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Clo Iar Chonnacht CICD203

Seosamh Ó Flaithearta is a native of Coill Saile, Carna, in Connemara in Galway’s Gaeltacht, who comes from a musical family and is an organist, church choir member and an ex-soldier who served in Lebanon, and who has recently completed a BA and Music Dip Ed (music diploma in education) as a mature student. His voice is that of the Irish tenor variety and he inhabits an area seldom explored in Gaelic song - that of melding the traditional sean-nós and art song repertoires. Accompanied by pianist Tom Cullivan, they embark on Classic Songs, a collection of classic Irish sean-nós ballads and modern translations of popular art song standards and familiar songs in English.

For a long time, I shied away from listening to this collection - the worst fears of the Irish tenor versed in Art Song and Opera techniques, struggling with the nuances of sean-nós singing, coupled with a piano accompaniment that locked in the song’s natural flow, filled me with dread. So eventually succumbing to listen, I was in effect gobsmacked with the opening track, An Casaideach Bán, where a rich tenor voice with the characteristic Connemara rawness pulled off an epic sean-nós ballad to a subdued almost lo-fi piano accompaniment. This sounded most promising, and similar minimalist takes on Úna Bhán, An Draighneán Donn and An Buinneán Buí, for example, yielded further tantalising examples of classic ballads given fresh new interpretations; their lyrical power intact, only backed by a solitary and unobtrusive piano backing. Here I was reminded of the glory days of Seán Ó Sé and Seán Ó Riada’s 1960s revolutionary combinations, a place rarely visited nowadays.

While sean-nós songs constitute half of the album’s contents, for these ears they contain the solid gold. In other places, it drifts into Kenneth McKellar and Brendan O’Dowda popular tenor areas in Farewell To Lochaber and more quaint choices like The Claddagh Boatman and a peculiarly sullen take on Old Galway Bay. Gaelic translations of standards like Oíche Dhubh Dhuairc (better known as Deep Is The Night) and Suanmhar Sítheach (Brahms Lullaby) are initially interesting but their success may lie with Gaelic audiences better than those unfamiliar with the language.

Granted, while the song canvas is as wide as the title suggests, the contents may not be for everyone – art song ears might struggle with the ‘ethnic’ content and traditional ears may tolerate the ‘popular choices’ before skipping to the ‘meat and potatoes’ Gaelic classics. It is, nonetheless, a worthwhile and important social endeavour. In the Gaelic song world, it’s a vital new slant on a repertoire rich in meaning and emotional depths, mined with flair and technical expertise. For outside ears, the traditional Gaelic songs may be revelatory and the native translations of ‘standards’ interesting for their crossover from the concert hall and church repertoire to that of the Connemara Gaelic singer, as here. For that reason alone, this is a brave and daring move and a surprisingly diverse collection whose successes outweigh its shortcomings and it deserves one’s attention.

John O’Regan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 118 of The Living Tradition magazine.