Ian Lynch of Lankum’s astounding archive of traditional music

Podcast review: Fire Draw Near’s host Ian Lynch drops knowledge with ease

It’s not every day you discover an Irish podcast through a name drop in the New York Times. But that’s what happened me with Fire Draw Near, which recently got a mention in a longer piece about what the paper described as a “fresh wave of Irish music”. Fire Draw Near’s host Ian Lynch was quoted therein as a member of the group Lankum, and the podcast was described as “fascinating and often very funny”.

The Grey Lady wasn’t wrong. Now more than 40 monthly episodes in, Fire Draw Near has amassed an astounding archive of traditional Irish music stretching back centuries and over continents. The episodes serve as part old-school music hour, part scholarly exploration, with Lynch as the charming DJ professor. Lynch, who has lectured in UCD and also guest lectured at Baltimore’s prestigious Johns’s Hopkins University, drops knowledge with ease: So much is imparted about the origins of a particular instrument (ancient Hittite pipes, anyone?), the evolution of a familiar melody, or the connections between non-lexical singing in cultures across the world. Yet Fire Draw Near never comes across as didactic or stodgy.

And how can it, with so many lyrical gems in play, so many bawdy ballads and chuckling raconteurs with thick accents and creaky voices? From saucy jades to stolen maidenheads to boys of all persuasions – apprentice, butcher, brown-haired, cabin, etc – the songs featured are vivid and filled with lyrical delights. There is darkness here too, with ropes swinging and graves being dug at a fierce rate, but Lynch keeps the pace, and working to that effect are strong and crackly recordings from the early 20th century giving way to contemporary balladeers.

Lynch has found all manner of obscure recordings to play alongside songs from his uncle, his own band, or other contemporary musicians. Sometimes he’ll follow a song down its own particular rabbit hole, how it evolved from one version to the next, how the storytelling has evolved through each. Was that verse added to give motivation to a song’s protagonist? Was this added to localise the lyrics?


He also brings a particular sonic sensibility, pointing up the threads between one melody or another, the drone in this track, the distortion in that. His passion for his subject is infectious, his introductions eloquent and winning. There’s a tune “that makes old men weep and mutter ‘good man, lovely’ to themselves”, while another is “just deadly”.

Fire Draw Near is a trove of musical treasures and curious musical connections: Where else, after all, will you find Brendan Behan rubbing shoulders with the Beatles or Busta Rhymes? It’s not all easy listening – tunes played on 3,000-year-old horns may be an acquired taste – but Fire Draw Near is rich and expansive, and a brilliant education in traditional Irish music’s wild and raucous evolution, its borrowings and legacies, and its thriving contemporary forms.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast