Michelle Mulcahy - honouring the melody in Irish music

Michelle Mulcahy could hardly avoid becoming a musician. She’s the daughter of Mick Mulcahy. He's a brilliant accordionist who is to Irish music what Fergie MacDonald, the subject of so many Phil Cunningham tales, is to the Scottish tradition. He’s also a man who filled the house with music at all hours. So the wonder is that it took until Michelle was five before she was given her first instrument, the tin whistle.

An accordion, a concertina and a fiddle all followed, and Michelle mastered them all to All-Ireland champion standard, but it’s her harp playing that has been making waves over the past few years and has brought her to the attention of Edinburgh International Harp Festival, where she makes her festival debut in this year’s closing concert.

Her first album of harp music, Suaimhneas, follows a trio of recordings with the Mulcahy Family – her sister, Louise, continues Michelle’s All-Ireland champion form on flute, whistle and uilleann pipes – and has been hailed since its release last year as one of the most important recordings in recent Irish music history. As a model of clarity, expression and rhythmical assurance, it would certainly be hard to better.

“I don’t think I actually heard a harp until I was about ten,” she says down the line from County Limerick, where she’s completing her PhD in Arts Practice at the University of Limerick, and where she grew up in Abbeyfeale. “My dad had started me on the accordion by then and I’d be really enjoying that but I heard a harp on a Comhaltas tour, where all the best players that have come through the Comhaltas traditional music training go out and play round the country, and I immediately became set on it. I just loved the sound it made really.”

A harp and a harp teacher were found and considering that through her teens she was also taking concertina lessons from the great County Clare master Noel Hill and learning fiddle, at first from the legendary Tommy Peoples from Donegal and then his daughter Siobhan, as well as playing accordion and piano, there was quite a programme of practice to organise.

“You might think that all these instruments would get in each other’s way when you’re learning to play them,” she says. “But I found that the concertina and fiddle particularly were really helpful and quite big influences on my harp playing, especially as sources of repertoire and in terms of playing clearly. I had lessons for a while with Laoise Kelly and then with Michael Rooney, who are both great harp players, and then I kind of went my own way on the harp. I think what’s important is that you honour the melody. You can put your own ornamentation to it but I always like to hear the tune clearly so that you can admire the beauty in the tiniest detail of the notes.”

As strong as her instrumental influences is her liking for the sean-nos, or old style, of singing. The two airs on Suaimhneas, Amhrán Mhaínse and An Bhuatais, the latter of which made the “long-list” for the BBC Folk Awards Best Traditional Track category this year, are played with the depth of someone who knows the story behind, as well as the lyrics to, the original songs.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a fluent Gaelic speaker but I have a good understanding of the language,” she says. “For me, the human voice is the most potent of musical instruments and if you listen to the old singers they bring a delicacy and intricacy to their interpretations that can be absolutely mesmerising. The voice can convey narrative and timbre as well as emotion and melody and I try to bring all that to an air because I see the harp as being a singing instrument.”

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