Friday, July 30, 2010

"No Mermaid" (Sinéad Lohan)

The song “No Mermaid” seems to have more to do with living an authentic life than it does with actual mermaids. Nonetheless, the mermaid is a powerful figure in Irish myth that, once conjured, is difficult to escape. In contemporary Irish literature, the image of the mermaid is perhaps best captured in the work of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a versatile writer and scholar known primarily for her Irish-language poetry.

I once had the great privilege of going drinking with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. (The phrase “going drinking” might inaccurately make it sound like we went out in Temple Bar and then scarfed down garlic chips from Supermac’s at 2 a.m., but it sounds cool.) If I remember correctly, the actual incident was set in a quiet bar in southern Illinois with a group of folks from an Irish Studies conference. And what I remember most of all is that Ní Dhomhnaill had just started to tell us about the years she spent in Turkey when the guy sitting next to me put his arm on the back of my chair.

If it’s appropriate to say you had a crush on someone when you were in your mid-20s, then that word applies here. I had admired this person from afar for some time, and now I could actually feel his arm resting against my back. Suddenly, the only sound I could hear was my heart beating in my ears, and everything Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill said was lost to me.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) my tragic schoolgirl foolishness, I’ve tried to go back and better cultivate my interest in Ní Dhomhnaill’s work. To start, you can read three of her poems, along with translations by Paul Muldoon, in the electronic literary journal Inertia. Also, if you have 45 minutes to spare, you can listen to this documentary from RTÉ Radio 1 about Ní Dhomhnaill’s use of mermaid imagery.

Finally, if you only have three minutes to spare, I recommend watching this video produced for TG4, the Irish-language television station (even though there aren’t any mermaids). In this video, Ní Dhomhnaill reads her poem “Athair.” Listening to her read is a special treat. Not only is her poetry rich in symbolic imagery, but, to me, the Irish language (Gaeilge) sounds like waves hitting rock. It puts me in mind of this particular March day in Connemara, when the cold wind whipped our hair and the water broke like glass at our feet.

All of this brings me back around to Sinéad Lohan, whose song “No Mermaid” is also rife with watery imagery. Lohan is apparently something like the J. D. Salinger of Irish music. That may be overstating her influence a bit, but nonetheless, she burst onto the scene in the mid-90s, made two albums, and disappeared. Rumors exist that she’s still making music, but nothing has surfaced since the album No Mermaid in 1998. If you check out the handful of Sinéad Lohan videos on YouTube, many of the comments say “Where are you, Sinéad?” and “Please come back.” Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with the music that she’s left us.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"It'll Be Easier in the Morning" (Hothouse Flowers)

I was very blessed to live in Galway for two years. And if I ever got a bit down and called a friend to complain, I usually got this advice: “I don’t want to hear it.” Which was fair enough, because it really was a charmed life. I spent most of my time studying, but I also went to the Galway Market on Saturdays, stopped for coffee in Café du Journal, danced at the GPO on Sunday nights, and spent many happy evenings in The Front Door (or Club Áras na nGael, Neachtain’s, Monroe’s, Murphy’s, Taylor’s, or the College Bar).

It was relatively easy to adjust to life in Ireland. For example, English is the primary language, and all the food is identifiable. Such luxuries shouldn’t be taken for granted when one is venturing far from home. Even so, there were things that could be frustrating.

For example, you might go to the bursar’s office to pay your tuition bill, only to be told that the woman who handles those particular bills is out for lunch. “Well, can I leave it for her?” you might ask. This request might be ignored, and the woman behind the counter might instead suggest that you simply stop by later. However, when you stop by later, the office might be closed for the weekend (even though it’s noon on a Thursday). Then, when you return the following week, you might be informed that the (increasingly elusive) woman in question is on vacation for the next two weeks. “But my tuition is due tomorrow,” you might respond. “What should I do?” To which the woman behind the counter might sigh dramatically and tell you that she’ll take it after all. You’ll watch her drop your check on a stack of papers, and then you’ll spend the next month or so fretting that it will be “lost” and you’ll have to pay the bill again, even though the money has mysteriously disappeared from your account.

On days like those, I could seek out my friend Michael (dubbed “Vegas” by his Galway friends, in honor of his hometown). We would drink black coffee, watch The Simpsons, and pepper our conversation with all the Americanisms we could think of. As in, “Dude, that Simpsons episode was awesome.” — “Totally, dude.”

If The Simpsons wasn’t on, or if there was no one to commiserate with, the other thing I would often do is to go for a walk. My first year in Galway, I would leave my apartment, walk about two minutes to the bank of the River Corrib, and then head upriver toward Menlo Castle. The crisp air would do wonders for clearing my head, and looking over at the castle helped me remember what a truly amazing experience it was to be living in Ireland.

During my second year in Galway, my apartment was just around the corner from Bridge Street, where I often stood and let the rushing river take any anger or loneliness or melancholy out to sea.

Now that I’m back in the States, I don’t have one particular place where I can sort things out in my mind. But all these years — whether I’m looking out over the water or sitting at my kitchen table at home — one thing has remained constant. When life starts to feel overwhelming, the song “It’ll Be Easier in the Morning” often seems to magically pop into my head.

Of course, not all problems and worries go away overnight. But I’ve found that, most of the time, things really are easier in the morning. This gorgeous song gives me such a lovely way to remember that.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Swell Season

In my first post, I said I would write about the music that first inspired my love for Ireland, and I will. But for today, I decided to write about one of my more recent favorites, The Swell Season.

A few years ago, my radio alarm went off around six o’clock one morning, and as I gradually became conscious, a few words caught my attention. “New film ... Ireland ... music....” For a day or two, I thought I was dreaming. Until finally, I looked it up online and found out about Once.

The story of this independent musical’s humble beginnings and eventual rise to Oscar glory is well documented. If you’re not familiar, just Google it. And for heaven’s sake, watch the movie. I myself had to wait to see it, because it wasn’t released in my neck of the woods for a while. But, God bless Fox Searchlight, you could stream the entire soundtrack from the film’s website. And that was it. I was captivated.

The Swell Season have made me remember what it was I loved about music. For starters, there’s luscious harmonies and honest, heartbreaking lyrics. Glen Hansard’s charisma, and Marketa Irglova’s golden, radiant smile. The palpable chemistry between the entire group of musicians (six in all). It’s as if, when they’re playing, they dip down into the music together. They become part of it, and it becomes part of them. And then, if you’re seeing them live, Glen Hansard invites you, as part of the crowd, to join them. And what might have been simply an evening of hearing some live music becomes this moment of connection in which you feel as though you can hold the music in your hands.

My husband and I saw them last May at the Nelsonville Music Festival, on a bright Sunday afternoon where it seemed everyone, including the band, was smiling and just generally happy to be alive. There was a wonderful laid-back atmosphere. Marketa said the festival reminded her of one in her hometown in the Czech Republic and that they had gone for a walk in the woods surrounding the festival site earlier in the day. And when my husband and I were hanging out watching the She Bears earlier that afternoon, who came around the corner and sat down just in front of us but Glen Hansard himself.

I didn’t go up to him because I was playing it cool (in other words, I was too shy). But he seemed really nice, chatting with everyone who did stop and talk. But actually, what I loved was that most people ignored him. Maybe they just didn’t realize his band were the headliners that day, or maybe they were also playing it cool. But seeing Glen Hansard walk around mostly undisturbed had the effect of casting a sense of camaraderie over the entire afternoon. A sense of mutual appreciation, between band and audience, for kicking back with a cup of coffee and a bunch of great music.

They opened with a cover of “Ohio River Boat Song” by Palace Music (Bonnie “Prince” Billy). I apologize that the audio and video aren’t the greatest quality. It was my first time using that camera for video. I’m also including someone else’s video of their Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” which begins with a sweet introduction by one of their younger fans.


Friday, July 9, 2010

“Monsieur L’Matou” (Vishtèn)

Last weekend, even though it was hot as blazes where we are, my husband and I ventured away from our air conditioning to check out a music festival downtown. Turns out it was well worth the trip, as we discovered Vishtèn, a Canadian band.

I might’ve said simply that Vishtèn plays traditional Irish music, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands are the places that the members of Vishtèn call home. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what this meant in terms of their influences. But as their website explains, “the sound is essentially Celtic but with a difference.” I love the fact that they don’t even try to explain what the difference is. As if they’re saying, “Just listen. You’ll see.”

All the elements of traditional Irish music are there — fiddle, guitar, accordion, penny-whistle, piano, and bodhrán — and the women in the group did some step dancing during songs. But I did notice some differences, too, though I’ve struggled to pinpoint exactly what they are. They sing in French; that’s an obvious one. But there is something else. The music seemed lighter, brighter than traditional Irish music somehow. A bit less intense than, say, the Chieftains. A bit less mournful, maybe. It made me think of sunny blues and greens, and clear, cold mornings — though this may be because I go to Canada every summer, at a crystal lake where we fish alongside herons and the air is always fresh.

Even so, Vishtèn’s music still evokes all the things that I associate with traditional Celtic music: sitting with friends in a pub in Galway on bitterly cold nights. Clutching a pint of Guinness, clouds of cigarette smoke hanging over our heads. It makes me think of wool sweaters. Rain lashing against the windows.

Come to think of it, that’s not so far from the atmosphere we found in Nova Scotia. Normal people go to the Bahamas on their honeymoon, but not my husband and me. Instead, we huddled into each other at a table in an Irish pub in Halifax, eating fish and chips and looking out at the gray, rainy October afternoon. So maybe I should let that guide my associations with Acadian music. After all, I suspect you can find more elements of Acadian culture in Nova Scotia than my lakeside village in Ontario.

In any case, it’s been interesting to learn more about the Irish/Celtic diaspora and all the people and places that have been influenced by this amazing culture. Even more important, it’s always fun to have a good set to stomp your feet to.


Friday, July 2, 2010

"We Will not be Lovers" (The Waterboys)

It was very difficult to choose the song for my first post. Even so, I knew which album it had to come from: Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys. What a classic! Released in 1988 — I was 15. What I loved about this album was that it had elements of traditional Irish music — mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and lively, aching lyrics — but it also had a contemporary edge. I imagine this kind of combination already existed in Irish music, but it was the first time I had ever encountered it. I was mesmerized.

Fisherman’s Blues came into my life because I was working on a cable access show called South Side Video. Remember MTV back in the days when they played music videos? In between songs, the VJ would talk about the band, or whatever came into her head. That was me. Except, instead of MTV, this was cable access, and most all the VJs and crew were suburban high school students. The show was broadcast live on Saturday afternoons. We got all kinds of promo CDs from the record companies, and when this one came in, I grabbed it because I read in the press packet that it was recorded in Spiddal, on the west coast of Ireland.

Back then, when I got a new CD, I always read along with the lyrics, maybe the first hundred times I listened to it (give or take). Since this one didn’t have any lyrics in the CD booklet, I just stared at the cover art: 10 ragged-looking guys in front of a ivy-covered stone building. I imagined that the air was always heavy with the smell of saltwater and that the village of Spiddal might be situated along a rocky coastline, where the sea seemed to meet the sky. When I finally went to Spiddal several years later, that’s pretty much what I found.

In selecting a specific song from the album, I’d say that “The Stolen Child” was the most emotive for me, as it’s based on the poem by Yeats, and the song just feels sweeping and epic. But that song doesn’t really represent the tone of the album as I always think of it, which is, at its core, a bit more lively.

So instead, I give you “We Will Not Be Lovers.” I love this song. I can’t help but move when I hear it. And the lyrics are sublime — longing and passionate and brutal and heartbreaking. All the things that, when I think about it, Ireland itself came to be for me.


Welcome! Fáilte!

There are many, many fine Irish music blogs out there. It seems most of them focus on indie and emerging artists, album reviews, and promoting live shows, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

Mine is perhaps a well-worn story: the American’s pining for the mystical land of her ancestors. But I pined so fiercely that back in the early 1990s, I made my way by train and ferry boat from Austria to Ireland for three days of dancing in pubs and walking through my cousins’ marshy fields. I went back for the summer of 1995 to study at Trinity, and then lived in Galway for two years, from 1996 to 1998. After that, it was several weeks in Dublin, and then home to the U.S. for good.

Since I left Ireland in 1999, I have missed the country so deeply that, until very recently, I didn’t really have much to do with Ireland at all — I had get my head wrapped around being back in the States. But a couple years ago, I rediscovered Irish music. Not the “Danny Boy” my mother loved (though it has its own longing loveliness) — but the the music that helped to inspire my interest in Ireland in the first place. In the process, I've also stumbled upon some music — old and new — that's rekindling the passion I had for Irish music so many years ago.

So, because I'm not in Ireland and can't promote live shows — whether they're in Doolin, Dublin, or Meath — I would simply like to share some of the Irish music I grew up with. Music I first heard on dusty cassette tapes and CDs discovered on the bottom shelf of my local library. Music that, for me, evoked not only the mystical land of my ancestors, but also the promise of a contemporary Ireland that I had yet to encounter. Music that I continue to discover, thanks to the wonders of the internet (especially YouTube).

To all of these artists, Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

And now: Let us listen.