Connla, according to Northern Irish mythology, was a giant warrior, the son of the Ulster champion Cú Chulainn and the Scottish warrior woman Aife. On his return to Ulster, Cú Chulainn put three geasa on his little boy, and in order to fulfil these he must not turn back, he must never refuse a challenge and must not tell his name. Connla was eventually killed in a battle by Cú Chulainn, not realising that he had slain his only son.
Connla are five exciting young musicians who come from the cities of Derry and Armagh; they met while studying Irish music at Ulster University, becoming friends, playing together and forming a band which highlights their very original work while flying their traditional flag. They won three Irish and American awards for best new group, new group of the year and new artist of the year; Irish Music Magazine predicts: “Consider this your early warning system… there is something serious on the horizon and that creative storm is Connla.” Their independently-produced debut CD, River Waiting, is available now – but there were only a few left by the time that Connla had done their week-long tour of South Wales and England, which consisted of The Drovers Venue in Puncheston and Cwtch Coffee in Pembroke Dock, both Pembrokeshire, the Grand Pavilion and Llandeilo Acoustic at The Angel Hotel. This year, they’re off for a month-long tour of Germany, Scotland and a November tour of Austria.
The band are lovely vocalist and very neat bodhran player Ciara McCafferty, acoustic guitarist Paul Starrett, flute and whistle player Ciaran Carlin and brother and sister Conor and Emer Mallon; Conor plays uilleann pipes and whistles and Emer is extremely adept on the harp. Connla present a heady mix of contemporary tunes and memorable songs, which they perform with joyous fiery energy, tenderness and superb musicianship. The self-composed reels, drifting, light-as-a-feather airs and beautiful, meaningful songs are finely fashioned with youthful enthusiasm and respectful love of Irish music; Ciara and the band tenderly interpret her written songs (‘Moon And Stars’ and the title track of the new album, which she co-wrote with Ciaran) but also the Scottish writer and performer David Francey’s splendid offering, ‘Saints And Sinners’, and the wonderful Mary Dillon’s mesmeric composition ‘The Boatman’, with Ciara’s dreamlike singing – oh, shiver, shiver! Mary, the sister of singer Cara Dillon, was born in Ulster as well; she teaches at St Cecilia’s College in Derry and sings with the traditional band Déanta. The highlight was Ciara’s brilliant reading of American singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Julie’, a song inspired by a conversation between a slave and her mistress during the Civil War; Conor, Emer, Paul and Ciaran just exploded with emotion.
However. it’s Paul’s agility on the guitar, Conor’s admirable uilleann pipes and Ciaran’s wind gymnastics which form the very basis of Connla’s success; with Emer’s tasteful harp accompaniment and Ciara’s ladylike fireworks on the bodhran, this band are destined for greater things. They don’t go down the road of other young bloods, who set any records going with their super-fast playing; their expert and totally assured repertoire proudly sets the standard.
Seann Walsh, comedian of Live At The Apollo fame, was booked into The Grand Pavilion on the same night, but he had enough time to check out Connla’s concert; when last seen, he was standing in the background, enjoying the show, and the sizeable audience were as well. The folks of Porthcawl, Puncheston, Pembroke Dock and Llandeilo have been treated to a spectacular show of musicianship; but the next time Connla come again, it will be their fabulous reputation that puts many bums on seats. This band are really going places.