Planxties for a New Quartet

Nell Ní Chróinín, Tara Breen, Josephine Marsh and Laoise Kelly on their current tour (Photo: Des Gallagher)

Planxties for a New Quartet

The traditional music quartet of Laoise Kelly, Tara Breen, Josephine Marsh and Nell Ní Chróinín is currently on tour in the autumn series from Music Network. Ian Bascombe reviews in Ennis.

The latest offering from Music Network sees a tour convening four traditional music custodians, each individually renown but newly playing together. Multi-instrumentalist Tara Breen is perhaps best-known as fiddle-player with the Chieftains, although she boasts a celebrated solo career as well, whilst Nell Ní Chróinín’s reputation as a sean-nós singer, with a style infused with lustre and precision, continues to grow, not least as the latest front-woman for the band Danú. Harper Laoise Kelly, with a long string of solo and collaborative projects under her belt, has raised the benchmark: her work champions exploratory repertoire, melodic and ornamental clarity, and harmonic innovation. Last, but not least, button-accordion player Josephine Marsh, with her rhythmic composure and gift for writing ‘traditional’ tunes, must surely now have taken her place as one of the country’s leading traditional music standard-bearers and composers.

A celestial cast, then, but such elysian ensembles do not always meet expectations, and last week’s concert at Glór, Ennis (12 Sept.), the second of the tour and well-attended, provided an opportunity to assess the strengths of this collaboration. The concert started with ‘The Ninth of July’, a Sean Ryan jig played at a lively pace by Marsh and Kelly (Kelly’s command of intricate ornamentation particularly in evidence), and proceeded into the reel ‘The Jug of Punch’, with Breen joining and adding her own particular punch, her on-beat attack galvanizing the medley. The set finished with Ní Chróinín joining on whistle for ‘The Millhouse’, Kelly simultaneously providing melody and a solid back-beat accompaniment that could have been mistaken for bouzouki.

Next was the first of the evening’s six songs, ‘Dá mbeadh buachaill deas ag Síle’, in an uncomplicated arrangement effectively woven through, and concluding with, the ‘Sliabh Russell’ jig. The ensuing repertoire and instrumentation drew from a wide net: alongside more jigs and reels we heard hornpipes, slip-jigs and a barndance, whilst Breen, a little incongruously, played saxophone for two of the sets, concluding with the reel ‘Tommy Whelan’s’. Solo slots featured too. Breen, whose direct style with ‘all gaps filled’ does not speak immediately of her native Clare, is also known for a florid virtuosity, exhibited during the ‘Bee’s Wing’ hornpipe, laced with playfully tumbling arpeggios, and contrasting sharply with Kelly’s meditative free-form tone-poem ‘An Mháire Fhada’, almost Japanese in flavour, but with a surprising and shifting harmonic base. Marsh’s solo (sensitively backed by Kelly) achieved both drive and delicacy within the reels ‘Kieran Donnelan’s’ and ‘Paddy Marsh’s Salamanca’, each subtly varied on the repeats.

New tunes
Marsh’s composition skills were much in evidence as well: Played simply and without affectation, ‘The Muse’ is a beautiful planxty that sits comfortably and deeply within the traditional idiom; to my mind its mournful character evoked Carolan’s ‘Squire Wood’s Lamentation’. Marsh also introduced two pieces newly commissioned by Music Network: ‘The Coffee-house’, a quirky slip-jig whose melody demanded concerted listening, and the elegant ‘An Spideog’, a further example of her immersion within the planxty sound-world. Here was music of the Irish country-house, courtly, and flavoured with the baroque, the winding melody as king, creating idiosyncratic form.

An emerging musical camaraderie was in evidence – but unfortunately, the on-stage banter at Glór was sometimes inaudible, and indeed some of the tunes were indistinctly announced. Clearly there was a collective desire to feature Ní Chróinín’s distinctive voice, but the song arrangements were occasionally a little low-key and tentative; perhaps an indicator of the newness of the project. Similarly, some of the sets took a little while to settle, but with the last (‘The Broken Pledge’ (unusually, as a jig), the reels ‘Mother’s Delight’ and the ‘Watchmaker’), the troupe really hit their stride, Marsh and Kelly providing infectious back-beat, Breen with animated drive, and  Ní Chróinín’s whistle soaring. Two encores were called for and given, concluding with two lively songs, ‘Fuaireas an cuireadh chun dul chuig an bpósadh’, and ‘An Bóthar ó Thuaidh’, players and audience alike now fully engaged as one.

‘This is our second gig, so bear with us,’ announced Breen at the outset. We’d love to, as this quartet, something more than an ensemble, but not yet a band, surely has much more to offer, and an album might well realise fully the supernal potential. A little of a slow-burner, perhaps, but further riches in prospect from the conjoining of four remarkable traditional performers.

Laoise Kelly, Tara Breen, Josephine Marsh and Neil Ní Chróinín are in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, tonight at 8pm (19 September), then St Marylebone Parish Church, London (20th), Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny (21st), Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo (22nd) and Station House Theatre, Clifden (23rd). For booking, visit

Published on 19 September 2019

Ian Bascombe is a tin whistle and bouzouki player, teacher and writer based in County Clare. His recently completed PhD, funded by the Irish Research Council, investigated the nineteenth-century origins of the mass-produced tin whistle, and he is the author of ‘The Official Handbook for the Clarke Tin Whistle’.

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