With a voice once described by Time Out Magazine as being ‘as clear and brittle as hand-blown crystal’, Eithne Ní Uallacháin is widely recognised as having been one of Ireland’s finest traditional singers.
Described by her siblings as being of quiet disposition and a listener, there was a certain inevitability that Eithne would become a singer. The seventh of eight children, she was born into a Gaelic speaking household in 1957 to Pádraig Ó Huallacháin a school inspector from Dundalk, and Eithne Devlin, a teacher from Cullyhanna, South Armagh. Eithne’s parents shared a great love of song, Gaelic language, local history and music, a passion which was actively passed on to their children.
Her father, a singer, was immersed in the traditions of the Donegal Gaeltacht from a young age. His repertoire included songs learned in the company of great singers such as Méabha Tharlaigh Mhóir, Máire John and Neillí Mhór of Rann na Feirste along with songs collected from the last Gaelic speakers of the Cooley Peninsula. Eithne’s sister Padraigín recalls, “… as a school inspector, he would travel extensively and during those journeys, he would sing us every song in his repertoire, encouraging us to make up new songs”.
This rich cultural bilingual background would subsequently influence and inform Eithne’s own song writing and music. Reflecting on her upbringing, Eithne wrote, “I was born into a passionate, intelligent family, whose passion for the Irish language, for literature and for learning, was the foundation stone on which all my music was based. My father’s love of song steered the course and purpose of my life.”
Studying at the University of Ulster, Coleraine during the 1970’s, Eithne befriended many traditional singers and musicians, amongst them Brian Mullen, Gary Hastings, Diana Skillen and Ciarán Curran. She took up the flute and continued to develop a deep interest in traditional music, particularly song, while immersed in this passionate and fun loving musical community.
At home in Dundalk during college breaks, and keen to get involved in the local traditional music scene, Eithne struck up a friendship with Gerry O’Connor, an established young fiddle player living in the area. This friendship would lead to a life long musical partnership. Gerry recalls being invited to Séan Corcoran’s home in Drogheda on New Year’s Eve 1976 for a party, following a session in Carberry’s Pub: “Eithne invited me for a New Year’s Day session in Balloo House, County Down where her college friends and local musicians, including Ernie Swain and the legendary fiddle player Jackie Donnan, were gathered. By now our match was made!”
Regarded as two talented young musicians who could hold their own in any company, the duo regularly performed at sessions and festivals throughout Ireland. During this time, Eithne and Gerry regularly visited the McConnell household in County Fermanagh and the McHales at The Western, Ballaghadereen, spending time with revered older musicians such as Mick Hoy, Eddie Duffy and Johnny ‘Watt’ Henry. This was to become the couple’s way of life during these early days together.
Eithne and Gerry married in 1978 and later that year, their first child, Dónal, was born. They now focused their energy on reinterpreting the music and song of Oriel, an area encompassing the counties of Louth, Armagh and Monaghan. In 1983, they teamed up with Desi Wilkinson, a well-known flute player from Belfast, to record their first studio album for Gael Linn, Cosa gan Bhróga. Gerry recalls that Eithne, “revelled in her time in the studio as she began to realise the potential she had within her as a singer song-writer”.
The early 1980’s saw Eithne and Gerry move back to their native Dundalk where Eithne took up a teaching post in Gaelscoil Dhún Dealgan, a post which she held for 15 years. By the mid-1980s, and following the birth of two more children, Siubhán and Feilimí, the couple were spending an increasing amount of time performing and teaching throughout Europe. In 1990, during a weekend of workshops and concerts held in La Chapelle Neuve, France, Eithne met with Breton guitarist Gilles le Bigot. She immediately recognised the possibilities that Gilles’ sympathetic guitar accompaniment could offer to her interpretation of traditional Irish song and Gilles was invited to Ireland to play on Eithne and Gerry’s second album, Lá Lugh.
In preparation for the album, Eithne continued to focus her attention on researching the music and songs of the Oriel region, revisiting the collections of Lorcán Ó Muirí and Enrí Ó Muiríosa. Songs she had learned from traditional singers such as Len Graham, Sarah Makem and Róise Bean Uí Ghrianna were also included on the album alongside two traditional songs for which Eithne composed new melodies, Mál Bhán Ní Chuilleannáin and Oíche fá Fhéil Bríde. Supported by sound engineer, Shaun ‘Mudd’ Wallace and musicians such as Garry Ó Briain, Neil Martin and Gilles le Bigot, Eithne and Gerry created a musical dynamic on the album that stood apart from other recordings of that time.
Historically, County Louth took its name from the pre-Christian God Lugh Lámhfhada or Long Handed Lugh. Lugh was also the ancient Celtic god of creativity. Lá Lugh was therefore chosen by the couple as the title for their newly formed group to highlight and celebrate the music and song tradition of the area where they lived, and from where they drew their inspiration.
Performing with Lá Lugh gave Eithne an opportunity to introduce the music of Oriel to an international audience for the first time. Eithne’s life settled into an enjoyable mix of creativity, travelling, performing and family life; as Feilimí remembers: “We were very much involved in her life, staying with her in the studio while recording or travelling the length and breadth of Ireland and further afield on Lá Lugh tours which often doubled up as family holidays”.
In 1993, Eithne toured German in the company of Capercaillie and performed with Gilles le Bigot Dan ar Braz’ Heritage des Celtes. Enthused by these experiences, she began to focus further on writing new songs and melodies. Although she still enjoyed performing, it was apparent that Eithne was deriving more pleasure in the creative process of writing and recording new material.
In April 1995, with Eithne having recovered from an initial period of illness, Lá Lugh embarked on recording their second album, Brighid’s Kiss. Her more recent touring experiences inspired Eithne to draw upon various world music influences and these rhythms and sounds were now emerging in Eithne’s original compositions, which featured prominently on the album.
Omeath Music and Brighid’s Kiss, the title track to the album, demonstrated Eithne’s ability to gather snippets of old songs and to develop them with new melodies; or to take old airs and to match them with newly written lyrics. This, in turn, influenced the writing of entirely new compositions such as Tá Sé ‘na Lá, a play on the song Nil Sé ‘na Lá, which was inspired by the positive developments in the peace process in the North of Ireland. The more traditional track, Babóg na Bealtaine, with the original melody, was dedicated to Eithne’s fourth child, Finnian, who was born during the early stages of the album’s preparation.
Released in 1995, the album was hailed by critics as “stunning” (The Living Tradition), “irresistible” (The Sunday Times), “singularly beautiful” (The Irish Times) and was described by Folk Roots Magazine as “an outstanding album of daring originality”. The album also received Irish Music Magazine’s highly coveted ‘Album of the Year’ award in 1996.
In 1997, Lá Lugh signed to global independent music publisher, Peer Music. This marked a new phase in Eithne’s development and led to Eithne and Gerry signing with Sony Music (France) later that year. The group’s fourth album, Senex Puer, was released on the Sony Classical label and included previously recorded tracks from Lá Lugh and Brighid’s Kiss, along with two new songs previously licensed to German label, Wundertute Recordings. Sony also released two of Eithne’s songs, Senex Puer and Ta sé na Lá, as dance mixes on the label.
This was a time of great musical activity for Eithne, performing and composing new material and also presenting a paper on traditional song at the prestigious Merriman Summer School in County Clare. Touring also became a family affair, with Dónal, Eithne and Gerry’s eldest son, joining Lá Lugh on keyboards.
In 1997, having recovered from a further bout of illness, Eithne returned to the studio to record new material for her forthcoming solo album and for a new Lá Lugh album. Her involvement in creative groups such as ELF (Experiencing Life’s Fullness) where groups of friends would meet to read Greek and Celtic poetry and mythology, inspired much of Eithne’s creative writing and song composition during this time.
Bilingua, Eithne’s first solo album, is a blend of newly composed and traditional songs recorded in Homestead Studios, County Antrim between 1997 and 1999. Recorded over 15 years ago, this contemporary album is a clear reflection of the creative course on which Eithne’s song writing and composition was heading before her untimely death in May 1999. It celebrates the life and legacy of an inspirational singer and composer who left us all too soon.
As a family, we are proud to present this body of work and we are grateful for the love, strength and creative energy Eithne has given to us all. Bain sult as!