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Band of brothers

Brían Mac Gloinn of award-winning sibling duo Ye Vagabonds told David Hennessy about their new album, why they don’t get carried away with awards success and being heckled by their Donegal cousin while onstage in The Lexington.

RTE and BBC Folk award winners Ye Vagabonds release their second album Nine Waves next month.

The Carlow sibling duo’s 2019 debut album The Hare’s Lament was described as “A labyrinthine treasure trove” by The Irish Times, “A beautifully heartfelt collection” by The Guardian, and “Joyous” by Uncut.

It also saw them win big at that year’s RTE Folk Awards taking Best Album, Best Folk Group and Best Traditional Folk Track for the Foggy Dew. The Foggy Dew would also take the same category at that year’s BBC Folk Awards.

Last year they would pick up two more RTE Folk Awards for Best Traditional Folk Track for standalone single I’m A Rover and Best Folk Group for the second time, meaning they hold the record for being the most awarded artists at the awards.

Known for their brotherly harmonies and multi-instrumental abilities, the duo of Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn will be touring the UK from 2 May in the lead up to the release of the new album.

The first single to be taken from the new album was Blue Is The Eye, a song that started as a poem Brian wrote for an old friend on Arranmore who passed away in late 2020.

Brian told The Irish World: “He used to bring me out fishing as a kid, and later when I got into singing we bonded over songs even more. When he was younger he knew Róise Rua, a well-known singer from the island. He often told me of when he used to visit her, and how she would give him a coal from the fire to light his way home at night. In his last few years he would sit and watch boats come and go across the bay all day.  We’d always be happily aware of his eyes on us when we’d be out on the sea. The week he died, his son Jerry took myself and Diarmuid out fishing, and we half-wondered if he was watching still. A minke whale breeched next to our boat that afternoon.

“I wrote it originally as a kind of a self-soothing, lullaby mid-lockdown.

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“And then as I was writing the song, I realized who it was about then.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s who this is for’.”

They would follow this track with Go Away and Come Back Hither, a song about longing.

Brían says: “Since the pandemic, it’s probably something that everybody can relate to.

“I guess even before the pandemic, our lives as musicians were spent constantly away from home and that means also away from our families, our partners, our friends.

“There can be a lot of longing for people being away from home for half a year.

“It’s written as one that people can sing (together) for that reason.

“We hope that it feels cathartic.

“With all of these songs, this album, I think we wrote them very much as cathartic things for ourselves.

“We found it therapeutic to sing these kinds of songs, and we wanted to write songs that we could sing together in a way that felt good and ones that were inviting for people to sing with us, or for people to take away and sing by themselves.

“That feels important right now, especially after the last few years, you know?”

Did the award-winning tune I’m A Rover come from a similar place? “It kind of did in a way.

“That’s a song we know from our mother.

“Our mam used to sing it, she still does, when our family gets together.

“Whether it’s a wedding or birthday, everybody sings together.

“Our mam sings that song. It’s one her dad used to sing to her in the car when she was a kid as well.

“Those kind of songs are group activities.

“They create a togetherness.

“That’s always what we always did as a family. Everybody would always sing together.

“And when we’re away on tour, before we recorded that song even, we would always be encouraging people to sing with us on that one, inviting them to be our aunts and uncles for three and a half minutes if they wanted to be, very much focused on a sense of togetherness.”

The brothers grew up in a very musical house. In addition to three older sisters who were musical, Brían and Diarmuid also had the influence of American fiddle player Jessie Smith (Danú) who joined the family as their oldest sister Fiona’s partner.

Originally from Palatine in Co. Carlow, the brothers have been based in Dublin for years.

What is it like to be in a band with your own brother? “We come from the same place. We generally agree on things. We generally have the same direction in mind, the same musical ideas.

“I think you have to manage each other’s space as well and that takes a bit of learning. Just to give each other life space.

“We lived together for years in Dublin but when you’re living together, gigging together and have a lot of the same friends, it can start to feel like you don’t have your own life, you know?”

The band have been big winners when it comes to awards but Brian told us that while the accolades are all well and good, they are not something they focus too much on.

Brían said: “Of course it’s brilliant to get those things and we couldn’t believe it the first year when we won the BBC Award and the RTE Folk awards in one go.

“We could not believe that at all, it was a huge surprise and it was absolutely fantastic.

“But at the same time, we kind of were very quick to put them out of our heads because it can be bad for your head if you become too concerned with what other people think rather than just staying focused on what you’re doing, trying to make good music and do a good job when you’re performing.

“I keep them out of my mind. I don’t necessarily think of them.

“If I was to think of the highlights of the past eight or nine years, there’ll be certain gigs that were highlights, certain experiences we had playing with certain people.

“They’re definitely the highlights to me.

“I think while awards are nice to get, it can be unhealthy psychologically to think about them too much and to consider them too much because I guess you want to be happy with what you’re doing from an internal perspective rather than looking for exterior validation.”

What highlights would spring to mind in that case? “The time we toured with Glen Hansard, we played in some amazing venues. We had the chance to play in some incredible places and that was very exciting.

“There are some festivals.


“There’s one called Fire in the Mountain. Happens in Wales. We’re playing at it again this year. That was an amazing experience. We went along to this festival not realizing that we were going to be given such a big stage and given such a big slot at the festival.

“And we taught a singing workshop on the Saturday afternoon or something. And then we played on the Sunday afternoon.

“A huge crowd turned up to our singing workshop and we taught them a song that comes from the island where our mam is from.

“It’s a song in Irish.

“But then they all turned up to our gig and there was a  big gang at this main stage at this festival, but between them, it just created this huge sound and it was an amazing moment to be in that place, to be away from home and to be over in Wales, at a festival and suddenly to be surrounded by a couple of thousand people or whatever at this stage and hundreds of them to be singing along with us to a song that we learned from a recording of an old woman who was a friend of our granddad.

“That was an incredible experience. That was one of the biggest moments for us that year.

“But of course, there were other things, a few other highlights.

“We did a trip by barge last summer.”

Last August/ September- the year of the staycation, Ye Vagabonds decided to reject planes and took a slow barge tour through Ireland’s waterways journeying along the River Barrow and the Royal and Grand Canals meeting friends like Cormac Begley, FeliSpeaks, Brigid Mae Power and Thomas McCarthy along the way.

“That was one of the best things we’ve ever done.

“We played a gig in a place called Clashganny (Carlow) and that night was just incredible.

“We took a boat through our home county to play, and it was just an incredible night: A few hundred people, a sunny evening, perfect weather.

“Those kind of nights make it feel like it’s worth doing.

“Those kinds of experiences are really the times that I remember and the things that mean the most to me.

“A moment that feels really special to everybody where we all understand at that moment a really special thing is happening.

“Those moments make it feel worthwhile. They make it meaningful, I think.

“The awards are nice, but those moments really are the most special to me.”

The lads tour the UK this month and have been coming here for years.

“We enjoy playing in the UK.

“It’s such a varied place actually, from North to South and East to West.

“Playing in Glasgow is more or less like Donegal but condensed into a city.

“And then you never know who’s going to be at your gig in London.

“I remember playing in the Lexington and hearing somebody heckling me in Irish, very local Arranmore Irish.

“It was clear who it was, there was no guessing who was shouting at me in Arramore Irish.”

The brother’s Arranmore mother once lived in Kilburn but the lads’ time in England, outside of touring, has mostly been to visit cousins in Cornwall.

“They have got open ears in the UK in a good way.

“They’re used to hearing lots of different kinds of music.

“Also, Ireland is next door.

“There’s a thing that the further away from Ireland that you go the more people imagine the country rather than know it.

“I would find that certainly in the states that would be the case.

“There’s more of a chance that you’re going to be pigeonholed into green Paddyland.

“There’s not so much danger of that in the UK.

“They’re more likely to listen to it with open ears rather than just be listening with their imaginations of Ireland as it was seen in The Quiet Man or something.”

So where did the band name come from? “There’s a cartoon called The Moomins that we used to watch when we were kids.

“There’s a character called Snuffkin.

“At one point Snuffkin referred to himself as a vagabond.

“He’s a cool, little character, plays the banjo, wears a hat and knows when the weather is going to change.

“He just seems like a worldly wise character.

“I suppose where we grew up, people use the word ‘ye’. It just means you (plural).

“We get referred to as a plural a lot.

“A lot of the time I walk into a shop or somewhere where people know us and they might say, ‘Ah, the lads’. And it will be just me on my own.

“It’s kind of common.”

Nine Waves is out on 13 May.

Ye Vagabonds tour the UK from 2 May.

For more information, click here.

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