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Ireland’s national broadcaster awards Bilingua 5 Stars

27/01/15

Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s untimely passing in 1999 deprived this country of one of its finest singers, a deeply sensitive interpreter of songs from the Irish tradition, as well as being a fine flute-player and craftswoman of new music herself.

Some of us thought in fact that she was the best, a sense enhanced perhaps by her winning charm and unforgettable warmth. She was married to the equally wonderful fiddle player Gerry O’Connor, and they met up as young musicians back in the seventies.

They fronted the band Lá Lugh, which your reviewer was fortunate to have seen at the Harcourt Hotel sometime in the mid-1990s. Lá Lugh’s very fine Breton guitarist Gilles Le Bigot was the perfect foil for Eithne’s darkly plangent voice. Listen to La Lugh’s version of Lough Erne Shore, truly one of the most magisterial performances in Irish song.

Bilingua is the first solo album by the singer, and it contains traditional songs and original compositions which Eithne recorded between 1997 and 1999. Grief is a particularly moving piece, incorporating the ancient lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire with new words from Eithne herself.

The Fisherman – featuring a guide vocal laid down by Eithne – was completed with great vision by the host of talented musicians involved in this project, including Gilles Le Bigot, whose melody it is. Eithne wrote the lyrics, and she had planned to add more verses. Bone and Lughnasa Damhsa are two further outstanding tracks, both vastly different, but superbly arranged.

Táim Cortha Ó Bheith im’ Aonar I mo Luí is an old macaronic song, wedding Irish and English verses. Eithne sings it with seemingly great ease, and an oboe and string quartet colour it beautifully.

Senex Puer – itself the title track of a previous Lá Lugh album –haunts with vocal layerings set to an understated jauntily reggae beat. The album embraces a fresh, experimental impulse, introducing electric guitar on the final song, Eithne’s own Winter Snow, based on a Middle Irish poem about the season.

The record is presented, as it were, by her husband Gerry, who contributes sterling fiddle accompaniment, and her son Dónal. Dónal is a professional musician who has performed with the band At First Light, aside from time spent with Lá Lugh. Notes on the background and origins of the songs are unfailingly informative and contain contributions from Dónal and from Eithne herself, who was a passionate Irish scholar, constantly investigating old manuscripts and ancient sources.

The hard cover, book-like production contains a long biographical essay detailing Eithne’s story, complete with photos from her life. The (sometimes) bi-lingual lyrics are reproduced and there are glowing tributes from five Irish singers, including Mary Black and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill.

“The quality of her voice and the beauty of her style were unmistakable,” writes Maighread. “Once that sound went into your head, it also went to your heart and stayed there.”

That observation is so true in fact that those of us privileged to have known Eithne, even a little, feel we could somehow phone her now and tell her she has produced a gem beyond price.

Also available from Gael Linn is Cosa Gan Bhróga, Lá Lugh’s debut album, originally released in 1987, featuring Eithne Ní Uallacháin with Gerry O’Connor on fiddle and Desi Wilkinson on flute. The album was reissued in 2013 with an informative booklet of lyrics, notes etc

Paddy Kehoe