient office of Royal Harpist to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, last filled during the reign of Queen Victoria, and chose Catrin as its first incumbent.

Both say it is as if they have found their musical double in each other which is part of the reason for the name of their album, Double You.

But the affinities go beyond music.

Both are fluent speakers of ancient languages.

Both have also had to face down cancer early on in their adult lives.

And two women who are now in blessed remission, enjoying another day of life.

Catrin told The Irish World: “We always say it’s slightly serendipitous our meeting because it was really in the throes of lockdown January 2021.

“It was that really depressing time where we’d already had one load of lockdowns.

“Everybody was kind of hoping that we were coming out of it, but we weren’t.

“And then Other Voices Cardigan decided that they would try and do a filmed event with S4C the Welsh TV channel at the museum here in Cardiff.
“Aoife and I were both invited to perform as solo artists.

“And then I believe Philip King (Other Voices founder) thought it’d be a good idea to ask us to do a little set together which sounds like a really lovely, easy idea, but under the circumstances was pretty difficult.

“And because we couldn’t really get together, we had to kind of get it together on a couple of sessions.

“It was the perfect catalyst really to starting a project together.

“It was at a time where obviously both of us hadn’t really been working for a while.

“I was kind of coming out of a duo that I’d been in for the last decade and Aoife had been ill, and we were both kind of ready to embark on a new project.

“I think it was the right time.”

Aoife adds: “It’s one of those things, it just happened.

“And it’s not often that you’re put into a room with another musician and you kind of click and that’s just what happened.

“We just clicked and it just seemed to be kind of easy to play together.

“It was like, ‘Well, sure, why don’t we keep going and

see what happens?’

“And then, ‘Why don’t we record an album and see what happens?’

“And now this is what has happened.

“It’s gone really well.

“I feel like we’ve been very lucky.

“So long may it continue, we’re having a great time.

“We’re looking forward to all the gigs this year and we’ll see what happens in the future.”

We have to remind Aoife of what she first said of Catrin though.

Didn’t you have a famous response when Catrin’s name first came up, Aoife?

Catrin gets in, “You said, ‘Catrin who?’”

Aoife says: “Yeah, it’s hilarious because my sister-in-law is a harpist and she’s actually a super Catrin fan.

“It turned out I’d actually been listening to Catrin’s albums for years and just never really realised.

“Philip King said on the phone, ‘Google her’.

“I got off the phone. Said to (my husband) Patrick, ‘This harpist Catrin Finch, can you help me out here? Who is this person?’

“And Patrick just started laughing.

“He was like, ‘You’ve been listening to her for years, Google her’.

“I did and I was like, ‘Oh, this is serious’.

“I was like, ‘Course I’ll play with Catrin Finch’, while on the inside I was like, ‘Oh my god. How is this gonna go?’

“I was quaking in my boots.

“But luckily, it all came off.

“She hasn’t realised that I’m faking it yet.

“I’m still getting away with it.”

What about the other side of that. Catrin, what did you say when you heard Aoife’s name?

Aoife says: “You’re like, ‘How do you pronounce that name?’

Catrin says: “Yeah, I was like who?

“I wasn’t (familiar) and so it was so lovely to learn about her and to meet her.

“It’s really refreshing when you meet a new musician and friend and colleague and then you get to know each other and the more we got to know each other on a personal level as well, we realised a lot about our lives were very similar.

“Our childhood experiences were very similar. Our paths, the way we had studied, the way we’d grown up with our instruments, our families, our mothers, so much of us actually. Our health.

“It kind of helped the process of music making in a way because we were actually very similar in our musical tastes and what we were trying to do with our instruments and what we believe in.

“We’re both very classically trained musicians.

“It was a sort of natural partnership and when we started playing together and we started making music, that process was very simple.

“And actually, the tracks on the album we didn’t take longer than a week to write all of that.”

Aoife adds: “It was like three or four days.

“It wasn’t much more than that.

“We just kind of played what we felt and that’s what happened.”

Was it effortless then because you had so much in common and bonded like you did?

Catrin says: “Yeah, I think that word effortless in itself though is possibly why, and how we knew that it was going to be a working duo.

“Because I think if something is hard work, then you shy away from it, so the fact that actually we could just sit in a room and we were always on the same path, we were always thinking the same thing musically.

“We were never really saying ‘I want it to be this’ and ‘I want it to be that’.

“It was always like, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool’. And, ‘I’ll do this’.

“And, ‘Yeah, that’s great’.

“And, ‘I’d go to this’, and it just gelled right, I think.”

Aoife says: “Yeah, we were kind of just on the same page musically and that doesn’t happen very often, that happens very rarely.

“And even just from my growing up playing with mam and dad and with my brother and sister, my cousins, I suppose you have high expectations of being on stage with somebody and it’s a question of trust. If you go somewhere in the music, maybe do a bit of an improv or a bit of a new variation, you want to trust that that person will come with you, and we felt that from the beginning which is great because it’s not always that way.

“It is that question of like, ‘Oh, will we be on the same page if I go this way?’ And so far we have been and that’s really important. And effortless is a good word.

“You want to work hard effortlessly, rather than work hard and also have to put in a crazy amount of effort to make it work, to force it to work.

“I think we could work hard together effortlessly and it was really enjoyable.”

What have you made of the reactions so far?

Aoife says: “I think the reactions were cool as well because we got some really lovely reviews like five star reviews from BBC Classical Music Magazine and Songlines which is a world music magazine.

“And we got a five star review from the Rock’n’Roll magazine, and the Jazz magazine.

“So it was really interesting seeing how there was different parts of the album that resonated with different people.

“So it’s not like an album that you can put into a genre specific box.

“We also got nominated for album of the year at the RTE folk awards which was a huge surprise because we wouldn’t necessarily define the album as one thing or the other either.

“It’s just the music that we wanted to play at that time, so it’s been a really lovely thing that so many people from so many different musical genres have said, ‘We really love the album for this reason and that reason?’

“Because it’s all music, isn’t it?

“You just want it to kind of reach as many people as possible.”

Let’s talk about the album title, Double You. What is that hinting at, the similarities between you two?

Aoife says: “Well, every track began with a W first of all.

“But it’s true. It’s that we kind of found each other at this time in our lives, it does kind of feel like you’re looking into a bit of a mirror and as Catrin said earlier, not just because of music.

“It’s like we’ve found kind of the musical double of ourselves.

“So that is part of it.

“It’s like looking at each other and seeing so much of ourselves in the other person but yet learning so much from each other as well.

“That’s kind of where the Double You title came from.

“Then the w’s that started every track are actually all based on the fact that St. Aidan or Saint Máedóc of Ferns took the bees from Wales to Ireland.

“We kind of wanted to focus more on that than the saints and the scholars and the usual things that people try to tie Ireland and Wales in together with.

“It was more the fact that this pilgrimage, this crossing between Ireland and Wales has been going on for so much longer than people realise.

“And the bees do the waggle dance which starts with W.

“And then we were like, ‘W is kind of cool’, so we could use W for other titles on the album and then it just became a theme.

“But it is that kind of finding the similarities that aren’t as easy to see.

“That’s kind of what we wanted between Wales and Ireland as well because musically, there’s not as much in common between Wales and Ireland as there would be between Ireland and Scotland for example, or even Wales and Brittany.

“But we saw so much more there.

“We just thought it was amazing that there’s this story that the bees came from Wales to Ireland with St. Aiden or Saint Máedóc of Ferns.

“And that we were finding this all out about this connection between our two countries as we were finding out the connection between us as people so it all just kind of tied in together.”


Do you think the Irish and Welsh are quite similar?

Catrin says: “Welsh and Irish musicians have shared music for donkey’s years.

“And actually, Aoife and I have always thought that could be something that we could try and see ourselves as continuing in a way, that we are sort of continuing that tradition of the sharing of traditions and music.

“I think Ireland has always- better than Wales actually- sort of kept its musical roots a bit.

“Traditions and your culture and your music are such a big part of Ireland more so than Wales.

“We don’t have so much of those traditions.

“But I think definitely we see our duo and our partnership as something that is continuing and embracing those traditions really.”

Aoife adds: “We’re trying to shine a light on that as well and it’s important to us because I’m a proud Irish woman, Cat’s a proud Welsh woman.

“It’s very important not to forget where you come from.

“Those are our roots and it’s lovely that we share the Celtic roots, you know?”

Another sad thing you have in common is that you have both come through cancer and are thankfully well again.

“All good touch wood,” Aoife says.

“I got diagnosed in December 2019, so just before COVID.

“It’s funny, Cat and I were going through similar things at similar times and obviously hadn’t met each other at that point.

“It makes a big difference when there’s somebody you trust that you can speak to about it as well, it does definitely ease the burden.

“I often find myself kind of talking to Cat if I have hospital appointments coming up just because I know she’s been through it all.

“It’s just lovely to have somebody who can talk to you about it openly and who understands like they know the language, they know how you’re feeling.

“That’s been amazing as well.

“Kind of what it is with music as well: She’s been there, she’s done everything so I can ask Catrin, ‘What you think?’ Or, ‘What should I do?’

“Or, ‘Am I right to feel this way?’

“I can talk to her about so many different things.

“She’s got the experience.

“I’m very lucky in that way as well.

“We’re both healthy at the moment which is great.”

Catrin says: “Who knows? Maybe that’s part of the reason why we play so well together musically as well.

“We’ve both experienced similar emotions in that respect and had that real fear when you get a diagnosis like that.

“Probably that is one of the reasons why we gel so well musically as well.”

I think I know the answer to this last question already but, are you planning more for this duo, your partnership?

Catrin says: “Yeah.”

Aoife jokes: “We may as well.”

Catrin says: “I think we’re both just having a really good time. This is a fun project.

“I think it’s probably only just beginning as well.

“So there’s hopefully a bit of a sparkly future ahead with it.”

Aoife says: “And we’ve already had some gorgeous gigs in amazing venues with fabulous audiences.

“So if that’s the beginning, then it’s already a highlight because who knows what’s coming down the road.”

Double You is out now.

Aoife and Catrin play Folk Weekend: State Of the Nations, Kings Place, London on 21 April.

They also play Bray Jazz Festival on 5 May.

Many more dates around the UK.

For more information about Catrin Finch, click here.

For more information about Aoife Ní Bhriain, click here. 

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