Much more than a collection of tunes and songs shining a light on a particular style, region or era, singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and fiddler Ultan O’Brien’s Solas an Lae (The Light of the Day) is also an acoustic experiment. The project explores the relationship between the human voice and the fiddle and how they complement each other. By “bouncing songs and strings off one another to see what might emerge”, both musicians have initiated a stimulating conversation in the context of the contemporary Irish music scene. Recorded, mixed and produced by Nick Turner, the duo’s début was released on Scottish label Watercolour Music on 7 November 2020 last as a digital download. A Vinyl LP version with bonus material is also scheduled for release in early March 2021.

Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin & Ultan O’Brien - Solas an Lae (2020)
Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin & Ultan O’Brien – Solas an Lae (2020)

Based in Dublin, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin is a sean-nós singer, flute and concertina player who grew up in a native Irish speaking family of singers and musicians originally from Connemara. His sister Muireann is a member of Irish band Mongoose while his other sister Saileog has released two albums of Irish traditional music and songs to date including the wonderful Roithleán (2016) featuring sean-nós songs and tunes on the piano, fiddle and viola.

Ultan O’Brien is a composer and a traditional fiddle and viola player based in Dublin too. Since December 2018, the Clare native has been a member of contemporary folk band Slow Moving Clouds whose latest album Starfall introduced a stunning blend of Irish tunes, Nordic folk, classical music and experimental or post-rock influences.

Long-time collaborators, both musicians have crossed paths many times on several musical ventures including the Irish/Scottish/Manx Gaelic reunion project Aon Teanga:Un Çhengey (one tongue) or contemporary Dublin-based Irish folk band Skipper’s Alley which they co-founded.

Mo Mhúirnín, we’ll go far away
From the net of the crooked town
Where they grudge us the light of the day.

Exposing the premise of the entire album, “Mo Mhúirnín” is a short poem by Longford-born Padraic Colum (1881 – 1972) originally published as “The Beggar’s Child” and set to music by Ultan O’Brien. Bookending the record, voice and fiddle first play in unison on a traditional rendition of “Mo Mhúirnín” before slowing down and decomposing the song at the end of the record to present it under a new light.

“And what will we hear on the way?” The song works as an invitation to a fantastic expedition, a bumpy spatio-temporal ride even as the pair delve deep into the old traditional Irish repertoire, introduce new compositions while also probing a parallel spiritual otherworld inhabited by lonely ghosts as emphasised by sustained electronic drone layers (Nick Turner) on many of the slower songs.

Ultan O’Brien and Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin pay homage to illustrious singers by breathing new life into songs they composed or are associated with such as Connemara singer Colm Ó Caoidháin’s “An Sceilpín Draighneach” or Inis Mór singer Treasa Ní Mhiolláin’s “Cúirt Bhaile Nua” whose original voice is sampled on the record. “Òran A’ Cheannaiche” is Ultan O’Brien’s solo fiddle rendition of a song learned from Scottish singer Mary Ann Kennedy, followed by Junior Crehan’s hornpipe “Caisleán an Óir”.

Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin is actively involved in grassroots political activism and is a member of the all-Ireland socialist party People Before Profit, an involvement which undoubtedly influences the singer’s repertoire choice.

Penned by the singer in collaboration with Dublin poet Ciarán O’Rourke, “All Our Lonely Ghosts” deals with a dark corner of Irish history, namely the treatment of women and children in Catholic run institutions over the recent decades. The 9 minute song becomes all the more relevant in light of the recent publication by the Irish government of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on 12th January 2021 last. “Now they say that these scandals are all over” continues the singer, before pointing the finger at ongoing issues in contemporary society such as homelessness or the flawed direct provision system for asylum seekers.

Ultan O’Brien plays the viola to accompany Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin on the slower songs. The lower tone of the instrument suits the singer’s rich and deep voice to perfection when played in turns as a drone, in harmony or as a counterpoint.

Flute and strings are in full flight on the “Spikey Flynn” instrumental set, and the interplay between voice and viola becomes truly mesmerising on lilting songs like “Máirseáil na Sióg” or “Brother Tom” where Ultan O’Brien modulates his melodic lines, swerving and verging on dissonance at times while stings are plucked and not bowed on the traditional “Bríd Ní Ghaora”.

To celebrate the release of the album in constrained lockdown conditions, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and Ultan O’Brien gathered for a virtual launch on 5 November 2020 where they performed Solas an Lae in its entirety. The magnificent rendition of the lilting songs in particular highlights the risk-taking element of the live performance where each key change amounts to a brief leap into the unknown. Replete with a myriad of melismatic micro variations borrowed from sean-nós singing techniques, the voice/viola conversation turns into a thrilling modal cat and mouse chase.