Iarla Ó Lionáird

Iarla O Lionaird was born into a world of song in Cuil Aodha, a small, Irish-speaking enclave in west Cork. His mother and grandmother were all known singers in the sean nos, unaccompanied style. His grand aunt Elizabeth Cronin was recorded in the 1940s by Alan Lomax, the American archivist of folk and blues. He was one of twelve children of the local schoolmaster, and his brothers and sisters sang, too.

The patriot Padraig Pearse called Cuil Aodha “the capital of Gaeldom – where every rock conceals a poet’s grave.” Nearly everyone there sings songs that connect Cuil Aodha to the rich grandeur of that ancient world. Singing is the dominant form of expression, in the way that fiddle music is in County Clare.

“I grew up in a hive of song,” he says. “There were singers everywhere. The singing was marked in a certain way by the house you grew up in. You could close your eyes and know a person’s family by his way of singing. There was an intactness to the societal function of song. When they died you sang for them, when they were born you sang for them and when they married you sang for them. Singing marked the passages of life. You could have been in Africa. There was the saying, ‘We sang laments, and we made those we sang about great in the singing.’ This in itself took away my fear of death. It was normal to sing of great men who had passed away. It was normal to think of the greatness of people. Even in death there was something exalted.”

If any one person could be said to be responsible for the survival of native Irish music and its being known in the world, it was Sean Ó Riada, a man of great passion, industry and musical sophistication who gathered the music from wherever he could find it, recorded it, and on occasion orchestrated it. He composed the great orchestral psalm to the nation ‘Mise Eire’ and founded The Chieftains. Ó Riada came with his family to live in Cuil Aodha and was often in the Ó Lionáird home. He started a choir there, which Iarla entered in childhood and remained in into his early twenties. He first performed publicly when he was five and was recorded at seven.

I was a serious child, I think. My brothers and sisters sang, but I knew I was somewhat different. I was marked out in some way. My parents made it all right for me to be this way. They nurtured it. Singing may be a gift, but it's also a craft. It's difficult. It needs ritualistic endeavour, dedication over a long period of time. That's ideal for a child who needs something like that. It's a challenge to make them more expressive, to get out of themselves. Iarla Ó Lionáird

“I began to sing these songs which were way beyond me in experience. Vision songs. Love songs, made bigger by the fact that they weren’t only about the love of a man or woman, but also about love of country. I sang ‘Aisling Ghael’, which describes a woman in all her naked glory. It was the wrong song for someone so small and that’s why it’s so good. I was recorded at seven singing a song of a woman giving advice to young girls. The believability was high, but I was very small at the same time. I was recorded another time singing into the mouth of a grand piano. Sean Ó Riada died when I was very young, but the choir was taken over by his son Paedar and I stayed on with him. He came out of the same world I had, hearing the same sounds —wind, rain, cows, birds, songs. He came to do some of the things I was to do with my own music, sampling ambient sounds, tunes, voices. Those things were in you. That was what made up your life.”

Iarla went to Dublin to study literature, then qualified and worked as a teacher. He brought his music with him. Some in Dublin held him in awe, while for others he was a curiosity. He had offers to record, but there was something discordant between his sense of the music and the expectation it generated in others. He turned down the offers. “They wanted to treat it as folk music,” he said. “But sean nos is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it. It’s all about empathy.”

He stopped singing then, thinking that perhaps the true sense of this music didn’t exist outside his own parish. Then the renowned accordion player Tony McMahon invited him to sing at a concert in Armagh. He went, and felt again the spirit of the music igniting within him. He began again to sing. He heard Peter Gabriel’s Passion and wrote a six-page letter to his record label Real World, enclosing a tape and asking for a chance to record. They invited him to their studio.

While there he met Simon Emmerson, who was putting together a fusion dance band which would be called the Afro Celt Sound System. Iarla joined them. They went on to play at festivals all over the world and to record five albums, which sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Iarla’s solo career was inevitable and began with the acclaimed and powerful Seven Steps To Mercy in 1997. Produced by Michael Brook, the album saw Ó Lionáird create a new and unique work in which his voice soars with power and tenderness. A brave and ambitious solo debut, it remains a landmark album in Irish music.

Iarla followed in 2000 with a moving soundtrack to Nichola Bruce’s film I Could Read The Sky, from the book by Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke, featuring guest performances by Martin Hayes and Sinéad O’Connor. The next step from this restless innovator was a challenging and electronically influenced solo album, Invisible Fields (2005). At once a love song to the Irish language and an exploration of new sonic textures, the widespread acclaim for the album confirmed Ó Lionáird as one of contemporary music’s most ambitious singers and recording artists.

In 2011, Real World released Foxlight, an album that shimmers with versatility. Whilst rooted in certain traditions, it is unclassifiable and one of O Lionaird’s most organic, naturalistic recordings. Instrumentation and layers are embedded in each song, and a host of musician contributed; composer Jon Hopkins, strings duo Geese, folktronica innovator Leafcutter John, and fiddler Caoimhin Ó Roghallaigh helped create the eclectic, epic sweep of these compositions. Central to the album’s inception was producer Leo Abrahams. But ultimately it’s all about Iarla’s exquisite, sonically unique voice.

Ó Lionáird has always been a collaborator and an artist seeking new fields of engagement. From his collaboration with Peter Gabriel on Ovo, this has taken an increasingly classical form. His song-cycle with Gavin Bryars, Anail De (The Breath Of God), reflects a deep artist collaboration and friendship with the composer. He has also worked with composers Ian Wilson and Paul Hillier. Similarly he has worked extensively with acclaimed Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy and his group The Crash Ensemble with a record release of their piece, Gra & Bas.

Today Iarla Ó Lionáird is vocalist for The Gloaming, who recorded their eponymous debut on Real World Records in 2014 and their sophomore effort 2 in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim. He is also a university professor, teaching at the University of Limerick in Ireland and at Princeton University in the United States.

Further Reading

Iarla Ó Lionáird on soundtracking the music for ‘I Could Read the Sky’

Writer Mic Moroney's feature on Iarla Ó Lionáird, discussing the sean-nós singer's most ambitious project to date.

Foxlight: Track notes by Iarla

Iarla Ó Lionáird gives insight into some of the songs on his third solo album, Foxlight.

The Seven Steps to Mercy: Track by Track

Iarla Ó Lionáird takes us through the tracks on his debut solo album, released in 1997.