Brian Ó hEadhra is an established and highly acclaimed musician & singer based in Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland. He performs with the Gaelic quartet Cruinn as well as with the trio Charlie McKerron (fiddle) and Sandy Brechin (accordion) in the trio MacKerron, Brechin & Ó hEadhra. Brian performs as a solo singer-songwriter (in Scottish Gaelic and English) and also with his wife (in the picture above-left), the prestigious Gaelic and English language singer-songwriter Fiona Mackenzie. Brian is the co-founder and co-director of the Geiteberg Folk Festival near Tomter in Norway. This festival celebrates our north Atlantic connections and encourages cross-cultural engagement and understanding between the peoples of north Atlantic fringe.
(1) Tell us a little about your family background: you have a pretty interesting and strong North American connection. What is your sense of identity and what role does language have in that?
My mother, Joyce O’Hara (nee Kuntz) is from St Catherine’s, Ontario and is from German stock. My father is from Donegal in Ireland and is a fluent Irish speaker. Both are fine singers/musicians and have taught and performed music all their lives.
I was born in Dublin Ireland in the early 1970s. The family moved to Newfoundland in Canada in 1973 as my father, Aidan O’Hara was studying Folklore, History and Cultural Geography in Memorial University in St John’s. He was also busy collecting folklore and getting to know the Irish diaspora from the Cape Shore. This was where I first experienced traditional music, song, dance and storytelling in its natural setting, a kitchen, surrounded by people who sounded Irish and who were strongly connected to an “older” way of living and seeing the world. You can find out more about my father’s work from this new website from the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
We moved back to Ireland in 1978 and I spend the rest of my childhood in Dublin. I was always interested in Gaelic and seeking opportunities to speak it. In the early 1990’s I set up the band Anam while studying Irish Folklore and English Literature at University College Dublin. Singing newly composed songs in Irish as well as traditional songs was always important to me.
As far as my identity goes, I consider myself a Nordic Gael first and foremost. As far as nationality, I see myself as Irish, Canadian and Scottish. I think many people have multiple identities these days. It’s exciting to explore the North Atlantic fringe cultures and I feel a deep connection to these peoples.
It’s hard to express how important the Gaelic languages are to me. I can’t imagine not speaking Gaelic every day, or not having access to such a wealth of tradition and history. Of course, every language is important, with its own associated culture, but Gaelic is the language of my people and I feel it connects me to past generations, to the land, sea, as well as to future generations of speakers and supporters, all around the world.
(2) How does your experience in both the Irish and Scottish Gaelic worlds inform your perspective as an artist, your choice of material and the way in which you interpret it? Similarly, your personal interests and family ties touch on a Diasporic experience. What effect does that have on you? Has having children (very talented and lively ones!) impacted your engagement with Gaelic and the way that it is represented and deployed in Scottish life?
I see the Irish and Scottish Gaels as more or less the same people. The connection between them is still strong but could be stronger. The Colmcille initiative which is part of my work tries to support this aim.
When choosing material to sing or create, I don’t have any hard and fast rules. I go with what comes naturally, whether in Irish or Scottish Gaelic. These days my Scottish Gaelic is much stronger than my Irish, purely because I speak it every day. Having these languages, as well as English and bits of other languages, provides me with an international perspective as well as a deep well of tradition to draw upon when writing new work or learning traditional pieces.
Both Fiona and I come from very musical families and this has, no doubt, shaped how we approach making music. Whilst most of the music our families sung would be considered folk, we also listen to all types of other music and traditions from rock, pop, musicals, metal, electronica, Nordic, Eastern European, Country, etc. Anything goes. We share this with our children Órla (13) and Róise (11), both of whom love singing and performing in their own ways. There’s nothing better than singing with family; in any language or genre!
(3) In my own opinion, your new album TÌR is a remarkable musical achievement, even if it is anticipated by your previous work. It sounds to me like the work of someone coming from within Gaelic musical tradition, with an intimate knowledge of it, and broadening and re-imagining it with all of the contemporary tools and soundscapes available today. Can you please tell us what your vision and ambitions were for this album? What is the message you hope to convey and to which audiences? How did you choose the older songs, and how did you go about composing new tunes and songs?
Thank you for your kind words. We have wanted to create an album together for many years but have been busy with work, family and other projects such as our band Cruinn and my trio McKerron | Brechin | Ó hEadhra. With TÌR we decided to go with whatever we thought sounded good or what we would most likely listen to. We allowed ourselves the artistic freedom to sing any song, in any language, in any genre, both traditional or contemporary.
This is very different from having to compromise as part of a group or project. It is interesting to have a mix of traditional and contemporary work on the album sung mostly in Scottish Gaelic but also in English, Latin and even a few Italian words.
We really wanted to sing about matters which relate to the Highlands now, or from our traditions, be it land reform, politics, family, death, love, societal change, etc. We hope that these issues and topics will chime with experiences of others around the globe.
Fiona was brought up singing Scottish Gaelic songs and many of the older songs on the album are ones she remembers from years gone by. We also used texts from the Carmichael Watson collection Ortha Nan Gàidheal / Carmina Gadelica which we both find fascinating and extremely moving. Most of the new work was written recently or in the past 20 years by us. We write in different ways, sometimes words first, sometimes melody. We work well to deadlines and this album really focussed our minds and creativity.
(4) There is, of course, potentially, a wide international audience for Gaelic tradition. In what ways do you think that North Americans who have an interest in Gaelic could be of support and benefit to efforts to secure the language in Scotland? What do you think that the Gaelic language and heritage offers people of the North American diaspora? What role do musicians and other artists have in interpreting the history and culture to this audience, and what privileges and responsibilities do they should have in this role at home and abroad?
The interest of the North American audience in Gaelic language, arts and culture is very important to us. Our Gaelic language and culture is under real threat from various global/cultural influences and the more support we have to keep it alive from around the globe the more likely it will be revived. If there is a demand for Gaelic language resources, services and culture then this may help encourage the Scottish population to take a greater interest in the language and possibly, ultimately raise the number of speakers here. Come and visit Scotland and the Highlands and Islands in particular. If you can’t come in person then engage online. We love to hear from you.
So, so many North Americans come from Irish and Scottish Gaelic backgrounds. They may know that they are Irish and Scottish descendants but know less about the language and lore of their people who came to settle in North America. This is a pity as it is so interesting and offers a real insight into the minds and lives of one’s ancestors. Knowing Gaelic also helps you interpret your family names as well as the placenames of where your people come from. The same applies to many people here in Scotland who have lost touch with their roots. There is a whole world to discover when you learn Gaelic.
Being able to play music to international audiences is not only a great pleasure but also an honour to be able to share our rich traditions and music. Art and culture is probably the easiest way to access a language. We, as artists, have an obligation to deliver this art to the best of our ability, both traditional and contemporary. Fiona and I tour less these days as we both work full time but we do play some festivals and concerts which suit our music. We feel so fortunate to be able to share our music, language and lore with people around the world and are often humbled by the interest and impact our music has on folk who get in touch with us either by internet or in person.
In this fast paced, ever-changing world, it is important to take time to connect with your own culture and share experiences and creativity with those around you, whether that be through an informal kitchen cèilidh to recording an album and performing live or online.
You can find out more about the ÓhEadhra / MacKenzie duo and their new album TÌR on this webpage.