Éamon Doorley, Julie Fowlis, Ross Martin
& Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
The Stepping Stone That Binds Us
The traditional music scene is populated by young musicians proud to explore and embrace their music, language and culture, both past and present. This article focuses on a group of young musicians from Scotland and Ireland who epitomise the positive attitude of so many working in traditional music today. This is a group of young people who are keen to explore and develop the links that unite their music and culture, and to enjoy the friendships that emerge from those common bonds. Julie Fowlis, who grew up on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist, is well-known for taking Scottish Gaelic music to a wider audience. Since she released her solo album, "Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe" in 2005, she has succeeded in reaching an audience far beyond Gaeldom. She has collected folk awards along the way and attracted the attention of the English media, gaining radio airplay by the likes of Chris Evans and Mark Radcliffe, even appearing on political pundit Andrew Marr’s programme, and also on Jools Holland’s “Later.” Éamon Doorley, from Glenageary in Co. Dublin, has worked alongside Julie throughout her solo projects, and along with Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh who hails from West Kerry, is a member of the Irish band Danú. This band has taken Éamon and Muireann to stages across the world. They performed at the ceremony marking the launch of Ireland's EU presidency in January 2004, and also travelled to India in 2005 as part of the Irish government’s trade delegation. Scottish guitarist Ross Martin ,from Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands, is recognised most prominently as a member of Dàimh, a band that fuses together the Celtic traditions of Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton.
Given their achievements in traditional music, and in particular Gaelic music, it was perhaps inevitable that these four musicians would come together to work on a project that explores the differences and similarities between their native cultures. I met up with the musicians at the Tradition:DL festival in Dun Laoghaire, where they were to provide the festival's closing set.
We spent some time exploring the cultural links shared by the four musicians. Julie Fowlis spoke about 'Dual', the album that the four of them have recently worked on together: 'Loads of people have recorded albums with links between Scotland and Ireland, it's not a new thing to be looking at, but what we wanted to do was look at the strong links in terms of the language, the music and the song. The languages have separated slightly and so have the cultures, and there are strong differences now. There's more in common than there are differences but it's good to show both.' Muireann expands: 'It's very much like a product of our environments. With a lot of the music I might do with Danú, for example, I wouldn't draw as much primarily from the music at home in Kerry. But when I'm working with Julie I do that a lot because I feel that together we can show the historical links, but also show where the music is now.'
I asked the band about how the music travelled between Scotland and Ireland, about its differences, and about the obvious similarities between the cultures. Éamon was first to explain: 'Some of the melodies definitely travelled, maybe more so than the lyrics. A lot of them would have common themes, or common references to places. Just pick a tune -- it'll be a march in Scotland, it'll be a reel over here. I think what's most striking is the massive interaction between both cultures -- not just in the songs, but in the music, the actual melodies, which wouldn't necessarily be exclusive to Gaelic singers. You might get tunes from Eastern Scotland that are popular in Ireland'. Muireann suggested that the further back you looked, the much stronger the similarities were: ‘The older the songs get, the closer the link is to be honest. From the sixteenth century and before that, you could really call it the one language, and also to a certain extent the culture at the time'. Éamon spoke of the empathy between the Scottish and the Irish cultures. ‘There was a huge trade between the West of Scotland and Ireland, particularly the North, and there was a lot of inter-marriage. It probably goes further back to the time when there was practically one common culture.'
Julie provided a specific example: 'One thing that's quite common in Scotland is the singing of these very old style of songs called lays, and they aren’t really sung in Ireland that much any more but they were at one time. It's basically just a way of telling a really long and legendary kind of tale, and they would deliver it in a very simple chant-like way. It basically told a story, and was probably a memory aid as well, using melody to help the story along'. Éamon continues: 'The stories they would tell were very old Irish mythologies. That tradition moved to Scotland and the stories were common to both Ireland and Scotland, but it died out here probably before it did in Scotland'. Muireann added: 'In Scotland they seem to have survived much more in a song format, whereas in Ireland it was more of a chant thing -- sometimes people would even have just spoken it. Maybe that's why it died out, because that recitation tradition isn't as common in Ireland as it used to be'.
Muireann discussed another avenue that she was keen to explore: 'Something that's so appealing to me about Scottish Gaelic song is how many lovely, up-tempo airs and songs they have. I suppose there were just as many in Ireland at one point, but there's such a huge focus on tunes now, that very often people will sing a slow song because all the tunes are so fast. We haven't had as much focus on our faster songs here in Ireland, so that's something we've experimented with. A lot of the common instrumental tunes in Ireland would have words going with them.' During the process of recording ‘Dual’, Muireann described how the musicians included a few sets where Irish and Scottish Gaelic songs were interwoven, whilst other songs retained their distinct Scottish or Irish identity. Julie added: 'The thing that became really obvious to us was that although we come from two different backgrounds, essentially it's just one big pot of music'.
The musicians are clearly also bound by the Gaelic languages of Ireland and Scotland. Muireann spoke eloquently of the reaction the musicians get from their audience: 'My very favourite reaction is when we take our music out to somewhere in the Highlands or somewhere in the Gaeltacht. In Kerry, I’ll be singing the local songs and people will know them and will start singing along, then Julie will start singing and you can hear people commenting how they totally understand her, they really notice the similarities between the languages.’ Ross suggested that there may be more awareness in Scotland of the Gaelic language in Ireland than vice versa, a theory that Éamon seemed to agree with: 'I know that the first time I heard Scottish Gaelic being spoken I just couldn't believe that we didn't know anything about it over here'. Muireann suggested that they were almost united by their shared linguistic isolation: 'You feel you’re on the edge, on the periphery -- there's only a few of us left speaking the language or singing the songs. So when you find out there's a whole gang of musicians doing the same thing, you get such a lift from that knowledge.' Julie commented on the relatively low profile of Gaelic within Scotland: 'A lot of people don't even know that there's Gaelic in Scotland'. Muireann recalled a gig in Donegal where the linguistic ties between Scotland and Ireland were particularly obvious: 'We did a gig in Donegal last Christmas, in the Gaeltacht, and I was trying to talk to the locals there -- they didn't understand me but they understood Julie!' Julie explained: 'The Irish that they have in Donegal is so closely linked to Scotland. Language-wise, the Irish there is just as close to Scottish Gaelic as it is to Irish -- it's the stepping stone that binds us actually, Donegal is like a mid-point.'
If there has been a lack of profile of the Gaelic language in Scotland, then Julie Fowlis can claim much credit for breaking down many of these barriers through her solo career. I asked them all what they thought Gaelic music’s appeal was beyond its indigenous territory. Éamon suggested that the very fact that the music offers something different is one of the reasons why people have been so keen to listen: 'It stands out on its own. I also think nowadays there seems to be a generic kind of culture, and Gaelic music is so different to everything else that you see'. Muireann felt that an ability to bring the material to a young audience was also very important: 'I think it's interesting to people. To see relatively young people bringing something that's so old and taking it forward with them is a positive thing. You don't have to leave these songs and traditions behind, you don't have to treat them like museum pieces either. They fit perfectly well with contemporary life'. Julie remarked upon the growing self-confidence within the Gaelic communities: 'There's been a big change in peoples’ confidence. You don’t have to look too far back to see how the Gaels were repressed -- they had such a traumatic history. Our people didn't have a lot of confidence in expressing their culture'. Muireann added an example from contemporary life to reinforce this comment: 'This is the first generation here where young people are truly proud of their language and are able to use it outside of home – it’s not like a secret language any more. Here in Dublin, it's everywhere now. We've got a television station and Scotland's going to have their own Gaelic television station very soon.'
Julie is very positive about the future of Gaelic in Scotland: 'It's an interesting time just now at home for the language. It didn't even legally exist as a language until the bill of 2005 was put through, and was approved in 2006.' Éamon acknowledged that while there was a decline in the number of native speakers, he also sensed a renaissance: ‘Maybe what we do in playing our own music is representative of that in some small way.'
It’s well known that Julie and Éamon are now married and based in Inverness-shire, so it was interesting to learn how the four musicians met and began their musical collaboration. Julie provided the detail: ‘We first had a sing-song together in Tønder. I met Éamon through working on a project together, and I met Danú through Éamon.’ Muireann continued: 'There's a nice gig in Tønder that Danú always do when we go over, in a venue called The Vismöllen. It's a really loose evening where loads of people come along, and it's a good time for collaboration and trying out different things. So we just decided to try something together.' Julie continued: 'It was while we were there that we realised that we had so many interesting similarities in terms of our background. We're the same age, Muireann grew up on an island off the west coast and so did I, we both moved to the mainland, and we both played whistles.'
Muireann recalled their first informal tour together, a tour that Julie organised soon after their introduction in Tønder: 'Julie got a tour together out of the blue. We went round the Highlands and Islands and then we started doing gigs in the Gaeltacht and some islands there as well. It was like our holidays, staying with family.' Julie echoes this sentiment of fun: 'We had really good craic playing at small venues with small audiences. Then we got the chance to go on tour in England about two years ago and were thinking well this has worked so far! She recalled one particularly tiring gig and journey combination: 'I remember one night, after playing a Working Man's Club in Yorkshire that we had to drive through the night because our next gig was eleven o'clock in the morning in Somerset. We just sang all the way because we had to stay awake and we said: "this is a really good song, we should do an album." It's taken us two years to get around to doing it!’
The resulting album is called "Dual," a word that means, in both languages, to twine, braid or interlace. Julie explains: 'this all happened just because we had great craic doing it and because we were friends really. We didn't want this to become an academic project, it's really a musical project. We wanted it to be good music, it was just a very natural thing'. This attitude seems to be very much reflected in their organic approach to gathering material for their album, gathering together lyrics scribbled down by neighbours and tunes recommended by fellow musicians. Éamon summed up nicely the difference between “Dual” and more formal explorations of the Scottish and Irish cultures: 'it's all very well documented, there's a huge corpus of historical study done into it, so it's quite accessible to anybody, but it's almost like an academic thing -- it's not actually something that's put out there'.
(This article was published in issue 83 of The Living Tradition Magazine)