Out of the space between waking and sleeping came an unearthly sound, something ancient, incomprehensible and yet immediate and visceral.
I remember very well the first time I heard “Fionnghuala” very late at night on one of the many pirate radio stations that populated the airwaves of Irish broadcasting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While many of the DJs may not have had the Dublin-centric voices that featured on our national broadcaster at the time, some of them really knew their music. They would jump between punk, medieval music, electronic, jazz and then sometimes they would come up with something like this.
Today with the ubiquity of internet infiltration anyone can access such musical wonders, but at that time you got one listen and then it was gone.
I didn’t even know who the artist was, not coming from a family that was involved in any way in traditional music, but the sound resonated within me for years before I discovered it was the work of The Bothy Band, an imaginative and powerful arrangement of a Scottish traditional piece in a style called mouth music. The track was originally released in 1976 and by the time I heard it the band were no more, and the song was consigned to being another quirky footnote in the ever-evolving landscape of Irish music at the time.
In 1993 Anúna went to church to record our first album (I Took Them To Church… ok, I’m sorry I couldn’t resist it) and part of my intention was to awaken the general populace in my homeland to my own obsession with choral music. Pompous as it sounds now, I really was on a crusade, and “Fionnghuala” truly deserved another day in the sun. The ambient recording space required an incredibly precise delivery and an understanding of the essential nature of projecting the immediacy of this unique song. The last thing I wanted was a classical “choral” sound.
Brian Masterson created the space and John McGlynn sang into it in an approximation of what we had heard The Bothy Band do. I thought he was superhuman in his ability to sing something so complex in such a fluid manner. It was different to the Bothy Band, a new sound-world and the only track I didn’t write or arrange on the album.
Within a year or two this song was back up there in the popular imagination, even featuring on an advert for the Irish Lottery with us singing it. In 1995 when Elvis Costello joined us on stage for a concert in London as part of his Meltdown Festival we were accompanied by Dónal Lunny, one of The Bothy Band, and managed to convince him to come on stage and sing it with us. In 1996 we sang it on Later with Jools Holland on the BBC. “Fionnghuala” became an anthem to us on so many complex levels, part of what defined Anúna. It was Scottish, so sidestepped the political difficulties of the time and it was pretty much unique, and I built up a musical vocabulary around it that included my setting of the text of “Dúlamán”.
However, the single performance of this version of the song that stays with me occurred at the BBC Proms in Belfast in 2002. In front of a crowd of 14,000 people we sang a programme in English, Irish and then “Fionnghuala”. Magical! Like “Danny Boy”, written by an English man, “Fionnghuala” is a Scottish song that we have taken on board as our own in Ireland. No need to translate the words, no need to pretend it is something that it is not. We are incredibly privileged to be able to speak the words of the forgotten past and make these poets and writers live again no matter whether they are from Galway or Tokyo. Such is the great gift given to us as singers, and in the form of a choir this becomes something that transcends the mundane nature of our musical existence.
Maybe in a few decades someone will come back to ANÚNA’s version of this song and it will fan an ember which will turn into a flame… as it did with me.