CIARA McELHOLM – Amergin Fire (Copperplate COPP035)

Amergin FireIt seems to me that musicians and composers are doing more and more interesting things at the moment. A year ago, the trend was to go back to basics and make a solo home-recorded album. Well and good but, really, you can only do that once. Ciara McElholm skipped that stage and set out to compose a major new work. Amergin Fire is a retelling of the coming of the Celts to Ireland as recorded in the 11th century Book Of Invasions and sets out to restore the role of brass instruments in Irish traditional music.

The opening track, ‘Norwegian Breeze’, features everyone in the band: Ciara on fiddle as she is throughout the album; Rory Pierce on cello and piano; John Ryan on bouzouki, Conal Early on guitar and percussion and the multi-instrumental talents of Eamonn Galldubh. You could compare it to the descriptive passages of early 20th century music as the wind rises and settles down again into the titular breeze. ‘The Song Of The Valkyries’ is a bit of a monster with lots of percussion and words from 13th century Icelandic sagas which apparently foretell the battle of Clontarf. It’s a rather gory tale and, in contrast, ‘Embrace’ is a gentle welcoming composition.

Now we come to the meat of the story with ‘Clan March Of Amergin’. Amergin, brother to the two kings Eber Finn and Érimón, was the bard of the Celts who first arrived in Ireland. This wasn’t a peaceful visit to the neighbours, however, as Amergin’s people, the Milesians who came at this time from Iberia, and the Tuatha Dé Danann had previous – it’s a long story and well worth reading up. A formal battle was arranged under rules which meant that the Milesians had to stand off beyond the ninth wave before returning to engage the enemy. The Tuatha Dé Danann druids called up a storm but Amergin stood in the prow of his ship and sang ‘The Song Of Amergin’ which dispelled the storm – again, there are several accounts to look up. There is a choir present for the three songs, sadly uncredited but I suspect it would be a long list, and Ciara says she wants to hear ‘The Song’ sung by a thousand voices.

Ciara mixes the story of Amergin with other compositions. ‘Lament For Brian Boru’ takes us forward a thousand years and employs the three traditional forms of Irish music while ‘Planxty Alice And Will’ moves on another millennium to celebrate a lockdown wedding. ‘Atlantic Tides’ and ‘On Dreaming’ are reflective pieces, the latter featuring Rory Pierce’s cello to lay its foundation. Finally, ‘Picking Cockles’ takes us back in time to 8th century Viking raids.

Amergin Fire is Ciara’s debut album and a remarkable announcement of her talents it proves to be. The music, although modern, utilises traditional instruments in an orchestral fashion and, throughout the record, you can hear the familiar cadences of traditional Irish music. ‘Atlantic Tides’ is probably my favourite track for just this reason.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Planxty Alice And Will’:

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