Catríona O’Leary and her new band Anakronos are bringing medieval Ireland back to life.
PHOTO BY TARA SLYE
By Colleen Taylor
In the celebration and enjoyment of music, we don’t often pay historians their due. Particularly when it comes to traditional Irish and folk music, we abide by the myth that tunes are passed down from father to son and mother to daughter for generations until they wind up on the stage before us or in the pub session down the road. But there’s often a lot more work that goes into putting centuries-old tunes on the stage—in many cases, it requires extensive historical research, collecting, traveling, interviewing, a sharp mind, a sharp ear, and an unwavering work ethic. Historian and musician Catríona O’Leary knows all about the blood, sweat, heart, and soul that goes into cultural recovery and musical preservation. After many hours in the archive and in rehearsals, O’Leary and her new band Anakronos are bringing medieval Ireland back to life with their new take on old sounds.
Anakronos is not only a band, they are a methodology, a theoretical perspective. Made up of Catríona O’Leary, sister Deirdre O’Leary (clarinets), Nick Roth (sax) and Francesco Turrisi, the famed Italian pianist and percussion artist, the quartet is in and of itself a fusion, enlivened by multiple cultural and instrumental perspectives. The group seeks to retrieve ancient, medieval music and re-play it with unique, modernized arrangements that involve anachronisms like the sax and keyboard. The band debuted at the National Concert Hall in February through the support of the Irish Arts Council, performing their first collection of music, “The Red Book of Ossory.”
“The Red Book of Ossory” is, first and foremost, the name for a 14th-century medieval manuscript housed in Kilkenny’s St. Canice’s Cathedral. But Anakronos have given the book new relevance with their jazzy, unearthly, almost eerie reinterpretation. O’Leary did impressive archival research to set the book’s Latin verse to popular fourteenth century tunes, using her expertise to keep the arrangements as stylistically true to the time period as possible, while still allowing space for modernized flare. Part of that flare includes dramatic drums and spooky sax ornamentations, for example. It is remarkable that tunes unheard for some 800 years are now breathing new musical life into an instrument not even popularized until the twentieth century. But that is the remarkable re-vision of a band like Anakronos.
Anakronos’s “Red Book of Ossory” is not mere recovery or resurrection—most crucially, it is a recontextualization. What impressed me most about Anakronos’s debut is the ethical decision not to glorify the manuscript or its author, Richard de Ledrede. Instead, the band offers an alternative, non-canonical history, educating listeners about de Ledrede’s other legacy: a ruthless campaign against primarily female heretics. Their introduction to the project, as it premiered in Dublin, reminded listeners that the same man who wrote the book’s beautiful, imaginative, poetry, also set on a mission to burn witches at the stake, including a servant named Petronilla de Meath. The sound of the band’s arrangements, including twenty songs taken from Ledrede’s book, matches this historical recontextualization. O’Leary’s strong, sweet vocals blend with and diverge from almost truculent instrumentals—the female voice at odds with a dogmatic doctrine and gendered social order. The arrangement sonically interprets the historical moment’s oppositions: God and Man, author and female knowledge, the spiritual and the sinister.
A band like Anakronos reads and gives voice to the subtext, to the lost characters of history, by imagining beyond the canonical, beyond the surface level story and sound of medieval Ireland. This is new take on Irish history and material culture is also a new take on what music can do and say. As O’Leary and Anakronos evince, music need not simply entertain us—it can also educate us.
You can find out more about the new band Anakronos and their performance the Book of Ossory by watching their videos on YouTube.