A piping hot 2018 for trad

Year in Culture Review: Great albums, the rise of women and the loss of visionaries

The year got off to a flying start with Na Píobairí Uilleann's concert, The Sound of Ireland, in the Abbey Theatre. A celebration of Unesco's inclusion of uilleann piping on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Not only was it a mighty gathering of the great and the good, from Jimmy O'Brien Moran and Seán McKeon to Paddy Glackin and Noel Hill, but the stage was ignited by a plethora of emerging pipers, many of them female and some of them still at school. Finally, an instrument long associated with male players is bridging that gender divide, aided in no small measure by the ground breaking musicianship of pipers Emer Mayock and Louise Mulcahy.

We were spoiled by exceptional albums during the year, particularly from fiddle players Gerry O'Connor and Seamus Maguire; flute player John Lee; Manus McGuire; and Zoë Conway in the company of her three current collaborators, Scots singer and whistle player Julie Fowlis, bouzouki and fiddle player Éamon Doorley and guitarist John McIntyre.

If there’s one thing that characterised 2018 it was the ease with which musicians explored new horizons, grounded by the firm foundations of the tradition. Unsurprisingly, Martin Hayes was in the vanguard, Magellan-like, with his eponymous quartet (violinist and viola player Liz Knowles, bass clarinettist Doug Wieselman and guitarist Dennis Cahill).

Meanwhile, Slow Moving Clouds were mining the nether regions where Nordic and Irish music might find a shared purpose. The trio's performance in Whelan's in celebration of their new album, Starfall, was a quirky, unpredictable joy: cellist Kevin Murphy finding his voice in the belly of a newly minted language that led the trio's tunes on nykelharpa, fiddle and cello on a merry dance ever skywards. The band's collaboration with Michael Keegan-Dolan's theatre production of Swan Lake: Loch na hEala evolved into an even more robust shape during a year that saw them tour and perform with the actors on stage: the music offering a perfect foil for what became a whirling dervish of a production.

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Fair Plé

But perhaps the most dramatic development of the year came not directly from the music but from the female musicians who have experienced marginalisation in sessions, on the road and on stages for decades. Fair Plé, an initiative that seeks gender equality in Irish traditional and folk music, came hot on the heels of the #MeToo movement, and Waking The Feminists. Arising out of a spontaneous call to action by singer, Karan Casey, Fair Plé isn't about beating up on men and male musicians. As singer, Pauline Scanlan offered in an interview last April, "this isn't about a turf war. It's just about taking a big, deep breath and moving forward together."

At Fair Plé’s first Rising Tides festival in Liberty Hall last September, the challenge women face, not just in Irish traditional music but in general, was summarised pithily by Peter Cosgrove, founder of Future of Work at CPL, who laconically noted that men are the beneficiaries of the greatest affirmative action in the history of western civilisation: it’s called “the history of western civilisation”. This gathering of women – and men – promised precious few stock answers, but instead ignited a conversation that found further deep purchase on the stage of the National Concert Hall on the October bank holiday weekend during its Tradition Now concert series. There a raft of Irish women shared a stage with Palestinian singer and force of nature Reem Kelani, and it was there that further energies were fuelled for the long and winding road ahead.

Folk awards

Women featured strongly too in the inaugural Radio 1 Irish Folk Awards, when Lankum's Radie Peat, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Emma Langford were among the recipients of laurels that recognised their singular talents and robust contributions to the canon. The awards struck a welcome chord, charting the emergence of diverse musicians with their eyes set on wide horizons. From the culturally rich tapestry of Irish-Persian ensemble Navá to the visceral blitzkrieg that was Daoirí Farrell's performance, not to mention the almost schoolboy delight of Andy Irvine when he accepted his lifetime achievement award, this was a night to remember.

In a year that sadly also saw the untimely passing of visionaries, particularly Liam Ó Floinn, Tommy Peoples and Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, as well as Alec Finn and Thom Moore, we were reminded all too often of the picaresque journey the music has taken, with these remarkable musicians and composers helping to steer its course with their collective gaze set firmly on a horizon that's been both welcoming and wide. A fitting legacy, and a map that still contains many uncharted waters.