Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh reinvents Ireland’s biggest songs

The Kerry singer’s new record melds traditional songs and orchestral arrangements

Big songs are the backbone of our tradition. Songs that have survived centuries of upheaval, resonating as much today as they did when they were first written. The past two years have left their mark on us all, but for some musicians they have heralded a creative impetus that’s a boon for listeners hungry for a fresh perspective on familiar sounds.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is a singer from west Kerry who has had a long track record of producing finely tempered albums, as well as enjoying a successful broadcasting career on both television and radio. She toured the world as a member of Danú, and her song repertoire is as wide as it is deep.

She releases Róisín Reimagined this month, a richly textured collection of sean nós songs, mostly from Munster, with Irish Chamber Orchestra, produced by Dónal O'Connor. Six composers were commissioned to arrange our most iconic songs for Nic Amhlaoibh, including Linda Buckley, Sam Perkin and Cormac McCarthy. It's a gargantuan undertaking that has resulted in a balm of a collection emerging from the pandemic.

“Initially it grew out of lockdown and having to stop everything that I had been doing up to then,” says Nic Amhlaoibh. “It seemed like the time to try something new. It was about looking to the future rather than wallowing in the misery of lockdown, and having something hopeful to look forward to. Initially we spoke about working with a string quartet and a piano, but of course [producer] Donal O’Connor tends to take ideas and expand upon them, times a million. The idea of working with six fantastic contemporary Irish arrangers was really exciting because it was a chance to bring in new colours, and what they’ve added to the songs just opened everything out so much more.”

Epic project

Donal O’Connor is a bit of a renaissance man: a fiddle player, TV producer, presenter and co-founder of Táin Media. He was the driving force behind this epic project.

“We dreamt it up in July 2020,” he says. “The idea was to bring the big sean nós songs, particularly the ones from Munster, into a contemporary realm with orchestrations from a younger generation of Irish arrangers. And it took off from there.”

O’Connor knew that Nic Amhlaoibh was ready for such a daunting challenge.

“I was keen just to see if we could gather up a body of work and think about what songs could handle arrangements of such scale,” he says. “I’ve always thought that Muireann has a voice that can handle such arrangements. She has incredible capacity, strength and tenderness. She’s got the full range. Sometimes a singer can be swamped in that bigger sound, but I knew that her voice could handle it.”

Composer and arranger Cormac McCarthy was invited to tackle the iconic Sliabh Geal gCua. A musician with a keen jazz sensibility, he has carved a reputation as an artist who’s as much at home in jazz and Irish traditional settings, and he knows how to bring the best of both to bear on his compositional work. He’s also a lecturer in the Cork School of Music, where he’s been aptly described by one of his students as “genre fluid”.

" Beethoven took folk songs and arranged them but noted them as compositions, and throughout the history of classical music, that's been done"

"I always go to the lyric first of all, and understand what the song is about", says McCarthy, echoing the oft-noted advice of piper Seamus Ennis. "Sliabh Geal gCua is about landscape and paints a picture, so it allowed itself to be quite broad in its colour. Lyrics definitely inform the arrangements, no question about that."

McCarthy sees his role as being part of a long line of composers who embraced the riches of the folk traditions around them.

"People make this distinction between an arranger and a composer, but there's very little difference between what I would have done in Sliabh Geal gCua and my other compositional projects", he says. "Beethoven took folk songs and arranged them but noted them as compositions, and throughout the history of classical music, that's been done. A composer will take folk tunes and create a larger work or manipulate it in such a way that it's considered a composition. And I think that's basically what has happened here."

Press reset

For Nic Amhlaoibh, Róisín Reimagined allowed her to press the reset button on many songs she had been singing for years, including Slán le Máigh and, of course, Róisín Dubh.

“It was like getting to know them again,” she says. “There are always new things to learn and appreciate every time you sing a song, but even more so when you’re working with an orchestra, composers and soloists. It was like meeting the song for the first time again, so there were elements that I was comfortable with and elements that were really challenging, which is what I wanted. I’m really interested in pushing myself vocally and artistically, and not producing similar-sounding work time after time. I think at this point in my life and my career, I’m really lucky to know some really talented people, and having access to that incredible quality of talent elevated the whole project.”

O’Connor was acutely aware of the pitfalls of melding Irish traditional songs with orchestral arrangements. He was determined not to let the slightest hint of tweeness or cheesiness enter the fray. But Nic Amhlaoibh’s capacity to inhabit a song was at the heart of this visionary collaboration.

“Muireann sang Róisín Dubh on the Sean O’Rourke show during lockdown when the country was in trauma and the world was in a state of paralysis,” says O’Connor. “The stillness of that, live on Radio 1, really affected people. And listeners’ reaction really affected us. That was one of the accelerators in thinking about what songs we should take on. Some of these songs bear witness to the trauma Gaelic Ireland went through, the sense of siege that our culture has been through. But these songs survived all of that and now exist in a contemporary space with contemporary musicians: it’s an incredible thing. They’re the high art of their time.”

Róisín Reimagined is out now,