Caitríona O’Leary did not conceive of the concept to translate the music of Joni Mitchell into Irish, that idea originated with the poet and writer Liam Carson who is the founder and director of IMRAM, the Irish Language Literature Festival. She did not do the initial translation of the lyrics from English to Irish (although she has done so on other projects), that “transcreation” was brought about by poet Gabriel Rosenstock.
But it is the Donegal born singer who has infused the words with her ethereal voice and her passionate rendering of the Irish interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, “Both Sides Now.”
In her vibrant and eclectic career, Caitríona has performed music that spans multiple genres, a variety of time periods and several languages; it’s absolutely instinctual that she was drawn to singing Joni Mitchell in Irish, “Ón Dá Thaobh.”
“She’s such an amazing songwriter. Her music just bowls me over, it really does. I can’t sit through all of the album ‘Blue’ without just being an emotional mess, reduced to tears every time. It’s so unique, actually, she has a voice all her own – her singing voice, but also a poetic voice. She just touches on subjects and brings everything to life, she brings a whole story to life in just a few words. I think she is absolutely remarkable, so it was a total joy for me to immerse myself in her music and her songs, and to be part of the “transcreation” of them into Irish…that’s the word that Gabriel Rosenstock always uses. He doesn’t translate, he transcreates. Of course, he says that in Irish!” And, in Irish, that word is “trascruthu.”
For Caitríona, performing in languages other than English is at the heart of her musical passion and expression.
“I think that speaking other languages, or at least being viscerally aware of the existence of other languages, it opens up the brain in a different way. You experience things differently, through different languages. Sometimes other languages have better words than English does; sometimes it’s just more appropriate…I think it is possible to just understand yourself and your environment better through a variety of languages…And so I’m also singing songs that are newly translated/transcreated into Irish, or another language, and where that language then takes the song that it wouldn’t have gone before. So, for instance, I wouldn’t sing “Both Sides Now” the same way in English as I sing it in Irish. It would bring out something different, different musical passions and different musical results.
“Growing up, everybody learned Irish in school, everybody was taught Irish in school, and it’s not necessarily the most beloved subject,” Caitríona laughed. “And I don’t know why. I moved to New York when I was 20, and all of a sudden, Irish and music, which had absolutely been a part of my upbringing – my father was a traditional Irish musician and an Irish speaker – but as a “modern” Irish teenager, it didn’t particularly appeal to me. But as soon as I left home, then it really started to take on much more significance and meaning. I fell in love with it all on my own. I came around to recognizing its beauty and its worth. And ever since then I’ve been drawn to the Irish language and to obscure Irish music. The less known the better. I get a great deal of joy and satisfaction from singing this beautiful – weird and beautiful – music.
“I think it’s important to preserve it, not as something that’s ‘one’s duty’ that must be done, but because it’s a beautiful thing, and a beautiful thing that should be cherished. And it can be cherished if you’re open to it, if you’re exposed to it. If the Irish language is out there, and people get to hear it and become aware of it, I think people who haven’t already will fall in love with it. It’s as simple as that. There’s a great resurgence of Irish speaking in Ireland now. It’s becoming much more popular among young people. And that’s encouraging. It can flourish and develop.”
To say that Caitríona O’Leary has a “to-do list” a mile long is an understatement. She just finished up the liner notes for a new CD that’s due out the end of March with her group Anakronos. This upcoming release, “The Red Book of Ossory” has a fascinating backstory and an innovative presentation that melds medieval poetry with contemporary jazz. The 60 poems contained within the book make up a collection of writings from the 14th century, authored by Richard de Ledrede who was the one time Bishop of Ossory, a diocese in County Kilkenny. They were to be sung by the choristers of St. Canice’s Cathedral, so they wouldn’t “pollute” the world by singing secular songs.
“So these are all sacred texts to be sung to the popular tunes of the day,” Caitríona explained. “What really drew me to this was not just its antiquity and obscurity, but the fact that Bishop de Ledrede was a witch hunter…I can’t even find words to describe him, but he was such an evil, tormented man, but who I’m sure thought he was doing the right thing. I’m sure he thought that the universal powers were behind him, that he was being right. But he went after one woman in particular, Alice Kyteler, in Kilkenny, with charges of witchcraft, and he was responsible for the first person [Petronilla de Meath, Alice’s servant] ever to be burned at the stake, in Ireland, for the heresy of witchcraft. The same mind that wrote these beautiful songs, with beautiful imagery…it was the same mind that came up with these charges of heresy.”
Without the actual music from 1320’s Ireland, Caitríona followed the Bishop’s instructions at the start of the collection of poetry, for the singers to find the songs that would suit the lyrics. She found medieval music from England, France and the Netherlands from the time period that worked with the words. And, to “just take it somewhere else completely,” she put together a band made up of jazz and contemporary music players to accompany these songs sung in “contemporary Church Latin.” Anakronos will be touring throughout Ireland in April.
To listen to Caitríona, accompanied by Dick Farrelly on guitar, perform “Ón Dá Thaobh” which has been released today as a digital single, visit Heresy Records
For more information, visit Caitriona’s website
Check out “Ón Dá Thaobh” on YouTube
Later this year, Caitríona will be releasing the second volume of “The Wexford Carols.” Here’s our story on the release of the first volume in 2014.