Iarla Ó Lionáird

Aisling GhealMusic Of Dreams
Aililiu Na GamhnaThe Seven Steps To Mercy
Caoineadh Na dTrí MhuireThe Seven Steps To Mercy
Aoibhinn CrónánThe Seven Steps To Mercy
I'm Stretched On Your GraveI Could Read The Sky
Taimse Im' ChodladhInvisible Fields
I'm Weary Of Lying AloneInvisible Fields
An Buachailin BanInvisible Fields
Fainne Geal An LaeFoxlight
The Goat SongFoxlight
Bonus Track
Casadh An tSúgáin/Frankie's SongBrooklyn OST

Iarla Ó Lionáird photo 1

Iarla Ó Lionáird (photo: Feargal Ward)



Iarla Ó Lionáird playlist


Contributor: Andrew Shields

Along with Seán Keane, Iarla Ó Lionáird is probably the greatest contemporary Irish male folk singer. Both men come from families with a deep engagement with traditional music there. For example, Iarla’s great-aunt, Elizabeth Cronin, was one of the best-known singers in the Muskerry area of West Cork. Indeed, her knowledge of the local song tradition led several collectors, most notably Seámus Ennis and Alan Lomax, to visit the area to record her singing (she can be heard here). In Seán Keane’s case his two aunts, Rita and Sarah, were both noted singers while his sister, Dolores, is among the finest Irish female vocalists of recent times. Both men’s talent for singing was noted at a very early age, with Keane winning numerous fleadh cheoil {‘festival of music’) medals in his early years while Ó Lionáird had begun singing in public by the age of five. While Keane comes from the West of Ireland, Ó Lionáird was born in the southern county of Cork. The area in which he was raised, Cúil Aodha, is one that is noted for its richness in terms of its preservation both of traditional music and folklore.

It was this richness and his family connections with the area that drew the great Irish composer and sometime traditional musician, Sean Ó Riada, to settle in the nearby village of Ballyvourney in 1963. After this move he became keenly involved in the community life both there and in Cúil Aodha itself. In 1964, with his friend, the local priest, Donnacha Ó Concubhair, he founded a choir, Cór Chúil Aodha, in the latter village. Between then and his death in 1971, he wrote a good deal of music for it, including two well-known masses.

Iarla Ó Lionáird began his musical career with that choir and continued to sing in it for many years. After Seán Ó Riada’s tragic early death in 1971, it was taken over by his son, Peadar. The latter man came to be something of a mentor for the young Ó Lionáird. Indeed, his first recording at the age of only fifteen, a version of Aisling Gheal (there will be a more detailed discussion of this song later in the piece) was recorded under Peadar’s direction (a brief clip of Iarla singing it in his early youth can be seen here. The full version is here). Iarla himself later credited both of the Ó Riadas – father and son – with having helped to preserve the local musical tradition. He has argued that Seán gave Cúil Aodha’s musical culture “a platform and confidence it had never before experienced”. He also credited Peadar with having been “very helpful in developing the things I was good at and helping me avoid certain things as well”.

After leaving school, Ó Lionáird went to study at University College Dublin where he studied literature and trained to be a teacher. He subsequently worked as one for several years, including a stint as an Irish language teacher in Dublin. At this point, however, he was still unsure as to what career path he should follow in the long term. He also felt there was a difficulty involved in presenting solo unaccompanied music on the folk scene as it existed then in Dublin.

After a short period where he moved away from performing, he was persuaded by the well-known accordion player, Tony McMahon, to do a concert with him in Armagh. This collaboration led to further joint appearances at gigs around Ireland. With the addition of Noel Hill, the concertina player, and the pianist John Gibson they recorded a live album, Music Of Dreams, in 1993. It included my first selection, a re-recording of Aisling Gheal (a rough translation would be ‘Bright Vision’) again with an arrangement by Peadar Ó Riada. The song itself comes out of the tradition of the ‘Aisling’. This was a song form in which, in O’Lionáird’s words, a story unfolded where a “woman of great beauty, sometimes symbolising Ireland” encountered the narrator in a dream. Such a device also allowed for coded political messages to be included without incurring the suspicion of the English authorities who then governed Ireland. The abstract nature of such lyrics give them an air of ambiguity and a mysterious power which O’Lionáird’s version captures perfectly. A translation of the song can be found here.

A word might be in order about Iarla’s style of singing. Like the great Joe Heaney, who I have written about in a previous Toppermost, Ó Lionáird comes from within the sean-nós (‘old-style’) tradition of singing. Sean-nós is a generally unaccompanied (as we shall see Iarla has broken away from this part of the tradition) and highly ornate form of singing which places extraordinary technical demands on those who sing in the style. Unlike Heaney, whose voice had a distinctive lived-in and gravelly quality, Ó Lionáird’s voice is remarkably pure. It also has a soaring quality at times which Heaney’s much more earthy voice did not have. Heaney remains my favourite male singer within that tradition but Iarla – along with another fine Connemara singer, Darach Ó Catháin – runs him a close second. Unlike Heaney – and perhaps reflecting Ó Riada’s influence – Iarla gradually came to wrestle with trying to remain true to the core of the tradition from which he sprang, while experimenting with the ways in which it was presented. One of the ways he sought to do this was through collaborations with other musicians. These included his years as a member of the Afro Celt Sound System (for more details on their work see Ian Ashleigh’s fine Toppermost), his involvement with the experimental modern classical group, Crash Ensemble and most recently his work with the extremely successful folk super-group The Gloaming.

For the remainder of this Toppermost, however, I will be concentrating on the solo albums he has made since 1997’s The Seven Steps To Mercy. He made that record with Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World Records. His involvement with the company came about in a slightly unusual way. He was listening to Gabriel’s soundtrack for the movie, The Last Temptation Of Christ, when he came across the track, Passion, which featured Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on lead vocals. Ó Lionáird had long been interested in finding vocal styles around the world which resembled the sean-nós one. Hearing Nusrat sing against an ambient background in that way convinced him that it might be possible to record his voice within a similar aural framework. Deciding to seize the moment, he sent a six-page handwritten letter to Real World asking for the opportunity to record with them. Perhaps to his own surprise, they accepted this request, and this eventually led to his recording his first solo album with the company.

The Seven Steps was produced by Michael Brook, a Canadian musician and inventor who had previously worked with artists like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. On the album, Brook backed up Iarla’s singing with a range of ambient noises, including loops and samples and sounds recorded by Ó Lionáird himself in the area around Cúil Aodha. I have to admit that I had some reservations about this approach when I first heard the album but the strength and sheer beauty of Iarla’s singing gradually won me over. My first selection from it, Aililiu Na Gamhna (‘Alleluia, The Calves’ or ‘The Joy Of The Calves’ would be rough translations) is a beautiful song set to a slow air, which was collected in County Galway in the early Twentieth century. It is probable that the song is a good deal older than that. Its storyline has been well condensed on the Clare Library website as being about “a young woman, dissatisfied with her marriage” who “wishes to be back minding the calves where she was happiest” . A translation of the song can be found here. Iarla’s version captures its wistful character brilliantly:

In my opinion, the definitive version of my next selection, Caoineadh Na dTrí Muire (‘The Lament Of The Three Marys’) is by Joe Heaney. It is a very old religious lament which he delivers with an enormous emotional power (his version can be heard here. A translation of the song and a more detailed discussion of it can be found here. However, if Iarla’s version cannot match the depth or the magnificent intensity of Joe’s version, it has a stark beauty and a soulfulness all of its own (a later live performance of the song can be heard here. When thinking about Iarla’s voice before writing this piece, it struck me it has a spiritual or a ‘seeking’ quality to it which may owe something to his early training in the church choir. This quality comes through very clearly both in that version and in this earlier unaccompanied one.

My final choice from the album is Aoibhinn Crónán (‘The Humming Of The Bees’), an old Irish poem which was set to music by Peadar Ó Riada (a translation of it can be found here near the foot of the page). Its themes of the healing power of nature run throughout Iarla’s work. Ó Lionáird’s vocal here is one of the finest in his career, showing all the restrained power which is his trademark. It is not often he utilises its full power but the effect when he does it simply stunning. A live performance of the song is here:

The next choice, I’m Stretched On Your Grave, comes from Iarla’s soundtrack for the 1999 film, I Could Read The Sky. The song itself is based on a poem in Irish which dates back to at least the seventeenth century. It was subsequently translated into English by the well-known Irish writer, Frank O’Connor. His version was then put to music by Philip King of the band Scullion (he used a melody drawn from an old Irish hymn), who recorded it in 1979. Since then, it has been recorded by a large number of artists, including Sinead O’Connor (her superb version can be heard here). Ó Lionáird’s rendition is equally good and also has a haunting quality which is very much its own. He sings it in the original Irish version (a translation can be found here).

My next three selections come from Iarla’s second non-soundtrack solo album, Invisible Fields, which was released in 2005. My first pick from it, Taimse Im’ Chodladh (‘I Am Asleep’), is a song closely associated with Seán Ó Riada. He recorded it with Ceoltóirí Chualann with the great Seán Ó Sé on lead vocal in 1963. A translation and an account of the history of the song can be found here. It has a particularly beautiful melody to which Iarla’s version does full justice and here’s a later live performance:

The next choice, I’m Weary Of Lying Alone, was originally an English song and comes from at least the late eighteenth century. It was later translated by someone in Ireland, who alternated the original lines in English with his own ones in Irish (this is sometimes known as a ‘macaronic’ version). It was also among the songs recorded by Elizabeth Cronin, Iarla’s great-aunt (there is more about the song’s history here). Iarla’s rendition shows his mastery of the art of unaccompanied singing:

My last pick from the record, An Buachailin Ban, is a Jacobite song. Like many others, it encodes its political message within what seems to be a straightforward love song (a discussion of the background to it and a translation can be found here). Unusually, the track has a guitar backing by M. J. Carroll which beautifully complements Iarla’s typically flawless vocal.

The final two selections come from Ó Lionáird’s superb 2011 album, Foxlight. The first, Fainne Geal An Lae, is a variant version of the classic ballad, The Dawning Of The Day (a more correct translation of the Irish version might, however, be ‘The Bright Ring Of The Day’). It has been recorded by many other artists going right back to this classic version by Count John McCormack which was recorded in 1934. The melody was later used as the basis for Luke Kelly’s magnificent version of the Patrick Kavanagh poem, Raglan Road. It also formed the basis for Richard Thompson’s brilliant song, The Dimming Of The Day. Even against this impressive competition, Iarla’s version stands out as one of the best renditions of the original song. Here is a magical later live version of it recorded with Steve Cooney on guitar:

I should add that there is a special quality to all the work these two fine artists do together. The good news on this front is that they are now engaged in recording their first album together.

My last choice, The Goat Song (a translation of it is here), is a far more lighted song which shows off Iarla’s brilliant phrasing and ability to handle all sorts of different material. Here is another fine later performance of this song, again with Steve Cooney.

As these selections show, over the course of his career Ó Lionáird has produced music of the very highest quality. His work has also managed to combine a respect for the tradition from which he came, with a constant willingness to experiment and extend its boundaries. At his finest, his singing also has a haunting beauty and a transcendent quality which reminds me of some of the great soul singers. Indeed, like the other great sean-nós singers, soulfulness combined with a strong sense of his place within a long tradition – and the strengths that come from that – have underpinned all of his work to date.

Bonus Track

Most people who have seen the film Brooklyn will recall the great scene in which Iarla appears briefly and sings Casadh An tSúgáin. It is a scene which encapsulates Jackie Leven’s great lines in his song Call Mother A Lonely Field …

Like young Irish men in English bars
The song of home betrays us …

… although in this case an ‘American soup kitchen’ would be more accurate. I should let the scene speak for itself:

I am not a huge fan of the movie, but this scene almost saves it.


“This comes from a livestream concert which Iarla and Steve Cooney did in the National Gallery of Ireland in May 2020. It was one of my main musical highlights in this very strange year.” (AS)


Iarla Ó Lionáird official website

Iarla Ó Lionáird at Real World Records

The Seven Steps To Mercy (Real World Records)

Invisible Fields (Real World Records)

Foxlight (Real World Records)

FolkWorld interview with Iarla (1998)

The Family of Things podcast – Episode 5: Iarla Ó Lionáird

“The voice of experience: sean nós made new for Iarla Ó Lionáird” (Irish Times, 2013)

The Journal of Music: Iarla Ó Lionáird on Seán Ó Riada

The Gloaming official website

Katharine Blake interviews Iarla (2008)

Iarla Ó Lionáird biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Here are just some of Andrew’s other posts on Irish musicians on this site:
Willie Clancy, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, Johnny Duhan, Séamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Horslips, Seán Ó Riada, Planxty

TopperPost #894


  1. David Lewis
    Aug 14, 2020

    What a great singer. The nice thing about larla is that he’s a great starting point but is part of the journey into the deeper recesses of Irish music. This is a great introduction that glimpses at depths that are worth exploring

  2. Colin Duncan
    Aug 18, 2020

    Thanks again, Andrew. A lot of this is new to me. I only know two of the pieces of music – the Raglan Road theme and Mo Ghile Mear. I really enjoy Iarla accompanied by the acoustic guitar. Many thanks for the Irish music education I’m getting, Andrew.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Aug 18, 2020

    David and Colin – Thanks for kind words.
    David – agree that Iarla has managed to combine a respect for tradition with making the music accessible to people from outside it.
    Colin – Yes – Iarla and Steve Cooney have a very special musical relationship. Really looking forward to album they are making together.

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