10 Talking Points From Irish Music In 2021


1. We all want to be cowboys, baby!

The ever-rising CMAT popstar, who backed Declan McKenna on a UK tour in the autumn and played the hot festival for 2022 Eurosonic in January, released a host of great songs in 2021, the highlight being ” No More Virgos” (better than anything on ABBA’s comeback album?). Her debut single, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!” of last year, was one of the successes of the confinement and made us all dream of a Stetson and a linedance.


Inventive Cork musician Yenkee – aka Graham Cooney – was similarly influenced by the title ‘Dolly’ of his latest single. Considering her attire in the accompanying video (directed by Kojaque), we can’t help but notice a trend. Add in Garth Brooks’ five-night sold-out return to Croke Park and it looks like we all wanna be cowboys, baby!

2. Artist of the Year

Tolu Makay.
Tolu Makay.

Tolu Makay covered Saw Doctor’s ‘N17’ with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for NYE station countdown last year – and went on to dominate the following year. The track was an instant radio hit.

From there, Makay, born in Nigeria and raised in the Irish Midlands, sat down with Saw Doctors frontman Leo Moran for RTÉ’s arts show Arena, and alongside poet and friend Felispeaks, stormed the Tommy Tiernan Show. The couple have since launched a podcast/streaming chat show.

After an Irish tour, Makay looked like a superstar as she walked down the aisle of St James’s Church in Dingle for Other Voices to cap off a standout year. She released her first album in early 2022 – Tolu Makay is just getting started.

3. Pilots grounded

The government has dragged its feet on staging pilot gigs this year, with James Vincent McMorrow playing to 500 socially distant people in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens in June. The crowd was untested though, so we wondered what the point of it all was.

The on-screen suggestion to attendees of one of the official pilot events before the concerts partially reopen.
The on-screen suggestion to attendees of one of the official pilot events before the concerts partially reopen.

A ‘festival’ at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham saw 3,500 attendees take tests before they could enter, although they still had to sit in pods at picnic tables. Add fencing as far as the eye can see and a dystopian message on social media posting about the fun you’re having… well, the call didn’t last.

When concerts were finally given the green light to resume from September 6, it was at 60% capacity and no testing was required. It seemed like an arbitrary number until full-capacity gigs finally returned on October 22. So what did we learn from the two pilot events? Uh…

4. Artists prioritize sanity — and in lyrics

Seeing the incredible concert of For These I Love for the first time in front of an audience in Dublin, at the Olympia last month, was an experience. Dave Balfe’s self-titled debut album is raw, revelatory and full of emotion – fear, anger and yes, love – and live, the crowd let their tears be wiped away. Sample lyrics from “Birthday/The Pain”: “You spend your whole life being brave and hoping for things to change.”

Balfe is part of a growing cohort of Irish artists who put mental health at the center of their lyrics. Galway singer-songwriter Maria Kelly, who recently supported Kodaline on their Irish tour, released superb debut album The Sum of the In-Between in October, a collection of tracks bringing together her worries and hopes.

Fears – aka Constance Keane, part of the aforementioned M(h)aol – on her Oiche debut, took us to the hospital with her lyrics. The West Cork Rushes artist, meanwhile, released an infectious song, the title of which needs no explanation: ‘Lost in Therapy’.

5. Where are the nightclubs?

Nancy Spain's was one of the old venues that faced the wrecking ball.
Nancy Spain’s was one of the old venues that faced the wrecking ball.

The demolition of the building adjacent to the Grenier in Limerick City at the end of November, as part of the redevelopment of the Opera House site, seemed symbolic. Although closed for several years, it had previously hosted nightclubs like Trinity Rooms, Doc’s and Crush.

In Galway, meanwhile, Electric announced that the pandemic and ever-changing restrictions had taken their toll: “There are only a limited number of times we can go back to our community and ask them to stay with us for a few more weeks. Now that day has come when we can wait no longer. We have no choice but to put this building on the market.

After more than 18 months of silence, nightclubs had just three weeks from the end of October before a midnight closing time was put in place. Some pivoted to open earlier, although they were quickly closed. So not only are we wondering when we will dance again, but also where will he stay to dance?

6. Speak up

Dry Cleaning’s debut album, New Long Leg, is the one you’ll see on many December best-of lists.

The post-punk band is led by Florence Shaw, whose reflections are a collage of everyday life, spoken rather than shouted. It’s become a prolific style, ranging from Soulwax’s remix of Fontaines DC’s “A Hero’s Death” to the hottest band of the year, Isle of Wight’s Wet Leg (“Long Chair”), as well as cutting-edge Irish artists like Sinead O’Brien and M(h)aol.

Ringer’s website pointed out that there is of course a German word for this kind of “speak-sing” – expect to hear a lot more sprechgesang over the next 12 months.

7. Fight for culture

Nancy Spains historic, shuttered pub in Cork was toppled this summer, leading to a coterie of misty-eyed tweets about concerts there over the years, from David Gray to Fugazi to Therapy?

Human remains have since been found on the site, intended for a 32-unit social housing project, which is of course to be welcomed in the midst of a housing crisis.

In Dublin, meanwhile, another musical institution, the Cobblestone in Smithfield, found itself in need of planning permission for a hotel. The pub is renowned for its trad sessions, and protests across the town center have drawn thousands of people in the weeks since the plans were revealed. At the end of November, the city council announced that more than 700 objections had been filed and that it had refused permission.

It felt like a symbolic victory for Irish musicians.

8. FTW Teamwork

Susan O'Neill and Mick Flannery.
Susan O’Neill and Mick Flannery.

One of the themes running through Irish music this year has been collaboration. Perhaps the most obvious, and most successful, is Mick Flannery and SON: In The Game is one of the albums of the year and saw them announced for Iveagh Gardens next summer (surely back in full swing). capacity of more than 5,000 by then?).

HousePlants saw electronic producer Daithi team up with Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan, the resulting live shows to accompany the Dry Goods LP will fill the LCD Soundsystem shaped hole in your dancing shoes.

The X Collective was launched last year, with music, collaboration and artistic expression at its heart; fronted by singers Jess Kav, Senita and Toshín, a massive collaborative album featuring over 35 contributors is set for release in 2022.

Meanwhile, Clare Sands has released four singles this year to coincide with the seasons, traveling to each province to record with a musician there. The resulting tracks are among the strongest works by any artist this year.

9. Girl group impersonators

Gilla Band (renamed Girl Band) are the most influential act to emerge from Ireland in the past decade and it’s no surprise to see young contenders emerging.

Both Melts and Sprints are highly anticipated for 2022 and are steeped in the sound of the Gilla Band – indeed, both recorded with Gilla Band bassist and producer Daniel Fox.

We’re also starting to see the influence of Fontaines DC – Galway act the Clockworks are acclaimed in the UK and signed to Alan McGee’s latest label, It’s Creation Baby.

10. Songs of the Year

    Conor O'Brien of Villagers
Conor O’Brien of Villagers

Gemma Dunleavy’s “Up De Flats” was released in 2020 but it still resonates.

When she performed it at the It Takes a Village festival in Trabolgan in September, it was joyous. Joined by her family and friends for her headlining performance at the Dublin Academy a month later, you could feel the crowd shaking off 18 months of stagnation. It’s already one of the songs of the decade.

Villagers and Conor O’Brien’s development continues, with fifth album Fever Dreams a beloved affair with lead single “The First Day” a soulful appeal of blissful wonder. Brass shakes your bones.

Galway’s NewDads have become favorites on BBC6 Music’s playlists this year and their brand of sunny slacker pop is infectious. It’s impossible not to let ‘Ladybird’ loop.


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