Skara Brae: ‘Some people saw it as a desecration of the old songs’

Gael Linn is re-releasing the band’s groundbreaking album to mark 50th anniversary

Skara Brae were a four-piece band whose immense legacy belied an existence that was fleeting but iridescent. With just one album, recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, some 50 years ago, Maighread, Tríona and Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Dáithí Sproule lit a fire beneath a new kind of music that melded traditional, folk, contemporary pop and jazz influences with a fluency that took listeners by surprise. The album is now being re-released by Gael Linn in celebration of its groundbreaking arrangements and intricate harmonies.

Three of the four band members are in the finest of form as they recount the recording of their self-titled album – in one afternoon in the Marianella Hall in Rathgar. Micheál Ó Domhnaill, Tríona’s and Maighread’s brother, passed away in 2006.

“I remember a stereo pair of mics coming out of the ceiling,” recounts Maighread, smiling wryly at the sophistication of the entire endeavour, “and it was recorded on a reel-to-reel. We went in at 1pm and it was done and dusted by five or six that evening.”

I think we must have been nervous, but my biggest memory is that when we all sang together, it was a blend that was so strong, we didn't have any doubts about it

Skara Brae’s repertoire was eclectic and in a constant state of evolution. Anchored by the two guitars of Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Dáithí Sproule, it was distinguished by Tríona’s introduction of the clavinet, a portable keyboard that she had acquired just a week before the album was recorded. Maighread and Tríona’s close harmonies on a raft of lesser-known Donegal songs (including An Suantraí, whose lyrics were written by their father, Aodh Ó Domhnaill) were unmatched, then or since. At the time of recording, Maighread was a mere 15 years old, Tríona was 16 and Micheál and Dáithí were 19 and 20.

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“We had two guitars, a keyboard and four voices, with just two mics,” Sproule recalls. “I think we must have been nervous, but my biggest memory is that when we all sang together, it was a blend that was so strong, we didn’t have any doubts about it. We opened our mouths and were singing, and it worked.”

Long summers

Maighread and Tríona grew up in Kells, Co Meath but spent long summers in Ranafast in Co Donegal where their parents were from. Sproule, from Derry, spent much of his summers in Donegal too, and the four young musicians started playing and singing together informally from an early age. It was a heady time of exploration, with influences from near and far audible in their arrangements, but with Donegal at the beating heart of the band’s rich harmonies.

“Dáithí and Micheál were playing together a lot, as they were both in college in UCD,, Maighread recounts. “Tríona and myself played along on the side, for three summers before that. When the lads were at college, they would come down to Kells at the weekends. We’d have been singing together and daddy had lots of songs and songbooks that he offered us. It was those weekends in Kells where we started singing together and working out the arrangements.”

Our father had this fear that the songs would die, and that people were losing interest in them, and this was a way to seducing young people into listening to them again

Within a brief time of the release of their album, Skara Brae were supporting everyone from The Chieftains to Matthews Southern Comfort in the Cork Opera House. And hearing all manner of great music in Slattery’s on Capel Street. They were heady times.

Gael Linn’s chief executive, Antoine Ó Coileáin, has a particular fondness for Skara Brae’s solo debut.

"The album is considered one of the most important albums in its genre," he says. "Skara Brae brought the influence of pop and folk music to bear on traditional Irish songs, with arrangements influenced by The Beatles, Pentangle and Joni Mitchell. It's notable for its vocal harmonisation of songs in Irish, especially so in the singing of Maighread and Tríona."

Edgy arrangements

It’s tempting to assume that this landmark recording was met with universal acclaim, but at the time of its release there were some who viewed its edgy arrangements as a real and present danger to the future of traditional music.

“Some people saw it as a total desecration of the old songs,” Maighread offers with a smile as she recalls her 15-year-old self loving every minute of the band’s musical adventures. “Our father was telling us to take these songs and make our own of them. Our parents loved this music and loved that we were playing and singing. Our father had this fear that the songs would die, and that people were losing interest in them, and this was a way to seducing young people into listening to them again.”

Aodh Ó Domhnaill’s influence was key to the band’s groundbreaking sound, Tríona acknowledges.

I've been involved in some very polished music in the recording studio over the years but I think polish can be a kind of trap where you second-guess yourself

“He had such a love for the poetry in the songs and the music in the melodies,” she recalls. “He saw the beauty and the richness in it all and passed it on to us. I definitely didn’t want a nine-to-five or office job. It was my dream to become a musician, and I was listening to and soaking up all kinds of music so I was dreaming big. Later, when the opportunity came to join The Bothy Band, we all just took a chance and said: let’s go for it. There was no tomorrow.”

With Sproule moving to the US and joining Altan, and with Tríona and Maighread forging fine reputations as soloists, as a duo and, in Tríona’s case, in jazz-influenced bands Relativity and Nightnoise, their teenage dreams proved prescient.

“I’m not sure that anybody has done what we did, since then, with that balance of strong vocals and the repertoire,” Sproule suggests. “I’ve been involved in some very polished music in the recording studio over the years but I think polish can sometimes be a kind of trap where you second-guess yourself. Tríona says that we didn’t second-guess ourselves – you just do it. But I think that polishing everything is a kind of frightened approach to music. When we recorded this album, we had no choice but to do it that way. That rawness and lack of safety is a great way to work.”

Skara Brae is re-released on Gael Linn records