It must have been around 35 years ago that the usual bar staff of an Irish language club in west Belfast were all off in Donegal.
Being someone who often helped out in the bar, I was asked to look after affairs for the night.
Cumann Chluain Ard was a place visiting Irish language bands and singers would come to for some liquid refreshment after a gig in Belfast, knowing they would get a great welcome.
The night I was looking after the late-night bar, who should come in but members of Clannad who had been playing the Ulster Hall (I think) that night. This was going to be something special as the first of the songs started.
However, just as things were warming up, who should arrive but the RUC, asking if we had a licence to be serving alcohol late at night. As far as I knew, the answer was “Níl” and so the regular clientele and visitors packed away their songs and marched off in single file into the cold night air.
It was the best late night session that never was.
I thought of that evening last night as Clannad played the Waterfont Hall in Belfast because what struck me was that the quintet who have been together since Cúchulainn was a wee lad, still remain a family group.
I suppose there’s a big clue in the name of the band, Clannad, clann as Dobhair, the family from (Gaoth) Dobhair.
Máire aka Moya and her two brothers Ciarán and Pól with their uncles, Pádraig and Noel, were all playing acoustic instruments (although amplified of course) and you could cast your mind back even to well before that night in Cluain Ard and you’d still see the Clannad of today practising on their instruments and coming up with novel arrangements for old songs.
If you strip away the Celtic mysticism and New Age frippery, you could be in Teach Leo, drinking Cidona or pints of Bass and smoking Gallaher’s Blues.
And that is their strength, I believe. The songs in Irish remain what they are but they are given a creative gloss that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the originals.
Last night, following a great but short set from the Henry Sisters, the family from Dobhair played quite a few songs from the new album, Nádúr, their first studio album in over 15 years which includes a new song in Irish called Rhapsody na gCrann. They also did a gorgeous version of Down by the Sally Gardens before going into a greatest hits section.
What also struck me was the enduring quality of Moya’s voice. I used to think Harry’s Game couldn’t be sung live but Moya constantly proves me wrong, her voice having lost nothing of its ethereal beauty in songs like In a Lifetime and the singalong Two Sisters.
The band can rock too as they showed in show finisher Dúlaman.
Plus ça change…