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‘We’re lucky in Irish music that players we look up to and have listened to all our lives are so accessible. It’s pretty unique’

Kerry piper Leonard Barry’s new album, Littoral, features a host of well-known names, including Kevin Burke of The Bothy Band

Journeys and relationships are at the core of Leonard Barry’s new album. Taking its inspiration from the sea and all things maritime, Littoral is a collection of tunes that resonates deeply with this north Kerry piper, who has carved his own path with his three solo albums.

“My work over the years with Dublin Simon Community taught me a lot about those two words, ‘journeys’ and ‘relationships’,” he says, referring to the housing and homelessness charity. “You’re looking at people, some of whom are very chaotic in their behaviour, and you’re observing them on their journey, trying to forge a working relationship with them to make that journey better for them.

“Some journeys don’t end well, other journeys are still going, maybe not so positively, and some are still going really well. I remember working with one lady who came in for a detox, and by the time I had left the job she was volunteering with us. To see and play a small part in the journey is very powerful and humbling, because some of the most resilient people I have ever met were in my various jobs with Dublin Simon, especially in the detox unit.

“Working in Simon teaches you a lot about yourself,” Barry says. “As chaotic as their lifestyle can be, some of the people I worked with are the most resilient people I have ever met, because to survive in that world you have to be.”


Much of the shape of Littoral emerged during the dramatic stop that the pandemic imposed on Barry’s musical career. “During the lockdown we had a lot more time for reflection,” he says. “I started thinking about my journey. From Kerry to Kilkenny, and then on to Dublin and to Sligo, and how I ended up by the sea again, which was not my intention. It just sort of happened.”

Barry grew up in Kilmoyley, not far from Banna Strand in Co Kerry. The sea was always in the background, and its reappearance in his life through his move to Sligo has proven pivotal. Before our talk, he says, he took to the beach to think about all of the colour and shade that informed his richly textured new collection, which was produced by the Mancunian piper and whistle player Mike McGoldrick.

“What I wanted to do with this album was to track each part of that journey, and I think that, together, all of the sets of tunes reflect where I’ve come from and how I got to here.”

Barry has chosen some fine company on Littoral. Kevin Burke, The Bothy Band’s fiddle player, contributes some very tasty accompaniment to a set of three slides learned from the playing of the Sliabh Luachra musicians Terry Teahan and Johnny O’Leary. Dervish’s Andy Morrow, Michael Holmes and Brian McDonagh add further subtle colours to the mix with tunes whose provenance can be traced to Clare, Fermanagh, Sligo, Dublin and Brittany. One of Barry’s distinguishing features is his ability to meld tunes from disparate backgrounds, some of which would not normally be associated with the pipes, and imbue them with a remarkable sense of belonging.

“If you just take that tune The Pipe in the Bob – that was the first tune I heard on a cassette that my uncle gave me of The Bothy Band. That’s followed by The Fly in the Porter, a tune that I picked up here in Sligo, and The Stolen Purse is a tune that I would have played in the Cobblestone,” Barry says, referring to the Dublin bar.

He’s thrilled that Kevin Burke – also now resident in Sligo, having lived for decades in the US – appears on Littoral. “Who would have thought that all those years down home, when I heard that tune for the first time, Kevin would become a friend and play on my album,” he says. “We’re lucky in Irish music that players we look up to and have listened to all our lives are so accessible. It’s pretty unique.”

Barry was glad of the chance to step away from the demands of touring during the pandemic. He took advantage of the supports that the Arts Council provided and set up a modest recording studio at home. “Then I started playing tunes,” he says, smiling. “And because I wasn’t gigging and running around the place, certain tunes started coming back to me. I started keeping a diary of what I was playing, and that’s really how this album came together.”

Littoral is a collection where “the tunes picked the guests”, he says. With McGoldrick not just on production duties but also playing flute and bodhrán, and with Alice Allen playing cello, Barry has brought his pipes on a new journey, one that’s steeped in autobiography. “I feel so lucky to be playing with these top-drawer musicians,” he says. “Each one brought their own lovely texture to the tunes. I was surrounded by really good people who I trusted.”

Like so many traditional musicians, Barry is thrilled too to see Burke reunite with his former bandmates in The Bothy Band. “He just said to me: ‘It’s still so bloody powerful.’ I get emotional just thinking about that. That’s what I hear in this music. There is such creativity and power in it.”

Leonard Barry begins a tour of Ireland and England on Thursday, April 18th. His Irish dates, between April 24th and 28th, include Galway, Westport, Sligo, Dungannon and Dublin