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Holland takes pensive approach

By Daniel Neely

In 2012, I met Gráinne Holland, a fabulous singer from Belfast, at a Tourism Ireland function in Manhattan. She had recently released her debut “Teanga na nGael,” an Irish-language album that took a fresh and contemporary approach. Critics from all around (myself included) listened and responded this offering with great interest.

Her latest release is “Gaelré” (which means “Era of the Gael”), a similarly lovely album that maintains and even builds on the high musical standard of “Teanga na nGael.” On this release, however, she’s taken a more measured, pensive approach that draws out the expressive elements in the songs she’s chosen and better highlights her voice’s great beauty. It’s a stellar album that deserves wide exposure in the traditional community.

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Holland grew up in West Belfast in an area now known as the city’s “Gaeltacht Quarter.” Her family spoke English and Irish and she attended Bunscoil Phobail Feirst, the city’s first Gaelic-medium school. Her love for Irish music and song began when she was very young and over the years – as her two albums reveal – she’s grown into a studied exponent of Gaelic song.

For “Gaelré,” Holland has assembled an exceptional lineup of musicians (many of whom appeared on “Teanga”), including John McSherry, Neil Martin, Sean Óg Graham, Brendan Mulholland, Eamon Murray, Michael McCague and Micky McCloskey. As on her debut, Dónal O’Connor not only plays but produces and arranges as well. The chemistry she strikes with these musicians is dynamic and yields wonderful music.

Take, for instance, “An Drúcht Geal Ceo,” a Gaelic translation of the well-known Easter Rising song “The Foggy Dew.” It’s a bold selection in this centennial year and it’s been done a service here. There’s a poignancy and emotional strength in Holland’s voice that does the song well, and her delivery is complemented by the group’s musical arrangement, which builds in intensity and interest as it unfolds. Hers is a contemporary, rooted take on a well-worn song that seems to eschew convention in its use of studio craft. It might be the album’s best track.

Another song that stands out to me is “An Fear Foltliath.” Written by Seán Ó Muireagáin, it’s a praise song for Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí, a presenter for RTÉ. It bounces along with a lovely optimism that invites the listener’s ears. “Shíl Mé Féin,” a song Holland took from a recording of Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, is another one that stands out to me. Holland’s voice is sits well in an arrangement comprising uilleann pipes, low whistle and guitar. It’s great stuff with a sold groove.

Then there’s “Úna Ní Chonchubhair Bháin,” a song of unrequited love Holland learned from the sean nós singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhride. Holland takes Mac Giolla Bhride’s expressive approach and adds a breathtaking string arrangement and an intimacy in recording technique that adds a layer of plaintive depth few will be able to resist.

“Gaelré" is an excellent album. Holland has an eye to the future in her music and is using it to actively preserve her language and culture. The music she presents here is beautiful: her voice is strong, the playing is outstanding and the arrangements well considered. Credit goes to the producer as well: the album is incredibly well-rendered, which allows even the most casual of listeners to appreciate the nuance and detail in Holland’s voice and the album’s arrangements. Indeed, there’s a lot here to enjoy and lovers of song – especially Gaelic song – will definitely want to check it one out! For more information on Holland, this new album and her work in general, visit

Incidentally, Holland will be performing at the Irish Arts Center (553 West 51 Street in NYC) on Feb. 11. She will perform original material (and perhaps some off this new album, who knows?) as part of the IAC’s Songwriters series, which makes it something those of you who live in and around New York City will want to check out! For more information, keep an eye on

Finally, a hearty congratulations to Colin Farrell, whose album “Make A Note” was selected as’s album of the year! I gave it a very enthusiastic review last February, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, now you have even more reason to. Learn more about Farrell and his music at

Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.