A small, cosy local cafe in the middle of Naas, lit by candles & fairy lights on a Saturday night; 15 tables occupied by 30 people sitting close, all in good form and relaxed, having tea/coffee & cakes served by Eileen, the proprietor.
Eithne Ní Chatháin takes up her position in the corner by the front window, surrounded by keyboard, fiddle, guitar, tamborine, microphone & pick-up. With no nerves showing, she speaks briefly to the audience in the gentlest way, a simple welcome and update on her recent work; no straining, no airs, totally unforced.
Almost imperceptibly, she has finished talking and is singing a new song inspired by a run on the beach, accompanying herself on the guitar. Her songs are direct, almost casual observations of the world around her and how they reflect or impact on human emotions. She introduces one new song by telling us it’s about a particularly good night playing music & singing that she just didn’t want to end: as she was going to bed very late, early the next morning and daylight was heralding the dawn of a new day, she made a plea for it to hold back and let her savour for a little longer the effects of the night. The song itself is essentially the same as her introduction to it, but “accompanied” by melody, sung, in her perfectly natural voice, it becomes something more, something worthy of art, a simple experience simply lifted into the universe for anyone to hear. It reminds me of the freedom and confidence of Walt Whitman’s verse: “One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person … Of physiology from top to toe I sing … Of Life immense in passion, pulse and power … I sing.”
Moving effortlessly between her own songs and the sean-nós tradition, between Irish and English, between traditional songs from other cultures and more modern forms (such as a Nina Simone song), between accompanying herself and using just the voice, Eithne’s focus is always on singing pure and simple: the human being’s ability to turn any experience or activity into something rhythmical and melodic by simply adjusting the vocal cords and the flow of air from the lungs.
Her voice is so pure and natural (no wonder Donal Lunny chose it for his ‘Celebration of Irish Voices’ at the Concert Hall last year), and she is gifted with a such big range, you could almost forget the art, and the work that goes on behind that. As with a swan on the surface of the water, only when you know something of the preparation and control required to sing in the sean-nós tradition, do you appreciate the effort being made underneath.
Her musicality comes across not only in the sean-nós singing: her own music writing is never dull and her brilliant accompaniment is always “at a remove” and sometimes difficult, as in jazz-influenced; her playing with the tune of Bog Braon don tSeanduine on the keyboard, for instance, was particularly thrilling.
Perhaps the most apt image for her art is one that she returns to herself again and again in the songs she writes and the ones she chooses to sing: the power of nature (birds, especially), though unfathomably complex, to put us in a simple context and act as a balm for our troubles:
“With the primroses in springtime,
With the golden evening sunshine,
With the bird-song filling your heart,
So let go now, let flow now, let go to allow
The earth to hold you, to carry you …”
(From ‘What’s in the Bag, Love?’)
Her performance over (finished with tunes on the fiddle), others were inspired to sing and – anxieties of our recession forgotten, “mar níl in aon ní ach seal” - we sang songs to each other and together for a good while afterwards.
You can buy Eithne’s CD ‘Eithne’ as MP3 here >>>