Light at the end of the tunnel from Ultan O'Brien and Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin's LP

Fiddle meets voice in a duet of both instruments on Solas an Lae, the new album from Ultan O'Brien and Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin that offers, in their words, an 'escape from the overwhelm'

Sean nós singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and fiddler Ultan O’Brien
Robert McMillen

WHEN Ultan O'Brien was first learning the traditional fiddle in Co Clare, with teachers and others the focus was always on learning from singers, not learning necessarily a violin or a fiddle technique but trying to get a sound that was produced by the voice primarily, and learning how language shapes the voice as well.

That intimate connection between the fiddle and the human voice has been brought to a beautiful apotheosis with Ultan and Connemara sean-nós singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin finally releasing their debut album, Solas an Lae, a collection of tunes and songs that mirror the ups and downs of life itself, reeking of the turf fire but boldly taking on the 21st century.

There is also an intimate musical collection between Ultan and Eoghan going back many years.

“Well, we started off with a group called Skipper's Alley in 2013/2014 and at the same time we were part of a project called Aon Teanga:Un Chengey [one language] combining the three forms of Gaelic – with Eoghan, who sings in Irish, Mary Ann Kennedy of South na Maoile fame, who sings in Scottish Gaelic, and Ruth Keggin who sings in Manx Gaelic – and I came in with a bit of viola because they wanted a nice bed of drones,” explains Ultan.

Now, the Clare/Connemara Dublin-based duo have brought ideas that have been bubbling around for years to fruition in Solas an Lae which they recorded in the picturesque Watercolour Studios, owned by Mary Ann Kennedy and her husband Nick Turner in Ardgour near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.

“We'd been going at the idea for a while but we seized the opportunity to record the album in Scotland because we were there for a gig anyway. We recorded for about three days and then went back to tighten things up so we had been planning it for a long time but it came together pretty quick in the end,” he says.

The original spark for Solas an Lae was a show called Lifting up the Door's Latch for which Ultan wrote the music and which involved Eoghan as well.

“We were setting a poem, The Beggar's Child by Padraic Colum, to music and in it he refers to ‘the light of the day'. Three years later, we revisited the poem and it gave us the title of the album, Solas an Lae/The Light of the Day and also the first track on the album, Mo mhúirnín, we'll go far away. Basically, we wanted to explore the fiddle and the voice together. Most of the album is just that,” he says.

For Eoghan, the idea was for it to be more than just songs with string accompaniment.

“It's very much, we hope, a duet, with both instruments – if you want to call them that – getting equal billing. It's more of a conversation or between the two because the fiddle is kind of similar to the voice, probably more similar than other instruments are.”

Eoghan Ó Ceannabhain has a wondrously sonorous voice, which helps, of course. The songs are mostly in Irish – well-known ones such as An Sceilpín Draighneach and Tá na Páipéir dhá Saighneáil as well as a great version of Cúirt Bhaile Nua.

But perhaps, if not the stand-out track, certainly the first among equals is All Our Lonely Ghosts, a visceral nine-minute-long attack on how Irish institutions have mistreated women for centuries.

“I wrote the song about two years ago around the time the Tuam babies scandal was coming to the fore and I was involved in housing activism at the same time and thinking of state institutions over the years and the song talks about the Catholic Church's role oppressing women and children,” says Eoghan.

"In modern Ireland with the push towards neo-liberalism, its more about family homes and direct provision and people living on the streets and so on and that's what I was looking at.

“In a way, it is quite a bleak song but I'm not for despair or anything; I think we are moving in a very positive direction now and I think the campaigns of the survivors and people campaigning for different issues such as housing and so on point to a better way."

Eoghan has also written a song called My Lovely Leo and if you can't guess who it's about, the first line might give you a clue: “Oh my lovely Leo, he wears a blue shirt …” If you need further clues, you can find the song and the lyric's on Eoghan's Bandcamp page.

The song didn't make it on to the album but in the overall flow, there are tracks that are quite dark and serious and others that are light and funny, but they all complement each other.

Needless to say, the pair are impatiently looking forward to playing the album in front of a live audience, with the grace of God and Pfizer.

To keep our appetites whetted in the meantime, there is a video on Youtube of the digital launch of Solas an Lae/Light of the Day, which is mostly of the duo playing and singing tracks from the album, but which begins with a quite ethereal trip to Sandymount Strand after any attempt to play live in lockdown Dublin was swiftly brought to a halt by members of the Garda Síochána.

However, Ultan and Eoghan recognise the pain we are all going through at this time so I'll leave you with the words the boys wrote on the Solas an Lae sleeve notes, which I think beautifully describe the benefits for artist and audiences and the magic interplay between them.

"We finished recording this album in October 2019 in Watercolour Music in Ardgour, Scotland. Getting up there to record Solas an Lae was an escape for us – a musical escape from the overwhelm.

“Things can get on top of you but music is the great escape. It lifts off the bridles and anchors the world puts on us; lifting the door's latch.

"Since we recorded this, life has grown heavier for many people, for many different reasons. We hope this bit of music can help fling off a bit of the weight and help people breathe a little bit easier."

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