Island life, and in particular that of the Blasket Islands, has figured prominently in our literary history. For a place that has never recorded a population of more than 200, An Blascaod Mór has produced a tremendous body of literature, thanks to the writings of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Peig Sayers. These writers richly described the intertwining of music, song and dance in island life, but it was not until Claddagh Records released Beauty an Oileáin in 1992, a collection of music curated by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, that these musicians and their music have reached the ears. listeners beyond the limits of West Kerry.
The island was evacuated in 1953, when the remaining islanders moved to the mainland. Singer and accordionist Breanndán Begley was deeply connected to the music of the islands and was instrumental in sharing their tunes and songs, influenced in particular by the music of Muiris Ó Dálaigh.
Now Claddagh Records has made the decision to reissue this extraordinary collection of music from Blasket Island, in tandem with an updated and expanded hardcover book with carefully researched and up-to-date notes on all the musicians. He also invited the descendants of the islanders who are contemporary musicians to contribute to the collection, the fusion of past and present to provide more color and shade to the music of this island with the richest history.
Ríonach Uí Ógáin, former director of UCD’s National Folklore Collection, is the force behind the original and current publications, and the 30 years since have done nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for the music and song of Blasket Island.
“My first visits to Corca Dhuibhne were in the 1960s,” she says, “and I was fascinated by the people, music and scenery on the mainland. Then I visited Blasket Island, and of course it t is a place of particular beauty. I had the good fortune to meet former Blasket Islanders during my time there and to hear their music, and after those early years I became a field collector. and an archivist, and started making recordings related to my own area of interest: Irish song and music.
The original impetus for releasing a recording 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 islands of Ireland, and Ríonach’s fieldwork led to the label’s release of the Blasket Island recordings.
“I then realized how central the music, song and dance were 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 Croimhthain, Peig by Peig Sayers and Fiche Bliain ag Fás by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin,” Ríonach explains. “I realized then how much music, song and dance were at the heart of 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 intertwined with people’s daily lives. I had the privilege of meeting some of the former Blasket Islanders who had moved to the mainland: people like violin player Seáinín Mhicil Ó Suilleabháin, who told me about violin 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 was to daily life.
“I think people who may not have known the importance of music and song were surprised to be able to listen to recordings of the Blasket Islanders,” says Ríonach, recounting the reaction that sparked the original release of the collection. “Some of the recordings captured the atmosphere of the songs being sung in a way that hadn’t been captured before. Particular pieces of music are associated with the island and I think that could have been a revelation as well.
Listening to Peadaí Sheáisí sing An Goirtín Eorna, it is remarkable to see how the singer and the song evoke images that are both deeply rooted in the island, but shot through with a universality that suggests a kinship with musicians from Mali. in New Orleans. It is music that speaks to listeners far beyond the confines of Corca Dhuibhne.
Ríonach recognized the resonance of this music when she first heard it.
“There’s no doubt that it’s very universal,” she says. “The music and song were acquired almost unconsciously, and the music and songs were adapted to suit the psyche or thinking of the Blasket Islanders. Beannacht ó rí na hAoine [A blessing from God, also sung by Peadaí Sheáisí] for example, has been adapted. It was about emigration and could have been sung in almost any part of Ireland, but was adapted to fit the departure from the Blasket Islands, which must have been a very important factor in the lives of the islanders of Blasket, and many of the songs are well-known love songs but could use a slight adaptation that would give them a great sense of Blasket Island.
Unlike the original publication, this collection recognizes the names by which the singers and musicians were known locally.
“One difference between the 1992 and 2022 versions is that priority was given in 2022 to people’s local names, such as Peaidí Sheáisí, Áine Cheaist, etc. the kind of naming custom which is still very much practiced in the Gaeltacht” , explains Ríonach. “In the previous version, the most “official” name was used, for example Pádraig Ó Cearnaigh and Áine Uí Laoithe.”
“Dad used to tell us that you could always tell the islanders when they were walking around town, because they were walking behind each other”
Aoife Granville is one of the contemporary contributors, along with her sister Deirdre, to this new collection. Violinist, flautist and singer, Aoife holds a doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology. Originally from Dingle, she is steeped in the music of the Blaskets.
“We always heard a lot about our father, but also about my grandmother because her sister got married on the island and died in childbirth, so my grandmother went to live there for several years”, Aoife said, recounting the circumstances. it must have transformed her grandmother’s life at the time. “There has always been a great connection to the islands in the stories we have heard. Dad used to tell us that we could always tell the islanders when they were walking around town, because they were walking one behind the other, as they would have done on the island.
For Aoife, hearing the music of the island as a distinct collection underscored the richness of the islanders’ lived experience in many ways.
“I have a very vivid memory of Beauty an Oileáin released the first time, because if I had heard some of them played on Raidió na Gaeltachta, I had not heard them highlighted so clearly and so well. So I always felt a strong connection and the more I got into playing the slow tunes and songs I loved them and loved that they had traditional fiddle making on the island and that They were also incredible craftsmen.
Unsurprisingly, maritime-themed songs and tunes feature prominently in the repertoires of islanders. Port na bPúcaí is a famous slow tune, loved by the late Tony MacMahon and more recently revisited by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and the album’s title comes from a song written to celebrate a naomhóg (currach) race that featured a naomhóg from the name of Beauty.
“I love that there is a song written about a naomhóg race!” Aoife said laughing. “I think it’s amazing. You can hear the rhythm of rowing in some songs and in the music. I always imagined that many of them were singing songs while rowing. So I think the sea had an impact on both the songs and the rhythms of the music. And I loved the connection with the underworld that they often had, and the piseogs around the sea. For example, it was a very bad omen if they heard a woman whistle the day before they went out on their naomhóga .
The inclusion of three songs by Róisín Ní Chéileachair adds further richness to this updated collection.
“The chain hasn’t been broken,” Ríonach says, with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. “Róisín Ní Chéileachair is a granddaughter of Dálaigh (Muiris Ó Dálaigh), who plays the accordion. There are also previously unreleased archival recordings of Dálaigh where he talks about Port na bPúcaí and sings it. So there is a lot to discover here.
Beauty an Oileáin, released by Claddagh Records, will be launched at Ionad an Blascaod on August 4th. claddaghrecords.com