Four years in the making, and the source material dates back millennia.
To create Preabmeadar, Daire Ó Breacáin and Lorcán Mac Mathúna have combined the two greatest instruments of Irish music, the fiddle and the human voice. But the two have never quite been combined in this way before.
In the Irish oral tradition, poetry based on a strict syllabic structure, with complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration, was developed by the early bards. The technique ensured their work could be passed on word for word and lose none of its original impact. Through generations, the hereditary bards performed the roles of chroniclers, satirists and genealogists for those in power. Their work could enthral, terrify and delight. Their legacy provides us with an insight into the society of pre-Christian Ireland that culminated in 500 years of the richest vein of historic Irish literature, the Dán Díreach.
Fiddler, composer, songwriter, teacher Daire Ó Breracáin is a founding member of Slide & Danú. Growing up in Dublin, he soaked up the influences of some of the country’s most accomplished traditional musicians. His eclectic and exuberant fiddle style has resulted in a wealth of collaborative work in several musical disciplines, and he’s performed with a wide range of artists including Stockton’s Wing, Salsa Celtica, the Black Family and Niamh Parsons.
Lorcán Mac Mathúna’s work is well known to Folk Radio UK visitors. His ground-breaking projects Dubh Agus Geal (Northern Lights) and An Táin (Deep End Of The Ford) have brought ancient voices to a modern audience; with his mix of contemporary influences and mastery of the traditional sean-nós approach to singing. As part of the Fleadh Cheoil 2013, and the Derry City of Culture celebrations, Lorcán composed Derry to the Sea – a specially commissioned song cycle which celebrates the Foyle and the history of Derry from its founding to the present day.
In Preabmeadar, Daire and Lorcán have utilised the ancient, complex patterns of bardic poetry as a basis for contemporary dance music and song. In October, they provided us with a glimpse of what Preab Meadar holds in store on Folk Radio UK, with a preview of The Lion and Fox (Séadnadh Mór). At last the album is complete and the fruits of their labour are ready for us to enjoy.
The Lion And Fox (Séadnadh Mór) provides an opening of ghostly whispers and an urgent fiddle paints pictures of deception. Tadgh Dall Ó Huiggín’s 16th century poem uses the device of an old fable to comment on the treacherous political landscape leading up to the nine-years’ war, two decades before the collapse of the world of the Gaelic chieftains.
Intensity rises throughout and the listener is carried away on the dizzying combination of Daire’s fiddle and Lorcán’s intricately layered vocals.
In the earliest works that have inspired much of this album, medieval scribes would scribble fragments of ancient poems in margins of illuminated texts they were laboriously producing. In Rannaighneacht Ghairid this compelling glimpse of ancient poetry, its structures and its adherents has fuelled the imagination of Lorcán & Daire, putting to their own music the ‘Dramatis Personae’ of the unknown author.
An opening of tumbling chants amid percussive fiddle leads to a stirring rendition of the venerable lines. The complexity of the stratified fiddle parts quickly takes on hypnotic qualities, perhaps reflecting on wandering consciousness of the scribes.
To restrict the complexities of these hereditary forms to the words they originally conveyed would do them a disservice. Daire and Lorcán are eminently capable of bringing their contemporary skills to the table. Over ten years ago Daire wrote Sé Dúirt Sé, the song that first sparked his interest in the complex medieval Irish poetry of the Dán Díreach. A hauntingly gentle vocal performance is accompanied by layers of pizzicato and bowed strings. The effect is a meandering ramble that belies the intricate structure from which it draws its inspiration.
Captain Rock is Typical of Lorcán Mac Mathúna’s dramatic, storytelling in song. Social unrest was heading rapidly towards full scale rebellion in Ireland between 1819 and 1922. Captain Rock was the name given to the leaders of the rebellious tenant farmers. As well as giving us non-Gaelic speakers something to get our teeth into, with rising intensity throughout and the powerful imagery of Lorcán’s lyrics this is modern story telling at its soul-stirring best.
Famine stalks the winter fields, and frost grows thick on the hearth each night
In contrast, Cladach An Bháis showcases Lorcán’s equal skill in creating, and delivering a lament. Telling, and commenting on, a story in two parts. In this and the more fiery and invocative Farraigí An Tuaiscirt, Lorcan’s words capture Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845, and highlight how the hardship endured by its members captured the imagination, and the hearts, of English society; while the horror of the famine in Ireland barely registered interest. Daire creates a strident and powerful fiddle among the sadness of the first and sets the flame to Farraigí An Tuaiscirt.
In the early 19th Century, Irish gangs known as factions, fuelled by class divisions as much as a love of fighting, would exalt in violent conflict wherever they could find it. Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin’s poem from the early 19th Century, Do Shaoileas Nár Bhaoil Dom, tells the tale of when he was set upon by a faction. Lorcán’s vocal is the epitome of the Sean-nós tradition, while Daire’s exhilarating fiddle paints a vivid scene of mayhem.
Dance is just as important an aspect of these illustrious traditions, and in Deachnadh Bheag Daire & Lorcán explore the intricacies of a forerunner to the Dán Díreach metres in a light-stepping dance and a bewilderingly elaborate vocal, taken from an 11th century poem, Samhradh (Summer).
A blend of Ireland and Scandinavia is never far away when Lorcán gets to work. In the beautifully lilting Aoibhinn, his lyrics are set to a blend of the traditional tunes: Fead An Iolar (The Eagle’s Whistle) and Fine. It’s fitting that an album of such academic complexity should also include something that celebrates joy for its own sake. This perfectly complements Daire Ó Breacáin’s instrumental Teacht Slán As Anfa – lively, invigorating and brim-full of Nordic charm.
Said to date back almost three thousand years the mystical poem (The Incantation of ) Amergin, uttered by the legendary bard, tells the story of the first invasion of Ireland by the Millesians. Lorcán delivers an ethereal rendition of the poem in spoken English and sung Gaelic, amid intense atmospheres; invoking the power of the ancient poet-sorcerer and the wonder of his kinsmen. The effect is spell-binding.
The album’s credits close with thanks to ‘Amergin for inventing poetry’.
A further contrast between the ancient and modern is offered in Tempest (Deibhide). Although attributed to a 7th century poet named Rumann, this invocation of a stormy seascape dates from the 11th century but adopts a modern approach that somehow still manages to hark back to ancient times. Fiddle and bass are on a late pass from a jazz club amid chanting that seems to reference Nordic throat singing as much as it does Gaelic mouth music. As with Amergin, Daire and Lorcán combine these disparate flavours to mesmerising effect.
The 14th century poem Snéadbhairdne is set to a whirlwind fiddle from Daire, closing the album with a fiery, dancing flourish.
I’ve been listening to this album for a week and have barely scratched the surface. It’s so easy to become completely engrossed in the unique, ethereal beauty of the music itself, but there’s so much more in this recording to explore, to revel in, to wonder at. There are extensive sleeve notes for those who’d like to know more about the influence those ancient poetic metres have brought to bear on the work. And more still, on the archaic stories retold in this captivating modern setting. Preab Meadar is far more than a recording; it’s a contemporary window on the work of the earliest bards, on the origins of poetry itself. Preab Meadar is also further reaching than academic study – it reaches into the ancient, inherited consciousness of the listener, it brings the voices of the past to the modern ear.
Daire & Lorcan’s understanding of their art has resulted in a highly enlightening piece of work. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Released via Mac Mathuna and Bracken 9th November 2014
Order via their website: www.preabmdr.com