West Kerry, music and inspiration - An interview with Eilís Kennedy

Eilís Kennedy was born and raised in the heart of the West Kerry Gaeltacht to parents who passed on a lifelong and committed interest in the poetry and songs of that region. She has been fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen to   many of the finest exponents of song in her locality. The emotion and stories associated with Gaelic singing thus informed her love of song and still does.

Éilís began at singing sessions in Dingle, where she and her husband run John Benny’s Pub and through the melting pot of musicians and singers passing through and settling in the area, was encouraged to and subsequently recorded her first CD “Time to Sail “in 2000. This was followed by another collection “One Sweet Kiss" and by many more recordings. 

In  2007, along with Shaun Davey, Rita Connolly, Seamus Begley, Jim Murray, Eoin O Beaglaoich & Dáithí Ó Sé, she was part of Béal Tuinne, a 15 song cycle, based on her own father Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide’s poems and set to original music by Shaun Davey.

She formed Lumiere with fellow West Kerry woman Pauline Scanlon in 2009, on discovering a shared interest in and  love of song and enjoying the new experience of duo singing. They have recorded 2 albums : Lumiere, and My Dearest Dear.

In February this year we launched Westward, her new solo album. Eilís says of Westward:  "This  recording reflects  my  musical  travels in the last 20 years and, for the first time, some original songs of my own. Now that I am older, with more time, I have the  freedom  to  spend  time  writing as well as  learning new  songs.  The   people  with  whom I  have    developed my music over the years  also feature here, and I recorded it outside Ireland to bring that  perspective that  being away  from the familiar can bring. The  songs have a sense of the past from my own family, and also a glimpse of the  new.

As part of a new series of Q&A interviews we put the following to Eilís

What age were you when you first realised you could really sing and play traditional music?

I didn’t realise it at all, not in definite light bulb moment anyway. My friends and I put together a band for the late lamented and much loved Slógadh Competition (which was run by Gael Linn at the time) while we were teenagers at school in Dingle and it was the beginning of a lifelong enjoyment of playing with others. It was such good craic as you got to progress on to various levels and meet and hear people from around the country doing the same thing. I have great memories of those days. You had to be innovative and imaginative in picking tunes and arrangements - countless hours were spent and it did us no harm at all !!


Did music take over your life as a child/teenager?

It didn’t take over so much as it was just part of life whether that was playing or just endlessly listening to radio and records and tapes. Our primary school Scoil Naomh Eirc ( where my grandmother and my father were, in their time, principals and teachers of songs ) was one where music and songs featured very prominently.

Summers involved shows in our local Siamsa Tíre centre - that was mighty craic. Fr Pat Ahern would teach us singing, and Jimmy Smith was the dance master. Nicky and Ann Mc Auliffe taught us magical tunes. When I look back on it, we had great opportunities. Good times indeed.


Who were the people that must inspired you when you were starting out?

My family both immediate and extended. Endless and eclectic songs and gatherings in which song was at the heart of everything. My father singing Róisín Dubh or The Kerry Dances, my uncle Muiris Ó Cinnéide singing Carraig Donn or Táimse im’ Chodladh or, a firm favourite, O Sing To Me Gypsy. I hear those songs in my head and am filled nostalgia for those gatherings. My brothers and sisters introduced me to Joni and Dylan and Leonard and Pink Floyd and then I also devoured the Bothy Band collection and the songs of Makem and Clancy. Mary Bergin was my heroine of the whistle. There was always a music soundtrack to our lives.


Who most inspires you today when it comes to music and why?

I’m continually being inspired as I love listening to new things. If I had to name one person who inspired me this past year it would have to be the one and only fiddle player Winifred Horan. She is hugely talented and endlessly expressive in her music.

What advice would you give to young people starting?

Listen to albums!! I feel a bit ancient being asked that. Young people rarely listen to advice anyway, but I would encourage young parents to make music available to kids - lessons or just having music in its many forms in their lives and homes - they will thank you for it later.


Do you think traditional music is now too commercial?

Absolutely not ! The words Traditional and Commercial are not mutually exclusive !


Is traditional music losing it’s soul or community feel?

Its reflecting society - we tend not to have the same social interaction with one another on a day to day basis but we have a lot more interaction and a wider one, through technology. Then I think this leads to more engagement. Traditional music is alive and well and as long as people are learning and playing and enjoying it, then it’s sure to survive. I see it as a huge element of life in Ireland , it’s bound up with language and continuity and defines us hugely.


Do you think the album format is dead?

No more than printed books are to a reader. What is dead is the record store - so we have to be inventive in getting our cd’s to people. It means you have to play live or there’s no chance . Radio play is very thin on the ground, which is a tremendous pity.


Do the arts organisations in Ireland do enough to support traditional musicians.?

Well they are seriously underfunded and undervalued - despite lots of lofty words and grand gestures at big occasions. If they had more money they might be able to assist in practical ways.


What additional supports would you like to see in place for traditional musicians?

I think radio could be much more supportive in Ireland. Funding for touring which would ensure a better chance for musicians in the traditional genre and sustain viable venues and attract audiences. There are audiences out there but our population is tiny - too small to make touring the length and breadth of the country expecting full houses all year. Even fuel allowances would do a lot to help a small band to travel to venues. I’ve done a lot of driving in the last 10 years and believe me it’s a big factor!


Do you use Spotify and what is your opinion on it?

I use it, yes. It’s a great way to hear more of a band I might like and point me in the direction of similar artists which in turn leads me to buy their music. There’s a lot of choice out there but sure that’s the beauty of it .


Having just made an album what advice would you give to someone about to record their first album?

More advice! Hmm., love every track, get opinions but know your own, don’t make it too long, budget wisely ..


What was the hardest part of making an album?

Setting out the time to do it., but honestly making an album is a hugely enjoyable experience.


When it comes to marketing your music what approaches do you take?

Try everything! Getting it heard is the tricky part. There are lots of platforms out there such as this one where others can introduce your music to a wider audience of those interested in your genre.


Having completed an album, what is the most important thing you have learned?

Be prepared to perform any track live to any audience any time - this is never really possible of course !. Not to give up hope - the music you created is out there and it will live on in the world. You will not make money in a short time but think of the long game instead and, most of all I’ve learned to be comfortable with my own decisions.


Do you think making an album is still commercially viable?

Not really ! But there are lots of ways to ensure you don’t lose money with crowd-funding etc. You need to be realistic about costs - you need to pay for everything and everyone involved if you are independent. Know that information before you begin.


Where have you achieved the most sales - live gigs, shops, your own website, downloads from iTunes/CDBaby/Bandcamp?

Live gigs and touring , without a doubt. Also Dingle is pretty unique in that we have viable record stores which sell local music due to the thriving tourist market. I have had a lot of touring opportunities and I love being on the road now that my family are older.


What albums have you listened to recently that you would recommend, either traditional or otherwise?

Agus Anois an Aimsir - Colm Mac an Iomaire

All these Years by Solas

Remember us to Life by Regina Spektor


Where is home for you and how would you describe it to a stranger thinking of visiting?

West Kerry is my home. I live in the town of Dingle but grew up 8 miles West, in Baile an Mhúraigh. Its beautiful, and wild, and musical and fun - the summers are busy and the winters are for introspection and creativity.


What do you do to relax outside of music?

The usual stuff, socialising with family or friends, reading and commandeering the couch. Taking to the roads on the bike when I can and wherever I am.


What is your favourite pub or venue to play music?

John Bennys, of course!! St James’ Church in Dingle and lots of lovely venues in Ireland - Duncairn in Belfast , Séamus Ennis Centre in the Naul.  In the USA :The Ark in Ann Arbor , Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz , The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix , The Old Town School of Music in Chicago .


What are you reading at the moment, and what would you recommend to our readers?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I read a very entertaining account of the Chelsea Hotel recently in a book called Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel, by Sherill Tippins. It was a gift from my brother Mícheál, who is an avid music fan and a great gift-giver.

Fé Gheasa - Spellbound is a the latest collection of my sister Dairena Ní Chinnéide’s poems. It’s a great read!


Do you enjoy touring abroad ?

I love it ! I have made wonderful friends over the years and seen places I would never have seen otherwise. There is nothing like the camaraderie of the side stage and the dressing room - it’s an alternate universe !!


What’s new for you now, musically ?

Writing songs. I’ve recorded two on my recent CD Westward and I am excited about writing more. I have the time now I never had when my family were younger.


Her new album is now on release and can be purchased from www.eiliskennedymusic.com as well as on CDBaby.com



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Comment by Marianne MacDonald on May 18, 2017 at 21:00

I was just in Dingle a few weeks ago and I picked up Eilis' new CD for my radio show. I've listened to it twice now, all of the way through and it is so delightful. I'll be playing at least two tracks from it on my show this coming Sunday.

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