Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pushed to the End of the World: Maighread ni Dhomhnaill and "Amhran Pheadar Breathnach"

One of the reasons I love Celtic music is the ever-present melancholy that undergirds every song. It could be the most raucous song about dancing or drinking, or the most mournful air ever piped, and that same melancholy drives the song. Perhaps it's the instrumentation, or perhaps it is something more. I remember, when I was hitchhiking down the west coast of Ireland, feeling the weight of the history and geography of the island - the rocky fields that looked like a struggle to farm, the lonely towns appearing like they were just barely clinging to the earth, the stoicism of a people whose faces and postures and their general composures bore silent witness to the hardships they faced throughout their history. I remember reading a passage once about the music of the Irish, of the Celts in general, that remarked upon this mournfulness of a people who had wandered far and ended up on the last rock to the west - they could go no farther - and that their music bewailed their fate and their loneliness and solitude.

I take to melancholy quite a bit, and I find melancholy music strangely comforting. To me, the music of the Irish and Celts is a music that transcends centuries. It speaks of heights reached and lost, and lows fallen into and recovered from. It speaks of death and famine and war and oppression even at the same time as it speaks to joy and celebration and peace and plenty. It is hard, in this modern day, to find such complexity of emotion in music and therefore I value Irish and Celtic music for what it is - a representation of a human condition.

Even though it is gussied up a bit in modern instrumentation and , you can hear this complex melancholy in Maighread ni Dhomhnaill's rendition of Amhran Pheadar Breathnach. Each stanza of the lyric starts on an upnote, but quickly falls down into a minor downnote, and in fact the whole song is really in a minor key. The lyrics are also complex, telling the story of a mysterious man who appears on an island apparently running from something. A young woman accosts him, not trusting him, but wanting to know his story. They develop a relationship cemented over drinking together in a pub though there appears to be some danger for both of them to be together. The woman encourages him to sing for his drinks, and soon some other young men show up and begin singing with them, and the song ends on that up note. Here are the lyrics translated at

Since I've been traveling
I have watched the sky
Chased 'round about the island
Like a doe chased by a hound
And everyone around the harbor said
When I arrived at the quay
"I can tell from your gloom
That you're a man being chased"

I met a nice young girl
But right away she spoke sharply
"If you're the man who molested young women
I don't think much of your kind
I saw a man on the mainland
Wandering around barefoot yesterday
And I think that you're the young fellow
Who has someone chasing him"

I answered the nice young girl
So she understood my story well
"Don't tease me anymore
As I'm not that kind of man
But come over here in front of me
And stop chattering that nonsense
Or I'll disappear in front of your face
And go back to the mainland right now"

When we got tired and depressed
I inquired of the quiet young woman
"Where can we get something to drink
That will take this sadness from us?"
"There's a little house on the side of the road
And there's always a drop kept there
Go and rap on the board
And you won't have to spend a penny"

When we went into the shebeen
We nervously sat down
For fear that we'd be found out
And the young woman taken from me
When we found what we wanted
I said we should take a walk
But she said, "Sing some songs
And it won't cost you a penny"

Oh I wasn't singing for very long
When the young men came to the shebeen
Every one of them with a jug in his hand
To accompany the two of us
There was plenty of drink to go around
Since not many folks in the countryside drink
But if I could drink a gallon of O'Donnell's
It would be easy to pay for my twenty drinks

There, in one song, is the complexity of Irish, drink, mystery, hardship, survival, poverty...a mix of melancholy and hopefulness. And Celtic music does this over and over again. That is why I love Celtic music.

Now about the artist, who is a big part of why this song is so haunting. Maighread ni Dhomhnaill was brought up in as a native Irish speaker in Kells, County Meath and her family was a well known musical family and collectors of Irish music. She was part of the highly regarded group Skara Brae, which recorded only one album that is considered a classic of Irish music because it first brought pop and guitars to traditional Irish tunes, and the first to include vocal harmonization in Irish traditional songs. She gave up music for a while, studying nursing and raising a family, but has since come back to music, performing with the West Ocean String Quartet and joining her sister Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Moya Brennan and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh as part of the Celtic supergroup T with the Maggies. Amhran Pheadar Breathnach is from her 1991 album Gan Dhá Phingin Spré (No Dowry) and can also be found on the CD Putumayo Presents Women of the World: Celtic.