Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their native music is as clear as a mountain stream and their enthusiasm infectious. An evening with Arcanadh is an evening well-spent – in all aspects of entertainment.

Their versatility and breadth of musicianship becomes obvious very quickly, indeed within the first five songs.

Not only did they switch from Irish to English effortlessly during that short time, they also switched from an opening number – ‘The Swallow’ combining sonorous singing with haunting melodies, to a country rhythm performed by Sinead Gibson from Gortahork entitled ‘One More Dollar’ to a third song, ‘Tráthnóna Aoine,’ sung by her husband, Colm Breathnach, based on a poem by his brother, Pádraig, written while in Australia, about the tragic story of two friends drowned in an accident.

A fourth song, ‘Carrick-a-rede’, named after a rope bridge over a chasm on the northern Irish coast but really about falling in love and the scary/exhilarating feeling it brings, came courtesy of Castleblayney, Monaghan-born Mags Gallen, a talented lady who seems as comfortable singing as she is playing synthesizer and fiddle, and probably a bunch of other instruments, if truth be known. And as pretty as a picture.

Displaying her vocal nimbleness, Sinead, as delicate-looking as porcelain, with a voice as whispery as velvet, returned stage-center, launching into a love-song between mother and children, ‘Ceol mo Chroi.’

And just when you thought, Martin Gallen, Mags brother, is the shy, unspoken member of the band providing excellent guitar backing, he took to the mike and wooed the audience with his soft rendering of ‘Turning Of A Day,’ perhaps best described as ‘a song of remembering,’ and also the title of the group’s second album. Sinead’s accompaniment on tin whistle and Maria Corbet’s on Celtic harp created in the mind’s-eye a wondrous, evocative landscape.

Humor is an attractive element of an Arcanadh performance and it certainly wasn’t lacking at Amharclann. Take for example, Colm’s tongue-in cheek introduction of Mayo-born Fiona Walsh who seemingly once played for a group known (very) loosely as the ‘Dickie Bum Fluffs.’ She responded to his teasing in the best way possible, by singing and playing both fiddle and bodhran.

If Mags rendition of ‘Red Is The Rose’ doesn’t set your heart aflutter and the hairs rise on your arms then your chest cavity’s filled with concrete and your arms are that of a mannequin.

Not to be outdone, Maria, band manager known as ‘Brassneck,’ continued the ballad theme with her soulful version of the century-old Scottish melody, ‘Annachie Gordon.’

And that’s only part of the first half of the concert.

The second half began intriguingly, with a song that Colm, from Ring in the Waterford Gaeltacht, said is “about alcohol.” But this is Ireland where nothing is ever what it seems so while it may or make not make reference a pint of porter (actually, it’s wine), philosophically, he said, it’s about life itself and the fact rarely is anything black or white. Decide upon your own interpretation when you hear the friendly headmaster sing ‘Crúiscín Lán.’

The next song, jokingly dedicated to US President Donald Trump, is entitled ‘Nothing To Show For It At All,’ a ballad most closely associated with sibling Irish performers, Dolores and Sean Keane, sung by Colm with an acapella-like chorus from fellow band members.

You could have heard a floating feather kiss the carpet such was the silence in the hall as Martin followed with his version of ‘Lord Franklin’ on guitar, his voice as soft as snowflakes sweeping across the Arctic slopes that Franklin explored and where he finally perished.

Colm, a natural raconteur, regaled the audience with his hilarious tale of his family’s traditional trip to Limerick to visit his grandmother with all 13 children, including himself, squeezed tuna-like inside a small car and his mother singing songs to keep them from fidgeting. One such song was the war lament ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ which the band performed wonderfully. The theme of war was continued by Maria with her take on ‘John Condon,’ about the youngest Irish soldier killed in the First World War, in the trenches of Belgium.

A surprise highlight that delighted the audience no end was a tin-whistle-cum-singing interlude by a duet whom Colm described as ‘Arcanadh’s developing squad,’ his and Sinead’s own two children Cormac and Sadbh respectively, who performed ‘Tráthnóna Beag Aréir (Late Yesterday Evening) together.

The curtain closer to a brilliant evening’s entertainment was, appropriately, a heartwarming version of that revered classic of Irish repertoires, ‘The Parting Glass,’ a song perfectly suited to showcase the band’s harmonies blending snugly together in perfect unison as if their voices were dancing a waltz across a gleaming ballroom floor.

It’s no wonder Arcanadh are an award-winning group, including a ‘Battle of the Bands’ triumph at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient. It wouldn’t surprise me if they do so again in Brittany in a couple of weeks.


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