A tranquil masterpiece from Armagh

A tranquil masterpiece from Armagh

DAVE McNALLY reviews Seven Daughters of the Sea by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin

THERE is a stillness at the centre of Co. Armagh singer, song writer and collector Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s new album, Seven Daughters of the Sea. The songs, all self-composed and sung mostly in Irish, reach back to ancient Irish myths, goddesses and rituals, especially those that invoke strong female figures, the goddess Brigid a particular inspiration throughout. The music on the other hand, whilst taking Irish traditional music as its starting point, encompasses a wider range of musical reference points.

Seven Daughters of the Sea is Ní Uallacháin’s tenth studio album and her third of new compositions. She is also the author of a celebrated book A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel, and in 2018 received the Gradam Ceoil TG4 award for Outstanding Contribution to Traditional Music. The album is produced by Ní Uallacháin’s nephew, fiddle player Dónal O’Connor, who also plays a variety of instruments, and there is substantial input on guitar and fretless bass from Steve Cooney (who was involved in a number of her earlier albums). There are also contributions by Indian classical bansuri (flute) player Rajat Prasanna, U.S. rock guitarist Steve Vai, Scottish piper Fin Moore and Ní Uallacháin’s son Macdara Ó Graham on vocal drones.

Much of the beauty of the music comes from the uncluttered nature of the accompaniment. O’Connor’s piano leads the melody on Samhradh Buí (Buí’s Summer), a modern Aisling, or dream poem, with Prasanna’s bansuri the only other instrument which appears almost imperceptibly and weaves around the magnificent vocal, like an ancient echo. Prasanna leads off Mian mo Chroí (My Heart’s Desire), in a hypnotic conversation with Ní Uallacháin’s singing, against a hushed background electronic hum. Ní Uallacháin spent time studying in India and the influence of Indian classical music and chants is evident across much of the album.

Mórmháthair (Great Mother) has the feel of a Scottish waulking song, lovely rhythmic singing, and gorgeous unassuming musical support from Cooney’s guitar and O’Connor’s fiddle. The drone of Moore’s small pipes and Ó Graham vocal, together with a touch of (programmed) tabla, carry the beautiful Colm Bán na Síochana (White Dove of Peace), a song commissioned as part of the 1500 years commemoration in 2022 of the death Colmcille (Columba) who travelled from Donegal to the Scottish island of Iona and set up the monastery there.

The title track Seven Daughters of the Sea is a glorious chant, invoking a blessing for each individual in a troubled world, sung in both Irish and English, the Irish lyrics a section of an incantation from 6th century Ireland for safety on the journey of life. U.S. rock guitarist Steve Vai (a track on one his albums was inspired by a song from Ní Uallacháin’s first album) adds a subtle contemporary layer to the rhythms of ancient Irish culture played by Cooney and O’Connor.

Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin has, with O’Conner’s deft production and shrewd marshalling of high-class musical support, made an album of exquisite calmness, bringing ancient themes to bear in our unsettled times.