The Seven Steps to Mercy: Track by Track

Iarla talks us through his debut album

Irish sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird released his debut solo album in 1997. Produced by Michael Brook, it is a collection of Irish language (Gaeilge) songs that comprises both traditional and original material. Here, he provides some track notes and lyric translations for the songs.

1. Seacht • Seven

So many people have left Irish shores on immigrant ships in past centuries.  Here I imagine the migrant returning to his village of origin, finding only the abandoned ruins and painful memories of that day of separation from family, loved ones and friends.

…Great need was
My only strength
And so we were separated
As if we had become slaves,
Out on the boats
Lost in the fog
To know one another
No more

Because time moves
Forever forward
And it carries with it
This endless sense of being


2. Aililiu na Gamhna • Calling Home the Calves

For sure I am
A drover’s daughter
Whose life is lived
By the river Leamhna…


3. Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire • Lament at Calvary

The crucifixion at Calvary and the dialogue of the three Marys (one being the mother of Christ) are the bare bones of this story’s harrowing and pitiful narrative.

And is this the little boy
Whom I carried for
Three seasons
Alas, alas, alas
And woe

My tender child
How torn your mouth
And how your
Little nose is
Alas, alas, alas
And woe


4. Abha • River

The Sulan, the only male river in Ireland, has been a constant source of inspiration for artists from my home for generations.  This piece pays homage to this river’s rich story, a liquid braiding of voice, song and the rushing of the river.


5. Aoibhinn Cronan • The Humming of the Bees

Oh give me the wild mountain
In heather flower covered over
A clear summer sky
Without dust
Without shadow
Swarms gathering
All about me
And the song of the bee
In the sky above me


6. Loch Lein

Beside this lake in Killarney gather the mythical band of warriors, the ‘Fianna Eireann’, whose exploits are recounted in The Fenian Cycle.


7. Cuir a Choladh an Seanduine • The Old Man Rocking the Cradle

A lullaby.


8. An Buachaill Caol Dubh • The Dark Slender Boy

This metaphor for the ‘spirit of drink’ accompanies the protagonist everywhere and is the cause of his eventual impoverishment.


9. Bean Dubh an Ghleanna • The Dark Woman of the Glen

When I gaze across
To where love once was
A stream of tears
Runs from me,
All powerful
Help me now
The dark woman
Has me broken

He that might see
My lonely house
Its cabin’s roof
A layer of earth
Leaning shabbily
By the roadside,
It speaks to me
Of hurt and dearth
Where the honeybee goes
To make his nest
In the heat of brightest
When the sapling’s old
Its use is lost
I search for my youthful


10. Aisling Gheal • Bright Vision

In the tradition of the ‘vision-song’ a story unfolds of a woman of great beauty, sometimes symbolising Ireland, who encounters the poet in a dream. This particularly beautiful and mysterious version was introduced to me by the composer Peadar Ó Riada, whose guidance resulted in this recording of 1978 when I was 14 years old. The juxtaposition of child and love song gives this rendition its enigmatic power.

…And then I saw her
My vision woman
Hair abundant
And flowing about
Falling starlike
Touching the dewdrops
Stepping lightly
Brushing the heath
Upon her chest
Her breasts
Her face a rose hip
Her neck a swan…

Featured release

  • The Seven Steps to Mercy

    Iarla Ó Lionáird

    Released 21 September 1997

    Following the success of Afro Celt Sound System’s first album, the band’s vocalist entered the studio with Canadian producer Michael Brook to create his debut solo album: a haunting set of songs drawn from the sean-nós singing tradition of Ireland as well as Ó Lionáird’s original musical ideas.

By Iarla Ó Lionáird

Iarla Ó Lionáird is a sean-nós singer from West Cork, Ireland. Alongside his solo work, he has recorded with The Gloaming and Afro Celt Sound System.

Main photo credit: Steve Pyke

Published on Mon, 23 April 18

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