Steve Cooney: Ceol Ársa Cláirsí review – A glorious celebration of an ancient heritage

Fri, Jan 24, 2020, 05:00

A glorious celebration of a heritage  

Ceol Ársa Cláirsí:Tunes of the Irish Harpers for solo guitar

Steve Cooney

Independent Release


Transposing tunes composed specifically for the harp to the modest six-string guitar is an endeavour suited only to a musician with a penchant for perfection; more particularly, when those tunes were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and are the backbone of our much-envied bespoke harp repertoire.

Steve Cooney has set himself this challenge – and risen to it with ease, and in the process, he’s conjured what amounts to a collection of finely honed miniatures, most of which clock in at less than 3½ minutes.

These tunes were collected by Edward Bunting in the late 18th century, and Cooney mines the collection with academic precision, so that he understands the seed, breed and generation of each sublime melody. The delicacy of his arrangements serve not only the well-known cornerstones of our harp repertoire – Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin’s Tabhair dom do lámh and O’Carolan’s Sí Beag Sí Mór – but insinuate their way into the DNA of the widely loved An Cúilfhoinn. Here, he presents two intriguing variations, one from the Kerry harper Con Lyons and the second from the surprising source of the late Donegal fiddler John Doherty.

Steve Cooney. Photograph: Con Kelleher
Steve Cooney. Photograph: Con Kelleher

Cooney has traced a long and picaresque musical path, one which has embraced rock, reggae and Australian Aboriginal music before he made his intimate acquaintance with the Irish tradition. Much like his predecessor, Arty McGlynn, whose seminal 1979 album, McGlynn’s Fancy, was the first album of Irish tunes played on guitar, Cooney wraps his head and heart around these tunes, so that they shimmer in their newfound, sparse environs of the six-stringed guitar.

Among an array of gemstones two melodies stand out: Eleanor Plunkett (with a timely cap-doffing to the late Micheál Ó Suilleabháin who created a masterful interpretation of the same tune), and Caidé Sin Don Té Sin, which Cooney intriguingly describes as a light-hearted defence of a hedonistic lifestyle. And you thought harp tunes were all politely buttoned up.

The final tune, Miss Hamilton, is a filigree delight, with Cooney’s arrangements illuminating its shape with immense grace and elegance, and in the process, its tone surprisingly calls to mind jazz bassist Charlie Haden’s Spiritual.

A glorious celebration of a heritage that stretches back a millennium, and a timely reimagining of tunes which are likely to tip toe their way into the repertoire of many other guitarists and six-string players – at home and away.