Sí Van (l-r) Mary Dillon, Niamh Parsons and Tíona McSherry

The Ulster Fleadh at Dungiven burst into life last night with three totally different acts entertaining a packed St Canice’s Hall with a three-hour show of breadth and depth, of raucous laughter, dark brooding, and irrepressible excitement.

My own reason for heading over the Glenshane Pass was to hear Sí Van, the new trio of Mary Dillon, Niamh Parsons and Tíona McSherry and it wasn’t a wasted journey.

Starting off with Tom Waits’  The Briar and the Rose, the interweaving harmonies were just gorgeous with Niamh taking the lead. The girls followed it with a Tíona-led bluesy American version of an Irish song, Soldier, Soldier before Mary took to the mike with The Stolen Bride, a lullaby as dark as a polar night.

The Sí Van repertoire is full of drama and a rugged beauty that is spellbinding, but they can also lighten things up as the mood takes them.

These are three women who possess the most beautiful voices imaginable but who recognise great, little-heard songs and know how to deliver them in all their glory and in this they were artfully accompanied last night by guitarist Graham Dunne.

As a debut performance, despite – or maybe because of – some understandable first-night nerves, it has whetted the appetite for more to come from this wonderful trio.

(I believe Si Van are to play at Féile an Droichead. More details soon.)

Mary, Niamh and Tíona were followed by the unique character that is Mr John Spillane.

No matter how many times I’ve seen the Corkman – and it is a lot – he never fails to entertain but then how could the composer of Magic Nights at the Lobby Bar, The Dance of the Cherry Trees and his pair of Ballincolligs fail to beguile.

The famous Spillane patter still has people in stitches and there was certainly a great rapport between singer and audience, climaxing in a raucous joint rendition of Oro Sé do Bheatha Bhaile.

Topping the  bill was Buille, the concertina of Niall Vallely and keyboard skills of brother Caoimhin, joined

Niall Vallely

last night by Beoga’s Sean Óg Graham on guitar and Brian Morrison on banjo and bodhrán.

The concertina might not be everyone’s idea of a hip instrument but in the hands of Niall Vallely it becomes something more than itself.

Jazz band, trad musicians, avant-garde cool cats, I doubt there is any group anywhere like Buille. I swear I even heard some funk last night.

Stick whatever label you like on them, the music is high-energy, rhythmic, pulsating and hugely enjoyable, from the opening 1st August/2nd August to Coburg Street Nights.

The evening finished with Sí Van, Spillane and Buille in an ensemble rendition of Ireland’s unofficial Gaelic national anthem, Mo Ghile Mear.  

On Thursday night, the spirit of Irish music rose out of St Canice’s high into the Derry air, fusing up with the spirit of the music played in bygone days to form a protective mantle over the tradition.

It should be a great Fleadh Uladh.

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