There is no shortage of good music coming out of Ireland these days, and Belfast seems to be producing more than its fair share. The session scene there appears to be alive and well, and the discerning visitor can find good traditional sessions in various bars across the city without having to look too far.
Pubs like Maddens, The Duke Of York and Kelly’s Cellars are regular haunts for session goers, and there, in the corners of darkened rooms, you will find musicians who have graced the stages of some of the best concert venues across the world, sitting happily with a pint of the black stuff and their instruments in their hands, playing into the wee small hours. In the midst of them you will find the members of At First Light – John McSherry, Dónal O’Connor and Francis McIlduff, who are making a name for themselves amongst the greats of Irish music, and yet who are as at home in the sessions of Belfast as anywhere. The session scene here is obviously an integral part of their story; indeed it is how they all met.
“Francis and I grew up together in Belfast,” says John, “playing in the many sessions around town and further afield. We even had our own band, Piping Hot Inc. way back in the early nineties. Francis then moved to England for a few years playing with bands like Alias Ron Kavana, and I stayed in Ireland and played with bands such as Tamalin, Lunasa and Coolfin. Francis moved back again to Belfast around 12 years ago and that’s when we both met Dónal for the first time. He had just started studying in Queens University and was playing with his family band Lá Lugh. I had just released an album with Michael McGoldrick called At First Light and Dónal joined myself and Michael on tour to promote the album. When Michael moved on to work on his own projects we were delighted that Francis was able to join us. And the three of us have been making music together ever since.”
Since that first At First Light album, there have been various comings and goings in terms of personnel and the band appear to have a fluid nature, but John, Dónal and Francis have remained at the core. In 2006 Tripswitch was released, billed as a John McSherry and Dónal O’Connor album, but with Francis also featuring strongly, along with Tony Byrne, Ruben Bada and Paul McSherry. Then in August 2011 Idir (translated as between and among) came along, and this, their latest album is truly a masterpiece.
At First Light’s musical journey has seen them working collaboratively with many other musicians from near and far, and perhaps this is partly what gives them their unique sound - traditionally Irish and yet tinted with the shades of so many other cultures and experiences. On their albums, jigs and reels sit easily side by side with Castilian dance tunes, muñeiras, and voltas, in a mix that really works. “Yeah,” says Dónal, “well we love to listen to and play music from the other Celtic nations and beyond. We don’t feel any pressure to stay true to our Irishness. We are Irish, we live in Ireland, we speak Irish and we play, for the most part, traditional Irish music. However we don’t feel bound by or caged in by Irish traditional music. Since day one, Irish traditional music and musicians have been influenced by other traditions, and the positive influences of these ‘outside’ cultures have been absorbed and remain part of our tradition today. We are extremely fortunate to travel to other countries and spend time in the company of other musicians and share and exchange tunes and songs. Hopefully we will continue to try new things, some of which will work and some which won’t.”
As well as looking outside their own tradition, the members of At First Light recognise the influence of their immediate families on their music - all three families are steeped in the traditional music of Ulster.
John grew up in West Belfast in a household that was filled with music and learned to play the pipes from an early age. “My dad played piano and my mum was always singing. There were four of us kids altogether, and we all started playing the whistle at the same time. It wasn’t long before we diversified onto our different instruments and when I was thirteen, I found myself in a band and doing gigs with the others. We played for years as The McSherrys, touring all around Ireland and Europe. We changed the band name to Tamalin later on and recorded our only album Rhythm & Rhyme in 1996. The rest of my siblings then went off on their own musical journeys – Tiona with The Wildflowers and Si Van, and Paul with Guidewires and countless other ventures.” John has become one of the finest uilleann pipers on the scene today and has worked with many high profile bands.
Dónal, the band’s fiddle and keyboard player, has a similar story. “I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by traditional music and song from a very young age. My father, Gerry O’Connor, plays fiddle and was a member of the bands Skylark and Kinvara, and my mother Eithne NíUallacháin was a singer and flute player. They formed the group Lá Lugh and I toured with them round Europe from the age of 16. My aunt, Padraigín NíUallacháin, and uncle, Len Graham, are highly respected traditional singers. I was taught the fiddle mostly by my grandmother Rose O’Connor who taught hundreds of children in the North east and she supplied the Siamsa and John Joe Gardiner Ceilí Bands with fiddlers. So, it wasn’t long before I was competing in All Ireland competitions with the Ceilí Bands and I learned a lot from these experiences. My aunt, Eilish O’Connor, and uncle, Peter O’Connor, are also fiddlers and my sister Siubhán and brothers Feilimí and Finnian also play traditional music. Family events are great craic altogether.”
Francis is one of the legendary McPeake family from Belfast, and like the others was exposed to traditional Irish music from an early age. He debuted with the family band Clann McPeake, and since then has gone to play in a variety of outfits including the aforementioned Alias Ron Kavana, Afterhours and Sin É. The flair for piping running through his family has certainly not passed him by, and the “double pipes” sound that he and John create together helps give At First Light their trademark sound. Francis also plays whistles, bodhrán and other percussion.
With such musical pedigrees, it is hardly surprising that At First Light are producing such unique and innovative arrangements. There’s a real raw power when the two pipes are taking the lead in a tune, and they feature double fiddles at times too. There also seems to be a kind of telepathic understanding of what each other is doing, perhaps born of years of playing together in the sessions. “I think we have a pretty good understanding between us of what we like and perhaps more importantly, what we don’t like,” remarks Dónal, “so we don’t waste much time building arrangements. I suppose we’re pretty tight because we’ve all learned each other’s mistakes inside out by now! We have also been pretty fortunate to be able to bounce ideas off some great string players such as Paul McSherry, Ruben Bada, Tony Byrne and Michael McCague over the years.”
John adds: “We all bring something to the table. We pretty much put the sets together before we go into the recording studio – it’s good to be prepared that way. Then when we’re in the studio, the arrangements build and build.”
One of the highlights of the recent CD, Idir, is the Finbar Furey air Roy’s Hands, written for his friend Roy Williamson. The arrangement of this beautiful tune is stripped right back and features two sets of pipes, and it is outstanding. I heard At First Light play this live a while back, and it was one of those moments that don’t come along too often where the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, and I knew I had just witnessed something special. John told me: “Francis and I got this tune from the playing of Finbar Furey many years ago. Our version is now totally different from his. The interweaving between the pipes is something we developed in the many sessions we played together over the years. It kind of grew into its own thing and is almost a different tune now from Finbar’s.” On the CD, the track runs neatly into The Pipers Of Roguery which John wrote “for all the roguish pipers out there.” Well, he would know!
In recent times, the band’s line-up has evolved yet again, and whilst different guitar and bouzouki players come and go, one of the most noticeable changes is the introduction of singer and fiddle player Ciara McCrickard from Castlewellan in County Down. Ciara is a fine singer, and adds a completely new dimension to the band and its repertoire. Some might think this a brave move – to change the formula of something that is already working so well. But Dónal is full of praise for the new addition. “John, Francis and I come from backgrounds where singing was of great importance and we were really taken with Ciara McCrickard’s voice when we first heard her sing. She’s learned at the feet of many of the great Ulster singers and she’s one of a group of young singers bringing this rich and vibrant tradition forward with great integrity whilst breathing new life into it at the same time.” Ciara sings two songs on Idir, including a lovely version of Courting Is A Pleasure, and for me, this addition has further strengthened what was already a winning formula. The introduction of another fiddler is also a bonus, and as John says, “when Dónal and Ciara get together on a tune, sparks fly!”
At First Light have been actively promoting their latest release, having recently toured in France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia and Scotland. In addition, they have just completed a run of gigs in the North of Ireland where they have also been teaching in workshops on their respective instruments. They are already gathering material for their next album and all have other projects on the go too.
“Yes,” says John, “we’re all doing things outside of the band. I released my solo album Soma two years ago with Compass Records and I have a new project happening called The Olllam. It’s an album on the rockier side with ace muso’s Tyler Duncan and Michael Shimmin from the States. It was released a few months ago, also on Compass.”
Francis is completing his long-awaited solo album, which is sure to be another exciting release. And Dónal is also busy. “I have recently set up a recording studio in Belfast and have been busy recording and producing artists such as Grainne Holland, Padraigín NíUallacháin, Jim Rainey, Oriallia (Gerry O’Connor, Martin Quinn, Nuala Kennedy & Gilles LeBigot) and I recently mixed an album for a great new Belfast band – Réalta. I am also doing some gigs with a new project called Nasc featuring superb Gaelic vocalists Maeve McKinnon & Grainne Holland, cellist Neil Martin and guitarist Ross Martin.”
In days such as this where CD releases are sometimes all too frequent, it is refreshing to find a band that are doing something well, something they have done together for years, and something they have worked hard to develop. Dónal comments: “Because record sales are down, recording budgets are also down and with this comes the danger that the quality will suffer. I think most people are pretty fed up hearing the same material regurgitated over and over again. I think people should make records when they feel that they have something important to say.”
And these boys most definitely have something to say! This music didn’t just appear. It was born out of an apprenticeship playing in sessions together, out of time spent learning their art, and honing it till it is ready to shine. And shine it does.
By Fiona Heywood
Buy At First Light - Idir - from The Listening Post