By Kerry Dexter
Music: Ar Uair Bhig an Lae/ The Small Hours from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
The Dingle peninsula has its moments of being an attraction for tourists, but most of the time it is less so than the nearby Ring of Kerry. That leaves it to be a quieter place, a land of legend and history and about as far west as you can go and still be on the mainland of Ireland.
People came to Dingle going back six thousand years. Across those years they left traces of their lives in stone and bone and metal, and in more recent years, in poem and book, in art, in story, and in song.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh grew up in Dun Chaoin (in English variously known as Dunquin and Duncan), which in its turn is about as far west on the Dingle Peninsula as you can go and still be on the mainland. The view of the Blasket Islands from the windows of her father’s house, the sounds of Irish spoken as readily as English, the landscape of mountain and sea, and the day to day presence of music all shaped Nic Amhlaoibh’s time growing up. (In case you’re wondering, her name is pronounced nik OWL eeve)
Her travels have taken her far from the west of Ireland, at first to university in Dublin, then to study and later to teach traditional music in Limerick. As singer with the top traditional music band Danu and as a respected broadcast presenter, she has traveled to nearby places including the Western Isles and Glasgow in Scotland and distant ones including Romania, India, and the United States. She has recorded a number of albums with Danu, played shows and recorded an album with Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and been a guest artist on the Irish Christmas in America tour with the band Teada, among other things.
Though she still travels often for her music, Nic Amhlaoibh has returned to make her home in Dingle Peninsula, a circumstance which, she says “had the songs flying at me from all sides.”
In part that’s what led her to make her second solo recording, which is called Ar Uair Bhig an Lae: Small Hours. There are a dozen songs, seven in Irish and five in English. As Nic Amhlaoibh unfolds the tales, her warm voice invites you to listen as though you could be sitting by the fire, hearing stories in music that the singer has found right at her doorstep as well as perspectives she’s brought back from her travels and connected to the mountain and sea landscape of her native home in the west of Ireland.
These stories include Bo na Leathadhairce, a well known song in west Kerry which may be about a cow and a sheep, but may also be about the making of poitin. (Note: Roughly speaking, Irish moonshine).
Gold Hills, from Australian songwriter Kate Burke, is a song about love, loss, and meaning which Nic Amhlaoibh learned while she was on tour in Burke’s native country, and which stands naturally among songs in Irish. Whether Irish is your language or not, Nic Amhlaoibh makes the connection of emotion and story clear.
A fine place to listen for that is the sequence of four songs with which she closes the recording. Cois Abhann an Sead, known as River of Gems in English, is a reflective piece that may set you dreaming, while Another Day, by American bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, is a lively tale which holds the ideas of songs being passed on and people picking up the music and handing it on to generations to come. Bold Fenian Men is a well known Irish rebel song which holds the power, pride, and sorrow of choices made in such circumstances. An Clar Bog Deal is a love song, in which the man vows he’ll marry the girl he loves even if all they have is a board of wood to sleep on.
“I’m not really thinking about switching between languages when I’m working out what to sing,” Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh says, “I’m thinking about the song. There’s a great musicality to Irish, though. I think people respond to that, whether they’re understanding the words or not.” As you listen to the music on Ar Uair Bhig an Lae/The Small Hours in Irish and in English, you will hear that musicality, and the stories, landscape, and life of the west of Ireland as well.
Here is a video of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh teaming up with Julie Fowlis.