Oriel Arts project a hugely impressive showcase of northern music and song

A comprehensive compilation of the culture and traditions of the ancient Irish kingdom of Oriel or Oirialla has been launched online in the form of the Oriel Arts project

The joy of the Oriel Arts website is in being allowed to travel back in time, to reconnect with a culture that grew out of a community in response to the lives they were living
The joy of the Oriel Arts website is in being allowed to travel back in time, to reconnect with a culture that grew out of a community in response to the lives they were living

THERE are doubtless millions of pages in libraries and bookshops on Irish music and song and much of that information is being swept up, revisited and digitised by some of the world's leading archives.

However, a new project conceived and brought to fruition by Dr Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, the noted Irish singer and academic, offers more of an immersive experience than you could ever get from a book.

The Oriel Arts project (orielarts.com) is a website that takes you to the heart of a forgotten community and let’s to get the know its singers and musicians and their vibrant culture on a very human level. Once you click on the home page, Feilimí O’Connor’s film let’s you hover over the beautiful landscape of Oriel or Oirialla, the ancient Irish kingdom that covered parts of counties Armagh, Monaghan, Louth, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone.

Pádraigín and harper Sylvia Crawford (who opens the website with Saely Kelly with cinematography by O'Connor) produced research, audio and live performance recordings for the Harp Tradition aspect of the website.

The Harp Tradition in Oriel is made up of entirely new research. The O'Carolan page is a new thesis entirely, while Molaí Nic Giolla Fhiondáin has again been given her legacy as one of the great harpers of her time. This exciting new work has been left untouched and is equal in stature to the Song Tradition pages.

The joy of the website is in being allowed to travel back in time, via over 150 pages of information and more than 40 videos, to reconnect with a culture that grew out of a community in response to the lives they were living – rather than streamed through Spotify.

For Pádraigín, working on the content of the website has been a labour of love over many years.

“Well, I see it as a project of renewal of Gaelic song and manuscript music that were in libraries and archives,” she explains. "I published the book called A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs and Traditions of Oriel about 14 years ago but this website was a process of bringing back into the oral tradition.

“It was a tradition rooted in the Irish language which was the vernacular of the people so the song tradition survived while Irish was the language of the community but when the language died the songs disappeared.”

Indeed, A Hidden Ulster is one of the most widely acclaimed books on Gaelic song and tradition of the past 50 years. Published by Four Courts Press in 2003, the book's title evoked Pádraigín’s father, Pádraig's quip to the Department of Education in Dublin on the musical choices they were offering their students: “Shílfeá le hamharc ar an liosta suarach chéadna nár canadh nóta ceoil ariamh taobh thuas den Bhóinn!' (One would think to look at this same miserable list that a note of music was never sung north of the Boyne!).

Pádraigín has reclaimed some 50 songs from Oriel, some well known in other variants, others unknown and with fragmented melodies. Almost all feature a video recorded for the project from a wide range of comtemporary singers.

These are accompanied by lyrics, translations, background and even the sheet music and manuscripts. But Oriel Arts is anything but an archive. A lot of the research is new.

Now, the songs that were once the perserve of a community are being sung on huge stages all over the world, with the likes of Ríoghanch Connolly singing An Cailín as Contae Lú to international audiences – and that gives you an idea of the value of Irish folk culture, that it can speak to audiences anywhere in the world and that language an time are no barriers.

“And it happend in such a short space of time,” says Padraigin, “from the manuscript to me recording it, to Ríoghanch hearing it to it being performed on the big stage."

With sections on singing and the harp tradition, the final of the big three, Collections, contains research by fiddlers Darren Mhag Aoidh and Dónal O'Connor. Focusing on Patrick McGahon and Luke Donnellan pieces, some tunes can be heard that are well-known, but with a new depth and understanding.

This was a massive undertaking by Padraigin, who created and curated while inviting in friends such as Geraldine Bradley and Lillis Ó Laoire and a new generation featuring singers Bláithín Mhic Cána, Piaras Ó Lorcáin and Máire Ní Choilm – all of whom featured at the renewal of Éigse Oirialla, a festival of Gaelic music, song and tradition for people of all ages and backgrounds.

However, Padraigin herself thinks the work she has done is just the tip of the iceberg.

“There are layers and layers of possiblities that could be explored,” she says. “We have archival recordings from the Doegen collection from 1931 of the last Irish speakers in Oriel so it is very important from a linguistic as well as a musical and cultural point of view." she says.

As well as the website, Padraigin also has a double-CD out as well with one CD consisting of 14 songs sung with accompaniment, while the other has another 14 song without accompaniment. The Double CD is called songs of Orialla and could be seen as a companion piece to the orielarts.com website.

The website is beautifully designed by Robbi McMillen of raya.ie and was researched, filmed and compiled in 2015- 2017 and funded by The Arts Council’s Traditional Arts.

Oriel Arts will be launched tomorrow night at 7.30pm with Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin being joined by Fergus O'Dowd TD and (possibly) Nicholas Carolan from the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Granvue House, Ometah, a venue long connected with Éigse Oirialla.