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The Unthanks give English folk music a new lease of life

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: {J}

The folk tradition will always enjoy a rarefied place in music – after all keeping old songs alive is important. But when a band like The Unthanks come along you realise that the present can breathe new life into the past. The Northumberland-based band, fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky, play Róisín Dubh on Saturday, March 27.

“The band is all just arriving actually so it’s chaos!” says Rachel from her home in England’s North East. “We’re off to South by Southwest [a major showcase music event in Austin, Texas] so we’re gearing up for that. And looking forward to getting back on the road really.”

Music has been part of Rachel’s life since she was a child and she doesn’t have any clear memory of her first attempt at singing.

“I haven’t really got a specific one,” she says. “It would probably be singing in the car with our parents, on the way to festivals and things. To keep us quiet they used to teach us songs. It was folk stuff – singing Rolling Home. Total indoctrination I’m afraid!”

2009’s superb Here’s The Tender Coming was the band’s third album, but the first as The Unthanks. Previously, the group had been known as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset. Rachel explains the reasons behind the name change.

“There’s quite a big age gap – seven and a half years – between me and Becky. When we first started the band I’d been to university and I was thinking about taking singing a bit more seriously. Whereas Becky was just about to go to uni and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

“ [The name] Rachel Unthank and The Winterset was a get-out clause for Becky if she decided that she wanted to go off travelling or whatever,” she adds. “I think it had the reverse effect because she decided that singing was what she loved doing most. Realistically, we’ve both always taken lead vocal so we thought it was about time to reflect that in the band name. And it’s shorter as well!”

Although the traditions of their native North East England can be heard in their music, The Unthanks possess a knack for creating a sound that reaches across genres and countries. This experimentation was acknowledged with a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination in 2008.

“It does just come naturally; it’s the music we love,” says Rachel about their style. “I think we are quite proud to be able to represent our area in songs and music as well. Although, it’s not like we do that in a purist or staunch way but it’s undoubtedly a massive influence on the way we sing. We’re proud to show people that the North East of England has a strong cultural heritage.”

Folk music often reflects the difficult times people found themselves in but it also has its joyous side. So, with their crystalline harmonies, The Unthanks can turn a moving mining song into something that’s uplifting.

“A lot of the songs are not particularly chirpy,” says Rachel. “Some of them are! A lot of the traditional tunes are quite beautiful as well and I think that does summon up the surroundings. The North East is beautiful but it’s also quite wild and stark as well.

“The mining industry and the sea have a massive impact on the songs that come out of the North East. And I think also the Scottish/English borders and the battles that have been fought there.”

The Unthanks are signed to EMI, one of the world’s biggest record labels. Rachel explains how the group came to the major label’s attention.

“I think somebody was at a concert once and I think they just emailed and asked for a CD. Adrian, our manager – who’s now in the band and is my husband – got in touch with Guy Hayden. He’s part of [EMI subsidiary] Real World. We struck up a great relationship with him and he was happy to create a distribution deal with us.”

Many bands are put under pressure when they’re signed to a major label but EMI don’t interfere with The Unthanks’ sound.

“I don’t think we would do it any other way – but to be fair to them, they’ve never suggested that. They’ve been happy to just let us get on with what we do.”

Here’s The Tender Coming features a host of local musicians and a string quartet. It is a warm, expansive record that reveals more after each listen. Was it long in the making?

“It took –I can’t really remember – a period of time over the summer,” says Rachel. “I’ve wiped it out of my mind now – I find it slightly traumatic, recording! I like being in the moment of performing really, I find that easier.”

With seven people in their current touring line up, The Unthanks are able to recreate the lush sound of their albums at their gigs. At the forefront of this are the twin harmonies of the sisters who front the band. Do Becky and Rachel have to do any pre-show warm-ups?

“Our last pianist, Steph Connor, is a trained singer,” says Rachel. “She taught us a few but I think we sometimes forget, really. We just sing in sound check and we practise stuff, and that’s usually what we do to warm up. As well as have a good old chinwag, of course – which we could do all day!”

It is testament to The Unthanks’ appeal that their Galway gig is in a venue that is more accustomed to hosting loud, guitar-driven indie bands.

“We try and mix up our venues quite a lot,” says Rachel. “We’ll do more traditional venues, like art centres and stuff, and then we’ll try and go to city centre venues to make it as easy as possible for different people to come and see us. It does create a different vibe and we really love playing indie venues as well. When people have paid for a ticket, they want to see your music so it usually goes well.”


As the rest of The Unthanks arrive at her house, Rachel reflects the mood of a group who will be on top form when they come to Galway.

“I think the whole band are dying to get back on tour really,” she enthuses. “By the end of a tour you can’t wait to get home and then you can’t wait to out again! The last tour we did was 42 dates and, actually, we were all sad when we got to the end because we had such a great time. We’re looking forward to doing it again.”

The Unthanks play Róisín Dubh on Saturday, March 27. Doors are at 9pm, tickets €18/16 members.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

Judy Murphy



A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.


For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Moment of truth for Galway U21s

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 01-May-2013

 Dara Bradley

FOUR matches, four victories, one after extra-time, a Connacht title, four goals and 56 points scored, four goals and 30 points conceded, a heap of wides from their opponents, sinews strained, buckets of sweat and blood spilled.

It’s been one hell of a roller coaster campaign for the Galway U21 footballers but all that will be forgotten come 7pm on Saturday evening at the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick when they cross swords with Cork for the honour of being crowned Cadbury’s All-Ireland champions.

Six weeks ago as Galway set out on their 2013 U21 journey against Sligo in Tuam, the May Bank Holiday weekend final was always the target. They took each game as it came and now it has come down to this – 60 minutes of football to decide who the best U21 team in the land is.

And while there were times along the way when Alan Flynn’s charges looked like they’d fall off the wagon, against Mayo, against Roscommon and again against Kildare, Galway showed resilience and mental strength to time and again bounce back and defy the odds. Often down, never out. It is that perseverance that will stand to Galway in the heat of battle this weekend.

Cork has won an All-Ireland at this grade more times than any other county since the competition’s inception in the 1960s. The most recent of their 11 titles was won in 2009, and they’ve claimed a three-in-a-row of Munster titles with a defeat of Tipperary last month.

Interestingly, five players – Alan Cronin, Jamie Wall, John O’Rourke, Tom Clancy and Damien Cahalene, the son of former inter-county player Niall – that are expected to start this Saturday lined out in each of the last three Munster finals, so they have experience of playing in the pressure cauldrons.

Galway aren’t as experienced. True, a couple of players already have a All-Ireland medal from 2011 – a year Galway beat Cork in the semi-final – but there are a lot of young guns in the panel. Of the squad of 33, about 19 of them are young enough to play U21 next year as well, while eight or nine of the starting 15 will be eligible next year, although you wouldn’t think it given the levelheadedness they’ve displayed throughout the past six weeks.

Galway had plenty to spare over a hapless Sligo outfit in Tuam the first day out, winning by 16 points, which didn’t flatter them, but old rivals Mayo in the following game at the same venue was a different story. After a tense and tight hour of fare, Galway took the spoils after showing immense character to dig it out by two points in a dogfight, 0-9 to 0-7.

Fighting qualities were needed again in the Connacht final in Hyde Park against Roscommon – Galway were minutes from being knocked out of the championship when a heroic comeback, three points in as many minutes from Kilkerrin/Clonberne’s Shane Walsh, rescued extra-time, a period which Galway never looked like losing.

The Tribesmen took their chances when they presented themselves, a trait that also saw them knock-out Kieran McGeeney’s highly rated and much fancied Kildare outfit in a thriller at Tullamore a fortnight ago.

The Lilywhites were wasteful, true, but that’s their problem, and Galway just had too much natural footballing class to take their chances and emerge with a deserved five points, 2-10 to 2-5 victory, despite 19 wides from the vanquished.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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GalwayÕs U-13 and U-16 sides both through to national finals

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 14-May-2013

Mike Rafferty

It proved to be a very successful weekend for Galway Schoolboy soccer as two representative sides qualified for national finals at the end of the month.

It was drama all the way in Eamonn Deacy Park on Saturday afternoon as the U-13 side drew 1-1 with the Midlands League, but came through the dreaded penalty shootout to prevail by 5-4.


Meanwhile the U-16 side had to travel to Cork, where they emerged 2-1 winners following a very impressive performance. For the second game in succession, it was the goals of the Connolly brothers that proved crucial to both team’s success.

Andrew lines out with the U-16 side and he notched both their scores in terrific away win, while younger brother Aaron was on target for the U-13 side and also converted the winning spot kick.

Mervue United captured a third consecutive Connacht Youth Cup with an impressive 4-1 win over Castlebar Celtic in Milebush on Saturday.


Galway League 1

Midlands League 1

(AET-Galway won 5-4 on pens)

A low scoring contest might indicate few chances, but one has to credit two outstanding defences whose splendid covering and marshalling of the front men was a joy to watch.

Galway’s Oisin McDonagh and Adam Rooney never put a foot wrong in central defence, while full-backs Byron Lydon and Matthew Tierney were equally efficient in defence, and getting forward with regular forays.

Further afield, they matched the visitors in terms of intensity and creativity and in the second half in particular should have pulled away from a Midlands side that won the U-12 national title last year.

The visitors certainly offered the greater attacking threat in the opening half, but found home custodian Mark Greaney in top form. Galway’s best chance fell to Joshua Quinlivan, but he pulled an effort wide of the target.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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