Various artists’ Gaelic Voices

cover art for Gaelic VoicesPatrick O’Donnell wrote this review.

The Gaelic languages are, to my ears, the most beautiful in the world. I don’t think any of the Romance languages can hold a candle to the poetry, grace and strength contained in a single word of any of the three main dialects, which Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines as Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic.

Gaelic Voices – the sequel to Green Linnet’s Celtic Voices – is like opening a history book on the Celts and jumping into the pages to catch a first-hand glimpse of the past: a wedding on Rathlin Island; a dance in the Hebrides; the weaving of a tartan in the Highlands. But the album is more than a look at what has been. It’s also a chronicle of what is and a source of hope for what has yet to come.

Gaelic is considered a “live” language; in other words (pun intended), it is still spoken in day-to-day conversation for other than the purposes of study. But it wasn’t always so. The numbers of those who understand Gaelic are not great. According to one study, the percentage of Ireland’s population (all 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland and the six of Northern Ireland) that still have an understanding of Gaelic is just 23.5 percent.

It’s a problem that can be traced all the way back to the Tudor and Stuart conquests of the 1500s. When the British usurped rule of Ireland, they insisted English be the language of all government and public institutions, including schools. Gaelic, in essence, was banned. Scotland shares a similar story.

Yet the language, like the people, survived. Institutions that taught Gaelic sprang up, it was still spoken in pubs and shops and households, and those who refused to give up their mother tongue became a living record of the language, passing it down from generation to generation.

And now the popularity of all things Celtic has rekindled an interest in Gaelic and the other Celtic languages. People are still studying it, writing it, and singing in it.

Take, for example, Kila, a bright band from Ireland that’s writing original songs in Gaelic. The group of seven is creating music that bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary. The instrumentation on “Tog e Go Bog e” (“Take it Easy”), the disc’s fifth track, is supported with a strong, hypnotic bodhran backbone that creates a tribal, almost trance-like feel. The Gaelic lyrics carry a message of support and reassurance, encouraging the listener to look within for strength when life’s daily struggles begin to burden one’s shoulders.

Gaelic Voices opens in Scotland with the bright, bouncy sound of Sileas (Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster) chanting “Laill Leathag,” which is a waulking song: lyrics sung to the rhythm created by the beating of cloth. The weavers would keep time with each “whack!” upon the material, a method that shrinks the cloth after it comes off the loom, and, in this example, muse upon the beauty of MacIntosh’s daughter Margaret, her wedding, and what the guests wore. It’s a piece that takes the listener back to a time before radios kept us company at work and where people created their own entertainment, instead of paying exorbitant sums of money to have others do it for them.

Altan’s “Donal,” the second track, gives us a peek at the treasures lost when Gaelic started dying out. According to the liner notes, only two verses of this traditional wedding song from Rathlin Island, which is off the coast of northeast Ireland, have survived. Altan member Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh’s father wrote two additional verses to fill the song out. How much more music has been forever silenced? We’ll probably never know.

The Bothy Band contributes a stunning example of mouth music, which is a cappella, nonsensical vocalizations used to create a melody for dancing. The disc’s third track, “Fionnghuala,” traces its origin to the outer Hebrides and makes use of a layered melody created by switching back and forth between a solo verse and a harmonized verse.

Capercaillie follows up with a version that, while not fitting the strict definition, is labeled “mouth music” all the same. “Puirt a Beul” (which translates to “mouth music”) is accompanied by drums, bouzouki, keyboards and bass. The band switches to a cappella once, then continues with the accompaniment. While it’s a fine song in its own right, it’s a little disheartening to see the piece labelled “mouth music” when it’s really a contemporary arrangement that borrows from the traditional form. A better explanation of this in the liner notes is needed, and it’s one of my few complaints about this compilation.

The Irish band Reeltime tackles “Sile,” a traditional song with a modern arrangement that combines guitar, accordion, keyboards and percussion for a unique experience. Though the song’s gentle, lilting lyrics and subdued instrumentation create a perfect sound, herein lies another one of my complaints: no translation for the lyrics. If the language is to be preserved and its beauty to be showcased, the disc’s liner notes should be consistent in providing a translation for every song (other than, of course, the two tracks that make use of mouth music). Though Green Linnet makes note in the liner that translations are provided by the musicians, I feel they should have gone the extra step for those that weren’t. Although perhaps this method can serve as an incentive to get people who have an interest in the language to actually devote time to studying it, it also could have served as a better learning tool.

Altan follows up Reeltime with “Moll Dubh a Ghleanna,” a tribute to “Dark Molly.” The liner notes explain that while most of Ireland regards “Dark Molly” as a woman of great beauty, in Altan’s home of Donegal she’s a pre-teen still. The song’s metaphoric message is similar to that of the oft-covered “Nancy Whiskey”: too many young men are spending time trying to win the favor of a harsh mistress. One particularly clever line is translated to: “So mannerly and honestly she said to me this morning, ‘Depart from me and do not come again!’ ”

Ahh, the power of a hangover: Promises we make based on a message we later forsake.

The disc takes a darker, more mournful turn from here. Relativity (former Bothy Band/Silly Wizard members Johnny Cunningham, Phil Cunningham, Micheal O Domhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill) sings “Siun Ni Dhuibhir,” a sorrowful piece about a man who won’t marry the woman he says he loves because her family won’t send a big enough dowry. He’s got enough money, however, to drink away “the price of the boots,” and wallow in his self-pity.

Cherish The Ladies follows with “A Neansai Mhile Gra,” another mournful look at a man’s love for a woman. Guitar, piano and the lonely, longing sound of whistles create a song of sadness and despair. Andy M. Stewart (of Silly Wizard) and Manus Lunny (Capercaillie) contribute “Brid Og Ni Mhaille,” proving that Gaelic and English can peacefully coexist by singing in both languages in this lament of a man’s secret love lost to another.

But, is all really fair in love and war? Bonnie Prince Charles, the hope of Scotland, is celebrated with “Gile Mear,” an air from Relativity. Perhaps if his revolt against the colonizing Brits had turned out better this disc would have quite a different name: English Collection. One can dream.

Sileas bookends this disc, ending it with a keening song, “Pi Li Li Liu,” that seems a fitting way to lament the end of such a beautiful collection of music.

One can only hope that this disc helps to nurture the growing interest in Gaelic – and that Green Linnet sees the wisdom in another in the Gaelic/Celtic Voices series. The 14 tracks of this compilation serve to whet your appetite. The magical feeling it leaves with you makes you hungry for more.

(Green Linnet, 1999)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

More Posts