The Mulcahy Family from Abbeyfeale, Michelle, Mick and Louise are among the country’s foremost musicians
SOMETHING akin to magic happens when an artist is born into a musical world. These are the words of that mesmeric singer, Iarla Ó Lionaird, writing about Michelle Mulcahy from Abbeyfeale. But equally he could have been talking about Michelle’s sister Louise. Or their dad, Mick.
For these three hugely gifted and versatile musicians, music is hard-wired in their DNA. They were born into it, and born to it. To play was and is as natural as to breathe.
Says Brosna-born Mick: “I was born into music. My father played the accordion. There was always a musical instrument in the house. I could never keep away from the accordion and the sound of it.”
And when his two daughters were born, they too grew up in a house of music. “They couldn’t escape the music but they came into it in a lovely way. There was no pressure. When they were very small, every evening I would stand in the hall and play to put them to sleep, never realising the music was sinking in.”
But sink in, it did and now, over two decades later, the Mulcahy Family has four CDs to its credit, the most recent, The Reel Note, launched only last month.
“The music on this CD is first class, no gimmicks, syncopations or other distractions, just extremely good music played by exceptionally talented musicians, across a range of instruments, all played to a very high standard,” flute-player Mick O’Connor says in his introduction on the sleeve notes.
The CD includes tunes from all over the country, from old masters and younger composers, and demonstrates, in Mick O’Connor’s opinion, the Mulcahys’ “implacable discernment, taste and respect for the continuity of the tradition.”
It took over 10 days to record the CD, Mick Mulcahy reveals but, says Louise: “We had great fun. We are very fortunate we get on great together. It is no natural for us to play together.”
“It is always great fun recording,” adds Michelle. “We all know each other’s sound so well. It was really a very special time for us.”
Families who play together are not altogether rare in the world of Irish traditional music. But, says Mick O’Connor, the Mulcahys “represent a new generation of musicians who have made serious study of the music and are poised to bring it to a new height.”
Mick Mulcahy’s reputation as a musician of stature on the accordeon and melodeon began in the music clubs of Dublin in the 1960s. Work for Mick at the time was seasonal and he would head to Dublin - or even to London - for long weeks at a time and get stuck into the music wherever he found himself.
He was highly regarded by the musical fraternity, people such as Tommy Potts, John Kelly, Tony MacMahon and Sean Keane, recalls Mick O’Connor who was himself part of that scene. And internationally acclaimed fiddler Martin Hayes has also paid tribute to the Brosna man.
In 1976, Mick released his first solo album with the Gael-linn label. A second album, Mick Mulcahy and Friends followed in 1990.
But by the time Mick was ready to return to the recording studio in 2000, he didn’t have to look beyond the hall door for fellow musicians. By then Louise and Michelle had already begun to demonstrate their huge aptitude and huge appetite for music and had also become adept across a range of instruments: Louise on the tin whistle, flute and uileann pipes and Michelle on the tin whistle, accordeon, harp, concertina, fiddle and piano.
“I was drawn very much to the sound of the instruments,” Michelle says. “Listening to the different instruments and playing them, you can bring the repertoire into each of them.”
Three family albums have now followed that 2000 one while Louise and Michelle have each launched a solo album.
Louise’s album, Tuning the Road, in 2014, was named Album of the Month by Trad Connect and won her the title Musician of the Year in the Live Ireland Awards.
Michelle was named TG4 Young Musician of the Year in 2006 and she also featured on Riverdance composer, Bill Whelan’s album, The Connemara Suite. Her debut solo album Suaimhneas has won exceptional reviews from Iarla O’Lionáird while The Living Tradition enthused: “Her revolutionary style on the harp is scintillating - played with power and panache, no concession to the complexity of the instrument, confirming her as one of the most significant musicians redefining harp at present.”
Music has proved to be “an amazing passport,” Louise acknowledges. And the family has toured and performed in concerts all over Ireland and the world: Europe, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, USA.
“We are very fortunate,” she adds. “We have been invited to so many festivals throughout the world and to do master workshops over the last few years.”
“When you get to travel with the music, it adds something every time,” Michelle says, who has just recently returned from a harp festival in Galicia. “Whether it is a festival, a concert, a session, a workshop, you are always meeting new people, finding new tunes. All the time you are discovering something.”
But, she says: “It is lovely to get back home and play tunes and figure out different sets.” A qualified NT and MA working in Co Meath, Louise is now about to embark on a Ph D at NUI Galway, where she has been awarded a research scholarship and is clear in her mind about the state of Irish music. “I think music is always developing. The core element, the die-hard traditionalists who maintain the older styles are still there but it is very healthy for Trad to progress and for new tunes, new composers to be included.”
Her research, she explains, will focus around tracing the development of the uileann pipes down to the present day and how they spread to other countries.
And she welcomes the fact that the uileann pipes are holding their own - and that more women are now playing them. “That is really positive,” she says.
Michelle, too has welcomed the fact that more young musicians are now playing the harp than ever before. She studied music in UCC and has followed up with a masters degree and a Ph D from UL. She now teaches music in Portumna and lives in Castleconnell. And just as for her dad and sister, traditional music continues to exert a powerful hold. “There is something very natural about it. The rhythm is nearly instinctive.”
Next stop for the Mulcahys is Camden Town and a tour to promote The Reel Note.Don’t miss out.