Over the past ten, fifteen, even twenty years traditional Irish music has been on a steady decline. There was once a time when Irish music dominated the radio, musicians could make a good living off it and were well known across the country, and people were interested in it. People were experimenting with traditional instruments to test their limits and capabilities and once-divided regions of the country came together to develop a variety of sounds and songs. Recently however, the landscape is very different. It’s almost unheard of to hear traditional Irish music on the national radio stations (outside of Raidió na Gaeltachta), very few people ever go looking for it and it is very hard for traditional musicians to tour and to make an income entirely based on music. It’s had such a decline in popularity that the amount of children learning traditional Irish instruments has decreased, with both parents and children preferring the learn more popular instruments such as piano and clarinet. Then “Divide” was released. Ed Sheeran’s third album shot to number one across the world upon release and saw all its tracks clog up both the U.K. and U.S. singles charts. Two of “Divide’s” most popular tracks, Galway Girl and Nancy Mulligan, feature the Irish Trad group Beoga, and their feature has given the traditional music trade a big lift.
When asked about the band’s impact on Irish music by being featured on “Divide”, Eamon Murray, the bodhran player for Beoga, took a quick moment to think, looking up to the roof of Kilkenny’s Hibernian hotel, before replying: “it’s a big lift for Irish music as far as I’m concerned. I mean what it’s doing is bringing that whole sound back to popular culture again.” He smiles as he reveals that “the response we’ve got directly from a lot of our friends and music people and teachers and that is that they’ve never seen so many young kids re-enthused to actually go and play the fiddle or the accordion. I mean, that has to be a good thing. I think if there’s young ones going to their classes this week thinking that it’s cool again to be playing Irish music then that has to be a good thing.” Eamon has met us the morning after Beoga’s performance as part of Kilkenny Trad Festival, a performance that had everyone in the crowded venue dancing, laughing and drinking with them and a celebration of music that continued until the early hours of the morning. He’s sticking around Kilkenny for the weekend as his wife and fellow musician, Pauline Scanlon, is set to perform the following evening in the newly renovated Medieval Mile Museum.
Eamon was born and raised in Randalstown in Co. Antrim. He came from a musical family and one where his parents encouraged all their children to play music. Eamon began by playing the tin whistle in primary school but had very little interest in it. What he really wanted to play was the drums and after a few months of pestering he managed to strike an agreement with his parents. “My folks said ‘we’ll get you a bodhran first and if you can hack that and keep at it we’ll get you a drum kit’, and that’s how it was.” His first teacher was a man called Charlie Graham, who taught Eamon and his friends the basics of the bodhran. After a few years, they began going to annual workshops and developed their skill from there. At the time, the bodhran wasn’t widely used in traditional music and was in the middle of an experimental phase. “At the time the bodhran wasn’t really being played the way it’s being played now so we were learning at a time of real development in hindsight. I suppose people were just coming up with new ideas and it was an exciting time to be playing Irish music because Riverdance was happening and tunes were getting faster and odder and things were getting a bit more exploratory, so I think that spurred everybody on.” Around the age of 13, Eamon and his friend Sean Óg Graham, a button accordion player, became infatuated with the idea of forming a band. Neither, however, could have guessed how their band would be born.
Listowel was the setting for the 2002 All-Ireland Fleadh, and while taking part in a trad session in the town Eamon and Sean Óg first played with two future members of Beoga, Damian McKee and Liam Bradley. “There was definitely a lot of energy coming out there and on the first play it kinda clicked and we were like “Ohh yeah we should maybe explore this.” The decision to make a band, however, was not instant. “Well ayy yeah it was a bit of hindsight in truth,” Eamon recalls, laughing. “We were kinda thrown into it because a friend of mine was running a charity gig and he was like ‘look, let’s have a boy band against a girl band for charity’ and he said that would be in three months, so we had three months to put together a 30 or 40 minute set, so that’s how it started.” Upon concept, the band began to play gigs around Northern Ireland and very quickly began to write their own original material. It soon came a time to record an album, and as 15 year olds, the band were very excited by the prospect of releasing their own material. “There was a good energy about it so we went into Mudd Wallace, who sadly passed away last year – he was the first producer really – and we went in and recorded everything in a day and he was like ‘if you want I can produce this and we can take our time at it and take a few months and make a really good album’ and that kinda got us on the road.” Their debut album, “A Lovely Madness”, was released in 2004, to mass critical acclaim from all corners of the world. “A Lovely Madness” was followed by “Mischief”, in which the band added vocalist and renowned fiddle player Niamh Dunne to their ranks.“It just added a whole new dimension you know, that to be fit to do songs, it gives us so much more scope” Eamon recalls of the addition “Niamh is an amazing fiddler and we had a lot of fiddle lines on our original music and it was great to have that dimension going forward”. The band followed these releases with 2009’s “The Incident” (Shortlisted for a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2010), “How To Tune A Fish” in 2011 and 2016’s “Before We Change Our Mind” which was recorded almost entirely in one or two takes. Looking back on the recording process for their latest album, Eamon says “So we did that record with no overdubs, with a different producer, in a different studio and took a completely different approach just to capture what I feel is the best thing, the live aspect. When I listen to old stuff I can still hear, I can visualise, producers and engineers and everyone falagaling over one beat at a time and it’s just not the way to make music, in my opinion.”
As the band has grown in popularity, they have been allowed to tour across the world, including Australia, central Europe and the U.S. When asked if he had ever thought the band would be able to tour in the U.S., Eamon replied “We wanted to expand purely because it’s really hard to tour in Ireland when you’re starting out. There’s a lot of problems in Ireland, in my opinion; there’s not enough original Irish music played on the radio and touring wasn’t subsidized unless you had arts council grants or something like that. Venues are trying to self-sustain and that means the guarantees aren’t great . Places like Germany are really well and are well run, so arts centers always have budgets to get acts in so it meant that we could go in and we weren’t wondering if we were going to be paid.” While performing in Dallas, the band were awarded The U.S. House of Representatives Certificate of Congressional Representation. The band still, however, have no idea what it means and often forget about it until reminded. “We were on stage in Dallas Texas and this politician came on and just awarded us this thing, I’ve no idea, we didn’t really know it was a big deal really, but these things happen sometimes”
In similar fashion, the band were equally surprised when contacted by Northern Irish singer Foy Vance to ask to demo on a few tunes for his touring partner and close friend, Ed Sheeran. “About a year ago Foy sent me a message asking we would be up for trying some stuff and going over and trying some ideas and we said absolutely. They’d been listening to some of our stuff on the road whenever he [Sheeran] and Foy were on the road and he was really into it and he wanted to try to do some writing and he had a couple of demo ideas that he sent over and we demoed some stuff back and he really liked it and so we went over for three or four days to his gaff and to his studio.” And that’s how it began, the re-invigoration of Irish traditional music. As the interview comes to a close, he smiles, thanks us for coming and goes back to sit with his family. He’s overwhelmingly calm while the world of traditional music praises his band’s name and while the whole world sings along to a song they co-wrote, But, in his own words, “these things happen”.