Atlantic Arc: Dónal Lunny steers a new Celtic musical course

The new nine-piece band brings together a dizzying array of talent on a mission

Dónal Lunny’s musical curiosity is indefatigable. He’s the ultimate collaborator: always exploring new territories, and well-worn paths too, where he inevitably unearths sparkling new possibilities in old sounds.

Lunny’s steered so many ships through picaresque adventures, including with Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Coolfin, Patrick Street, Usher’s Island, LAPD and Mozaik, many of them with Andy Irvine as his co-pilot. These lockdown days are seeing him steer a different course, through Atlantic waters, in the company of a whole new gathering of musical confreres.

This time the lure is shaped by geography, and he’s loving the commonalities and differences it’s unearthing.

"Atlantic Arc is a collective of musicians from Ireland and Scotland," he says on a video call with fellow members Aidan O'Rourke, Pauline Scanlon and Pádraig Rynne. "At the heart of the founding spirit is the idea of exploring and revealing the shared qualities of the music, which is found in the Celtic countries along the great arc of the Atlantic seaboard, from the west of Ireland to the coast of Galicia, and expressing it in fresh ways which effectively link it in with contemporary music."

Lunny’s work has always effortlessly straddled the ancient and contemporary. From an enormous respect for traditional music, he has always mined its depths to reveal fresh perspectives, so that it sounds utterly in step with the times, always at the cutting edge.

“We got together in 2016,” says Lunny, but back then everyone thought it was for a one-off project. But stasis isn’t something Lunny subscribes to, so Atlantic Arc has found a life of its own in the intervening years. “Even though we are geographically apart, we have evolved and grown organically and musically ever since. We’re wondering what all this is going to amount to, after such a long musical abstinence. We’re theorising like mad, and reminding ourselves that the last time we played together, it sounded fantastic. It’s just a great combination of musicians.”

Atlantic Arc is a nine-piece band, with Aidan O'Rourke on fiddle, Jarlath Henderson on pipes and vocals, Pauline Scanlon on vocals, Pádraig Rynne on concertina, Ewen Vernal on bass, Graham Henderson on keyboards, Davie Ryan on drums and Sharon Howley on cello, all corralled by Lunny on bouzouki and guitar.

Raising funds

The band has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to record their debut album, and released a single, My Son David, a song associated with Scottish folk singer Jeannie Robertson. Supporters of the campaign have the option to choose from a generous range of benefits, from vinyl copies of the album to masterclasses with any of the band members and the chance to hang out with the band post-gig, when the world opens up again.

Lunny has had a long-standing affinity with the music that characterises this poetically titled Atlantic arc.

“Several years ago I had the privilege of travelling from one Celtic country to another in relatively quick succession,” says Lunny. “I went up to Skye, to the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales, Brittany and Galicia, and I realised that in each place, people were very similar. It was an eye-opener for me that there was a kindred spirit that existed in all these countries. So in a way, we’re an embodiment of that. Just by being together, we carry the same thing. So even though we don’t represent each country, we each have the musical identity that the countries share.”

There’s an ease between these musicians that belies their musical distance, and that reinforces the principle that Lunny outlines. Scottish fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke jokes that Lunny has recorded all the traditional tunes that there are, so the band were left with no choice but to write some new ones. For his part, Lunny figures that Aidan has written at least 365 tunes over the past year, but if he has, O’Rourke figures that there are only two or three decent ones there.

For Lunny it’s the adventure that fires his enthusiasm for this latest project.

“There’s a certain amount of excitement and trepidation, looking forward to what we’ll be able to do when we do get together and rehearse. There’s an unknown quantity there, too, that gives us all an edge.”

O’Rourke, who’s a composer and member of Lau, has clocked up many road miles on his own trajectory, but Atlantic Arc is opening up a whole new world of possibilities.

“What’s really exciting for me is bringing all the new material to the band, with everyone contributing and then listening to what Dónal would do to that,” he says. “To experience Dónal’s framework that he puts around the music: that’s really exciting for someone like me, who’s listened to Dónal’s music for 40 years – all my life. So witnessing the Lunny slant that he brings to the music was really exciting to experience at first hand.”

Big band

Pauline Scanlon is a west Kerry singer whose solo career and collaboration with Éilís Ní Cinnéide in Lumière primed her for this latest foray into a much bigger ensemble than she has ever worked with before. Though she does have the joy of sharing vocals with Jarlath Henderson, who also plays pipes.

“It’s been unusual for me,” she says. “Although I’ve been singing in the context of traditional music for 20 years, I’d never really done the big band thing, where there are tunes as well. I’ve always actively avoided it, actually. I love that there’s another singer as well. In my own life, I very seldom go to gigs that don’t have harmony, so with Jarlath there, it makes it very interesting for me. It’s amazing because everybody is so sensitive to the material and it’s not cliched in the approach, where you start with a big burst of low whistles and then another burst of them in the middle and so on. That can be very trite. And melodically, the embellishments are unusual and creative and arty. even.”

Finding the right songs for this collective is a new adventure. “It’s a challenging outfit to select songs for,” says Scanlon. “Songs that can be dismantled and ‘remantled’ with a groove, time signatures and tempo and even content, lyrically, I have a penchant for darker songs and slow songs. So it can be a challenge to find the right songs. You have a few markers to hit and it’s an ongoing process.”

Pádraig Rynne is a Clare concertina player and composer who thoroughly enjoys working at intersections, where musical boundaries are gloriously blurred. His band Notify were signed to Ropeadope Records, a label more associated with jazz and alternative sounds than Irish traditional music. Like Lunny, he loves the quest: not knowing where the destination might be.

“I’ve worked with most of the members of the band over the years, so it’s quite nostalgic to work with them all together,” says Rynne. “I find it very different to any other band that I’ve worked with. There’s never a forcefulness. It’s always coaxing your creativity out, which isn’t always the case with a lot of singers and musicians. It’s a great quality and the creativity is so simple because of that.”

As they prepare for their album recording, whenever restrictions and finances allow, Lunny balances the elements of this collaboration that flow with those that take more energy to steward.

“I look at it as a democracy,” he says, “and everybody contributes something. But there’s no denying that it’s difficult to manage what we can do between us right now. Zoom is great up to a point, but musically it’s through a keyhole. And yet even through Zoom, I’m reminded of what we have between us. A little magic happens and it all lights up again.”

Atlantic Arc's Kickstarter campaign is on


Sunday, November 21st, at the National Opera House in Wexford
Sunday, January 16th, 2022, at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway
Sunday, February 6th, at Visual Theatre in Carlow
Sunday,March 13th, at Glór Theatre, Ennis