Here is an interview with Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill fro, today's Irish Times:
'The most important thing is never to lose sight of
what you're good at. No-one else does what I do.'
Singer Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill talks to Victoria
She doesn't realise it, of course, but there is an echo in her
conversation. This is how Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill describes
her famous aunt Néilí, 14 years dead but recognised as one of
the most important sources of Donegal traditional song: "She
said, 'Leave me a tape recorder and I'll do it myself. She knew
she wasn't well. She was saying: 'Take everything you can from
me, because there's no-one behind me.' She was on a mission."
And this is how she describes the re-issuing, this year, of the
one album she made as Skara Brae, with her brother,
Mícheál, her sister, Tríona, and Dáithí Sproule, in 1971: "It
was made in an afternoon, with a microphone hanging out of
the ceiling. I was 15, Tríona was 17 and Mícheál was 19 or
20. They were the first traditional songs done to guitars -
the first time the pop music thing was brought to the Irish
language. It would be lovely if people knew where it all
I pressurised Gael Linn to reissue the album. I was on a
Tonight, the three Ó Domhnaill siblings will take the stage
Whitla Hall for the Belfast Festival to revisit the sound
on that lone Gael Linn CD. Dáithí Sproule, who plays with
Altan, has decided to let sleeping CDs lie, but like Tríona and
Míche& acute;al he has recently returned from the US to live
in Ireland. This return gives the story a pleasing circularity.
The Ó Domhnaills were a large part of the energy which threw
the clay of traditional music onto a wheel and coaxed it into
shape it is in today. Jim McCloskey of the University of Santa
Cruz writes in his sleeve notes for the re-issued album, Skara
Brae, how the music formed over summers back in Rannafast,
Co Donegal, where the Ó Domhnaills' roots were, but from
where they had been banished by the scheme to transplant
native Irish speakers to the rich pastures of Meath.
Here, they would meet the annual influx of Irish-college
students, such as Sproule, from Derry, as well as full-time
Donegal dwellers such as Ciarán and Pól Brennan of the
Clannad family. "Somewhere," McCloskey writes, "there is a
tape of Feidlimidh in the Sky with Diamonds, an interweaving
of Baidin Fheidhlimidh and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,
sung by many voices on a sunny afternoon in a classroom of
the Irish college - emblematic of the influences which were
shaping the direction of musical growth."
The year after Skara Brae was released, the band members
went their separate ways: Michael worked with Mick Hanley
on the Celtic Folkweave album, Tríona recorded a solo album
with Gael Linn, and then they both joined, with Tommy
Peoples and Donal Lunny, what is still (though it is 20 years
dead) the most influential band in Irish traditional music, The
And Maighréad went to Dublin to study nursing: "I was that bit
younger and I had this very strong sense that you have to
achieve something in a career first." She never did midwifery,
however, because she went on a roistering tour of the US, to
celebrate the US Bicentennial, with a group including Junior
Crehan, Micho Russell, De Dannan, and others, numbering 26
Only nine came home, and these included Maighréad. She had
good reason: "I met Cathal (Goan, now director of TnaG), in
Rannafast when I was 16 or 17 - I kept ringing him from the
States and saying: `I'm staying another few days'. But I came
home to get married.
"He was fascinated with my father. I think in some ways I was
quite jealous of my father (Hiúdaí), when he'd be up
discussing songs with him at night. Cathal's big love was the
music, the songs. My father died four months to the day of our
wedding, which was tragic, but in some ways Cathal took up
where my father left off. I'll always ask his advice on a song.
"He found Róise na nAmhrán's stuff (the songs of an
Arranmore singer who died in the 1960s) at the time I was
pregnant, which was why I called my first child Róise.
Prionnsías Ó Conluain had recorded them in the 1940s and
1950s for RTÉ. And he had so much time for Néilí and all her
Goan, a Belfastman fascinated (like so many others at the time)
by the culture of the Donegal Gaeltacht, had found a wife with
a heaven-sent voice and several direct lines to the song
tradition: "When I went to see Dancing at Lughnasa, it
reminded me so much of Néilí," says Maighréad. "The knitting.
She had gone blind in her youth and she'd feel the size of you
and feel the wool to knit for you. We all remember . . . the
clock ticking and the knitting needles going.
"The songs seemed to come through the women in our family.
The women at home together - the instruments were to do with
the men and being out. If she heard a song twice, she'd have it.
The child ballads, the night visit songs - although her English
wasn't great. And stories. She couldn't read, but she had this
great retention of words. If there was anybody different in the
town, they'd be invited in for an oíche airneáil."
The Bothy Band - "fiery, brilliant and self-destructive", as Jim
McCloskey calls it - finally burned in its own flames in 1979,
ensuring it a kind of Jeff Buckley status in traditional
scattering its members far and wide. Both Tríona and Mícheál
went to the US, and eventually joined forces again in the fusion
bands, Relativity and Night Noise. "The New Age thing" is
how Ní Dhomhnaill describes the niche into which
Irish-influenced music falls in the US, if you are to make a
living, and she is scathing about so-called "Celtic music": "Hot
tub music, I call it - I just don't see the point." While her
siblings traversed the US continent, Maighréad was looking
after her two children in Dublin, and working part-time on
nights as a theatre nurse in Mount Carmel hospital in Dublin: "I
loved theatre," she says, with passion.
She doesn't for a moment regret she has turned fully
professional as a singer so relatively late: "The most important
thing for me still is to marry it with my private life. To be
pick and choose. I was there when my children came in from
school with their little stories."
She is suddenly worried that she is sounding sanctimonious:
"It's you yourself who miss out. Children are resilient."
Meanwhile, behind the kitchen units, her astonishing voice was
maturing and Cathal was feeding it with songs. "Gael Linn kept
at me to make an album. Eventually, I rang up Donal Lunny
and asked him would he be interested in producing it. Half an
hour later he was on his bike outside my door. On his bike. I
always remember that."
They released Gan Dhá Phingin Spré (Without Two Pence of a
Dowry), an album of songs, in 1991. The title comes from the
opening verse of An Cl&[acute;IT]ar Bog Deal (The Soft Deal
Board), surely one of the most passionate and beautiful love
songs in any language:
"Phosfainn thú gan bó gan puntaí gan dhá phingin spré
Leagfainn fúm thú maidin drúchta le banú an lae
Mo ghalar dúnta gan mé agus tú, a ghrá mo chléibh
I gCaiseal Dubh is gan de leaba fuinn ach an clár bog
It can't be translated, of course, but Cathal Goan makes this
"I would marry you without a cow, without pounds,
without tuppence dowry
I would lay you beneath me on a dewy morning at the
dawn of day
It is my complete affliction that you, my darling love, and I
are not at Caiseal Dubh with nothing for a bed beneath us
but a soft deal board."
What she calls the "biggie" on the album is Amhrán Pheadar
Breathnach - always referred to as Amhran Pheter Walsh after
the popular songsmith from Glenfin, Donegal, who lived around
the middle of the last century. This, his best-known song, is
hot on story-line - it's about a young man on the run, who
meets a young woman and downs an epic number of pints.
Maighréad got the words from her aunt Néilí and Cathal
discovered a new air to it. What happened then was that it was
reimagined in the sweeps of Donal Lunny's bouzouki and went
out to dance on the Middle Eastern edges of Irish music.
Jim McCloskey calls the album "the high point of Irish
recorded music in the 1990s", and since its appearance few
have disputed his claim that Maighréad is "the foremost
traditional singer of her generation". After lying dormant for a
couple of years, the album took off, was licensed by JVC in
Japan, and has been "licensed out of existence" in the US.
Her collaborations with Lunny have continued: she features on
his recent Coolfin album, and has been touring with the Coolfin
band: "I love getting out there," she says, "and it's an
opportunity to do songs as I did them on the album. But on the
album, there was no percussion. Coolfin's is a loud sound."
Maighréad is determined (in the way only a woman who says,
"life begins at 40, you can actually stand up and be yourself"
can be determined) not to shift anchor from the seabed of her
music. "I feel the next step for me is Tríona and I. She's come
back from the US after 17 years - all that time, we could have
been together." Donal Lunny will produce this album, and a
large, mainstream company is expressing keen interest.
There will be a Breton song on the album, collected from Sarah
Gaudec, and Mary Smith from Lewis will teach them a Scots
Gaelic song; Inis Dhún Ramha will be there and An Chrúbach
will feature. Written by an ancestor of the sisters, it is
cow who jumps off Tory Island in desperation and swims away
- "I heard recently they were getting a bull in Tipperary to
to Tory. I wonder will it die of loneliness, there's only one
on Tory," comments Maighréad, like a true Donegal
"Cathal keeps saying to me, there are so many songs, don't
ever feel you'll run out. He can transcribe the words of
toothless old grannies. It's the only relaxation he gets,
Now, Maighréad, who was the nurse and the mother while
Tríona was the voice of the Bothy Band, sings the melodies
and Tríona the harmonies. Is there rivalry between them?
"Actually, there isn't. There are songs like A
st&[acute;IT]or, a ghr&[acute;IT]a, where she has always
taken the lead, but she would never attempt An
Cl&[acute;IT]ar Bog Deal. I have the more powerful voice,
but I can't play like her. She can read music and went up to
grade eight in piano."
A cause for regret is "she missed my children being born. But
she was going through a period of her life when she was doing
her thing." She adds: "She used to fight my battles for me - now
I fight them for her."
When the Ó Domhnaill siblings take the stage tonight, the sense
of history revisited will raise the hair on the back of the
anyone who loves Irish music. For Maighréad, it will be final
proof that staying mulishly at home, in Ireland, singing her
as she has always sung them, has not meant she has
squandered her gift of a voice: "I am one of the few people left
who can say the song tradition was handed down to me. The
most important thing is never to lose sight of what you're good
at. No-one else does what I do."
Maighréad, Tríona and Míche& acute;al Ó Domhnaill
play tonight with Liam O'Flynn at the Whitla Hall, Belfast
at 7.30 p.m