Trad/roots: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh sings wonderful songs of the sea in Thar Toinn

She may not have been born in a lighthouse but that doesn't diminish Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's great grá for the sea and for Ireland's coastal tradition of song. Her new album is out next week – complete with yayhabar

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh – many of the songs on her new album deal with heartbreak, though in the most beautifully lyrical way
Robert McMillen

WHEN Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh sings “Is bean ón slua sí mé” (I am a woman of the fairy host) you tend to believe her, such is the mesmerising quality of her voice, one that can glide from ethereal to earthy in one graceful swoop.

The line comes from the song Port na bPúcaí which appears on Muireann’s new mini-album, Thar Toinn/Seabound, six tracks in which she luxuriates in the varied aspects of the sea that have enthralled her since she was a child.

“I’m obsessed with the ocean and our cultural connections to it,” she says. “The name Muireann actually means Sea Maiden. There are three mermaids on the Mac Amhlaoibh coat of arms and I’ve grown up on islands and in the west part of Kerry and get into the sea every chance I get so obviously I’ve really enjoyed bringing my two passions together for this project,” she says.

I had always believed that her father worked on lighthouses but Muireann bursts out laughing at the idea.

“That’s a rumour started by [RTÉ broadcaster] John Creedon,” she laughs. “My father was the manager of the Co-op on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands off the Galway coast and on Cape Clear island off the Cork coast but John took it up wrong and people thought I grew up in lighthouses. It’s very romantic but it’s not true!”

However, there is nothing fake about Muireann’s love of the sea. Wherever her dad’s job took the family, from island to island or on the Kerry mainland, the family were always near the water’s edge.

“When I was a little kid of three or four I would get up in the morning before Mum and Dad and run out the door, across the road (it’s frightening when I think about it now) and head down to the beach with the dog," she recalls.

“My grandmother was also a great swimmer and she always used to take me swimming. The last time she went 'bathing' as she called it, I took her to Couminoole beach (which is actually really dangerous) but we had two walking sticks and we walked down to the edge of the water and then she broke away and just dived in. I thought, “Oh God, granny’s gone” but she lived until she was nearly 100.”

For Muireann, who swims in all weathers, there is a mixture of the physical joy of being in the water, the rhythm of the waves, the way to breath as well as a spiritual side.

“Yes, that’s something I touch on in the album,” she explains. “And then there is the mythology of the sea, all the stories about it. My father was telling me about the fishermen around here who never learnt how to swim, because the idea was that if the sea was going to take you then it was going to take you and that if you fought against it, it would take someone belonging to you."

Despite all the joys of swimming in the sea, it is most certainly a double-edged sword which no doubt Muireann thought about as she looked out at the recent storms that battered the Kerry coastline.

The treachery of the sea also comes out in a song on the album that was actually composed on board the Titanic, Sweet Kingwilliamstown.

“What a thought, that this young man, Daniel Buckley, was writing this song before the tragedy unfolded. He managed to survive and his testimony was so vivid that it was used in a lot of books and films afterwards,” says Muireann. (According to Irish journalist Jim Carroll, Buckley moved to America, joined the army and ended up being the last US soldier to die in the First World War.)

Such are the compelling stories behind each of the six songs on Thar Toinn/Seabound, and as ye Irish Gods demand, nearly all deal with tragedy or heartbreak in the most beautifully lyrical way.

Faoiseamh Faoistine was written by the wonderful Domhnall Mac Síthigh – Danny Sheehy – who died of a heart attack after his naomhóg overturned close to the Minho river estuary on the Spanish-Portuguese border. It is a beautiful song-poem extolling the beauty of the Kerry coastline.

Air Falirinn Iú is a Scottish Gaelic song collected in Cape Breton written from the perspective of a woman whose husband drowned at sea. I first heard Tá na Báid being sung by Emmet Spiceland at a Gaeltacht summer college and Muireann ventures up to Tyrone for the well-known Blackwaterstown.

On the album, Muireann is joined by Gerry O’Beirne, Dónall O’Connor, Niamh Varian-Barry, Julie Fowlis, Donough Hennessy and Seamus Begley, as well as Muireann’s archaeologist husband Billy Mag Fhloinn.

Muireann and Billy join up for the above-mentioned Port na bPúcaí, creating a unique sound, but on this occasion, not just for Muireann’s singing. On the track, Billy plays a yayhabar, one of the weirdest and wonderful-est instruments ever created, invented by Turkish musician and inventor Gorkem Sen in 2009.

The yayhabar is a large instrument made of wood and metal and although it is totally acoustic, it’s sound would stir An Fear Marbh, the island that resembles a dead man, off the Kerry coast.

For the video that accompanies Port na bPúcaí, Billy made his own yaybahar and it provides a unique accompaniment to Muireann’s singing. It is a must-watch.

The story behind the tune and the song, goes back to Inishvickillane in the Blasket

islands, which belonged to the Ó Dálaigh clann.

“One of the Ó Dálaighs was out fishing one day when he heard this beautiful music coming from the sea,” explains Muireann.

“When he got home, he tried to play what he had heard because he was captivated by the melody. He played and played until he got it just as he had heard it and he called it Port na bPúcaí (the music of the fairies) but others were sceptical and said it was whale song.

“I played this piece as a lot as a slow air but the song is special to me because one of the Ó Dálaighs, Tom na hInise, gave the words of the song to my father, but for so many years, I didn’t touch them, thinking that I couldn’t get the words to fit with the melody but suddenly it just clicked.

“The important thing was that Tom told Dad that you can’t sing this song without telling the story. You have to believe it’s Port na bPúcaí,” she says.

While the stories surrounding the songs are fascinating and the accompaniments are a joy to listen to, the star of the show is Muireann’s voice on a gorgeous, multi-layered album that will tug the heartstrings of salty dog and landlubber alike.

:: Recorded at Red Box Studios in Belfast, Thar Toinn/Seabound is released on March 11 and can be pre-ordered now at Muireann's website

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