Beauty an Oileáin: Music and Song of the Blasket Islands
Claddagh CC56CD; 53 minutes; 1992
The Blasket Islands have been unofficially uninhabited since 1953, though visitors who take the ferry from Dunquin can still find some occupants there in the summer. Thanks to a remarkable body of autobiographical writing published during the late 1920s and the subsequent decade contemporary readers can learn much about life on the islands from the books of Tomás Ó Criomthain, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Peig Sayers and Robin Flower’s later account of his visit there, The Western Island – books which often made reference to the social place of music on the Blaskets.
As far as this reviewer is aware, there has only been one collection of music devoted to the Blaskets and this is the remarkable Beauty an Oileáin whose notability lies not just in the insight provided into the islands’ music, but in the exceptional quality of the CD’s packaging.
The album is actually contained in a double-CD case, the reason being to allow space for the inclusion of a 56-page illustrated booklet which includes detailed track-listings and much information on the singers, musicians and their music in both Irish in English. For this we should congratulate Rionach Uí Ógáin who compiled the song transcriptions, translations and notes and Máire Ní Chaoimh (aka Máire O’Keeffe) who provided the music notes.
The songs and music themselves were collated from a variety of sources, dating from 1957 to 1991, while the subjects of the recordings were either Blasket Islanders, their descendants or musicians such as Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich (Brendan Begley) from Baile na bPoc who was influenced by musicians who had moved from the islands to the Dingle Peninsula.
Some of the music exhibited on Beauty an Oileáin is either so soulful or so exquisite (and sometimes both) it almost defies belief. One such track is the melodeon player Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe’s rendition of the song Mursheen Durkin as a polka, accompanied by some foot-stomping so strong that the floorboards must have been considering a change of address. Then there’s Ó Beaglaoich’s mentor, Muiris Ó Dálaigh, rampaging through a series of jigs or Seáinín Mhicil Ó Súilleabháin actually managing to breathe new life into Pop Goes the Weasel on the fiddle.
Like the album’s title, the songs themselves are very much things of beauty and two singers who must be mentioned are Pádraig Ó Cearnaigh and his brother Seán (who actually published two of his own books on the Blaskets during the 1970s). ‘Eloquence’ is a term often misused, but, in their case, it remains entirely appropriate. Then (and it is no mean ‘then’), there is the singing of Áine Uí Laoithe whose rendition of Raghadsa Is Mo Cheaití (which recently appeared on Danú’s Up in the Air) is spine-tingling in its intensity.
Ultimately, it remains a puzzlement why Beauty an Oileáin is not more widely known nor discussed more frequently when the subject of archive recordings of traditional music is raised. It is, quite simply, gorgeous!
22nd September, 2004
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