Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór, Eleanor Plunkett, George Brabazon, and Fanny Power have more in common than simply being popular Irish songs; all these classic pieces are also written by the same man, Turlough O'Carolan – the blind, Irish harper. While these tunes themselves are generally widely known, the lyrics to them are not. In fact, most people aren’t even aware there are lyrics to these wonderful pieces because they have never really been translated from the original Gaelic. Likewise, many people aren’t even aware that he was a poet long before he was a harper. Hence, the inspiration for the wonderful album entitled “The O’Carolan Songwriter’s Project” organized by producer, songwriter and lead vocalist Candice Corrigan.
This project features the wonderful talents of 15 fabulous musicians whose goal is to take some of O’Carolan's wonderful songs and show them in a new light by translating the lyrics into a “poetic, singable English.” A goal they certainly achieve. While staying true to O’Carolan’s work arrangers, Sarah Wilfong and Aislinn Gagliardi, do a brilliant job of breathing new life into these songs and truly revitalizing them. In their introductory video on their website, they describe Turlough as an itinerant musician and a rock star of his age. Listening to these arrangements one can see why.
Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór is known to be one of O’Carolan’s first compositions and it discusses two hills that are supposedly inhabited by fairies, or the good people, as they are known in Ireland. It is one of his most popular pieces. Yet, other than this most aren’t aware of the full story told by O’Carolan. In this version of Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór/Planxty Drew, we get to hear it. It begins with the pipes played by Skip Cleavinger that wonderfully sets the mood for this ethereal tale. After playing the first part through once, Candice Corrigan breaks in with the first verse, “There were two fairy hills, one grand, one spare / Whose queens went to battle in a fury rare / The grand one claimed the greater power / And war raged on by the old,” capturing our attention and imagination, bringing us right into the story. Building off of the pipes and her vocals are also the brilliant bright sound of a harp and the lightness of a flute. Nothing about it, however, seems forced or rushed but melds beautifully into the tale that is being told, crescendoing and decrescendoing to add emphasis where needed. At the end, it changes pace into Planxty Drew. The drumtakes over with a lilting flute. Nevertheless, this arrangement works well as it carries us onward, much in the way an epilogue of story may complete the needs of the reader.
The third track on this album, George Brabazon, is a wonderful drinking song that is believed to be composed towards the end of O’Carolan’s career. Like his planxties, this was written in honor of a real person. The subject is most likely George Brabazon of New Park, in the barony of Gallen and parish of Kilconduff, County Mayo. As is fitting, this arrangement features the harp, O’Carolan’s instrument, played by Aislinn Gagliardi. While I say this is fitting because it is O’Carolan’s instrument, I also say it is fitting because it creates this wonderful juxtaposition that was O’Carolan as a person. Here we have this wonderful, rousing drinking song, but at the same time there is a certain elegance about it that works beautifully. Much in the way that O’Carolan was a bit on the rough side and a man who loved his whiskey, yet much of his life was centered around wealthy patrons and elegance.
Finally, perhaps one of my favorite songs on the album, Bridget Cruise, showcases more of the romantic side of O’Carolan. It is about the love of his life. While he fell in love with her as a young man prior roe coming blind, he was unable to be with her because at the time she was of nobility and he came from a simple laboring family. In this arrangement, the harp and fiddle play will off each other trading off who caries the melody. Nevertheless, at the same time the harp is also the percussion. Meanwhile, the vocals grip the listener as she sweetly unfolds O’Carolan’s thoughts. The first few lines state, “I cannot sleep one night soundly / Thinking of you night and day.” It truly is a gripping, sad and sweet song full of emotion that is emoted through the instruments of these talented musicians.
In short, if you love Celtic music buy this album. You will not be disappointed. Not only will you love to listen to these familiar songs, but also you will begin to see the music of this artist, who has affected thousands of others, through a different light.
Stephen Mc Sweeney is a High School English/Drama teacher. Besides writing for the Celtic MP3s Music Magazine, he enjoys acting, writing and playing Celtic music. He can be seen as one of the members of the band Terrible Musicians, where he plays percussion and mandolin.