Ancient Irish without the new age

Issue 

The Seven Steps to Mercy
Iarla O Lionaird
Real World Records through Festival

Review by Barry Healy

One of oldest forms of Irish singing is the sean nos (literally "in the old style"), which has severely declined since the great English invasions began. Sung unaccompanied by the solo voice, it is said to be too difficult for the modern listener to appreciate since it communicates its beauty through very subtle changes in tempo, timbre and stress as the singer interprets each verse of a song.

Enya has made her fortune by softening the edges of the form, adding washes of music and singing as if floating on a cloud. Iarla O Lionaird is another moderniser of the form, but his is a different approach, perhaps closer to the original, certainly less new age than Enya's.

Across a lightly textured background provided by a small collection of drones, cello, pipes and the occasional drum, O Lionaird brings to life some of the magic of Irish spirituality.

Singing entirely in Gaelic, the Cork-born singer reaches back past the great tragedies of Ireland — the forced emigration, failed rebellions — to touch on the legends of the mythical Fianna Eireann warriors, mysteries of place and the cycles of season and human change.

Not all the lyrics are translated, which is a pity, because some of those that are catch at the throat. One, Caoineadh na dTri Mhuire (Lament at Calvary), surely sums up the suffering of all mothers who have lost children:
"And is this the little boy
Whom I carried for three seasons?
Alas, alas, alas and woe.
My tender child
How torn your mouth
And how your little nose is broken
Alas, alas, alas and woe.

All this without any of Enya's pretensions, an achievement indeed!