“A Wonderful Woman” – Kate Records Mná na hÉireann

“…that cloud looks like Ireland…c’mon and blow it a kiss now…”

1995 found Kate taking a year off from work, something that she had mentioned in an interview in Q magazine in November 1993: “…..there’s a few things I’d like to be doing with my life. I’ve spent a lot of time working and I’d like to catch up. Over the next few years I’d like to take some time off” At that time Kate was approached by Donal Lunny to take part in an album of Irish music and to record a song with Irish lyrics, Mná na hÉireann. In a May 1996 interview with Donal in the Irish music paper Hot Press, the writer Liam Fay comments that; “for Lunny, the agreement of Kate Bush, with whom he had laboured before (most notably on her Hounds Of Love album), to come aboard was crucial to the realisation of the whole undertaking”. In the interview Donal recalls how Kate got involved;

Donal Lunny

“Kate had, via Bill Whelan, assembled a group of Irish musicians to play on a number of her albums. I know Bill developed a close friendship with her which is more than I’ve had time or opportunity to do. But Kate and I did have a couple of very nice phonecalls since we last worked together. When I rang her up about this, her interest was immediate. That was very gratifying. She had taken a year off from work of any kind and this was bang in the middle of it. She opened herself to several weeks work by taking it on, maybe more than she bargained for. I knew she’d be good and she didn’t give up until it was right. She’s a real joy to work with. She is exceptionally considerate and thoughtful with people. Add to that how much she cares about what she does and the fact that she will not do something unless she feels she can give of her best. Hats off. She’s a wonderful woman.

She was very excited with the idea of singing the Irish in a way that Irish speakers would understand, and of conveying the meaning of the song through the sounds of the words. I helped as much as I could. She had Seán Ó Sé’s recording of Mná na hÉireann as reference. She was as faithful to the pronunciations as she could possibly be. It was with characteristic care and attention that she approached it. She did not stint one bit. Of course you’ll get people saying, `Oh, you’d know she doesn’t talk Irish straight off’. You wouldn’t know it straight off. I would defend her efforts as being totally sincere. No matter how perfect she gets it, she’s not an Irish speaker. This may rankle with some people.”

Kate commented in the December 1995 Kate Bush Club mailout: “It was fun and very challenging …..I will eagerly await comments from all Irish-speaking listeners in particular. I’m sure Ma gave me a helping hand !” (“Ma” refers to Kate’s mother Hannah, who very sadly died in 1992. Hannah Bush (née Daly) came originally from Co. Waterford in Ireland.)

Common Ground (Voices Of Modern Irish Music) contains the following tracks:

Máire Brennan – Ó Bhean A’Tí
Tim & Neil Finn- Mary Of The South Sea
Bono & Adam Clayton- Tomorrow
Sharon Shannon- Cavan Potholes
Paul Brady- Help Me To Believe
Sinead O’Connor- On Raglan Road
Brian Kennedy- As I Roved Out
Elvis Costello- The Night Before Larry Was Stretched
Kate Bush – Mná na hÉireann
Davey Spillane & Donal Lunny- Whistling Low/Errigal
Andy Irvine- My Heart’s Tonight In Ireland
Liam Ó Maonlaí- Cathain
Christy Moore- Bogie’s Bonnie Belle

Common Ground entered the Irish album charts at #6 and peaked at #5 and was originally also going to be released as a CD ROM. This was scrapped, but you can see some of the material from it at the record company’s website here. In March 1998 a new album of Irish music released on the Celtic Heartbeat/Universal label, Celtic Heartbeat Collection 2 (catalogue number: UD 53122), also features Kate’s version of Mná na hÉireann. The album also contains the Christy Moore/Bono/Edge collaboration North & South Of The River, work by Grammy Award winning composer Bill Whelan, and a live version of She Moved Through The Fair by Sinead O’Connor. See here for details of yet another new compilation album, “Éist”, which features Kate’s Mná na hÉireann.

So to Kate’s song. Mná na hÉireann (pronounced mnaw na hair-inn), was composed by Seán Ó Riada, probably one of the greatest influences on the current popularity of traditional music in Ireland and around the world. He was a man for all seasons; a composer trained in the art music of Europe who immersed himself in the oral music tradition of Ireland. Born in 1931, he was aware of the danger of traditional music disappearing during the 1950’s, unless Irish people were reintroduced to it in a way that was meaningful. At that time, trad music was confined mainly to the rural areas of the country. One of the tasks he set himself was to find a suitable setting in which to present the music, without compromising it. In an interview after his death, his son Peadar said:

“He thought that he needed to do something dramatic to make people take notice of it. So he decided the best thing to do would be to put it in the same sort of atmosphere as classical music …. in other words, on stage, in a concert even though it didn’t suit the music itself, which he did …in about 1959.”

Ceóltoirí Chúalann were the group of traditional musicians Ó Riada gathered together who were entrusted with the mission of restoring Irish traditional music to popular appeal. Some of the concerts given by Ó Riada and Ceóltoirí Chúalann were recorded and are still available on disc, and these give some idea of the atmosphere of excitement. The music is played with great verve, rhythm and feeling, and the personality of Ó Riada shines through. The repertoire was Irish dance music, airs and the compositions of Carolan and the older harpers. Ceóltoirí Chúalann also featured a singer Seán Ó Sé, who was a tenor. Seán Ó Sé’s singing style and the accompaniment devised by Ó Riada was yet another innovation.

At one memorable concert, in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in March 1969, Ó Riada produced a new piece, a song entitled Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland). The music composed by Ó Riada was to accompany an eighteenth century poem by Peadar Ó Doirnín, whose bicentenary was the occasion for the concert. Seán Ó Sé sang the song but it is today more commonly recognised in Ireland as an instrumental. Ó Riada died in 1971 at the tragically young age of forty. His legacy also includes the enormous Irish success of his music for the film Mise Éire (I am Ireland). It made Ó Riada a household name, and raised the status of Irish music amongst a section of society who had never taken any interest in it before. Guided by his vision, traditional music changed radically, and became accessible to a modern Irish audience, and through this traditional music the cultural life of Ireland was invigorated. (The information on Seán Ó Riada above is taken from the book “Bringing It All Back Home ” by Nuala O Connor)

Mná na hÉireann was recorded by The Chieftains for the film Barry Lyndon, and the score of that film won an Oscar. Paddy Moloney, frontman of The Chieftans, and a founding member of Ceóltoirí Chúalann, said of this track:

“Seán Ó Sé used to sing it as a song, but when I recorded Chieftains Four, as a tribute to Seán (Ó Riada) I did a special arrangement of that tune, an instrumental arrangement. It was very popular and in fact I used it for Stanley Kubrick’s film, Barry Lyndon, which won an Oscar. It was out of devotion to Seán that I recorded it and in the film it worked beautifully as a love theme.” (From Integrating Tradition : The achievement of Seán Ó Riada edited by Bernard Harris and Grattan Freyer 1981)

In a recent article in the Irish newspaper, The Sunday Independent, Peadar O Riada writes a letter to his late father on the eve of a major three -day symposium on Sean O Riada at University College Cork:

“…all things Irish have become trendy worldwide….you are becoming quite famous again. Well, some of your work is. You wouldn’t believe who is singing or playing Mná na hÉireann. There is a list of pop stars and bands as long as your arm. Mike Oldfield, Kate Bush, James Last, Phil Coulter, Sinead O’Connor, The Christians- a whole rake of them. But I don’t think that the young fella in the street has a clue as to who you were or why you were famous. You have become some kind of icon, I suppose. Do you remember that habit you had of writing a tune or an air for Seán Ó Sé and the lads in Ceóltoirí Chúalann and then not letting on where it came from – just to see if it would be accepted by the tradition? Well, it worked a treat. The country is playing and singing ’em by the new time…but nobody remembers what fun it was to be in your company. The sound of laughter and enjoyment. The buzz of excitement as something new or different seemed to be always happening around you. Jaysus, God only knows where you would have stopped if you had lived. This bloody world would hardly be big enough for you….” (The Sunday Independent, March 1st 1998)

Kate’s track was reviewed as “impressive” by Hot Press, and Liam Fay from that publication said that the album was “arguably the most unblemished and cohesive of the star-studded co-operative musical ventures which have become so ubiquitous of late ………a strenuous contender for Irish album of the year”, and, that Kate’s “fiery interpretation….may well prove to be among the most controversial cuts on Common Ground”. Indeed the Irish Times review of Common Ground singled out Kate as “fumbling her way through” the song. The writer of this review, Joe Jackson, had interviewed Donal Lunny about the album which was being touted as the “first interactive CD-ROM compilation of Irish music” (this multimedia release never came to fruition); Donal says:

“As far as I know the CD-ROM package will follow…..the whole idea came from Gerard Seligman of EMI who is using this to push its Premier label, but Microsoft are also involved and apparently it has taken more time than was thought to sort out the package. In the meantime EMI are releasing the album itself ……this is a music project first and foremost, even though the idea was to do a number of tracks with certain artists and give them a sound that Gerald specifically associated with me…..the common thread in this album apart from myself being producer and arranger of the music is that the artists involved were either Irish or thought to have a spiritual/musical connection with the country.”

Joe Jackson, then comments; “Hold on, how did our “genius” gauge authenticity in this respect? Plug people like Kate Bush into a machine that gave a reading on some “Irish spiritual/musical” graph? And what would Donal say to those who will inevitably say that our Kate, in particular, singing Mná na hÉireann in Irish, sounds as if she doesn’t know what the hell she’s going on about?”

Donal replies, “Actually we did cardiographs on all the artists and they all came through with flying colours!” he jokes. “But saying that about Kate is a really predictable response isn’t it? OK, Kate doesn’t speak Irish but she put a lot of work into learning the sound of the words and does gain access to the spirit of the song through the melody. And let’s face it, there are so many songs out now, that are just words set to music, yet which give no penetration into that other area of feeling, and emotion, that I got, way back, from listening to something like Dylan’s ‘New Morning’. That’s a crudely simple song, but it pierces your heart because it gives you a sense of life, expectation, hope. And Dylan does that, like a great Japanese painter, with just a few lines. Similarly Kate is conscious of the depth that is inherent in what she hears and I think she does a great job on this song”.

And so did the NME! (New Musical Express). The British music paper reviewed Common Ground in their 1st June 1996 edition:  “Donal Lunny is a perennially cool figure in the history of Irish music -appearing with the likes of Kate Bush and Elvis Costello as well as starring in some great home-grown acts (Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts). This record is a tribute to his work as a player, arranger, producer and vibes-merchant. The most majestic participant in this Celtic come-all-ye is Kate Bush. Since Lunny made a significant mark on her “Sensual World” album, she repays him with a swooning version of “Mná na hÉireann” (Women Of Ireland) that’s as good as anything she’s done this decade.”

Mná na hÉireann

Tá bean in Éirinn a phronnfadh séad damh is mo sháith le n-ól

Is tá bean in Éirinn is ba binne léithe mo rafla ceoil

No seinm théid; atá bean in Éirinn is níorbh fhearr léi beo

Mise ag léimnigh no leagtha i gcré is mo tharr faoi fhód.

Tá bean in Éirinn a bheadh ag éad liom mur bhfaighinn ach póg

O bhean ar aonach, nach ait an scéala, is mo dhaimh féin leo;

Tá bean ab fhearr liom no cath is céad dhíobh nach bhfagham go deo

Is tá cailín spéiriúil ag fear gan Bhearla, dubhghránna cróin

Tá bean a dearfadh da siúlainn léithe go bhfaighinn an t-ór

Is tá bean ‘na léine is fearr a méin no na tainte bó

Le bean a bhuairfeadh Baile an Mhaoir agus clar Thir Eoghann,

Is ní fhaicim leigheas ar mo ghalar féin ach scaird a dh’ól

( note: taken from “Peadar Ó Doirnín: Amhráin” edited by Breandán Ó Búachall 1969)

Women Of Ireland

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d give me shelter and my fill of ale

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d prefer my singing to strings being played

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d prefer me leaping than laid in the clay

and my belly under the sod

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d envy me if I got naught but a kiss

from a woman at a fair , isn’t it strange, and the love I have for them

There’s a woman I’d prefer more to a battalion,

and a hundred of them I will never get

And an ugly, swarthy man with no English has a beautiful girl

There’s a woman who would say that if I walked with her I’d get the gold

A woman in night dress whose mein is better than herds of cows

With a woman who would deafen Ballymoyer and the plain of Tyrone

And I see no cure for my disease but to give up the drink