Bernadette, Huartan & Shamrocks at the White House

March 17, 2024

Artwork: Frances Smyth

The new record by Huartan is called ‘Fiáin’. It is a protest tune that revisits ‘The Foggy Dew’ and the revolutionary sentiments of Easter 1916. Now, it has electronic beats and a cut-up speech from activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, addressing the National Demonstration for Palestine in Dublin, January 13.

Her words are piercing and direct. She is outraged at the actions of the Israel Defence Force in Gaza. She calls it genocide and she laments the many breaches of the United Nations Charter. Also, she is furious at the Irish parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – for not contesting the actions in the way that the South African government has done. Further, Bernadette condemns Sinn Féin, “a government in waiting” and wants their leader, Mary Lou McDonald, to “step up to the plate, now.” Palestine, she says, is a litmus test for our conscience.  

Still from ‘Fiáin’ video.

She is aware that St Patrick’s Day is looming and that traditionally, Irish leaders fly to Washington to meet their American counterparts and wear the green. This, says Bernadette, would be appalling. Joe Biden, she reckons, is “an enabler of genocide”. And then she delivers the throwdown that has become an essential part of Irish debate in the run-up to March 17:

“Who in their right mind, on the national day of a country that freed itself from oppression, would go to America and hand the bastard a bunch of feckin shamrock?”

Stiofán Ó Luachráin from the music group Huartan is a regular feature at marches and pro-Palestinian events. He had travelled to Dublin for the January 13 rally and he witnessed that resonant speech.

“Bernadette is always someone I’ve always admired and wanted to sample,” he says. “Something that I like to do artistically, is to take things… big role models like her have already said it, so why not put it on the platform of music and try to uplift it in some way?”

He was in a meeting of Irish Artists for Palestine when someone suggested making a dance tune that featured a a drop of the Bernadette quotes. This was exactly his thoughts. So he put together the track in haste and then sought out permission for the use. He knew the trad singer Pauline Scanlon, who was friends with Bernadette’s daughter, Deirdre. The word came back. She liked it.

“So that was a good endorsement – all I needed. They’ve been very supportive, I must say.”

Huartan: Catríona Ní Ghribín, Stiofán Ó Luachráin, Miadhachlughain O’Donnell. Photo: Stu Bailie

The Washington schedules have been a pressure point in recent weeks. It has been one of a few points of division in the Ceasefire Now rallies. Sinn Féin’s position has been challenged and speeches have been heckled. Stiofán recognises this.

“I’m aware of it, yeah. It speaks to two different perspectives. Sinn Féin have a position that it’s better to go over and deliver a message, face-to-face. A lot of their supporters go along with that. I hear that position but I completely disagree with it. It’s a bit of a cop-out. I think if you’re gonna be genuinely sat in solidarity with Palestinians, then you need to listen to what they’re asking for. And overwhelmingly, the BDS movement are calling for politicians to boycott it. We also circulated a letter – we have 20+ signatories of civil society groups in Palestine outside of BDS, as well as BADIL, who represent a further 42 civil society groups. So they’re all endorsing a boycott.

“As well as that, the whole Palestinian solidarity movement here is unified behind a boycott. All of the solidarity groups. The strongest possible message we could deliver to Americans is that we’re not going to continue with business as usual.

“There’s nothing worse than genocide. So if that’s not where you join the line –­ even symbolically going over there and shaking his hand, just going through this ceremony and offering him our legitimacy, that we’re ok with this. I don’t know what private conversations might happen. Maybe they’ll come out with some very strong statement or whatever. But what the eyes of the world will see is the Irish, happy to continue with business as usual. So I feel like we really need to persuade our politicians as best we can not to do that.

“I name Sinn Féin here because for us in the north particularly, that’s the party who are going to go over and interface with them. Personally it’s the tradition that I’ve come from, in terms of my family background. So I feel entitled to call them out a little bit on it.”

Still from ‘Fiáin’ video

Stiofán is aware that the Irish music community has taken the argument to the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. Twelve acts, including Kneecap and Enola Gay, removed themselves from the official programme, citing the involvement of the US military industrial complex in the business of SXSW.

“It’s unbelievable. They’re setting a really good example, what the Irish position is. Boycott is a legitimate form of protest – we’re not gonna participate is something that’s supporting a genocide. They’re setting an example to our political class, in terms of an appropriate position to take on this. So I have a lot of time and respect to all those artists.”

SXSW has previously been an important platform for a young band. It’s the chance to meet an international audience of media and industry people. The acts that have snubbed SXSW have missed chances and taken on the burden of travel and logistical expenses that will not be recouped. Stiofán nods.

“It’s a huge opportunity for so many people and it is a sacrifice. But I’ve heard a few Palestinian speakers say that solidarity requires sacrifice. It’s not just showing up. What are you willing to sacrifice for this thing that you believe in? That’s what these artists are doing, they’re making a sacrifice. Financial, obviously. But also even in terms of self-promotion. But this is worth it. So I applaud them for it.”

Catríona Ní Ghribín Photo: Stu Bailie

Huartan is Catríona Ní Ghribín, who sings and plays accordion plus Miadhachlughain O’Donnell (aka Múlú) the flute player and vocalist. They are award-winning artists with deep roots in the trad scene. Stiofán also the plays the flute and engages with the ‘tradtronica’ mission to combine dance rhythms with shamanism, masks, ogham script plus the mythology of the hawthorn and síogaí magic.

In February, Huartan won an award – Nuatheachtaí na Bliana ­– best newcomers in the Gradaim NÓS night for Irish language artists. The award was presented in memory of Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí, the broadcaster and language enthusiast who died last September. This made the award even more meaningful. Rónán had invited Stiofán’s previous band, Owenvara, to play their debut at one of his Cabaret Craiceáilte nights in 2018. It was the same gig that witnessed the first show by Kneecap.

“To win that award was different it was quite emotional. Rónán was a bit of a revolutionary, so he would have enjoyed that kind of slant on our music as well.”

Stiofán Ó Luachráin outside the BBC, 20.01.24. Photo: Stu Bailie

Stiofán’s grandmother grew up in the west coast of Donegal and didn’t speak English until she relocated to Belfast. As a boy, he spoke with her in her native language, but later he fell out of practice. Now he is part of an Irish language resurgence. Part of the movement’s vitality is the campaign for language rights that was guaranteed in the Good Friday Agreement but had been willfully stalled at Stormont. This prompted the formation of An Dream Dearg and a series of demonstrations that culminated with a massive walk on 21 May, 2022 – An Lá Dearg.

“That was a huge moment for me. I wrote a tune after it called ‘17,000’, ’cause (that was the number of people who were out that day. With the Irish language, I feel there’s been an explosion in the amount of people wanting to engage with that aspect of our culture and I’m included in that. We also have been hooking up with An Dream Dearg in a number of our campaigns to call for the expulsion of the (Israel) ambassador and for the boycott. They have been very forward in offering their resources and help. Just getting people out. The marches and the leafleting.”

Stiofán feels that the Huartan mission is becoming realised during these intense times.

“I love playing music and participating in music and creating music, but I also appreciate how music can deliver a very potent message. Especially in the world that we live in, it’s important to try and share messages that would try to inspire people to strive for something better. Or even to be angry at the present condition of things and want to change things. I’m not a great lyricist or anything. There are so many people out there who are saying these things, and that brings me back to the track. If I can just take and uplift these things that other people are saying, yep. that’s the one. And share it with more people, I’d be happy doing that moving forward.”


Stuart Bailie

Fiáin is available on Bandcamp. You can see the video here.


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