Island life, and particularly that of the Blasket Islands, has occupied a large place in our literary history. For a place that never recorded a population of more than 200, An Blascaod Mór produced a great literature thanks to the writings of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Peig Sayers. These authors detailed the interweaving of music, song and dance in island life, but it was not until Claddagh Records released Beauty an Isleain in 1992, a collection of music curated by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, that these musicians and their music reached the ears of listeners beyond the borders of west Kerry.
The island was evacuated in 1953 when the remaining islanders moved to the mainland. Singer and accordionist Breanndán Begley was deeply involved with the music of the islands and played no small part in sharing their melodies and songs, influenced in particular by the music of Muiris Ó Dálaigh.
Claddagh Records has now decided to reissue this extraordinary collection of music from Blasket Island, in tandem with an updated and expanded hardcover with kindly researched and updated liner notes for all the musicians. He also invited descendants of islanders who are contemporary musicians to contribute to the collection, bringing together past and present to offer additional color and shade to the music of this most storied of our islands.
Ríonach Uí Ógáin, former director of UCD’s National Folklore Collection, is the force behind the original and current publications, and the intervening 30 years have done nothing to dim her enthusiasm for the music and songs of Blasket Island.
“My first visits to Corca Dhuibhne were in the 1960s,” she says, “and I was fascinated by the people as well as the music and landscape of the continent. Then I visited Blasket Island, and of course it is a place of particular beauty. I was lucky enough to meet some former Blasket Islanders during my time there and hear their music and after those early years I became a field collector and archivist and began to make recordings that related to my particular field of interest: song in Irish and music.
The initial impetus for the record release came from a conversation Ríonach had with Tom Sherlock of Claddagh Records. Tom suggested the possibility of a series of CDs of music and songs from the Irish islands, and Ríonach’s fieldwork led to the record label release of the Blasket Island recordings.
“It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance are to the very fabric of life on the Blasket Islands”
“I had read the three books most closely associated with the Blasket Islands: An tOileánach by Tomás Ó Croimthain, Peig by Peig Sayers and Fiche Bliain ag Fás by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin,” says Ríonach. “It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance are to the very fabric of life on the Blasket Islands. There are very few paragraphs or pages in any of these works that do not mention the role of music and how it was woven into people’s daily lives. I had the great privilege of meeting some of the former Blasket Islanders who had moved to the mainland: people like the fiddler Seáinín Mhicil Ó Suilleabháin, who spoke to me about fiddle making and the music of the Blasket Islands.’
What sets this extraordinary collection apart is the extent to which it captures the breadth and depth of the music that emerged from this small island, and how central it is to everyday life.
“I think people who maybe didn’t know the importance of music and song were surprised that you could actually listen to recordings of Blasket Islanders,” Rionach says, recounting the reaction that greeted the collection’s original release. “Some of the recordings capture the atmosphere of singing songs in a way that hasn’t been captured before. Certain pieces of music are associated with the island and I think that may have been a revelation as well.”
Listening to Peadaí Sheáisí singing An Goirtín Eorna, it’s remarkable how both singer and song conjure up images, all at once deeply rooted in the island, yet imbued with a universality that suggests a kinship with musicians from Mali to New Orleans. This is music that speaks to listeners far beyond Corca Dhuibhne’s borders.
Ríonach recognized the resonance of this music when he first heard it.
“There’s no question that it’s very versatile,” she says. “The music and songs were acquired almost unconsciously and the music and songs were adapted to suit the psyche or mindset of the Blasket Islanders. Beannacht ó rí na súná [A blessing from God, also sung by Peadaí Sheáisí] for example, it was adapted. It was about emigration and could be sung in almost any part of Ireland, but it was adapted to suit the departure from the Blasket Islands, which must have been a very important factor in the lives of the Blasket Islanders, and many of the songs are well- famous love songs, but there could be a slight adaptation that would give them a great Blasket Island feel.’
Unlike the original publication, this collection recognizes the names by which the singers and musicians were known locally.
“The difference between the 1992 and 2022 editions is that in 2022 priority was given to the local names of the people, such as Peiði Séáisí, Áine Cheaist, etc. the kind of naming custom that is still very much practiced in the Gaeltacht,” explains Ríonach. “The earlier version used the more ‘official’ name, eg Pádraig Ó Cearnaigh and Áine Uí Laoithe.”
“Dad used to tell us you can always tell the islanders when they’re walking around town because they walk behind each other”
Aoife Granville is one of the contemporary contributors, along with her sister, Deirdre, for this new collection. A violin and flute player as well as a singer, Aoife has a PhD in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Hailing from Dingle, she was immersed in the music of the Blaskets.
“We’ve always heard a lot from my dad, but also from my grandma, because her sister got married on the island and died in childbirth, so my grandma went and lived there for a few years,” says Aoife, recounting what must have been life-changing circumstances her grandmother at the time. “There’s always been a great connection to the islands in the stories we’ve heard. Dad used to tell us that you can always tell the islanders when they walk around town because they walk behind each other like they would on the island.
For Aoife, hearing island music as a separate collection highlights the richness of the islanders’ lived experience in so many ways.
“I have a very vivid memory of Beauty an Oileáin when it first came out, because although I had heard some of it performed on Raidió na Gaeltachta, I had not heard it emphasized so clearly and so well. So I always felt a strong connection, and the more I started playing slow airs and songs, I just loved them and loved that they make traditional fiddles on the island and that they’re amazing craftsmen.”
It is not surprising that many songs and performances with a marine theme are present in the repertoire of the islanders. Port na bPúcaí is a famous slow air, a favorite of the late Tony McMahon and recently revisited by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and the album’s title comes from a song written in honor of a naomhóg (currach) contest featuring a naomhóg named beauty.
“I love the fact that there’s a song written about a race of naomhóg!” Aoife says, laughing. “I think it’s amazing. You can hear the rhythm of rowing in some of the songs and music. I always imagined that many of them sang songs while rowing. So I think the sea influenced both the songs and the rhythms of the music. And I loved the underworld connection they often had, and the catwalks around the sea. For example, it was a very bad omen if they heard a woman whistling the day before they went out for naomhóga.
The inclusion of three songs by Róisín Ní Chéileichair adds further richness to this updated collection.
“The chain is not broken,” Rinouch says with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. “Róisín Ní Chéileichair is the accordion-playing granddaughter of Dálaigh (Muiris Ó Dálaigh). There are also archival recordings of Dálaigh, previously unpublished, where he talks about Port na bPúcaí and sings it. So there’s a lot to discover here.”
Beauty an Isleain, released by Claddagh Records, will be presented at Ionad an Blascaod on August 4. claddaghrecords.com