By Kerry Dexter
You may be familiar with the Clancy Brothers‘ hearty drinking songs, Sinead O’Connor’s gritty take on Irish tradition, Enya’s turning the sounds of her native Donegal into ethereal mist — and then there’s Riverdance. Here are three more ways into Irish music.
Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave
In the title track of this recording, Ryan invites those who listen on a journey through grief and loss to the possibilities of hope, framed in images of the natural world and with a touch of Irish legend. It’s a song inspired while she was walking along the strand in Ireland, as is Be Like the Sea, a consideration of courage and healing.
She also offers Gabhaim Molta Brighid, an ancient hymn to Saint Brigid, and a lively set of songs in Irish that she calls the Dance the Baby, as it includes songs her grandfather used to sing to dance her and her brother and sister around the kitchen when they were small.
Follow the Heron is Scottish songwriter Karine Polwart’s celebration of the renewal of springtime, and Ryan makes Corkman John Spillane’s The Wild Flowers into a tribute to independence that’s all fire and gold. Rough and Rocky finds Ryan, who was born in Detroit to Irish parents and lives now in Ireland, giving a graceful nod to her Irish American heritage.
What’s Closest to the Heart is a swirling, inviting, enigmatic tale, another one which Ryan wrote, which raises more questions than it answers, in both English and Irish, and things come to a close with a gentle take on that song of the wanderer, Home Sweet Home. A journey well worth the taking. John McCusker, John Doyle, and Hanneke Cassel are among those who support Ryan on the album.
Liz Carroll and John Doyle: Double Play
Liz Carroll plays the fiddle, and does that so well that she won an All-Ireland championship when she was still a teenager. In the years since, she’s composed many tunes which have been played and recorded by artists throughout the Celtic tradition. John Doyle is a guitarist, and producer, former member of Solas, who has worked with artists including Susan McKeown, Cathie Ryan, Alison Brown, Michael Black, and Joan Baez. When Carroll and Doyle get together, ideas fly and melodies cascade.
You can just imagine people up and dancing — and you may get up and join in yourself — to the Castle Kelly/Galway Rambler set. Doyle has a way of taking old songs and making them sound just as fresh as though they were written today, and that he does with Pound a Week Rise, a song about miners’ lives. Carroll’s Lament for Tommy Makem is a lovely slow air that moves into the fast paced Within a Hen’s Kick and The Slippery Slide in a way you know Tommy would have appreciated.
It’s an album of tunes — with a couple of songs included — at once engaging lively, and thoughtful, leaving no doubt as to why Carroll and Doyle were among those chosen to play for President Obama at the White House this past Saint Patrick’s Day.
Matt and Shannon Heaton: Lovers’ Well
Husband and wife duo Matt and Shannon Heaton focus their latest alum on songs from the Irish tradition that deal with love and loss from different angles.
Both the Heatons sing; Matt plays guitar and bouzouki, Shannon plays flutes and whistles. They draw you in to the music here at once with Lily of the West, a fast-paced rover’s tale of love and murder, and follow with the quiet, enigmatic tale of a lovers’ meeting observed in Where the Moorcocks Crow. Shannon takes the lead voice on these two, singing in a clear and engaging soprano with phrasing that adds to the stories.
There’s a nice transition to the instrumental set Brad’s Honeybees, which combines traditional and newly composed reels, with Matt on guitar and Shannon on flute. Song and tune balance each other through the recording. In keeping with the idea of lovers and couples, the Heatons worked with Irish dancer Kieran Jordan, whose foot percussion may be heard on the track Mountain Rambler, to make sure all the sets were at proper tempo for dancing. A subtle touch, and a thoughtful one.
Matt sings lead on a traditional song Lady Fair, telling a story which follows the broken token idea, of lovers parted by time and distance each having half of a ring and only recognizing each other with certainty when the token is produced. There’s also Lao Dueng Duen, a song Shannon sings honoring time she spent in living in Thailand. There are fourteen varied and engaging songs and sets of tunes here, each standing well on its own and making a collection well worth the listening many times over.
Going to the Heart
Each of these three albums is worth the listening many times over, actually. As you do, you’ll find yourself going deeper into the heart of Ireland and its music.
Kerry Dexter writes about the arts at Music Road and is an independent writer, editor, and photographer in the US and Ireland. She’s music editor at WanderingEducators.com, long time contributing writer to world music magazine Dirty Linen, and former folk music editor at VH1. Her work has appeared in Strings, Ireland and the Americas, CMT, Barnes & Noble Music, CBC, Symphony, The Music Hound Guides, and The Encyclopedia of Counterculture, among other publications.