Dónal Lunny keeping it Celtic with Belfast Atlantic Arc Orchestra gig

Irish traditional and folk music great Dónal Lunny's mum was from Ranafast; his dad was a Fermanagh man
Irish traditional and folk music great Dónal Lunny's mum was from Ranafast; his dad was a Fermanagh man

IN JULY I was in Santiago de Compostela for a bit of a break. It is a beautfiul city, famed of course for its connection to St James and the camino that has become increasingly popular over the past decade or so.

However, it was more for the food, drink and sight-seeing that my companions and I ventured to Galicia – but one abiding memory we all have is the sound of the gaita, Galician pipes which were played in tapas bars and on the streets of the old town.

The sound was both familiar and exotic at the same time to our Irish ears and that is what I expect to hear when the Atlantic Arc Orchesta comes to the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast tomorrow night.

It’s a line-up to die for, brought together by – well, everyone is giving credit to everyone else – but definitely on stage will be Pádraig Rynne on concertina and electronics, Aidan O’Rourke from Lau on fiddle, Armagh’s Jarlath Henderson on the border pipes, Kerry singer Pauline Scanlon, Capercaillie’s Ewen Vernal and John Blease on drums and percussion.

It’s one of those “it sounds crazy but it might just work” ideas – bringing the sounds of the Atlantic nations together to see how/if they gel.

Of course, there is no better man to harmonise the sound than Dónal Lunny. Sure hasn’t he done it with Coolfin and Common Ground and Moving Hearts and Planxty too?

Speaking on his mobile on a train – not the taboo it used to be – Dónal paid tribute to Pádraig Rynne who introduced him to the project.

“Pádraig first approached me and asked if I would be musical director and I thought 'OK, from this perspective, it doesn't seem like a poison chalice'. We had enough time to spend together, to put a set together, and the calibre of the musicians...

"But if you want to know what that might sound like, you’re too early.

Everything is in the air until the first time we'll physically all meet together. Pauline Scanlon is going to be singing and then we'll share out songs between Pauline and Jarlath [Henderson]. That's something from which we'll build everything else but the instrumental music is of equal importance and of equal energy."

But does Dónal believe there really is something called the Atlantic Arc?

"I absolutely do,” he says. “There are connections but at the bottom line there are fundamental differences. For example, if you look at the languages, you have connections between them, but at the same time it's difficult to understand Cornish or Breton in relation to Irish. The letter 'C' is replaced by the letter 'P' in Breton, for instance. It really confuses me."

Having said that, Dónal's mother was from Rann na Feirste in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where I had won a scholarship to stay for two months in the house of the renowned seanchaí Micí Sheáin Néill.

"Yes, I spent my childhood summers in Ranafast and some of the happiest days of my life were there – all the way up to my mid-teens,” he recalls.

“We'd spend up to two months in the summer there, walking the sea, climbing Errigal and all that stuff, speaking Irish. I could see the beauty of it from an early age. But you just excited a memory in me, Robert, about Micí Sheáin Néill.

"My parents used to go and sit in and listen to the seanchaí telling stories and I can remember one occasion where his story extended over five days of the week. We would arrive there at roughly eight in the evening and it was 5am when you left – he'd do that five nights in a row. I thought that was fantastic. He probably knew most of it by heart – the words have a set pattern. Fantastic.”

One thing that doesn't confuse Dónal is big ensembles, although he's equally at home with duets and trios. Is his approach the same whether it's a duet, a trio or 20 people?

“Well, the thing about big ensembles is that it's like architecture, a house with many rooms, and you can have an avenue up to it as well, whereas with a duo or trio it's minimalist. You have very few pieces of furniture but you make the most of it," he tells me.

"For example, the songs I did with Frank Harte on his albums – we did six together – and it was just Frank and me. That was a discipline in itself to actually find the most effective way to play the bouzouki with a song with 11 verses or something. You had to measure, you have to cut your cloth or else it gets really boring."

Dónal also did something similar a year ago when he came to to Belfast with Anthony Cronin for a project on the Titanic. Was that the same sort of process?

"Yes, it was making the most of a few components," he says. "I think that that particular piece could be expanded enormously and, given the time and energy, I'd love to go back to it and make a lot more of it, because after all it is Titanic and it deserves to be remembered to scale."

:: The Atlantic Arc Orchestra will be playing at the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast tomorrow, Saturday October 1, from 7.30pm.