Tradition Now: Place, home and identity explored through music at the NCH

After over a year of lockdown, musicians are set for two days of live-streamed concerts

Sisters Michelle and Louise Mucahy: “It’s such a tough time for artists, but one of the beautiful things that has happened is that it has given them time with their craft.” Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Sisters Michelle and Louise Mucahy: “It’s such a tough time for artists, but one of the beautiful things that has happened is that it has given them time with their craft.” Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

 

As the prospect of a return to live performances in front of living, breathing audiences inches closer to reality, the National Concert Hall is keeping our whistles wetted with a weekend of concerts in their Tradition Now series, now in its seventh year. The relationship between traditional music performance and this stately setting is open to debate, with some punters savouring its formality, while others tap their toes uncomfortably from the confines of their seats, quelling their natural instincts to get up and dance to this often effervescent music. But there’s no doubting the crucial role that the Concert Hall has played in supporting live performance across all genres throughout the pandemic, with so many concerts offering not just paid work to artists, but documenting in music and performance a unique time in all our lives.

Steve Cooney, Louise and Michelle Mulcahy, Daoirí Farrell, John Spillane, Varo and special guests will perform in eight live-streamed concerts over the two-day event on June 19th and 20th. This year, Tradition Now is exploring themes of place, home and identity through music.

 Michelle and Louise Mulcahy have earned their stripes over a lifetime of playing an eye-watering selection of instruments. Michelle is a harpist but also a fiddle, accordion and concertina player, while Louise is a piper who also plays flute and whistle. Growing up in west Limerick, their father, Mick Mulcahy is a powerhouse of the tradition, his accordion playing an object lesson in immersion in the spirited style of Sliabh Luachra and west Limerick.

Both musicians have been busy during the pandemic, and have recently performed with Mick at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair.

“We didn’t see one another since before Christmas,” Michelle explains, “but we were still working on a body of new material, so we’re looking forward to coming together and performing that in June. There’s been great creativity going on even though we’ve been separated. My dad has been composing, so there’s been a lot going on behind the scenes.”

Both Michelle and Louise have undertaken multiple projects which have ensured that they didn’t come to a grinding halt, creatively, during the pandemic.

Archives and legacy

“We’ve been so fortunate that there have been so many aspects of the music available to us,” Louise notes. “From research work to performing to filming a new documentary, we’ve had so many opportunities in different areas of the tradition. Recently, for the Irish Traditional Music Archive I curated a half-hour film on Liam O’Flynn’s archives, and on his legacy. I’ve also just finished filming a documentary with TG4 on women in piping. Dad has been composing and sending us new tunes, so while we haven’t been in the same room, there’s been so many things going on.”

The benefits of slowing down have not been lost on Michelle either.

“From the artist’s point of view, having time is so valuable, and it’s something we just wouldn’t have had going back over the years,” she says. “It’s such a tough time for artists, but one of the beautiful things that has happened is that it has given them time with their craft, to research, to explore new music and new arrangements, and for me, it gave me the opportunity to work on a new solo harp album which I hope to release in the autumn. It’s exploring music from the 1700s from the Gaeltacht, from Ring and Cúl Aodha regions, delving into sean nós and my own love of the dance tradition as well as some new compositions. So I’ve found it a lovely time to immerse myself in all that.”

Daoirí Farrell: His hunger for musical exploration had free reign during the lockdown. Photograph: Desmond Farrell
Daoirí Farrell: His hunger for musical exploration had free reign during the lockdown. Photograph: Desmond Farrell

Clearly the theme of identity and place are threaded through both Mulcahy sisters’ music. Michelle’s doctoral research focused on the symbol of the harp in Ireland but also in Myanmar.

Louise has recently been the recipient of the Markievicz Award, an Arts Council bursary that supports artists to develop new work that reflects on the role of women in the period covered by the decade of centenaries 2012–2023 and beyond. She’s the first traditional musician to receive it.

Reflection and creativity

“It allows me a period of artistic reflection and creativity over the next 12 months,” Louise offers, “so I’m hoping to write a book on women in piping, tracing it right back to the 19th century. I’ve been researching this, trying to create a larger picture of the piping tradition, to broaden our knowledge base of the women who were involved down through the years. It’s been a really personal journey. We’re both really passionate about the research as well as the music.”

With both pipes and harp now inscribed by Unesco on their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, in recognition of their unique place in Irish music and cultural life, Louise and Michelle are exemplars of a tradition that places a high value on understanding the history of the tunes, the musicians and the journeys taken by both. History played another central role in Louise’s life as she was honoured to be given Liam O’Flynn’s flat set of pipes, following his untimely passing.

“It has been an incredible honour to receive those pipes from Na Píobairi Uilleann,” she acknowledges. “They’re a magical set of pipes. There’s such a beautiful, sweet sound from them, and they really move me to another realm when I play them. I remember when I first strapped them on, it was incredibly moving. Having Liam’s set of pipes inspires me musically every day. Throughout the lockdown they’ve really brought me great joy in music. He was such an incredible musician. Thinking of his legacy, he had such great vision to give his pipes to Na Píobairí Uilleann, to ensure they would be played for the future.”

Daoirí Farrell is a singer and bouzouki player who has often been compared favourably to Luke Kelly, such is his open, declamatory singing style. Drawing on the late Liam Weldon for inspiration, Farrell’s hunger for musical exploration has been given free reign during the lockdown, when he found himself with more time on his hands than he’d had in many years.

‘Dark days’

“Anything musical that’s happened over the last year has been wonderful,” Daoirí says with a wide smile. He was one of the first artists to take to live performance on Facebook during the dark days of spring 2020. “The Covid Corner sessions started out of boredom and just grew. I really looked forward to that on a Sunday night and did it for 25 weeks. A lot of thinking went into it.”

Michelle Mulcahy’s doctoral research focused on the symbol of the harp in Ireland but also in Myanmar.
Michelle Mulcahy’s doctoral research focused on the symbol of the harp in Ireland but also in Myanmar.

Daoirí’s been busy working on a new album too, with Lunasa’s Trevor Hutchinson on production duties. It’s been crucial to his ability to retain his sense of self in what has been a void for so many artists.

“This time round I’m arranging the songs myself,” he says. “When I was able to get into the studio, I really enjoyed it, because I began to see myself again. It was just me and these tracks and I loved them.”

While the enforced halt was initially a shock, it’s proven hugely valuable to Farrell. He’s begun teaching bouzouki online, and he’s also become a father for the first time.

“It’s been incredibly busy over the last five years, so this year was a perfect opportunity for me to start working with new songs, and really giving them the headspace they needed,” he says. “My concerts are going to be better because of the sound I’ve worked on. A good mic really brings out the sound of the instrument and the timbers of the woods. I’d also like to video document the tour, and so I’ve spent some time studying that. And a really important thing for me was spending time with family.”

This enforced period of reflection has had its challenges but the upsides certainly aren’t lost on either Daoirí Farrell or the Mulcahy sisters.

“I think the last 16 months have highlighted even more how much we love that family connection”, Louse says, “and how much we love being in one another’s company, performing together and how we value being part of a tradition that spans centuries. We are coming out of this thinking how fortunate we are that we can connect in that way. There’s something very profound about the Irish tradition and we’re so proud to be part of that.”

Tradition Now takes place in the NCH on June 19th and 20th. See nch.ie for full details

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.