Life on the islands, and especially on the Blasket Islands, has featured heavily in our literary history. For a place that never had more than 200 inhabitants, An Blascaod Mor produced a huge amount of literature, thanks to the works of Thomas O Criomhthain, Muiris O Suilleabhain and Peig Saiers. These writers richly described the intertwining 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 Rionach Ui Ogain, that these musicians and their music reached ears. listeners beyond the borders of West Kerry.
The island was evacuated in 1953, when the remaining islanders moved to the mainland. Singer and accordionist Breandan Begley was deeply involved with the music of the islands and played no small part in sharing their tunes and songs, particularly influenced by the music of Muiris O Dalaigh.
Now, Claddagh Records has decided to reissue this outstanding collection of Blasket Island music, in tandem with an updated and expanded hardcover with lovingly researched and updated liner notes on all the musicians. He also invited the descendants of the islanders who are contemporary musicians to contribute to the collection, combining the past and the present in order to offer additional colors and nuances to the music of this most famous of our islands.
Rionah Uí Ogain, former director of UCD’s National Folklore Collection, is the driving force behind the original and current publications, and the past 30 years have done nothing to diminish her enthusiasm for the music and song of the Blasket Islands.
“My first visits to Corca Dhuibhna were in the 1960s,” she says, “and I was fascinated by the people, the music and the landscape on the mainland. Then I visited Blasket Island, and of course it is a place of special beauty. I was fortunate enough to meet some former Blasket Islanders during my time there and to hear their music, and after those early years I became a field collector and archivist, and began to make recordings related to my particular field of interest: Irish song and music.”
The initial impetus to release the recording came from a conversation Rionach had with Tom Sherlock of Claddagh Records. Tom suggested the possibility of a series of CDs featuring the music and songs of the islands of Ireland, and Rionach’s fieldwork led to the record label releasing Blasket Island recordings.
“It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance are to the very fabric of life in the Blasket Islands”
“I read the three books most closely associated with the Blasket Isles: An tOileanach by Thomas O Croimthain, Peig by Peig Saiers and Fiche Bliain ag Fas by Muiris O Suilleabhain,” says Rionach. “It was then that I realized how central music, song and dance are to the very fabric of life in 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 is woven into people’s daily lives. I was privileged to meet some of the former Blasket Islanders who had moved to the mainland: people like the fiddler Seainin Mhicila O Suilleabhain, who told me about fiddle making and Blasket Island music.
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 everyday life.
“I think people who maybe didn’t know about the importance of music and song were surprised that you could actually listen to Blasket Islander recordings,” says Rionach, recounting the reaction to the collection’s original release. “Some of the recordings captured the atmosphere of singing songs in a way that has not been recorded before.” Certain pieces of music are associated with the island and I think that may have been a revelation as well.
Listening to Peadai Sheaisia sing An Goirtin Eorna, it’s amazing how both singer and song conjure up images that are both 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 Dhuibhna’s borders.
Rionach recognized the resonance of this music when she first heard it.
“There’s no question that it’s very universal,” she says. “Music and song were acquired almost unconsciously, and music and song were adapted to the psyche or thinking of the Blasket islanders.” Beannacht o ri na søna [A blessing from God, also sung by Peadaí Sheáisí] for example, it was customized. It was about emigration and could have been sung in almost any part of Ireland, but it was adapted from leaving the Isle of Blasket, which must have been a very important factor in the lives of the inhabitants of Blasket, and many of the songs are well-known love songs, but perhaps have a slight adaptation which would give them a great feel for Blasket Island.”
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 the preference was given to local people’s names, such as Peiði Seaisi, Aine Cheaist, etc. a type of naming custom that is still very much practiced in the Gaeltacht,” Rionach explains. “The earlier edition used a more ‘official’ name, e.g. Padraig O Cearnaigh and Áine Ui Laoithe.”
“Dad used to tell us that you could always tell the islanders when they were walking around town because they would walk behind each other”
Aoife Granville is one of the contemporary contributors, along with her sister Deirdre, to this new collection. A fiddler and flute player as well as a singer, Aoife holds a PhD in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. A native of Dingle, she is imbued with the music of Blasket.
“We always heard a lot from dad, but also from my grandmother because her sister got married on the island and died in childbirth, so my grandmother went and lived there for a few years,” says Aoife, recounting the circumstances. it must have changed her grandmother’s life at the time. “In the stories we heard, there was always a great connection to the islands.” Dad used to tell us that you could always tell the islanders when they were walking around town, because they would walk behind each other, like they would on an island.”
For Aoife, listening to island music as a special collection highlighted the richness of island life experience in many ways.
“I remember Beauti an Oileain very vividly when it first came out, because although I heard some of them played on Raidio na Gaeltachta, I didn’t hear them so clearly and so well. So I always felt a strong connection and the more I got into playing slow songs and songs, I just loved them, and I loved that they had traditional fiddle playing on the island and they were amazing masters as well.”
It is not surprising that songs and shows with a maritime theme are in the large repertoire of the islanders. Port na bPucai is a celebrated slow sound loved by the late Tony McMahon and recently revisited by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, the album’s title comes from a song written in honor of a naomhog (currach) race that featured a naomhog called Beauty.
“I love the fact that there’s a song written about the Naomhog race!” says Aoife, laughing. “I think it’s amazing.” In some songs and music, the rhythm of rowing can be heard. I always imagined many of them singing songs while rowing. So I think the sea influenced both the songs and the rhythms of the music. And I loved the connection to the underworld that they often had, and the pisoge around the sea. For example, it was a very bad omen if they heard a woman whistling the day before they went out for their naomhoga.”
The inclusion of three songs from Roisin Ni Cheileichair adds further richness to this updated collection.
“The chain is not broken,” Rinoah says, with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. “Roisin Ni Cheileichair is Dalai’s granddaughter (Muiris O Dalaigh), who plays the accordion. There are also previously unreleased archival recordings of the Dalaigh speaking about Port na bPucai and consecrating it. So there’s a lot to discover here.”
Beauti an Isleain, released by Claddagh Records, will be presented at Ionad an Blascaod on August 4. claddaghrecords.com