Bronagh Gallagher | Gig Review
Seamus Heaney HomePlace
By Scott Boldt • Photography: Michael Barbour
21 April – it was a Friday and we all gathered to experience some greatness in the form of Bronagh Gallagher in the Helicon. The Helicon is the name of the performance space in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy which celebrates the great man’s life, literature and inspiration. The Helicon is also the name of a mountain in Greece upon which there were two springs which, according to Greek mythology, gave the gift of poetry to any who drank from them. Seamus surely satisfied his thirst from these springs; indeed, Heaney’s final poem from Death of a Naturalist is ‘Mount Helicon’ which opens with. “As a child, they could not keep me from wells”. Likewise, Bronagh Gallagher must have had more than a sip herself, and she told us that as a child, they could not keep her from performing.
With an honesty, openness and vulnerability that defines her, she explained that when she was about 13, she used to prance around in a blue leotard, rehearsing with her ‘boom box’ before the dancing and singing ‘show’ in front of her encouraging parents. With her charming manner and the chats between songs, I felt at times that I was in her sitting room, such was the hearth-like atmosphere she created. And this sense was added to when she pointed out that her parents and best friend were sitting among us.
In music as in life we are often searching for and regularly finding connections, even if only at a subconscious level. You could say that where the greatest number of your own connections meet is where your home is. Friday night was a homecoming; it was the second to last gig of Bronagh’s ‘The Home Key’ tour. Here we were in the HomePlace just down the road from Derry (Bronagh’s home place) on the evening before she was going to return home (to Dublin) for her final concert of the tour. When they were respective teen-agers, both herself and Seamus had a view of Derry’s Bogside and the Brandywell, both had lived in California and have had strong connections with England, and both went on to make Dublin their home.
Bronagh Gallagher spoke of her connection to Seamus Heaney during the concert and went on to relate how she had the privilege of meeting him in London when she was appearing in The National Theatre’s production of War Horse. They really clicked and she has a subsequent letter he sent her framed on her wall in which he describes her as ‘an indomitable Derry woman’. Indomitable is her spirit which expresses itself so strongly and soulfully in her voice as she puts her whole heart and self forward in her music.
This concert featured most of the songs from her latest and third album Gather Your Greatness which is packed with emotion, passion and compassion. On tour, she has mostly been performing with a big band, but the HomePlace show was stripped back and intimate with Bronagh, guitarist Conor Brady and organist Cian Boylan. Nearly all of the 190 seats were sat upon in the Helicon and Bronagh had us with her from the start. Many artists find smaller gigs more daunting and exposing, but Bronagh stepped right up and filled the room with her voice and pleasing presence.
For me, the songs took on more depth and resonance as the show advanced with Bronagh’s humour and stories introducing most of the tunes. The three composed all the songs on the album and they worked together seamlessly throughout the set. I think the highlight for most of us was when Bronagh opened up Heaney’s Opened Ground and read ‘The Ministry of Fear’. It was a poignant moment with a heavy sense of presence. Mr. Heaney once said that he, “… always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward”. It would not be overstating it to say that The Home Key was a moment of music that lifted those gathered in the HomePlace and brought joy and rewards beyond expectation.