How Music Works: Irish-language music moves to the future
Tomaí Ó Conghaile, who organises the Gradaim Cheoil NÓS, talks to Niall Byrne about bringing Irish-language musical talent to the wider world
Shannon Bryan from Portarlington with the Coláiste Lurgan choir. The group’s as-gaeilge cover of Adele’s Hello has racked up more than a half a million Youtube views
In the summer of 1996, rock band Ash’s single Oh Yeah was at the height of its popularity. It peaked at number six in the UK charts (number 14 in Ireland) and stuck around the charts for another 11 weeks.
When students returned from the Gaeltacht that summer, the song was given another lease of life, via an Irish-language version that was learned during summer college and passed around by word of mouth.
Tomaí Ó Conghaile, editor of the Irish-language online magazine NÓS says that there was a marked increase in music ‘as Gaeilge’ of all genres in the past 20 years and notes that a 2005 CD for Seachtain na Gaeilge that year called SnaG 05 featured Irish language versions of pop songs by artists like The Frames, The Corrs, Paddy Casey and Mundy helped. Its success that year prompted followup compilations which in 2011 were then given away to the public with the Irish Daily Star.
“I think the strength of Irish language music mirrors where the language itself is at the minute,” says Ó Conghaile. “The Irish language world is almost like an underground scene, especially in the larger cities, but’s it’s growing day by day as more young people begin to take ownership of their language and use it on a daily basis. As this increases we’ll see that reflected in the music scene.”
Youtube helped spread the word
While he notes that there was always non-traditional Irish-speaking music knocking around (1980s rock band Na Fíréin and ‘90s reggae band Bréag are mentioned), the advent of Youtube allowed the Irish-language versions of English songs to be shared much further than before with the likes of Coláiste Lurgan having received 24 million views of their covers since 2010.
Ó Conghaile suggests a number of other factors have contributed to the variation of Irish language music: the increased attendance at Gaelscoileanna, a new network of Irish language events (An Cabaret Craiceáilte, An G-Spota) the increase in the marks awarded to the oral test in the Junior and Leaving Certs and talent contests like Gael Linn’s Scléip have given young people more reasons to speak and compose with the language.
“It’s a cultural statement that the language, and linguistic diversity in general, has value and a future in today’s world – that’s what makes it special for many people,” says Ó Conghaile.
There has been more support in the media beyond TG4 to with shows on the airwaves on Dublin’s Raidió na Life, Belfast’s Raidió Fáilte and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta supporting contemporary Irish music.
“Last year 2FM announced that Irish language tracks would be included in their playlist for the first time, which was quite a coup and should bring the language to a wider audience,” suggests Ó Conghaile.
A contemporary music awards for the language
Having set up NÓS in 2008, Ó Conghaile decided last year that he would do his bit too and so he set up Gradaim Cheoil NÓS / The NÓS Music Awards to recognise musicians of all-genres singing in the Irish language.
The first awards show took place in The Sugar Club last January and featured live sets from musicians of all stripes: Dublin experimental band IMLÉ, singer-songwriter Laura Ní Chasaide, Connemara rockers Rís and Monaghan six-piece indie-rock band Dysania.
Awards were given out for song, album, freshers, band and video of the year among others with the winners including Eve Belle, Kila, Coláiste Lurgan, Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde and Seo Linn.
“I think everybody sensed that something new had just taken place in Irish language music,” says Tomaí, who vowed to bring them back for 2017.
The failure of Ravelóid
While Gradaim Cheoil NÓS was a success in its first year, not all Irish-language events are so lucky. Last year, the high-profile Irish language festival Ravelóid was cancelled due to a change of location, increased costs and stalled sales. A number of free events in Dublin city centre took place instead.
Ó Conghaile was the organiser of the festival but while it didn’t work out in 2016, he’s confident the time for a 5,000-capacity Irish-language festival will come.
“As the language itself grows I’m confident we’ll see Ravelóid, or a similar summer festival, take place over the years ahead,” he maintains, pointing to a spontaneous outdoor festival, Féile na Gealaí, that took place in Meath’s Ráth Chairn Gaeltacht once it was announced that Ravelóid was cancelled as well as existing festivals Liú Lúnasa in Belfast, Féile na Bealtaine in Dingle,Traidphicnic in Connemara and Irish language stages at Electric Picnic and Swell as hope for the future.
While the possibility of more music as Gaeilge should be encouraged, Ó Conghaile admits that the acts that do will have to “push the boat” out to get noticed outside the scene and get to the point where they can make a living as a musician.
Tomaí suggests a bilingual band is a strength in Europe citing IMLE’s recent trip to play a festival in Italy and that there are slots for bands in places with a strong language of their own like Wales and the Basque country.
“At the end of the day music is universal and it can transcend any language barrier,” he says.
Beyond that though, Ó Conghaile wants more original music sung in Irish so it can thrive.
“That’s one of the reasons we started the awards, not only to acknowledge what’s already out there but to encourage other musicians to compose and perform in Irish. Irish-language music may always be a niche but it’s a wild, colourful and growing niche. I’m quite upbeat about where contemporary music in Ireland’s indigenous tongue is going to go over the years ahead.”