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Marrying modernity with tradition

August 1, 2019

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Seo Linn is a Dublin-based band from Kilkenny.

 

By Colleen Taylor

The dominant narrative surrounding the Irish language is one of difficulty. For the non-Gaeilgeoir, Irish signifies arduous learning experiences in school and strict rules against speaking English in the Gaeltacht. For most, Irish is something you struggle with, not an incentive to rock out. This is not the case, however, for Seo Linn, a green but ambitious Dublin-based boy band from Kilkenny. Seo Linn is making small steps toward changing the narrative around the Irish language, using music and youthful energy to make Irish fun, relevant, even hip. With an album and EP already released and a short U.S. tour scheduled for this summer, the band is beginning to extend their positive energy beyond Ireland.

I caught Seo Linn at Whelan’s in Dublin, where their concert incited surprise, excitement, and for me, a bit of confusion. I went in expecting the typical trad gig with added inflections of pop and indie, but instead witnessed a startling and unprecedented revelry exchanged between performers and audience members. The atmosphere was half Gaeltacht summer school, half One Direction concert, with young fans screaming in excitement and dancing to the band’s original songs and covers—most of them “as Gaeilge.” For the older, partially cynical critic (me), there was less incentive to shout and dance, but I couldn’t help admiring this club-like experience in the context of Irish lyrics and traditional instruments. Seo Linn was able to rally a young crowd and inspire a bunch of Dubliners to see the Irish language as cool.

Seo Linn, made up of Stiofán Ó Fearail, Daithí Ó Ruaidh, Kevin Shortall, and Keith Ó Briain, are part indie pop boy band, part cover band, and part trad band, combining keyboard, guitar, bass, sax, accordion and mandolin. The band first achieved prominence in 2013 when their Irish language cover of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” went viral. Their debut album “Solas” won Nós album of the year in 2018 and includes updated renditions of traditional songs like “Oró Se do Bheatha Bhaile” and folk favorites like “Music Makers.” While not every song hits the mark for me, “Oró” and “Music Makers” are standouts as inventive and exciting in both traditional and indie pop genres. More recently in 2019, Seo Linn released an all-Irish EP, “Marcas sa gCoill” or “Marcus in the Wood”: a one-note theme of indie-pop songs in Irish comparable to an Irish Mumford and Sons. For me, the best of these new tracks is “Ag Fanacht Ar an Uair,” a slow, easy tune with comforting melody that offers a sophisticated respite from the high-energy pop songs.

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Seo Linn is at their best in the marriage of modernity and tradition, when they locate the exact kind of interpretive finesse that will repackage Irish trad for a young, excited audience. For instance, at Whelan’s, the band started the gig with a rhythmic, upbeat version of “Siúil a Rún.” Later on, they did a gorgeous rendition of “Raglan Road,” which was as popular with the young audience as the pop covers. They also performed one of the better renditions of “Mo Ghíle Mear” I have heard in a long time, starting out a capella then gradually adding inflections of pop style. While the cover songs in Irish will always be popular at a camp, festival, or wedding, these pop stylizations of traditional songs are what really make this band stand out. When Seo Linn reinterprets the traditional songs with their own unique, contemporary instrumentation, they effectively capture and present their unique identity as a band.

Seo Linn are true polyglots in terms of language, genre, and instrumentation. They speak the languages of Irish music and culture, bridging heritage and modernity, folk and twenty first century pop, tradition and youth. In an era when we may fear the declining relevance or currency of the Irish cultural diaspora, a band like Seo Linn can reintegrate the teens into the tradition. As such, they offer a unique sociocultural service for the Irish language by cleverly capitalizing on boy band phenomena. In short, Seo Linn will be as popular with millennials as Baby Boomers in their upcoming performances at the Iowa and Milwaukee Irish Festivals—their exciting Irish energy can get the whole family involved.

Give Seo Linn a listen and hear some of Ireland’s oldest traditional songs, like “Oró” with new ears. You can hear them on spotify or catch them at the Iowa and Milwaukee Festivals. More information at seolinn.com.

Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column for the Irish Echo.

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