Clannad: Bards of the land

By Kate Large & Luthaneal Adams

Image courtesy of the band

[Note: This interview first appeared in the Imbloc 2015 edition of the magazine.]

As editor of Pagan Dawn I receive lots of wonderful emails but even so, it’s not every day a message pings in to my inbox and sets into motion a quite amazing string of events. However, that’s just what happened late last year when I opened an email inviting Pagan Dawn to see a band – and not just any band: Clannad.

After a few speedily-typed replies a plan came together; the Pagan Federation’s Luthaneal Adams would attend the gig and we would publish a review. Fantastic! I happily imagined our readers enjoying the review; but then things got even more amazing when we were offered an interview. For Clannad to approach us with such generosity made me hugely proud of Pagan Dawn, which had obviously registered as ‘special’ on their radar.

Luth and I set to work on a list of questions and many times I suffered from the kind of mind-blank you only get when faced with famous people… We’ve all done it! I added just a few questions, focusing on my own experience of Clannad’s music as a touchstone to peace and spirituality while growing up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

At that time, Ulster was a tough place and keeping safe was the top priority: communing with the land and spirit was seen as deeply strange and sensitivity and self-expression were not the order of the day.

Against this backdrop came Clannad,with music that spoke directly to people’s yearning for serenity, peace for the land and its people and above all, magic. We could not always express our inner feelings, but we could listen to Clannad and for a while, envisage an Ireland unriven by hatred.

Fast-forward several decades and Clannad retain their unique magic. Their message remains as universal and I couldn’t sum it up better than Pól Brennan himself does, with the quite spine-tingling remark: “It is our work as bard of the land to make this connection for people, not just in Ireland but everywhere.”

Enjoy our interview with Pól and our review of the gig – and here’s to all the bards, everywhere.

PD: Clannad have in so many ways become the musical spirit of Ireland. However, your sound evolves in its fusion of the traditional with the modern, so we have to ask, how do you want the music to take shape from here?

Pól: Yes, we have been credited with having developed the ‘Celtic sound’, using voices and modern instruments along with harp, flute and mandolin. When we re-formed  a couple of years ago, Ciaran and I agreed to ‘go back to go forward’ when we started to write for the album, Nádúr.

It was very important for us to get that album out without too much fuss and to get the creative juices flowing. However, the next album will be, I believe, a defining musical statement from Clannad. We’re planning something magical.

We know and love your contributions to the TV show Robin of Sherwood, which meant moving away from Ireland and creating music around an aspect of English folklore. Has Irish folklore, myth and legend provided inspiration for your other work?

Irish folklore has always been a source of inspiration for us and continues to be. The fact that we were all born in Donegal with the mountains as a backdrop to the Atlantic roar, that means  that we write a lot of stories of the land, ancient and new. Nádúr was a unanimous title for the latest CD.

As I understand it, the band comes from a primarily Roman Catholic background and Moya is a dedicated Christian. Your music has such a spiritual feel, have your own spiritualities leant themselves to your music in any way?

Yes, the Catholic religion was where we all started religiously. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thing at the start, but it has played a bigger role as we have developed. I personally connect my creativity to my spirituality where Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Earth play major roles.

Lots of Pagans find that your music really resonates with them in a spiritual way.  Do you find it strange to think of all these people connecting with your music like that?

I do not find it strange at all, the connection is there. We feel honoured.

I grew up in Northern Ireland. Do you feel that the Troubles in Ulster affected not just the people but the actual land of Ireland itself?  There is a strong Irish tradition of the land being directly shaped and affected by conflict and the actions of mankind. Did you ever feel, as it seemed to me, that you were ‘singing beauty back in’ to the place?

I believe that conflict has always affected the land. It takes a long time to for the ‘sings’ to realign and for the healing to take place. The past 20 years have seen an enormous shift, both sides of the border, but the sadness remains and will for many generations to come. However, there is real hope.

My take on Theme for Harrys Game is that it was a hymn for peace, written for the land and the people of Ireland.

Off the back of this question, I’d like to ask about ‘mythical lands’ and ‘real lands’. In my experience, the music of Clannad speaks of mythical Ireland but brings magic to the ‘real’ Ireland. How can music integrate our mythical heritage (Irish or otherwise) with our ‘real’ contexts?

I believe that the ‘mythical’ and ‘real’ lands exist side by side and it is our work as Bard of the land to make this connection for people, not just in Ireland but everywhere we travel.

Nature can be a transcendent, unifying force: what is your personal perception of nature and what could we achieve by reconnecting with it?

I believe Grandmother Earth has all the answers , we just need to listen. She’s always been patient and it’s up to us to ask how we can strengthen the bond that exists between us.

Many readers identify very closely with figures from Irish myth and legend. Do you have any favourite myths or figures from the old tales? And why?

Meadhb is a personal favourite of mine. I have been to many of her sacred sites, and in fact only yesterday passed in the shadow of Cnoc na Riabh. I always feel blessed in her presence.

What now for the band? More touring and more albums?

We will be concentrating on film and TV projects for most of 2015 and putting the foundation in place for another album. We are very excited about the next album but there’ll be no touring until end of 2015 or beginning of 2016.

That’s all! Just a sincere thank you from all at Pagan Dawn for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us.

Thanks for asking.

REVIEW: Clannad in concert at Union Chapel, London, October 2014

Clannad are acclaimed for the unique, magical essence of their music. Perhaps best known for the hauntingly beautiful Theme From Harry’s Game, Clannad’s sound has become renowned as embodying the spirit of Ireland.

Hearing their music, one could easily imagine that by bardic wonder they had conjured some majestic spirit from the land and if so, that spirit has surely stayed with them, weaving its presence into their music. Pagan Dawn was invited to hear the band perform and meet them for an interview within the venue of the London’s quite stunning Union Chapel.

Taking to the stage, Clannad locked the audience into a mesmeric wonder immediately. One could see the crowd were taken, as though hypnotised, into a serene calm. The set list was a mix of classic Clannad, personal favourites and some fantastic songs from their latest album, Nádúr (nature) which delves into the intuitive feeling of the land.

The essence of this new music is far-reaching, retaining that element which is distinctly Irish and inspired by its rich landscape but also extending into the world beyond, to touch that intrinsic essence of the natural that is universal to all. Among the classics was Clannad’s Newgrange, inspired by and celebrating Ireland’s ancient monument of the same name with its magnificent standing stones and cairn aligned to the winter solstice. This has always been one of my favourites and hearing it performed live was just as magical.

We were treated to the brilliant Theme From Harry’s Game, the extraordinary I Will Find You (from the film Last of the Mohicans) and a wonderful medley of their music from the much-loved show Robin of Sherwood.

However, as well as creating new music, Clannad also bring life to traditional Irish ballads, such as Dulaman and Téir Abhaile Riú (Go Home With You). It’s a joy to see this kind of traditional music being performed by modern artists and the skill with which Clannad do so makes it all the more enjoyable. Even with traditional songs, their exceptional style shines through.

Supporting Clannad at Union Chapel were Ruth Trimble (night one) and Duke Special and The Henry Girls (night two). Ruth Trimble is a singer and songwriter from Belfast with a style reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan. Her music is packed with emotion, a joy to listen to. Duke Special, also hailing from Belfast, has a gentle voice and his song Freewheel was particularly noteworthy. The Henry Girls’ contemporary Irish folk was often more akin to 1950s female trios, demonstrating their versatility.

A Clannad gig is a multi-faceted joy; mystifying one moment and then a jolly, toe-tapping singalong the next. It would be remiss to say Clannad were anything other than spectacular and I urge you to see them when they next tour.

If you want to find out more, you can visit Clannad’s official website. The site includes news, biography, a gallery, and an online shop selling merchandise.

You can also listen to extracts of tracks from the album Nádúr before buying.

Review by Luthaneal Adams, District Manager, Pagan Federation London.