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Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh: Evoking memories of people and places

Acclaimed harpist Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh – of the famous Brolly clan from Co Derry – talks to Robert McMillen about Cuimhní Rúnda/Hidden Memories, her first solo album in 20 years, and how landscape and memory play such an important role in its music

Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh's latest album, Cuimhní Rúnda/Hidden Memories, pays homage to people and landscapes
Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh's latest album, Cuimhní Rúnda/Hidden Memories, pays homage to people and landscapes Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh's latest album, Cuimhní Rúnda/Hidden Memories, pays homage to people and landscapes

I attended two funerals recently, both of wonderful, beautiful people who went well before their time. And I’ve been thinking about them ever since. 

I see them smiling at me as I walk past where they used to sit in our new city centre office.

It seems that memory keeps people present in our lives and, according to harpist and composer, Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh – of the famous Brolly clan from Co Derry – it is the same with landscapes.

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On her latest album, Cuimhní Rúnda/Hidden Memories, her first solo since Under a Pale Moon 20 years ago, Nodlaig has gathered some of her self-composed pieces with tunes most of us will know in a collection that pays homage to people - the living and the dead, as James Joyce wrote - and to the landscapes that shaped or inspired her, so the album is as much life-affirming as it is a lament for what we have lost and what is hidden beyond our imagination.

“There are hidden memories in the landscape," explains Nodlaig. "So for instance, the first time I went to Fanad Lighthouse I wrote Cuimhní Rúnda - the title track – when I stayed on my own in the lighthouse; there was no wifi and no television but thankfully, I’d brought the harp with me.

"It was a bit eerie, you know, it felt like the edge of the Earth. All I could hear was the waves, and I composed two of the tunes that night. It dawned on me that I really didn’t know anything about the place, yet there were so many stories beneath the waves, where the Laurentic lies after it hit a mine in 1917 with the loss of 354 lives."

Another story is that of the son of the lighthouse keeper, 13-year-old David O’Byrne who was sent out to the fields to collect a bucket of potatoes but was never seen again. No-one knows definitively what happened to him.

Loss is at the heart of another tune on the album, Caoineadh Uí Chaoimh/O’Keefe’s Lament, which springs from a speech Nodlaig was witness to when the hugely respected and much-loved eye surgeon, Michael O’Keefe, spoke at the funeral of his son Philip who had died from a rare form of cancer, a diagnosis which triggered the ill-health his father suffered from 2021 onwards, leading to his own death.

Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh with her father Francie Brolly, who died in 2020
Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh with her father Francie Brolly, who died in 2020 Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh with her father Francie Brolly, who died in 2020

Language is often found lacking when dealing with heartbreaking loss but we have music to convey what we cannot express in words and this is certainly true of the elegy she composed for her late father, Francie, himself a traditional musician and a beautiful singer like his wife, Anne.

“Daddy understood the true value of music,” Nodlaig recalls. “And when we were of an age to play with Mummy and Daddy in the GAA halls, we would sidle over to him and ask, ‘How much are we getting tonight?’ Because we were looking a few pound to go to the disco or whatever. And he said, 'If you ask me that again, that's the end of the music.’"

"’We do not do this for money,’ he said. "‘We do this to go out and give joy to other people and that's the power and the beauty of music.'"

That is something that Nodlaig has taken on board ever since.

While memories keep our nearest and dearest alive in our hearts, stories keep us connected to places and so too does music, in what Nodlaig calls “hidden heritage”, especially that of her native Co Derry.

“I feel very strongly that, essentially, the Roe Valley is the cradle of the Irish tradition and in particular, its harping tradition," she explains.

“We had a visitor recently from Argentina and the one place he wanted to go was to the grave of Donnchadh Ó hAmhsaigh, Dennis Hempson. 

“Hempson played at the 1792 Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast when he was 97 years old but most people around wouldn't know anything about this, you know, but this area is the source of so much of our music because Bunting collected and saved all of these tunes that have survived in the world tradition.”

I’ve always found that traditional musicians almost never confine themselves to the tradition, to “the pure drop”, and so Nodlaig was exposed to classical and jazz early on, playing in the Western Board Orchestra (for schools), which gave her new perspectives.

“When I think back on Derry and the efforts that they made to keep the music alive in spite of all the madness, I think it shows that they understood the human spirit. We probably needed it more than anything,” says Nodlaig. 

“But we went to the orchestra and of course there were Protestant musicians there and I think that actually helped me because, at the time, when we were so divided I was actually playing music with people from across the religious divide for the first time because back home we didn't get the opportunity to mix at all and so through the music that kind of changed my perspective and outlook and then I went from that orchestra and to the National Youth Orchestra,” she recalls.

After studying in UCD, Nodlaig moved to San Diego to, erm , play Gaelic football.

“I went off to San Diego to play football,” she recalls, “but I brought the harp with me and I met this man called Brian Baines – I think he was from Wicklow –  and Brian had a studio and he invited me down.

“My father would always say that one of my strongest characteristics was determination, so I was working three jobs in San Diego and when I'd saved up enough money would go back and record another song or record another piece."

Brian shared the recordings with someone he knew at the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and before long, Nodlaig was invited as a special guest at their St Patrick’s Day celebration.

It was in San Diego that she met Ciarán Herron, the Antrim hurler whom she later married, and the couple now have four children.

Along the way, the work ethic has led to her qualifying as a barrister, touring with Phil Coulter, setting up the Ruaidhrí Dall School of Harp and Song in Dungiven, writing the music and performing at the opening of CS Lewis Square and much more.

Now, with the children growing up, she has found time to record the 13 tracks on Cuimhní Rúnda, much of which she has composed herself.

It is an album that takes us on a journey around the Glenshane Pass to Benedy and Dungiven Castile but also into the hearts of anyone who has suffered a loss.