Books, films, places to go, things to do if you’re into Ireland
A Scottish Singer To Stir Any Celtic Soul
While we generally stick to things Irish on this site, it was great to find Scottish singer Julie Fowlis recently. Ms. Fowlis, who hails from the Hebrides Islands off Scotlands northwest coast, is what youd have to call a hard-core traditionalist. She sings 100% in Scottish Gaelic, a language thats understood by far fewer people in her country than Irish Gaelic is in Ireland. Nonetheless, shes reached outside the traditional sphere more than most artists, with rocker KT Tunstall, actor Ricky Gervais and other lights of pop culture praising her work. The most obvious reason is her letter-perfect voice, which seems to project a sweet, smooth power across every step of her range. But Ms. Fowlis also has that special ability to dramatize a song that defines the very best — she needs it when she sings in a language which, to our untrained ears, sounds even more eccentric than Irish. You may not understand the words, but Ms. Fowlis will make you hear that Celtic voice inside you stir to life.
She recently did a wonderful album with our current favorite Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh called “Dual” – that you can find on iTunes.
- Click here for great clip of Julie Fowlis singing with Donal Lunny and slide player Jerry Douglas
- Heres an interesting short film about Julie Fowlis
Pictures Of Inisheer
Ive always had a soft spot for Inisheer, the smallest of the three Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. Its a wonderful spot, still a bit remote even though its become a bit more of a popular summer vacation spot than it was when I first visited there in the 1970s. “Click here for a nice gallery of photos of the “eastern island.”“:http://www.pbase.com/terryballard/inisheer
Wonderful Gallery Of Photos Of Ireland
CNNs “IReporter” invites people to submit stories and photos, and this month the folks at CNN asked people to submit photos from their trips to Ireland. Heres the gorgious result.
A Young, Bright Light Of Irish Traditional Singing
Theres no getting around the fact that were a bit behind the curve in discovering Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (pronounced MWI-ren Nick OWL-eve). A native of the Irish islands of Inisheer (one of our favorite spots on earth) and Cape Clear, Ms. Nic Amhlaoibh has been the lead singer for Danu, a well-known traditional group thats toured the world and won numerous awards, since 2003.
We were lucky enough to stumble across her on iTunes, while searching for recordings of The Parting Glass, one of the oldest tunes in the Celtic lexicon. A lot of singers have taken a crack at this song of leaving, which is thought to be Irish or Scottish in origin (it sure sounds Scottish to our ears). But Muireanns version of it, from her debut solo album Daybreak released in 2006 (Compass Records), is a recording of almost indescribable sadness and beauty, probably the best thing weve come across since Solas great arrangement of The Newry Highwayman.
Nic Amhlaoibh is possessed of a silky-smooth voice that reminds one of Niamh Parsons, and an ability to apply traditional Irish singing styles in a way thats understated and original. Daybreak includes an interesting mix of old songs, some sung in Irish language, and more modern pieces like Richard Thompsons Persuasion. Theres very little instrumental backup on many of the tunes here. Thats good, because her voice is so expressive its best to hear it without much else in the way. Daybreak is an outstanding piece of work by an artist stretching the boundaries of traditional, without losing the sense of her musical roots. The artists website is at www.muireann.ie/
Irelands Fantastic Castle Leslie
Enjoy this very nice CNN video about Castle Leslie, a great estate and an equestrian center (supposedly the largest in Europe) still run by the Leslie family.
A Drive Over The Beara, On Video
My grandfather grew up on the north side of the Healy Pass, a winding mountain road that cuts across the Beara Peninsula. Heres a simple video I came across of a trip over the pass, that gives at least some sense of what a pretty place it is.
Irish Chimps Do A Bit Of The ‘ol Dance
Ok, this really isnt the sort of thing we normally go in for here at The Irish Letter. But its hard not to have at least one good belly-laugh out of this Arbys ad, where some talented chimps do a Celtic dance.
A Lightship of The Irish Soul
A highly recommended find in modern Irish literature is Colm Toibins The Blackwater Lightship, a subtle picture of the very hardboiled relationships between women in an Irish family.
This book has been out since 2001, but its deserving of another look. Though Toibin is a little less known here in America than Frank McCourt, hes one of Irelands most powerful novelists. The Blackwater Lightship is a display of his talent in full force.
Put together Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams and Jerry Seinfeld and you might approximate the tone of Toibins work. He has a way of making the odd internal worlds of ordinary people spectacularly interesting, and finding humor in the darkest places.
The Blackwater Lightship tells the story of a grandmother, mother and daughter forced to make peace with each other for the first time when they face a sons coming death from AIDS. Accepting the boys homosexuality is almost easy for them, compared to the job of facing the jealousy and anger theyve harbored towards each other almost their entire lives.
Sound like a downer? The surprise is the incredible stream of humor Toibin weaves into this sad story. These anxious, unselfconscious characters process the world around them in a way thats classically Irish. They constantly say things that make you laugh your head off, though you know they dont quite get the joke themselves.
But Toibin never goes for the cheap laugh. Every odd comment has a way of peeling back another layer of each character, showing you some unpleasant things, but at the same time giving you more and more sympathy for him or her.
Toibins more recent book, The Master, a fictionalized biography of Henry James, got a great deal of international praise and attention. Personally, Ive been more moved by his stories of nobodies who lead lives of quiet desperation. The Heather Blazing, from 2002 is a wonderful example, but to me, The Blackwater Lightship is a book that ranks with the very best Ive ever read.
The Blackwater Lightship is published by Scribner.
Travellers Lives, Captured
An absolutely outstanding find this month is Alen MacWeeneys new book Irish Travellers about the itinerant people whove long lived on, and by the sides of, Irelands roadways.
Though its largely a photo book, Irish Travellers also contains sparkling writing by the photographer and even a CD of music by this unique group once known as the Tinkers. Mr. MacWeeneys introductory memoir, even without the pictures, would make for a very good little book. It tells how he got involved in photographing Travellers from 1965 – 71 (an era before motorized caravans supplanted the old horse-powered wagons I still saw on the roads in Ireland in 1975) and became deeply drawn into to their culture to a point where he began to see a certain hollowness in the way “normal” people lived in a single place.
Shuttling back and forth between nights at Travellers campfires in Ireland and trips to New York to work as an assistant for a major fashion photographer, MacWeeney gradually came to understand the breadth of the itinerants culture. Among the many legends he learned is the one that, because a Tinker made the nails for Christs crucifixion, the Tinkers are destined by God to wander the earth until the day of judgment.
Its ironic that the Travellers have always been outsiders in their own country, feared and disliked to a large degree by Irish people. Their intense love of music, storytelling, language and celebration all seem to distill the elements that define Irish culture and identity. What MacWeeney discovers, and conveys perfectly in his photographs, is a powerful flavor of life and an undeniable beauty in the Travellers’ hardscrabble existence. When I knew them, the dirt was shaken off and ignored, he says, and their ragged clothes framed and added to their vitality and stature.
This book is probably one of the last chronicles of a lifestyle that began to vanish right around the time Alen MacWeeney began his photo project, due to the Irish governments efforts to get itinerant people to live in camps rather than endlessly roam the roads.
Its a powerful epitaph. The journalists top rule is dont get too close to your subjects. By disregarding it and becoming a part of the story he was observing (in the manner of Diane Arbus), MacWeeney has made a book that conjures up the Travellers culture, and leaves it lingering like a sweet, mysterious scent in the air around you after youve closed this excellent book.
Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More by Alen MacWeeney, is published by the New England College Press.
A Dublin Love Story That Rocks
A fine discovery this month is low-budget indie film Once, a story about a subtle, unusual love affair between a struggling Irish musician and a Czechoslovakian immigrant, filmed entirely in Dublin.
Not many love stories start with the guy saying he works in a Hoover shop and the girl replying Perfect! I have a broken vacuum cleaner. But Once spins eccentric little bits like this into a love story that has a ring of truth to it that hits your right in the chest, where that heart of yours is.
A real joy of this movie is Czech actress and musician Marketa Irglova, who doesnt look at all like a Hollywood starlet, but projects more charm than a boatload of them. The songs that play a big part in this movie (it almost turns into a flat-out musical at times) sound a little too good to be written by a guy who sings on the street. Thats because he happens to be Glen Hansard, the lead singer for well-known Irish band The Frames. You may also recognize him as the guitar player from 1991s “The Commitments It would be unfair not to also mention the brief but marvelous performance of Bill Hodnett, who plays the musicians father the owner of said Hoover shop.
Once is a dead-on portrayal of the loneliness of going after something with passion a life in a new country, a dream of succeeding in music, or anything else that requires a real risk. I cant claim to be a major fan of The Frames, but their moody, almost spooky songs fit perfectly into this story line. This is a little film that plays big on the emotions.