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Private Label COC001

Cathal is a multi-instrumentalist and singer from Gaoth Dobhair in Co Donegal. Until now, you may well have come across him lending his musical hand to outfits like The Friel Sisters, The Conifers and Aoife Scott’s band, and he is one third of The High Seas with Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, but here he very deservedly takes centre stage with an album of songs and tunes, many of which have family connections or have been learned from fellow Donegal musicians and singers.

Cathal was brought up in an area rich with traditional music, and this can be heard in both his singing and playing. He is a fiery fiddler, particularly good on reels where he puts in loads of ornamentation, driving the tune to good effect. He’s no slouch on the banjo either. Tunes make up about half of the tracks here, and include some of the big ones like Paddy’s Trip To Scotland, Brenda Stubbert’s and The Old Bush, as well as some less well known: Dooish Mountain by Tommy Peoples, Alec McConnell’s learned from Aidan O Donnell, and Nia’s Barndance by Dermot Byrne. He has chosen some illustrious company to join him on fiddles, concertina and bodhrán, but has used them sparingly to good effect. Nothing feels over-arranged.

He has a pleasingly light, silky voice, which is nicely ornamented in a traditional style. His own intricate yet beautifully understated bouzouki playing is the perfect accompaniment to the songs, and he is joined on several tracks by guitarist Marty Barry with whom he seems to share a deep musical understanding; the interplay of guitar and bouzouki is really special. Ryan Molloy’s piano features on a couple of songs and one set of tunes (that man really can do no wrong!) and the highlight for me is their arrangement of Úrchnoc Chéin Mhic Cainte, the delicate air of which really suits them both. The Star Of Donegal, learned from his great uncle, is a song of emigration and love (both for a woman and for Ireland), and is perhaps typical of the songs Cathal has chosen here – with slightly sentimental lyrics about “dear old Donegal” that you might hear an older generation sing. This is no criticism; these songs are part of his heritage and are now part of him as he takes them and makes them his own. This is a young man who has soaked up the rich cultural seam of music and song which surrounds him, understands it completely, and is sending it out into the world afresh. An absolute pleasure.

Fiona Heywood


This review appeared in Issue 144 of The Living Tradition magazine