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MAIRÉAD Ní FHLATHARTA - Ó Chaon Taobh (From Both Sides)

Ó Chaon Taobh (From Both Sides)
Cló Iar-Chonnacht  CICD182

Connemara-born Mairéad is a strong young singer with a clear and commanding voice, who is only now releasing her first commercial recording. Her singing first made its appearance on record on just one track (An Buachaillin Muinte) of the live CD of acts from the 1999 staging of Connemara’s annual Cumar arts-school, since which time she’s been carving herself a career in teaching, somehow also finding time for a masters degree in traditional music and competing in sean-nós competitions. Inevitably Mairéad’s deep love of tradition (strongly rooted in the “great songs” she learned at the feet of the master songsmith Patsy Canavan) shines through powerfully on Ó Chaon Taobh, as does her receptiveness to newer songs, and she doesn’t confine herself to singing in Irish Gaelic (there are three songs in English and even one, Gur Milis Mòrag, rendered in Scottish Gaelic).

Mairéad bravely and uncompromisingly begins the disc with two unaccompanied songs; the opener, a magisterial seven-minute rendition of An Abhainn Mhór, proves mesmerising – and a hard act to follow! Which Mairéad does most stylishly, with a sequence of tracks on which she varies the musical palette almost entirely from song to song, with the judicious application of accompaniment from a pool of excellent musicians with whom she’s worked onstage over the years since her Cumar appearance – Charlie Lennon (piano), Éilis Lennon (fiddle), Steve Cooney and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin (guitars), Sile Denvir (clarsach), Órla Ní Cheallaigh (whistle), Máirín Kerrigan (flute) and Johnny Óg Connolly (accordion). One further unaccompanied sean-nós, Úna Dheas Ní Nia, matchlessly performed and paced, is sensibly placed at the heart of the disc for contrast, sandwiched between two of the songs sung in English (nicely moulded renditions of Loving Hannah and I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose), both of which feature the sensitive guitar playing of Steve Cooney. Fine as Mairéad’s performances in Gaelic are, the disc’s final pair of songs in English are particularly well suited to Mairéad’s thoughtful approach; The Maid On The Shore is blessed with some especially fine instrumental playing and also features some keen vocal harmonising, while Once I Loved (with its freely responsive piano accompaniment) benefits from a passionate use of decoration that informs its basic pulse.

Very occasionally there’s a hint of gruffness in Mairéad’s lower register that isn’t always entirely convincing – on Sadhbh Ní Bhruinnealla the swifter pacing allows her to get away with it, but later on Barr An tSléibhe possibly feels a touch uncertain, if not exactly strained, in comparison. Songs such as Mainistir Na Búille, however, find Mairéad totally in her element, shaping the vocal line to the text with firmness and abundant conviction. And the disc ends on a devotional note with the gorgeous hymnal Críost Liom, Charlie Lennon accompanying Mairéad simply but effectively on the church organ.

This sets the seal on a very lovely record, of which my only criticism lies with its presentation, in that the otherwise admirable booklet doesn’t include English translations for either the song texts or the individual song notes.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 87 of The Living Tradition magazine.