From Lockdown to Radio Ballads – An Interview with Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn of Ye Vagabonds
On 11 March this year, the folk duo Ye Vagabonds played Melbourne in Australia. On the way back home on the plane, Brían Mac Gloinn started receiving messages regarding the lockdown. The next few months were a radical shift from the preceding period.
We had just had the busiest two-and-a-half years of Ye Vagabonds’ time. It was a really busy couple of years for us. We played over a hundred gigs in 2019. We were used to the pace of touring at that rate, which is obviously gone now.
Ye Vagabonds did get to perform as part of the Other Voices Courage series almost five weeks later, and once the restrictions had eased they were able to meet up more regularly and work on material, some of which ended up on their new Patreon site. They also recently played at the reimagined Masters of Tradition festival, and Brían featured on Brigid Mae Power’s new album, which was released during the summer. As for many artists, however, the lockdown was both creative and frustrating. As Diarmuid explains,
We didn’t necessarily find ourselves feeling super motivated because you’re finding that you’re under stimulated … you’re not out and about … I think once the novelty of being in one place had worn off… [we were] feeling a bit frustrated with not being able to get out and play in front of audiences, because … it’s an important source of feedback.
‘You need an experience of the world to make artistic things… to create things,’ says Brían, ‘I don’t really believe in creating things from a void … there has to be some substance and some stimulation.’ Nonetheless, the brothers have worked on material that they may not have had a chance to do otherwise, and Brían, who studied film and broadcasting, has completed a ‘radio ballad’ (a genre developed by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in the 1950s and 60s), that will be broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM on 13 September. His ballad, which is a mixture of interviews, new songs, soundscapes and sound effects, focuses on the story of the SS Stolwijk sea rescue off the coast of Donegal eighty years ago, when eight fishermen from Árainn Mhór rescued eighteen Dutch sailors in terrible weather conditions.
The last five years have seen Ye Vagabonds become one of Ireland’s most popular folk acts. The brothers had been playing around Dublin city since they moved there from Carlow to study in 2012, but it was a series of videos by Myles O’Reilly that brought their singing to wider attention. In 2015, they released their Rose & Briar EP, followed by their self-titled debut album in 2017 and The Hare’s Lament last year. In October they won three RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards.
Now Ye Vagabonds embark on a nine-date Music Network tour with Kerry concertina player Cormac Begley. While they have played in sessions with Begley before, and been on the same line-up as him at concerts, for example at Celtic Connections in Scotland, this is the first formal collaboration between them. The three recently spent a week in Kerry working on material together. ‘We’re really excited about the blend of us and Cormac,’ says Brían. ‘It’s about as excited as I have been playing music.’
That week that we spent down there was seriously good … I really needed it at that point as well. … We spent long days just playing around, and it was really like playing, in the childish sense. … I really needed that massive musical stimulation … It’s an exciting collaboration for us because I think the raw ingredients fit together quite well.
For the tour, the Mac Gloinns and Begley have been working in particular on a cappella songs with the two brothers singing with just concertina accompaniment, such as on ‘The Roving Journeyman’ (below), which they learnt partly from a recording of the Irish Traveller singer Paddy Doran as well as other verses from Danny Cooper of Fife in Scotland. The song is one of the few traditional songs the duo have found that mention their home place of Carlow, so they were immediately attracted to it.
Other pieces they will perform on the tour include the song ‘Her Mantle So Green’, the reel ‘The Lady’s Cup of Tea’ and the jig ‘The Humours of Glynn’, which they learned from the piper Emmett Gill. There will be some solo performances from Begley in each concert, but more than half of the night will involve the trio collaborating. The duo have also been working on some new song arrangements with Brían using his Frank Tate-made guitar and Diarmuid on his Frank Tate mandolin.
The lockdown has finally given the duo a chance to reflect on all that has happened as regards career and creativity over the past eight years, and they’re keen to bring new material to audiences again in the new tour. ‘When I think about it,’ says Brían, ‘I’m most comfortable with the last two years… We’re always figuring things out and figuring out where we’re going… [but] It’s hard to reflect on things when you’re just constantly moving. This has been the first time that I looked back on it.’
Ye Vagabonds and Cormac Begley begin their Music Network tour in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on Thursday 17 September at 8pm and then visit Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo (18th); Triskel Arts Centre, Cork (19th, 7.45pm and 9.30pm); Ionad Cultúrtha, Baile Mhúirne (20th); Dublin – venue TBC (22nd); Glór, Ennis (23rd); The Malt House, Stradbally (24th); Station House Theatre, Clifden; (25th) and An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny (26th). For booking, visit www.musicnetwork.ie/whats-on/ye-vagabonds-cormac-begley.
This preview is supported by Music Network.