Beyond the Walls

Reevah (Photo: Paul Martin Brown)

Beyond the Walls

In the fourth review from our 2018 Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Aine Cronin-McCartney attends Ulster Orchestra's EO Lab collaboration with singer-songwriters and electronic artists.

The Ulster Orchestra was one of seven orchestras that participated in the recent European Orchestra Laborary II project. The project aims to reach non-traditional concert-goers and grow the role of orchestras in society by taking music closer to people.

As part of EO Lab II, ‘Beyond the Walls: A Reflection on Civil Rights’ saw Derry singer-songwriters Rebecca Mulhern, Reevah, Susie Blue and Roe, and electronic artists Eoin O’Callaghan, Neil Burns and Leon Crockett, selected to create songs and music with the orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement. 

A powerful experience
Being introduced to the Ulster Orchestra at Derry’s St Columb’s Hall in such a stirring way, and among so many celebrated members of my own local community, was a powerful experience.

Starting off the night was UO viola player Philip Walton and his work Sounds Like a Boy’s Life, a piece based on local writer Tony Doherty’s memoirs about growing up in Derry. Sounds Like a Boy’s Life brings together readings from both volumes of Doherty’s memoirs, The Dead Beside Us and This Man’s Wee Boy (which chronicles the impact of Bloody Sunday on his family) with music specifically composed to reflect those important moments of Doherty’s life. 

The orchestra maintained rhythmic precision with Doherty as his pace of reading would quicken or slow down depending on the mood of the extract. Using familiar tracks such as Bee Gees songs – as Tony reminisced about getting ready to go to a local disco – helped the audience connect with the memories being shared. A more sinister musical tone was employed by the orchestra when recalling the years of army occupation.

Oak Trees
Through EO Lab II, the audience was also introduced to local writer Felicity McCall from The Literary Ladies, a local literary event and writers’ group. The group worked with the songwriters, who each created two pieces with Walton to reflect the spirit of ’68. The new songs were based on four women who played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement: Bernadette McAliskey, Nell McCafferty, Bridget Bond and Brigid Makowski. 

In St Columb’s Hall, Reevah and Rebecca Mulhern both performed their new songs. Describing her sound as ‘dreamy folk’, singer-songwriter Aoife Boyle (Reevah) has become a prominent figure in the local folk scene. ‘Heart over Head’ was written to reflect Nell McCafferty’s experience during the civil rights movement. The audience was delighted by Reevah’s delicate vocal delivery. Gently accompanied by the orchestra, there was a hush across the hall as she sang ‘Heart over head, it’s 1968, and back home in Derry awaiting my fate. Heart filled with hope, a sorrow builds my soul, the person I am was to be reborn.’

Singing her song ‘Oak Trees’, Rebecca Mulhern was an incredibly calm and self-assured performer. The song starts slow and builds until the introduction of Mulhern’s vocal with her powerful lyrics, ‘Fear is what you want from us but you won’t fight’. Different in delivery to Reevah, there was a more intricate level of guitar playing, which seemed to gradually represent the anger being conveyed. There was significance too in the title ‘Oak Trees’ – a symbol of Derry and the strength of the city, reflected in the orchestra’s accompaniment.

Mammoth tracks
The climax of the evening came in a collaboration with local electronic music producers. Phil Kieran has been working with the Ulster Orchestra since his 2016 album Blinded by the Sun. The UO’s viola player Jonathan Simmance has also been working with three local musicians – Eoin O’Callaghan, Neil Burns and Leon Crockett at Celtronic Studios – to create a collection of new tracks designed to be performed electronically or acoustically by the orchestra.

A spectacular sight to both hear and see, electronica and orchestral music collided in an emotional performance. The mammoth tracks generated a cinematic and brooding atmosphere in St Columb’s Hall, ending the night in epic fashion.

The European Orchestra Laborary II project is supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. This performance took place on 23 June 2018.

This review is published as part of a new scheme for writers about music in Northern Ireland. The Journal of Music Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was launched in January 2018. Over the course of the year, the editorial team of The Journal of Music work with four new writers towards publication. The scheme participants are Laura Sheary, Marc Gregg, Stevie Lennox and Aine Cronin-McCartney. Find out more about them here.

This is the third mentoring scheme developed by The Journal of Music, following successful projects in Galway City and County Clare. For further details on the schemes, please visit

Published on 24 October 2018

Aine Cronin-McCartney, based in Derry, is a recent graduate of Ulster University with a degree in journalism and photo-imaging. Previous to her degree studies she completed the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and gained work experience with a number of different media platforms including Local Women, BBC Radio Foyle, Kerrang! and more.

comments powered by Disqus