Trad/roots: Songs that sing to Ireland - Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's Róisín Reimagined

Kerry singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's new album, Róisín Reimagined, speaks to the head and the heart - and even the feet if you fancy doing a few steps.
Kerry singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's new album, Róisín Reimagined, speaks to the head and the heart - and even the feet if you fancy doing a few steps. Kerry singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's new album, Róisín Reimagined, speaks to the head and the heart - and even the feet if you fancy doing a few steps.

NOTRE Dame historian Kevin Whelan was yet another great guest of Tommy Tiernan on his Saturday night talk show on RTÉ1 last weekend.

Amongst other things, they talked about the transformative effect of the devastating famine period in the 1840s and how Ireland changed from a bilingual country to one which had to re-invent itself as an English-speaking one only and how our culture had to reflect that.

Being Irish, we did it very well, producing WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey and others and today we rejoice in the reflected glory of U2, Johnny Logan, Daniel O'Donnell and Westlife as shining examples of Irish culture.

However, the break wasn't complete. There is a stubbornness based on mórtas cine, pride in who you are, that has kept Gaelic culture alive but struggling through the 170-odd years since the Gorta Mór.

And today, it could be said that Gaelic culture is stronger today than it has been for many, many generations, thanks to the creativity of its exponents.

An example of this is Kerry singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's new album, Róisín Reimagined.

The 12-track album is another Covid baby. The pandemic wasn't a black hole from which no light could escape,

For a lot of artists, it gave them space to re-boot, to re-new, to re-evaluate and create an artistic way out of the doom and gloom – and that's what Muireann found herself doing.

"I think when you're an artist, you need to create, and for me, that primarily was about performance" she says.

"But when that outlet disappears, the music is still in you and the need to be making music is still in you and so you can't help but make things happen in whatever way that might be."

For Muireann, what made Róisín Reimagined happen, was Covid-related in that she had to perform on the Sean O'Rourke programme on RTÉ Radio One in 2020.

However, because of Covid restrictions, she had to be alone in the studio without her usual accompanists.

"It was something I hadn't really done much of up to then - singing live, alone on the national radio station - and I was kind of, you know, trepidatious about what I was going to do and then suddenly, I was like, 'Bloody hell', we're all in the same boat here. Everyone's life is upside down and we're all separated from everyone else," she says.

"And so I sang Róisín Dubh, because I feel like it's a song that sings to Ireland, if that's not being too dramatic about it, but Róisín is a metaphor for Ireland."

"And, you know, the first line - 'A Róisín, ná bíodh brón ort' - means it is a song of hope, a song that I thought would resonate with people, even those that don't speak Irish so I thought it might be a way to connect us all. And it did. There was a big response to it," she smiles.

That then gave Muireann the inspiration to take matters further, to expand the idea of reconnection and communication and reimagining in the sense that we had to reimagine even how much this hidden music means to us, or maybe gain a new understanding of it.

And the result is Róisín Reimagined, an album that speaks to the head and the heart - and even the feet if you fancy doing a few steps.

For an album of Irish songs, it was a veritable Cecil B DeMille production with Muireann, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the six composers who arranged the songs and the soloists.

As a sean-nós singer, did she have to change her style singing with an orchestra, I asked her.

"In a word, no," she says emphatically.

"The orchestra and the composers were completely respectful about honouring the songs and honouring the way I sing them.

"There was a huge learning curve for all of us but absolutely nothing in terms of my integrity as a traditional singer was compromised by any of the other factors, which was so amazing."

As well as Róisín Dubh, there are also some songs on Róisín Reimagined which Muireann would rightly call "high art", Ireland's classical music, the likes of Slán le Máigh, An Chúilfhionn, Sliabh Geal gCua and An Rabhais ar an gCarraig but leavened by the joyous Molly St George and Tá Mo Mhadra to the macaronic Cailín na nUrla Donn.

No wonder it has caught the public imagination with it as Record of the Week on Radio 1, Lyric FM and the Irish Times.

With Irish language films such as Arracht, Foscadh, Doineann and An Cailín Ciúin winning prizes all over the globe - An Cailín Ciúin even beat Kenneth Branagh's Belfast at the IFTAs - and bands and singers such as Inni-K, IMLÉ, Kneecap and Súil Amháin, there seems to be a new attitude to Gaelic culture that was absent in years gone by.

"Our generation, when we were young, we were told that we were the last generation and the future of the language and the music was all on our shoulders. And so we carried that sense of responsibility," says Muireann.

"We didn't carry it lightly, you know, it left you with a trepidation and a nervousness to stir the pot, that something was so fragile and precious, that we had to mind it and make sure it's stayed exactly as it was that we would be the preservers of us, you know, and, in a way, that made me feel like I shouldn't touch it or change it. Absolutely.

"We're still in crisis.The language might not survive here in the Gaeltacht but it will survive in whatever way the future holds for it. We're making the best of the fact that so much damage was done to the culture in the past but we're trying to bring things forward and hopefully, our children's generation will not feel that responsibility, they will wear it more lightly."

However, there is no fragility or preciousness about the songs on Róisín Reimagined. There is indeed an aching beauty in some of them and a playfulness in others that reflect aspects of the Irish psyche that are still part of our makeup today and that is where the true connection lies.