The prospect of putting together a collection of my favourite Irish songs was somewhat daunting, as this geographically small land has given birth to such a monumental catalogue of music. So, in order to quell my anxiety levels, I restricted my choices to songs from the northern part of the country — the part of the country where I was born and raised. (I’m including County Donegal, too.)
I’m very fortunate to come from a place that has some of the most strikingly beautiful, rugged, and raw landscapes on the planet, and I know this has a large influence on the music that is created here. I’m a big believer that the outer environment greatly influences our inner worlds, and this is very apparent in the songs that are written by Irish artists. The traditions, the ancient spirit embedded in the soil, the wildness of the water, and the troubled history of this country have given the Irish a unique sense of melody and a haunted poetry that often seeps into our songwriters’ work. We can be magnificiently melancholy without slipping into complete darkness. There is such a depth of talent in this country that it’s impossible to make the definitive playlist but this Mixtape contains some of my very favourite tracks from northern Irish songwriters. As these songs and singers continue to inspire me, I hope too that they will make make an impact on your ears, heart, and soul. Enjoy. — Ben Glover
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic”
This is definitive, Celtic soul and, in my opinion, one of the best songs ever written. It’s Van at his best — capturing mysticism and longing — and I know no other song to have such a timeless and beautiful spirit. Van’s the man.
Paul Brady — “The Island”
One of the great, most powerful anti-war songs which contrasts serenity and intimacy with the hypocrisy of political/religious leaders. It uses the troubles of Northern Ireland and the Lebanese Civil War as a backdrop. This track confirms Paul Brady as a master songwriter.
Four Men and a Dog (Kevin Doherty) — “The Greengrocer’s Daughter”
The members of trad/folk band Four Men and a Dog are from all over Ireland, but their singer/songwriter, Kevin Doherty, is from Buncrana in County Donegal, and so qualifies as being geographically from up north. Kevin has been an influence on me ever since I was a teenager starting to write songs. “The Greengrocer’s Daughter” has a very simple and straightforward lyric, but still is extremely captivating (the hardest kind of song to write). He’s the Irish Leonard Cohen.
Brendan Murphy — “Into Your Arms”
This melody, along with Brendan’s vocal delivery, makes this song plunge straight into one’s heart. Brendan’s band, the Four of Us, have been making great music for over 25 years, but I’m also a big fan of when he strips it all back acoustically. The sparseness and simplicity of this song makes it truly wonderful — a real beauty.
The Plea — “Windchime”
I grew up playing music in the bars of Donegal and, later on, in Boston with Dermot and Denny Doherty, the two brothers at the core of the Plea. They have the ability to write raw, gut-wrenching, folky songs but also make wonderful, big-sounding, indie records like “Windchime.” The song has a dreamy, cinematic sadness that’s as big as the Atlantic Ocean that crashes on the coastline of Donegal, the area where the Plea come from.
Bap Kennedy — “Shimnavale”
Here’s Bap poignantly displaying his shipwrecked heart and conjuring up some Celtic high-lonesome magic. The fiddle wonderfully adds to the haunted atmosphere of the song and, once again, (like in “Into The Mystic”) the deep sense of longing in the song is very powerful.
Gareth Dunlop — “How Far This Road Goes”
Gareth has been on a similar journey to me over the past few years, as he spends a great deal of time writing in Nashville. As well as being a fantastic writer, his is one of the best voices to come out of Northern Ireland over the past few years. He’s the essence of Belfast soul.
Anthony Toner — “The Duke of Oklahoma”
What makes Anthony stand out from a lot of writers is his delicate attention to the details of the characters in his songs mixed with a great musicality. In “The Duke of Oklahoma,” he wears his Dylan influence proudly on his sleeve, but still makes it identifiably Toner-esque with his wonderful narrative and turn of phrase.
Matt McGinn — “What Happens”
Matt and I went to college together and so have been making noise together for quite a few years. He’s a brilliant musician who captures a real elegance in his songs. Matt comes from the heart of the Mourne Mountains, and I can always hear something of the splendor of that environment in his songs — particularly in “What Happens.”
Malojian — “It Ain’t Easy”
Malojian (aka Stevie Scullion) has that rare, powerful gift of being able to knock you over with an almost brittle vocal, in the way Neil Young does. The lyrics of this one intrigue me. I can’t help but get a sense of the 1970s West Coast singer/songwriter in a lot of Malojian’s stuff. He should be on everyone’s alt-folk playlists.
Ben Glover — “Melodies of Midnight”
I couldn’t resist throwing one of my own on here … This is an older song, but I still like the sound of this record.
Cara Dillion — “The Parting Glass”
Cara’s voice is one the purest sounds in the world. She is my favourite Irish female singer, and her version of this old song is the best I know. This vocal performance of Cara’s is completely arresting and stirs up up so many emotions for me. It’s the record I go to when I’m feeling a distance from home.
Photo credit: Jim DeMain