I’ll leave the symbolism for others to divine but it must be said the atmosphere outside the building in which  the McCracken Summer School’s historic Gaels at the Gaol gig was about to take place, was electric.

The Crumlin Road was overhung by a pale blue sky interspersed with pinkish wisps of cloud (a good omen) and the day’s light getting steadily weaker but the black basalt mined from the Belfast Hills and the Scottish sandstone from which the prison was built made for a stark contrast.

A further contrast was the plush carpeting on the stairs up to the expansive performance room, something the former inmates could only have dreamed off.

Indeed this was a dream come true for some. Despite some recent disconcerting news, we would hope that the north’s jails would echo with the sounds of Irish and other cultures rather than the suffering of further inmates.

I have to be honest and say I missed the first half of the show through work commitments but I’m told I missed great sets from Gàidhlig singer Mhàiri Hall, accompanied on the piano by Sineag MacIntyre as well as local troubadour Barry Kerr with Shane McAleer and Eamonn Murray.

However disappointed I was by missing this array of talent, the second half was treat enough for anyone.

What I liked about Donal Lunny and Martin O’Connor’s set was the simple complexity – I like a good oxymoron – of their playing.

I was sat near a speaker and I could hear every nuance of Lunny’s bouzouki playing as it hopped and skipped through tunes old and new, arm in arm with O’Connor’s box playing.

Starting off with the well-known jig Banish Misfortune, the Galwayman toyed and played with the tune like a kitten with a ball of wool to his own delight and the delight of those looking on. So long have O’Connor and Lunny been playing tunes, they have become part of their being by a process of osmosis. Man, instrument and tune as one and it is wonderful to behold as well as being great fun on a night where many suffered from permagrin such was the enjoyment the got from the music, be it jig, reel or slow air. (They did a sublime version of Carolan’s Fanny Power.)

Róisín Elsafty

Joining the two musical heroes was Conamara singer, Roisin Elsafty (now expecting her third child  – comhghairdeas, a Róisín).

Again, Róisín’s singing is an integral part of her being, ó thaobh na dtaobhann, and her repertoire is rich and varied from the sean-nós Coinlach Glas an Fhómhair to the playful, Pota Mór Fataí. the slightly weird lullaby, Hó-bha-in and, of course An Phailistin.

Let’s hope the jails of Palestine are turned into places of celebration in years to come too but tonight saw mould-breaking entertainment from the McCracken Summer School.

May there be many more.




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