The Seven Steps to Mercy

Iarla Ó Lionáird, 1997

Today, Iarla Ó Lionáird is the most exciting and innovative performer of Irish traditional unaccompanied song, as well as the haunting and evocative voice of the Afro Celt Sound System. Yet at one point it seemed that his unique gift would be lost.

A child prodigy, who made his first recording at the age of seven, by the early 1990s Iarla had abandoned singing and despaired of finding anyone who shared his musical vision. After a two-year silence he was thankfully coaxed back and was soon working on both the Afro Celt Sound System's debut album, 'Volume 1 - Sound Magic', and his own solo release.

Iarla Ó Lionáird was destined to be a singer. Born in Cúil Aodha in Gaelic-speaking Co Cork in 1964, his mother, grandmother and grandfather all sang sean nós (literally "old style"), the unaccompanied music of Celtic ancestors. His grand aunt, Elizabeth Cronin, was also a noted singer, recorded by (among others) the great collector Alan Lomax during his travels in Ireland in the 1940s.

Yet the family was less part of a musical dynasty and more a reflection of their cultural environment. The locality of Cúil Aodha is famous as a cradle for poets, musicians and storytellers; early on, Iarla came under the influence of one of its most famous sons, the composer and arranger Sean Ó Riada, who inspired The Chieftains and who was greatly responsible for the revival of traditional Irish music at a time when it was under considerable threat. "Where we lived was very remote and the nearest house was four miles away," Iarla recalls. "Sean and his son Peadar were neighbours and people were always walking into our house at all hours of the day and night. There was always music and tale-telling."

Iarla gave his first performance at the age of five and his first recordings for radio followed two years later. "People said, even at that age, that I sounded like my grand aunt, using all the ancient ornamentations and structures of sean nós, but I don't like the child prodigy label - I prefer simply to say that I did my best at a time when I was still very small and I got some acknowledgement for it."

In fact, the young Iarla won every competition he entered across Ireland. His early prowess can be judged on his debut solo album, for alongside the new material it includes a remarkable recording of his voice from 1978 when he was just 14 years old, made under the guidance of the composer Peadar O Riada. "It was strange hearing it again and it seems like a different person," says Iarla. "But if all the critics say I sang better 20 years ago, I don't really care," he adds with a twinkle.

The mid-1980s had found Iarla at college in Dublin and with a growing reputation in the city's musical circles. He was in demand both as a singer and a teacher, and by 1989 he was presenting the traditional music series, 'The Pure Drop' on RTÉ Television. Yet he never felt fully at ease. "I was very aloof because I took my singing so seriously and I couldn't share it easily. A fiddler or a piper can go and join in a session but as an unaccompanied singer I couldn't do that. In Cork, sean nós singing is a kingly pursuit - part of the social structure. In Dublin, I felt a bit removed because what I did was so different."

Wider success appeared to beckon when Iarla was invited to be the soloist on a huge project called The Pilgrim by Sean Davey. Fronting 500 musicians, including a 35-piece pipe band, full orchestra, and three choirs, Iarla performed the work at the Lorient festival in Brittany and at Dublin's National Concert Hall, and recorded it for Tara Records in Dublin. "But it didn't really go anywhere and I grew despondent. I was singing at weddings, wakes and funerals, and I was known as the modern face of sean nós. But, in fact, I was in despair and that is why I stopped. No one else seemed to share the vision I had for the music."

Iarla turned down offers to record because he felt no one knew how to do justice to his style. "They wanted to treat it as folk music, but sean nós is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has an inner dialogue, and profound emotions about love and loss and death, and is often very allegorical. Sean nós has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it and it is all about empathy. A lot of people seemed to have a problem with that."

After a two-year sabbatical, Iarla was persuaded to start singing again by the brilliant box player Tony Mac Mahon. "He took me to play at a festival in a Catholic enclave in South Armagh, and I rediscovered my passion." From that collaboration there followed the live album 'Aislingí Ceoil' on Gael Linn Records. But the real breakthrough was still to come and it happened in unlikely fashion.

"I wrote to Real World and it was the only begging letter I have ever written in my life. It was six pages long and written by hand, and it must have been almost illegible," says Iarla. But he included a tape ("I sent them the wrong one, actually - a poor copy instead of the original") and he was invited to participate in one of Real World's famous Recording Weeks at the studio built by Peter Gabriel at Box, Wiltshire.

It was at this event that Simon Emmerson, who was at the time putting together his Afro Celt Sound System record for Real World, called upon Iarla to sing. "That was brilliant. We've been so busy and it hasn't stopped. It allowed me to sing sean nós in the setting of contemporary club culture. It was such an intriguing blend, using primary colours to create a picture of sophistication," he says.

The success of the Afro Celt's album meant that Iarla's solo project had to be put on hold for over a year, but eventually he entered the studio with the noted Canadian producer Michael Brook. "He's one of the first producers I've met who shared my vision, which was not to soften or sentimentalise the music but draw deeper from the heart - to take what is within and bring it to the surface. Everyone else seems to want to tart up the raw, ancient stuff to make it palatable. Michael, who comes from an experimental rock'n'roll background, didn't want to do that, and observing this ultra-modern musician getting to grips with a deep, ancient approach was amazing."

"The most challenging thing for a solo singer is to work with other people. I'm not just going to croon along. I'm planning to work with Howie B and some Asian trip-hop people to produce an album that says, 'This is the 1990s and I enjoy living in them.'"

Iarla's restless creativity means that he is already planning his next move which he promises will be very different. Those who have heard Iarla Ó Lionáird sing will know what a tragedy it would have been if his voice had been stilled.

Yet wherever his endlessly inquiring musical spirit takes him, Iarla Ó Lionáird will never lose touch with his ancestral roots on the west coast of Ireland. "It's not an ordinary place," he says. "I honestly believe that I grew up in paradise."

Reviews

  • We are left to marvel at the mesmerising roll of the singer’s voice; a voice that serves as spiritual communicator and powerful instrument... ...with its modal drones and swooping rhythmic patterns, both heartbreaking and beautiful. Who needs to understand lyrics when emotions are as potently uncompromising as this? Folk Roots (1997) (UK)
  • ...you won’t forget the voice. A quiet storm. Mojo (1997) (UK)
  • ... his larynx can elevate the most morbid of lyrics to stratospheric heights. Hot Press (1997) (UK)
  • ... an unusual record in that is serves both as an introduction to sean nós and as a unique collaboration between two very different musical sensibilities - between the emotional heat of O Lionáird’s singing and the intellectual cool of Brook’s sound environments ... On The Seven Steps to Mercy, sean nós is both old and new, at once pure and gorgeously contaminated. 8-21 October 1997 The Event Guide (Ireland)
  • His voice will astound you ... ‘ ...genius’ is the operative word here ... Traditionalists will be spellbound, newcomers will be intrigued and wanna-bes will change careers. Time Out (1997) (USA)
  • .. one of the most dramatic voices in contemporary music. The Guardian (1997) (UK)
  • ... one of the most arresting albums to emerge from the traditional sector in years; O'Lionáird has a truly remarkable voice ... What ensures it remains with one long afterwards is that indefinable authenticity of emotion. The Sunday Business Post (1997) (Dublin)