THE O’CAROLAN FAMILY – A Language Within (Self Released)

ocarolansLet me say from the outset, I’m more of a song than an instrumental man and instrumental trad folk isn’t at the top of list of genre passions, indeed I tend to find most instrumental albums never quite manage to capture the feel of the same music being played live, too often that energy being replaced by studio sterility and a sense of proficiency rather than passion.

However, I surrender on all fronts to the young Derry trio, siblings Karen, Ciaran  and Steven on fiddle, flute/whistles and button accordion, respectively. Recorded in the Donegal cottage featured on the album cover, it’s a sprightly collection of reels, jigs, barn dances, ballads and even a waltz and polka that bears testament to early years absorbing Irish traditional music and learning their craft under the tutelage of names like Eugene O’Donnell and the Harrigan family, to mention time spent listening to the music of artists from their home region such as Altan, De Danann and The Bothy Band.

Not being a musician myself, I’m not going to get into technicalities of technique, but I can say that the three interweave seamlessly, the instruments playing off each other without any hogging the spotlight and capturing their very obvious love of the music and heritage of their raising.

Helped out by a dozen guest musicians variously contributing guitars, piano, harp, bouzouki, cello and bodhran, save for ‘Around The Fairy Fort/The New Broom’, a  barn dance set  from the  repertoire of flautist Vincent Broderick, the numbers are all either self-penned (Steven the prime writer) or (as with Bunker Hill, part of the opening reels)  trad arranged by the family.

I was particularly taken by Steven’s liltingly gentle ‘The 14th of May/Rhiannon’s Lullaby’, the first tune, featuring shimmering harp from Joleen McLaughlin, written for his wedding day and played during the ceremony, and the second commemorating a little girl with Battens Syndrome.

Elsewhere they fire it up on ‘The Derry Polka/Trip To Benbecula/Granda Willies’ and the jigs set ‘Sean McLaughlins/Eugene O’Donnells/Caoimhin Ni Dhochartaigh’s’ (in honour of three who have inspired and educated them) while Ciaran contributes the haunting slow air ‘Knocknamany Blues’. That’s a celebration of their native landscape, but they have wider horizons too, the combination of the melancholic ‘Immigrants Waltz’ and the livelier ‘Abandon Ship’ drawing on the traditional music of Eastern Europe, the former tune written as part of The Titanic Project, remembering those forgotten immigrants who died in the disaster.

Having talked about this as an instrumentals collection, I should qualify that by saying ‘mostly’. There are, in fact, three songs, all melancholic numbers and all ’covers’, performed by sweet voiced guest vocalist Ciara McCaffery; ‘The West Awake’, a song  about pivotal moments in Irish history by 19th century  revolutionary Thomas Davis, the trio’s version of Scottish ballad ‘Eppie Morrie’ and  their interpretation of John Douglas’ ‘The Wild Mountainside’, learned from Eddie Reader’s celebration of Robbie Burns. Beautifully arranged and sung, as well as brining an extra dimension to the album, they also make you want to find out more about McCaffery.

As I said at the start, I’m not a big instrumentals devotee, but I’m certainly now always willing to make an exception for the O’Carolans.

Mike Davies

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