Earagail tunes up as SíFiddlers return with a fire in their bellies

Local talent and the wider horizons are central to the Donegal-wide festival that ranges from Honeyfeet’s ‘wonky pop’ to Neapolitan songwriters to a Congolese-Afro-futuristic-Punk-Assemble collective

Grassroots and blue skies are the defining notes in this year’s Earagail Arts Festival. From Letterkenny to Gweedore, and Ballybofey to Malin, locals and visitors will encounter an embarrassment of riches in the form of gigs, sessions, dance performances, workshops, exhibitions and films. This bilingual festival is all about community, but with its sights set on the wider horizon too. Neapolitan songwriters, cellists and poets, circus camps and even an eco-friendly-Congolese-Afro-futuristic-Punk-Assemble collective will entertain and challenge audiences over 16 days from July 9th.

Earagail Arts Festival has always nurtured local talent, and this year sees it cultivating a seed planted way back in 2018 when it curated a concert of female Donegal fiddle players, led by the indomitable Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, founding member of Altan, and Tara Connaughton, along with Bríd Harper and Clare Friel, of The Friel Sisters trio. This collective bottled the energy of that initial gig on their debut recording, SíFiddlers, an album that Clare Friel calls their ‘Covid baby’, and one that flew way too low beneath the radar as it emerged during the height of lockdown when not even a note could be performed live to celebrate its arrival.

This year though, things are going to be different. SíFiddlers are returning with a fire in their bellies and a hearty appetite for jousting with their formidable collection of Donegal tunes.

For Bríd Harper, that initial concert tapped into something deep within.

“Personally, it was a big deal,” she acknowledges freely, chatting by Zoom, in the company of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Clare Friel. “The fact is that a lot of fiddle groups have been made up of male fiddle players. Not that we had an issue with that, but it’s just that I know myself from teaching, the bulk of my students are female, so it was great to see that translating into seeing women on stage, celebrating Donegal music. And it felt like it was just the tip of the iceberg. And what’s so special too, is that it’s all fiddle, without accompanying instruments. For me, that’s important to be able to stand up there and let the fiddle speak on its own”.

There’s an organic relationship between the fiddle and Donegal, but most of the well-known names associated with the fiddle historically have been male. John Doherty. Vincent and Jimmy Campbell. Danny Meehan. Ciaran Tourish. Superb musicians all. But when Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh set out on her journey with Altan as a professional fiddle player, she was in a distinct company of one. There were no other professional women musicians to be found at that time. Thankfully, in the intervening decades, the wheel has turned.

“When I started off, there were hardly any women playing,” Mairéad recalls. “But truthfully, I never looked at it like that, because the music was more important than who was playing, you know. But it’s so exciting to hear younger women fiddlers playing.”

The joy of working with women is one that Mairéad appreciates hugely.

“I think that women musicians have a lot of ‘give’ in them”, she says. “I think women working together seem to have this meitheal happening where they nurture each other. That has been very prominent in this group. Egos don’t come into it. In traditional music, you don’t get many egos anyway, but in this particular group, there was a lot of leeway for people to contribute their tunes, their philosophy about how to approach the tunes, and so on. I noticed a softness, that womanly or feminine softness in the approach which will give the group longevity definitely.”

Clare Friel is a member of that next generation of fiddle players whose careers speak of a world where opportunities to pursue music professionally are immeasurably better.

“How privileged I feel as a ‘younger’ musician, getting to play with these trail-blazing women,” she says. “These are women that I have always been amazed by and always looked up to. To have the chance to play and to make music with them, music that we all love and is so natural to us, has been a very special thing for me: to be a part of an important Donegal tradition. I love that we get the chance to make our small mark on a wondrous tradition.”

Bríd Harper’s looking forward to rekindling the magic of SíFiddlers’ previous (limited live) performances at their concert in Letterkenny, where they’ll share billing with Goitse and The Henry Girls.

“There’s such energy in the group with 13 women,” she enthuses. “It feels so energetic when we’re on stage. The crack and the spraoí we have! We all have the same ambitions: to keep the older tunes alive and to pay respect to the people who came before us. And we have a wealth of new tunes too.”

Another artist who’s happily wending her way to Donegal from her adopted home in Manchester is Armagh native Ríoghnach Connolly with her band, Honeyfeet. Connolly has an expressive voice that carries within it the winsome qualities of Sandy Denny and the bally attitude of Janis Joplin. A natural raconteur, she’s channelled her folk instincts through her band, The Breath, a duo with Stuart McCallum. While she’s forged a formidable reputation as a folk singer (and is currently BBC Radio 2′s Folk Singer of the Year) Connolly’s other passion is for protest songs, jazz-inflected mood pieces and foot-stomping dance music.

Ríoghnach is embarking on the summer festival season with a certain degree of apprehension though. “I’ve got hope in my heart but there is some trepidation with audiences”, she admits. “A lot of people have lost loved ones and over here in England, the [music] infrastructure has been decimated. To be honest, it’s really tricky, navigating all of this.”

Adding to her angst is the prospect of introducing home audiences to a very different side of her music from what they’ve heard before, at least in a live setting. Connolly is grappling with the reality of having an eclectic appetite for many different musical styles in a world where the media prefer their artists neatly boxed and labelled.

“I have to admit that I’m really nervous about coming back home,” she reveals, having exited a studio recording session with the band to chat about Earagail Arts Festival. “This will be the first time I’ve taken something that’s definitely not trad home. I would describe Honeyfeet as folk hop. It’s like wonky pop! We do really well because we’re on an alternative circuit: a humanitarian and a lefty circuit, so I’ve never really had to care about a trad audience looking at me before.”

Singer, Ríoghnach Connolly stands wearing a green cardigan and brown and yellow dress, in front of her 5 Honeyfeet band mates

Ríoghnach and Honeyfeet release a new album in August, It’s been a while buddy, and it’s a rapturous collection that reveals the true breadth of this woman’s voice, as well as the band’s political nous.

“Our new album’s got this balance of colours,” Ríoghnach notes. “I was really grieving in lockdown but I wrote a song called Border Bodies because I think I was enraged and terrified after Brexit. It’s a very worrying time with what might happen if a hard border gets put back in the North. I’m a child of the Good Friday Agreement. My father was in the H Blocks. My mother’s from Manchester and growing up in the ‘80s, my mother, being an English woman: it was hard. I’m the eldest of nine, and three or four of my siblings don’t remember anything [about the Troubles]. They’re not aware. It’s wonderful that they haven’t had to fear anybody, the police or sectarian loyalist death gangs. You spend so much of your life being afraid. I don’t want to go back to that.”

All the more reason then, for Ríoghnach to let it rip during her long-awaited homecoming this summer.

“Honeyfeet is really a party band,” she says. “Where we can shake it all off. But being in Honeyfeet and The Breath has been a really nice cathartic marriage of both of those sides of me.”

Highlights of this year’s festival which runs from July 9th — 24th include sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird with Ryan Molloy, as well as an evening with Soak, and another with Neopolitan trio Sunno D’Ajere. Ar Ais Arís promises something special on Arranmore Island when Irish language literature intersects with multimedia performers, mediated by virtual reality headsets for everyone in the audience. Eaf.ie

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts