Huartan: a trad band that taps into our pagan past

With an imaginative blend of ancient, traditional and modern, Huartan bring something new to Ireland’s musical landscape, says Robert McMillen

Photograph of tradtronic band Huarthan with girl in white, boy in mask and girl in black on a green curtain background
Huartan: Catriona Ní Ghribín, Stiofán Ó Luachráin and Miadhachlughain O'Donnell

I have always thought that pagans got a very bad press, and through no fault of their own. At school, we weren’t taught much about them but we knew that they Iived in a spiritual darkness before Christianity – and Judaism and Islam – came along to show them the error of their ways.

However, with the world in as precarious state as it has ever been, with the obscenity of what is happening in Gaza unfolding in front of our very eyes, people are looking at rebooting society back to factory settings (the wrong metaphor, but you know what I mean) and looking for a philosophy that treasures the natural world and the people around us by getting back to some of the tenets of paganism.

Exhibit one: Last Friday, the Irish language magazine for young people, Nós, ran an awards evening for the best of contemporary music in the Irish language at the Black Box in Belfast. It was incredibly uplifting to hear the quality and variety of music being created and performed and the buzz amongst the full house of young Gaeilgeoirí.

The last award of the evening was for newcomer of the year and was won by the Belfast-based Huartan, who put on an incredible show - not just because of the old songs in Irish but for the electronica sounds that accompanied them, the dancers and the pagan masks.

On Wednesday, I got to speak to two of the three members of Huartan: Belfast trad musician Stiofán Ó Luachrain and and Gaoth Dobhair native, box player and singer, Catriona Ní Ghribín.

The name comes from the world of druidic Ireland and refers to the hawthorn, a mystical tree to the druids. One of the magical tools they used was called a huartan, but today nobody knows what that tool was. So we thought, ‘That’s perfect’. We’ll fill that space with the word

—  Stiofán Ó Luachrain

The third member, Miadhachlughain O’Donnell aka Múlú, wasn’t able to make the Zoom call but Stiofán started off by telling me about the musical genesis of Huartan.

“I cut my teeth in the session scene here in Belfast so I would have played a lot in Kelly’s Cellars and Madden’s, the Sunflower, John Hewitt, White’s Tavern, those sort of places,” he explains.

“Trad was really all the music that I practised – until Covid.

“During the lockdowns, I dove into exploring Ableton Live (a digital audio workstation) and that led me down a rabbit hole of watching YouTube tutorials on all sorts of different electronic techniques and then, just messing about in the house, I started to play the whistle along with beats and stuff like that.

“And that’s how transitioned into doing something more electronic as opposed to just traditional music.”

Catriona on the other hand, did a master’s degree researching the Irish language songs in the oral singing tradition of northwest Donegal, the way they were passed on and how they changed over time, as well as what kind of things need to be put in place for them to be preserved.

“When I finished the master’s, I felt like it wasn’t finished, because the last step was to redistribute them,” she says.

“I was chatting to Stiofán one night in the Hawthorn Bar and he suggested we get down to the studio so we could deliver them to a wider audience by putting electric electronic music to them.

“We didn’t use just the songs that I collect, but all kinds of well-known traditional Irish songs, and also the the lesser known ones.”

At the same time, a mutual friend, Múlú, was recording her debut EP and as all three shared the same interests, Huartan was born.

As it says in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word”, and so it was with the band.

“The name comes from the world of druidic Ireland and refers to the hawthorn, a mystical tree to the druids,” explains Stiofán.

“One of the magical tools they used was called a huartan, but today nobody knows what that tool was.

“So we thought, ‘That’s perfect’. We’ll fill that space with the word. So that’s how we came to choose the name.”

While druids and mysticism might be overly connected to the Celtic twilight, Stiofán also points out that there is a hawthorn tree in Sandy Row which is still standing despite the area having gone through several regeneration projects, “so even in a place where you wouldn’t expect that world to exist, it does and is still quite potent”.

Huartan were invited to play at Stendhal festival in Limavady with a group of friends collectively called Damhsa Dé Danann which featured a number of pagan gods and goddesses and that was the first time that Huartan wore masks, with Catriona wearing a black dress and Múlú wearing white “to represent life and death and the duality of both”.

The band are also highly influenced by Pagan Rave, Billy Mag Fhloinn’s project “which aims to reimagine folk traditions and calendar customs of Ireland” and which can be seen on YouTube.

“Our aesthetic is reaching back to a time before capitalism and is a protest against nature, which is

bring harmed at the minute,” says Catriona.

So, the musical DNA of the band was getting established, the next thing was to chose the songs.

“Different songs were chosen differently,” Catriona points out. “Sometimes we would choose a song and then Stiofán goes away and works on it. Or sometimes Stiofán will come to us with something he’s worked on.

“At the Black Box gig, we did a song called Dúlamán which is actually a melody that Múlú collected when she was over in India on a tour, so the melody comes from a north Indian folk song and the words are from the Irish tradition and then we add the electronic music so there are no boundaries in the music we play,” she says.

The band have released a single, Bean Udaí Thall, which they performed at the Nós awards along with two dancers, Anna Poloni –who also crafted all the masks and costumes – and Mícheál Quiggley, and that aspect is something the band hope to develop over time.

“The thing is,” says Stiofán, “we are all really excited by the project and we all get on really well.

“Working together, there’s really strong camaraderie and a shared vision amongst us.

“We are always trying to add to each show as best we can and I imagine it growing in some way, whether that means more dancers or more musicians and we’d love to venture into lights and enhancing the visual aspect of the show,” he says, proving that Huartan are looking forward to some form of longevity.

And we should all look forward to that.

Huartan are playing in the Empire in Belfast on October 30 and they are booked to play at Féile na Gealaí and at the Soma festival in Castlewellan in July