Recorded more than 15 years ago but only released at the end of 2014 on the Gael Linn record label, “Bilingua” is an exquisite treasury of old verses and new songs performed by Irish traditional musician Eithne Ní Uallacháin (1957 – 1999), one of the true enchanting voices in Ireland.

As the Lá Lugh duo, Eithne Ní Uallacháin with husband and fiddle player Gerry O’Connor set to explore the music and song repertoire from the Oriel region of South East Ulster and released three recordings between 1987 and 1999  – the début Cosa gan Bhróga (1987) with flute player Desi Wilkinson, Lá Lugh (1991) and Brighid’s Kiss (1996).

Eithne Ní Uallacháin - Bilingua (2014)
Eithne Ní Uallacháin – Bilingua (2014)

Despite the long interval, “Bilingua” picks up where Lá Lugh’s last album Brighid’s Kiss (1996) musically left off. The album features traditional material and several newly composed songs based on fragments learned from historical collections, mediaeval Irish poetry, hymns from the monastic tradition while also drawing on the Irish Sean-nós tradition.

As well as that, a lot of the repertoire covered in “Bilingua” consists of macaronic songs whereby lyrics from two different languages – namely Irish Gaelic and English or Irish Gaelic and Latin – are used in the same song. More than a proficiency in two languages, the songs reflect both Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s bilingual upbringing and at a deeper level, a keen understanding of her dual cultural heritage.

Beautifully produced, arranged and packaged (the CD comes with a hardbound booklet featuring heartfelt tributes from friends and contemporary Irish singers as well as extensive notes on the songs), “Bilingua” seamlessly merges traditional instrumentation (flute, fiddle, guitar, low whistle, uilleann pipes and bouzouki) with piano, keyboards, fretless bass, djembe, shakers, cello and a string quartet.

Some arrangements also highlight the influence of the Breton tradition on the music of Eithne Ní Uallacháin with the presence of guitar player Gilles Le Bigot. Ever since they met in the early 1990s, the musician has been a long-time musical partner, either performing or recording with Lá Lugh and more recently with Gerry O’Connor – the pair released In Concert in 2006 and Oirialla in 2012. With his trademark open tuning style, the guitarist contributes to six tracks on the album, including two of his own compositions.

With new lyrics by Eithne Ní Uallacháin, “The Fishermen” originally appeared on Breton band Skolvan’s Swing & Tears (1994) as an instrumental, while “Bone” features a Breton Plinn gavotte by Gilles Le Bigot.

Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s profoundly expressive voice shines through every song she ever sang, but it is probably when singing Caoineadh (“the traditional Irish musical expression of grief”) or laments – old and new – that the singer truly achieves transcendence.

But grief can be translated from the light into the darkness;
In the belly of the shadow with all its shades digested
Its true colours will unfold.
And grief is in the leaving and grief is in the losing
And grief is in the ageing and grief is in the dying
But grief can be translated from the light into the darkness;
In the belly of the shadow with all its shades digested
Its true colours will unfold.
Ochón is ochón ó x 2
Its true colours are exotic
Its true colours are hypnotic
Its true colours are ecstatic
Its true colours are erotic…

Grief” – comp. Eithne Ní Uallacháin based on Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire with new music by Dónal O’Connor

Contemporary and timeless, “Bilingua” is a peerless masterpiece from a sadly missed singer and musician.