Day of All Days in Doolin

Lisa Hannigan

Day of All Days in Doolin

In the latest review from our Journal of Music/Clare County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme, Ruth Smith attends the Doolin Folk Festival to hear a powerful set by Lisa Hannigan.

Since 2007, over many outstanding concert performances and three albums – the Choice- and Meteor-nominated debut Sea Sew (2008), the Mercury-nominated Passenger (2011), and most recently At Swim (2016) – Lisa Hannigan has built a solo career that has seen her become the leading Irish female indie-folk artist.

Her growth as a soloist can be heard across stand-out songs like ‘Lille’ and ‘I Don’t Know’ on Sea Sew, with the album’s explorative, playful indie sounds, leading to the grungier, layered production of ‘Home’ and ‘What’ll I Do’ on Passenger, to the more economical, sonorous maturity of ‘Fall’, ‘Prayer for the Dying’ and ‘Ora’ on At Swim. 

The constant in Hannigan’s work is her fragile yet disarming vocals. In At Swim, the signature Hannigan vocal is key, but the spotlight is on songwriting craft, presented with quiet confidence and joyous introspection. 

Doolin folk
Following an extensive European spring tour, she brought her unique sound to Doolin Folk Festival over the summer. A music-lover’s festival, reminiscent of the halcyon gatherings of the the 70s and 80s in nearby Lisdoonvarna, in its fifth year Doolin is a modern incarnation of those days, a boutique festival with powerful music in an intimate setting.

Hannigan’s headlining 16-song set was weighted towards new material, beginning with ‘Ora’, a siren song to gather the ebullient festival crowd with understated piano, atmospheric pads and glass-like string harmonics coupled with Hannigan’s celestial vocals. The song is characterised by lyrical economy, with stanzas of poetic simplicity and a strong biographical reference to her experience in the years between second album Passenger and Sea Sew.

The singer toured Passenger for almost three years that resulted in a hiatus from recording – a feeling of being empty and unmoored, from road weariness and battling with writer’s block.

I was adrift and
caught in the ropes
under a pinhole sky
blowing off course.

Sea Sew to At Swim
The light and rhythmic ‘Pistachio’
from Sea Sew gave the audience a familiar hook, leading to A Prayer for the Dying’, her striking first release from At Swim, with Hannigan finger-picking on Spanish guitar, a walking bass line and long-held vibrato notes.

The electronic-flavoured folk of ‘Undertow’, the harmonium-infused ‘Tender’, plus the Indian trance sounds of ‘Barton’ and the a capella ‘Anahorish’, joined by her bass player Caimin Gilmore (also lead singer of the Sun Collective) and tour manager and singer Freya Monks, gave the audience a further full introduction to At Swim. 

Reverting to just Hannigan and guitar for the next run of songs, the crowd volume escalated and at times it was difficult to hear the more delicate arrangements. At the beginning of ‘O Sleep’, she stops, having sung the wrong lyrics, jokingly admitting to being distracted, but then builds it into something quite powerful.

Day of all days
Having regained the crowd’s attention, Hannigan treated us to some beautifully handled revision of old material. Introducing her much-loved song about the sea, ‘Lille’,
she said it was ‘the day of all days to be in Clare’, and indeed it was with the sun high over the glittering Atlantic. And as she rocked out with full band for the last two songs, ‘A Sail’ and ‘Knots’ from Passenger, the hands of sunburned festival-goers went in the air. 

The main stage of Doolin Folk Festival proved a suitable, if sometimes robust, framing for Hannigan’s performance style. As she navigated her way through the set we were privy to a display of her dual qualities – gossamer fragility and steely resolve, from a whisper to a roar.

This review is published as part of a new scheme for music writers in County Clare. The Journal of Music/Clare County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by Clare Arts Office and was launched in March 2017. Over 12 months, the editorial team of The Journal of Music will work with four new writers – Deirdre Clare, Ian Bascombe, Ruth Smith and Alan Reid  – to expand the magazine’s coverage of musical life in the county. The first two reviews focused on the Riches of Clare concert series (Ian Bascombe) and Paul Brady at Glór (Deirdre Clare).

This is one of two schemes currently underway. A second – supported by Galway City Council  – supports five new writers to cover musical life in Galway City. The first four reviews covered Overhead, the Albatross (Vincent Hughes), RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Jake Morgan), Brian Wilson (Dylan Murphy) and Lankum (Shannon McNamee).

For further details on the background to the schemes, please visit 

Published on 17 October 2017

Ruth Smith is a musician, teacher and producer living in Clare. She is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and one third of the female vocal and instrumental trio The Evertides. During the summer of 2017, she played the role of Ex-Girlfriend in 'Once' at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Ruth made her presenting debut on RTÉ Radio 1 in 2017 also with a one-hour special and followed up as a presenter on Late Date. She recently presented an 8-week series on RTÉ Radio 1 called 'Simply Folk with Ruth Smith'.

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