Sounds – Part I

Sounds are coded things. Wrapped and coloured with messages. Those messages can be good and bad. Sounds are possibly our first real experience of the world and our relationship to it. As we begin the brutal separation from our mothers, one can only imagine the confusion caused within those moments. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there and it’s a pretty mental affair; if only we could remember.  Imagine waiting and resting before the big push. Or maybe it was something different.  What were the sounds?  Was it that soothing resting heartbeat and it’s comfort. Or was it manic. Who knows! Was there light and could we see it, or maybe it was just like an underwater disco? The mind boggles.  Whatever the truth is, sounds are all around us. For those of us who hear them.

Breaking into the light, however we get here, sound becomes a reality. New sounds rattle us. Crying, screaming, we struggle for breath as our lungs are fired up and even burned with this new oxygen filled alien environment. The larynx vibrates on its new support system as the vocal reed is engaged. And what we hear is us… This is our sound, our reality and it is unique to ourselves. It is something new that only we can bring out into this world; beautiful and painful. We learn hard lessons fast. We learn that maybe sounds can hurt. Through shouts, even abuse, hard words will be thrown that will level you. ‘Sticks and stones’ we will hear our parents say, consoling us.  The truth is this new world can be one scary place; hostile and brutal. But we also learn there are other sounds. Those of safety.

Sounds are colours

Hearing Irish sounds has always felt like home. Now that might seem obvious I know but it’s not about language. It is about warmth. That love and support coded into tones and lilts that make us who we are, where we come from and who we belong to.  As a baby I can faintly remember those melodies and funny syllables as they danced around me. Magical sounds that I did not understand at the time but on reflection, they were the sounds of Dublin and the message was loud and clear. I was surrounded by sounds that meant well and had caring encoded. That had joy and integrity. I also realised I was surrounded by absolute nutters. Strong characters to the last… and I am happy for that.

Colours – Written by Shane Ó Fearghail & Sabine Mann. Recorded live at AP Studios Dublin, Ireland.

As my senses developed I learned to put sounds to those faces that peered down at me. Distorted, big and friendly. Engaging. It was through sound and later touch that their warmth became more familiar. Coarseness or softness of skin along with smell gave me sustenance. They made me laugh. I have often wondered why laughing and song is so important to me and I think this is the reason. That I was encouraged to laugh and was always sung to; later listened to. I was nurtured through what could be seen as a sonic and symbiotic photosynthesis. If you are that way inclined.


I remember the sounds I made and later spoke. Hearing words on the radio and television (pictures were black and white back then), where programmes came on after 6pm… (we had two channels), these sounds were familiar to me too. The people I saw in a colourless box looked like the faces that often smiled down at me while I sat in my pram (I have a good memory).  I was aware from an early age that I was somehow part of this crazy mish mash, and I’d go so far as to say that even back then think I knew, I was Irish; whatever that meant.

I realised at an early age I was part of a feathering of generations – old and new. My friends and cousins where the walkman generation. VCR’s were top-loaders that required force and a good spring, into which we fed black cartridges that took up a lot of space.

The Girls: Mary, Vicky & Olive – Ballyfermot Dublin circa 1960’s.

And amazingly enough, amidst all of this there were people around me who were born when Ireland was still an oppressed part of a British Empire – Dublin being its second city. Dubliners, who’s last queen was in fact a British one oddly enough (and not by choice), would have watched whilst Britain bombed swathes of their city to rubble in 1916. This was but one sound in millions, screeching, that rang out, etched in echoes and desolate misery, across all of Ireland for centuries.

Yes the information in their sounds was firmly coded with melancholy and in metaphor, but you’d have never known. I realise now that the songs and stories I heard were but vehicles these giants used to communicate their heart and their history. It was a history that would become mine. These were my people. Mo chlann – and beautiful people to my eyes and ears.

It’s Tribal

It’s funny. Irish independence was 50 years young when I was born. Growing up with this richness of characters around me, my granny was the sonic hub. Through wild and sometimes hallucinogenic stories, information came thick and fast. Headless horsemen, banshees, leprechauns and the wee folk. Cú Chulainn and Na Fíanna, Bang Bang, the Faerie host the Shee (Aes Sí). Old stories of rebellion laced in lyrics and ranting renditions of Daniel O’Connell and Robert Emmet rang out around the fire place, the kitchen sink, the dock. Olive, my granny, was also known to make up here own hilarious and quite unique original history. But that’s for another book. ‘Olives History of the World and Ireland – Part II’.

But for all of that there was one other sound that I was to learn. A very different sound that they possessed. It was a sound that I did not hear frequently. Cloaked in mystery it seemed to sit beneath the lighter and less complex sounds of chitter chat and local banter. An almost subversive sound in fact when I think of it now. Guarded for the safest and most sacred of moments, the haunting tones of sorrow, life and loss. Power and Celebration. It was a sound that was kept secure for the later evenings when the fire would burn low, when drink was taken and the whiskey had been passed round.  Tones slowed to a meander and the noise to a din. In the corner by the fire I would hear these old world sounds begin to rise up in solitude and then song. Sounds that would come to mean everything to me. Timbre that had resonance of home, bone and heartbeat; my mothers coding. They were sounds that I felt I had always known. The sound of my tribe, my people and my home.

Faerie Tree –  From the Album ‘They Might See Dolpins’. Video recorded in Ireland & Austria 2016

That feeling stays with me to this day, simmering beneath the surface. Even now I can recall that emotion clearly. The heartbeat of my mother, my grandmother and her mother before. My uncles my father. A sound that comes to warm the soul when tradition is activated. Older that the trees and from the hills, waters, rivers and seas it comes, coded. Pagan. Ancient. Earthly and etherial. It is of communion and community. A sound that comes on a breath, in song and in a melody. In mouth shape and the spoken word – through time. I came to know this sound as Irish*.


* ‘Irish’ – For those of you who are not aware – is the native language of Ireland.
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