“Some people saw it as a desecration of old songs”
Skara Brae was a quartet whose immense heritage belied a fleeting but iridescent existence. With a single album, recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, some fifty years ago, Maighread, Tríona and Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Dáithí Sproule lit a fire under a new genre of music mixing traditional influences, folk, contemporary pop. and jazz to a fluidity that surprised listeners. The album is now reissued by Gael Linn to celebrate his groundbreaking arrangements and intricate harmonies.
Three of the four band members are at their best when they recount the recording of their self-titled album – in an afternoon in Marianella Hall in Rathgar. Micheál Ó Domhnaill, brother of Tríona and Maighread, died in 2006.
“I remember a pair of stereo mics coming out of the ceiling,” says Maighread, smiling wryly at the sophistication of the whole effort, “and it was recorded on a reel-to-reel. We walked in. 1 p.m. and it was done and dusted at five or six that night.
I think we must have been nervous but my biggest memory is when we all sang together it was such a strong mix, we had no doubts about it
Skara Brae’s repertoire was eclectic and constantly evolving. Anchored by the two guitars of Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Dáithí Sproule, it was distinguished by the introduction by Tríona of the clavinet, a portable keyboard which she had acquired just a week before the recording of the album. Maighread and Tríona’s close harmonies on a series of lesser-known Donegal songs (including An Suantraí, whose lyrics were written by their father, Aodh Ó Domhnaill) were unmatched, then or since. At the time of recording, Maighread was only 15, Tríona was 16, and Micheál and Dáithí were 19 and 20.
“We had two guitars, a keyboard and four voices, with only two microphones,” recalls Sproule. “I think we must have been nervous, but my greatest memory is that when we all sang together it was such a strong mix that we had no doubts about it. We opened our mouths and sang, and it worked.
Maighread and Tríona grew up in Kells, County Meath, but spent long summers in Ranafast in County Donegal, where their parents were from. Sproule, from Derry, also spent much of his summers in Donegal, and the four young musicians began playing and singing together informally from an early age. It was an exhilarating time of exploration, with influences from near and far audible in their arrangements, but with Donegal at the heart of the band’s rich harmonies.
“Dáithí and Micheál played a lot together because they were both in college at UCD,” says Maighread. “Tríona and I played the game next door, for three summers before that. When the guys were in college they would come to Kells on the weekends. We would have sung together and daddy had a lot of songs and songbooks he gave us. It was those weekends in Kells where we started singing together and working on the arrangements.
Our father had this fear that songs would die, and people would lose interest in them, and it was a way to seduce young people to listen to them again.
Soon after releasing their album, Skara Brae was supporting everyone from the Chieftains to Matthews Southern Comfort at the Cork Opera House. And hear all kinds of great music in Slattery’s on Capel Street. They were exhilarating moments.
Gael Linn’s managing director Antoine Coileáin has a particular fondness for Skara Brae’s solo debut.
“The album is considered one of the most important albums of its genre,” he says. “Skara Brae brought the influence of pop and folk music to traditional Irish songs, with arrangements influenced by The Beatles, Pentangle and Joni Mitchell. He is notable for his vocal harmonization of songs in Irish, especially in the vocals of Maighread and Tríona. “
It’s tempting to assume that this historic recording was widely acclaimed, but at the time of its release some viewed its daring arrangements as a real and present danger to the future of mainstream music.
“Some people saw it as a total desecration of the old songs,” Maighread offers with a smile as she remembers her 15-year-old loving every minute of the band’s musical adventures. “Our father told us to take these songs and make them our own. Our parents loved this music and loved us to play and sing. Our father had this fear that songs would die, and people would lose interest in them, and it was a way to seduce young people to listen to them again.
Aodh Ó Domhnaill’s influence has been key to the group’s revolutionary sound, Tríona acknowledges.
I’ve been involved with some really fine music in the recording studio over the years, but I think polish can be kind of a trap where you question yourself.
“He loved the poetry of the songs and the music of the melodies so much,” she recalls. “He saw the beauty and the richness of it all and passed it on to us. I absolutely didn’t want a nine-to-five or office job. It was my dream to become a musician, and I listened to and soaked up all kinds of music so I dreamed big. Later when the opportunity arose to join The Bothy Band, we all took a chance and said, let’s go. There was no tomorrow.
With Sproule moving to the United States and joining Altan, and with Tríona and Maighread building up a fine reputation as soloists, as a duo and, in Tríona’s case, in jazz-influenced groups Relativity and Nightnoise, their adolescent dreams turned out to be premonitory.
“I’m not sure anyone has done what we’ve done, since then, with that balance of loud voice and repertoire,” suggests Sproule. “I’ve been involved in some really fine music in the recording studio over the years, but I think polishing can be kind of a trap where you question yourself sometimes. Tríona says we haven’t guessed ourselves – you just do. But I think polishing everything up is kind of a scared approach to music. When we recorded this album, we had no choice but to do it this way. This rawness and lack of security is a great way to work.
Skara Brae is reissued on Gael Linn records