Thursday 18 January 2018

Is féidir Linn!

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that Ed Sheeran's latest song, Galway Girl, has brought trad music to a new global audience. Here, our reporter meets the Gaeltacht group hoping to do the same for the Irish language in the internet age

Seo Linn, photographed at Áras Chrónáin. Photo: Fran Veale
Seo Linn, photographed at Áras Chrónáin. Photo: Fran Veale
Ed Power

Ed Power

When Ed Sheeran told his record label he wanted to put a traditional- style Irish tune called Galway Girl on his latest album, the response was derisive. Irish music "wasn't cool" and he risked alienating fans. Yet Sheeran persevered and, across the globe, audiences who wouldn't know an uilleann pipe from a burst water main are now thrilling to the salty ballad.

This is obviously a satisfying turn of events for Sheeran - but also for folk- inclined Irish musicians whose passion for trad has been spectacularly vindicated (not least Antrim outfit Beoga, with whom he wrote the ditty).

"It was the first time an artist at that level put this style of music into the mainstream," says Stiofán Ó Fearail, singer with hotly tipped Irish-language quartet Seo Linn. "Usually you wouldn't get a song such as Galway Girl played on pop radio.

"That he was stubborn enough to do it is a massive testament to Sheeran. The formula for Galway Girl is very similar to what we do - pop music with traditional instruments. It's brilliant to see someone like Ed Sheeran getting involved. It makes what we're at more relatable."

The first thing to know about Seo Linn is that they aren't a boyband. Yes, they are boyish, with the standard busy quiffs and wide-eyed enthusiasm, and they certainly have a healthy female following. But the four-piece play their own instruments and sing exclusively as Gaeilge. They have no wish to occupy the heart-throb throne left vacant by One Direction.

"We are boys in a band," says Ó Fearail (26), not sure whether to be flattered or appalled when I drop the 'b' word. "But 'boyband' is never a term we would use. We mean no disrespect to actual boybands when we say it's not what we ever aspired to be. It just isn't us and we've had to push back and ask people not to use that term."

Whatever we are to call them, it has been a soar-away several years for the quartet, who met teaching Irish in the Gaeltacht and have poured their passion for the language into energetic covers of techno star Avicii and foot-stomping folkies Mumford & Sons.

They even took on the tricky chore of penning a soccer anthem, with their bodhrán-fuelled epic The Irish Roar being the official Irish team song at Euro 2016.

Their debut album, Solas - released last month - has proved an unexpected hit. It soared up the iTunes charts and at one point was giving Ed Sheeran a run for his megabucks.

"It was at number three on iTunes for two weeks - behind two Ed Sheeran albums," says Ó Fearail "It was a fantastic boost, especially as the tracks are 100pc original. We love the covers. However, it is satisfying, too, to do your own stuff."

The best is yet to come as the group look forward to their largest headline date yet at Vicar Street, Dublin, in June. "We don't usually do huge stand-alone gigs. So this is going to be big for us. Ticket sales are going really well."

Seo Linn's ascent kicked off in earnest when their version of Avicii's Wake Me Up went viral in 2014. Their take, with backing vocals courtesy of students at Coláiste Lurgan, an Irish-language summer school in Inverin, Co Galway, blended modern beats and evocative Irish lyrics. Five-and-a-half million YouTube hits later, they remain faintly gobsmacked. "We've had a unique experience in the music industry, in that we've hopped, skipped and tripped into being a band," says button accordion and bodhrán player Kevin Shortall (24). "The hype came first and then we were trying to catch the hype. It was a shock to be in the middle of the whole thing."

"Our good luck is not something we take for granted," nods Ó Fearail. "There are bands that have been together seven or eight years and don't get anywhere. It happened really quick for us and we are appreciative of that."

"Within a month we were on The Late Late Show, which was crazy," says Ó Fearail. "My family was in the audience and you had all these people from Coláiste Lurgan coming up to Dublin to sing. We were essentially performing for 100,000 people, which was obviously nerve-racking."

Avicii, one of the biggest electronic artists in the world, was chuffed too. "He tweeted, 'I don't understand a word but I think it's great,'" nods guitarist Keith Ó Briain (24).

As it happens, the band - who also include multi-talented musician Daithí Ó Ruaidh (27) - have crossed paths with their share of stars. Last year, Seo Linn translated the lyrics of the afore- mentioned Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud so that the ginger warbler could croon it in Irish. "He posted a Snapchat of himself singing it in Australia and added that his friend was really digging it," says Shortall. "In fairness, he did a great job."

But the definitive highlight of their career thus far was performing at the 2015 All-Ireland football final, when they were backed by The Artane Band.

"I'm from Roscommon - we don't often get a chance to walk on the Croke Park turf on All-Ireland final day," jokes Ó Fearail. "There were 60,000 people looking at us: the other 20,000 were at the bar. It was an incredible experience."

You never know quite what you are in for interviewing an Irish band. Musicians here are notoriously po-faced - world champions at taking themselves seriously. They sigh, frown, pull strained expressions in their publicity photographs (why grin when you have the option of slumping moodily with arms folded?).

What a pleasure, then, to discover Seo Linn are nothing like that. Over tea and biscuits in the living room of Áras Chrónáin, an Irish- language cultural centre in Clondalkin, Dublin, they are good- humoured and unpretentious.

And earnest too. Seo Linn believe what they are doing has a higher purpose in that it offers an alternative space in which to interact with the Irish language. But they don't biff you over the head with this. Better to persuade than guilt-trip.

"We want to be as inclusive as possible," says Ó Briain. "What we are doing is pop because we are already operating in a niche in terms of singing in Irish. If you performed more obscure material, then it would be a niche within a niche, which we are keen to avoid."

Overnight success was initially as much a curse as a blessing, they confess. When Wake Me Up became a phenomenon, the band all had day jobs as teachers (with the exception of Ó Briain, who joined straight from college).

Work commitments meant gigs and interview opportunities had to be turned down (two founding members later dropped out for personal reasons, though they remain on good terms with the remainder of Seo Linn).

"With three of us full-time primary teachers, any potential to grow was stopped," says Shortall. "We were asked to go on radio shows and give interviews and the like and actually couldn't do it."

Enter a new manager, the fantastically monikered Derry businessman Troy Armour. His first recommendation was that they pack in teaching and pursue music full-time. How to pay their way? Easy, said Armour: they would ask fans to dig deep. "We'd heard of crowdfunding, obviously, and when he suggested a Kickstarter campaign, we thought we would maybe try to raise €10,000. He said, 'No, let's do it properly - let's go for €50,000,"' says Shortall.

"We were like… 'What?' We got €15,000 in our first week and were feeling pretty confident. Then it flatlined and got scary because if you don't reach your figure, you don't receive any money at all. It was a huge relief to get over the finish line."

Translating a song into Irish can be tricky. It isn't enough to merely convey the meaning of the English lyrics. You have to retain the 'flow' of the material also. As an example, they cite Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. When Cohen passed away, Seo Linn posted a cover of his great anthem on Twitter - singing in the original English. Some poetry, it seems, is too perfect to meddle with.

"Cohen is known as a lyricist and a poet," says Ó Fearail. "We thought it was best to leave the words in English. Sometimes the Irish simply doesn't work - if your translation ends up completely different, you've lost a lot of the charm of the original. We are getting better. The earliest translations were often a bit dodgier."

They are, of course, passionate about Irish - in fact, there is a schools' workbook available to accompany their album - yet, as pointed out above, careful not to come across preachy. Seo Linn are well aware of the negative reactions when people suspect Irish is being pushed down their throat. "If you want the Irish language to be normalised, you don't shove it in people's faces," said Ó Fearail. "You meet people with extreme views: 'You should have to learn Irish because you're Irish.' That's not a good enough reason. You learn it because you want to speak the language - not because you feel you are obliged to."

Seo Linn's debut album, Solas, is out now. The band play Vicar Street, Dublin, on June 23. See seolinn.ie

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