Iarla Ó Lionáird will perform at Urney Church on Friday night.

Tradition in transition

TIMELESS Stunning duo to perform at Cavan Arts Festival

“I don’t remember for some reason that I can’t explain, but he says that we met very early on after he arrived in Ireland,” Iarla Ó Lionáird says of his stage partner ahead of their appearance at Cavan Arts Festival. It’s the sort of rock 'n' roll hedonism you’d expect of someone who sang on a Peter Gabriel album or had two Grammy nominee, or appeared in an Oscar nominated film.

Yet not what you would expect of a traditional sean-nós exponent who has just finished picking up the kids on the school run. Which he is and has.

“I think I might have been living in Dublin at the time, but Steve says we formed a band called Gale Force. Apparently we rehearsed for several weeks, but we never did a gig,” Iarla tells down the phone line from his Kilkenny home. “I don’t recall it. He has enormous detail about it. There were other musicians in it too. I don’t know.”

It’s an amusing anecdote, told as an aside, but pushed to the top of the story because it’s funny. Ó Lionáird and Steve Cooney will perform in Urney Church of Ireland, Farnham Street towards the end of the month as part of this year’s Arts Festival. Only go if you like music.

Before his success with The Gloaming there was Afro-Celt Sound System. A wonderful fusion of cultures ACSS provided a soundtrack to an Ireland on the cusp of change, moving from mono to multicultural. Prior to that Ó Lionáird was a member of Sean Ó Riada’s Cór Chúil Aodha.

It’s a storied history of how tradition can evolve while retaining what makes it traditional. The current leg of his musical journey sees him joined by acoustic guitar virtuoso Cooney. Together they forged a unique musical partnership.

The Urney Church will provide the perfect venue to showcase their evocative music.

His observations on his craft are considered. The discoveries of a life in music. A conversational thread on the voice as instrument in sean-nós is a case in point.

“I started singing quite young,” he recalls. “I did think that the words were secondary. None of my teachers thought so. They were very much of the view that it was primary.

“I thought it was secondary because I was having what I felt were ‘musical experiences’ when I was performing. As time has gone on, definitely for me, the importance of the words has reasserted itself in a huge way, in a very profound way. The language itself contains so much music. Even if you weren’t to sing it, if you were actually to say it. It’s just a profoundly musical language.”

A short visit to a Gaeltacht emphasises that musicality. To have grown up immersed in the osculating rhythms of the Muskerry region must have had a profound influence on how the sean-nós reveals itself in performance.

Ó Lionáird says his awareness of the relevance of the lyrics came later: “I learned that actually, perhaps paradoxically, from singing abroad, from singing with classical music ensembles, with classical music composers. They were the ones who said to me ‘This is such an incredibly musical language to write for and to listen to’.

“That definitely influenced my thinking. I think the language has actually evolved as a musically transmissible form in an older Ireland, which was Gaelic speaking. We know from studies done by writers who travelled in Ireland, three centuries ago and more, that the Irish were given to making music and song in a really, really distinct way.”

The Urney Church visit is a return to the Breffni county for Iarla and Steve: “Steve and I were recording a beautiful harmonium instrument belonging to Father Darragh Connolly,” he tells of his visit to Crosserlough. “We were there for a day recording. It’s a really beautiful experience and I have been hiring that harmonium from Father Daragh for the last ten years.

“When The Gloaming started we had such awful instruments to play. They were broken and they were terrible. So I remember finding a reed organ on reedorganireland.com. I just wrote to the guy. It turns out it was a lovely gentleman by the name of Fr Darragh Connolly. His passion is maintaining and refurbishing these beautiful 19th century instruments. We hired an instrument from him every year for our shows in the NCH in Dublin. When it came to recording with Steve, we didn’t want to move the instrument. So we went to Crosserlough to record it where it was played by my friend Ryan Molloy,” he says by way of explaining Cavan’s input to his latest recording.

Iarla Ó Lionáird and Steve Cooney perform at Urney Church of Ireland on Friday, May 20 at 8pm. Tickets cost €22.50 at cavanartsfestival.ie