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Dónal O’Connor

In the Spring of 1999, I accompanied my mother, Eithne Ní Uallacháin, and my 4 year old brother, Finnian, to Homestead Recording Studios in Randalstown County Antrim. Eithne was suffering with depression at the time and had been through some serious periods of ill health over the previous 4/5 years. Despite the debilitating nature of her illness, she was determined that her creative output would flourish and she continued throughout this time to document her dreams, engage with other like-minded friends in Co. Louth through the ELF meetings, write poetry and compose new melodies.

Eithne was working on 2 projects at this time – a new Lá Lugh album and her first solo album. Having heard and been very impressed by a track produced by the renowned Uilleann Piper, Davy Spillane, for the great Breton singer Annie Ebrell, Eithne was in discussions with Davy about recording her solo album in his studio alongside the Breton guitarist and erstwhile Lá Lugh colleague, Gilles Le Bigot. However these discussions proved fruitless for one reason or another and she decided to press on herself with the solo album.

Shaun ‘Mudd’ Wallace was invited to take a more active role in the production of the album and I was increasingly called upon for accompaniment ideas and acted as a sounding board for Eithne’s creative composition processes. During this period of recording, Eithne completed the vocal takes on some of the tracks and had recorded guide vocals on the remainder – but this was to be her last visit to the studio. On leaving Randalstown that April, she impressed on me how important it was to her that the songs be completed. In May 1999 she took her own life.

As a family we were devastated. I had just completed 2 years of a Physics degree at Queens University Belfast and had intended to go to the US that summer with my friend Barry Kerr, to play music. I decided to put this trip on hold and, instead moved up to Homestead studios where Mudd Wallace offered me accommodation and some assistant engineering work. Mudd was very unwell himself at this time and, amidst regular visits to the hospital in Antrim and sessions with other artists, we would listen to the tracks Eithne had recorded. We decided to press ahead and complete the tracks.

Up to this point, Gerry and Gilles Le Bigot had recorded their respective fiddle and guitar parts on the album. The Angolan percussionist Mario n’Goma and Dublin bouzouki player Niall O’Callanáin had also completed their tracking. We invited bass guitar player, Nicky Scott (Van Morrison) to lay some bass lines. Neil Martin, a Lá Lugh affiliate from early days, added cello and John McSherry added pipes and whistles. I recall Gerry and John McSherry composing the slow reel on the title track, ‘Bilingua’, whilst sitting in the live room in front of the microphones. John Fitzpatrick was called upon to create string arrangements and string ideas were tossed about, over glasses of wine …The Cure … Nick Drake … Van Morrison’s Madam George …The Beatles … Scott Walker …

We frequently burned the midnight oil, shaping the album in between other artist’s recording sessions, and we began the mix in September 1999 – a process which took 2 full weeks.

Others wondered how I could work on an album of my mother’s so soon after her death. Strangely, I found it a cathartic experience and working with Mudd was such a fun, learning experience. We would bounce ideas off each other – with plenty of slagging! – And, in a way, we were caring for each other at this time.

A combination of contractual issues with record labels and publishers along with key people within these organisations moving on, led to the album falling through the cracks. Allied with the lethargy and numbness induced by grief, the album was shelved. But in 2013, with contractual affairs resolved, we, the family, decided to make one last big push and see the album through to release.

I am immensely proud of Bilingua and quite often wonder what Eithne would make of how it turned out. It is an album which questions and comforts me in equal measures and, having ferried this secret treasure with me for 15 years, I am very happy that the wider public will now get the chance to be inspired, challenged, uplifted and engaged by this wonderful collection of songs.

Bainigí sult as.
Dónal O’Connor