CD Review by Niki na Meadhra
Helena Byrne: Scéal: a Collection of Irish Stories, Music & Poetry
Available at http://helenabyrne.com/sceal
Helena Byrne is an experienced storyteller, seanchaí, who also works as an actor and director, in theatre, founding the Break-Away Project Performance Company in 2012.
Her new CD, Scéal, begins with an introduction to the Ireland her grandparents lived in, which is the source of her stories and, undoubtedly, it is their influence that nourished her love of Irish folklore.
Her description depicts a warm, connected rural community, where sing-songs and storytelling sessions were plentiful, but it is not without its darker and more mysterious aspects. She talks of the harshness of a life where farmers work hard in the fields all their lives, struggling to make a livelihood and a time when people more attuned to the ‘Otherworld’ and the dangers of getting on the wrong side of the ‘Good Folk’ – the fairies. In this world people truly believed in the fairies and explained many of life’s goings on through their traditional beliefs, showing great respect for their fairy forts and fairy trees. She speaks of many perils, including being drawn astray by the fairies, or trading cattle for fairy money. This introduction sets up the ongoing format of the recording, where each tale is told informatively and vividly introduced, set in the history, traditions and landscapes it arose from.
Helena describes it as a collection of her favourite Irish stories and poems. The collected tracks include: poetry, from Allingham and Yeats; a varied selection of folk tales – from folklorist Thomas Crofton-Croker, scholar Douglas Hyde and members of her own family – several based on real events; and a beautifully sung rendition of ‘My Lagan Love’.
Her selection covers a comprehensive sweep of Irish fairy-lore, which would be familiar to many and a great introduction for newcomers, including tales of the leprechaun, banshee, dullahan, púca and the trooping fairies.
All the tracks are tightly scripted and skilfully delivered by Helena, with additional vocals and expressive characterisations by John Byrne, which are a resonant counterpoint to Helena’s bright feminine tone. They are bound together with dramatic sound effects and lilting Irish music. Whilst the tracks themselves are well-paced, with plenty of space to imagine the stories as they unfold, I would have liked more space between tracks, or longer musical transitions to give me time absorb their rich imagery. Perhaps the secret is to listen to one track at a time and savour them individually.
Jamie Hickey has done a great job with the cover art, which depicts Helena dramatically posed in the landscape in a romantic, scarlet velvet dress, befitting an Irish Fairy Queen!
Having recently spent 10 weeks in Ireland, I was transported back to those green hills, where there is always the sound of running streams and the lanes wind on and on, through picturesque villages, where good folk always make the time to share a story. I’m sure this gem will become a favourite of children and adults alike.