Gavin O'Loghlen & Cotters Bequest,
In the Home of My Ancestors
(Locrian Records, 1997)

I had absolutely no idea to expect when I first pressed play on an album described as "Celtic Folk Australian." Recorded in South Australia by Gavin O'Loghlen and the band Cotters Bequest, the album would probably be a rowdy collection of drinking songs so often associated with the Irish at home and settled abroad.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Given my well-known fondness for rowdy drinking songs, that could have been a bad thing -- but, in this case, I couldn't have been more pleased.

In the Home of My Ancestors is a gorgeous album, described by O'Loghlen as "a musical voyage through the Kingdom on Munster, Ireland, tracing the places, people and events that led to the emigration of my great grandparents." Anyone who knows anything about the history of Ireland's emigrations will know right off that rowdy drinking songs are only called for when it's time to try and forget.

The album is appropriately mournful at times, yet even at the grimmest moments it's layered with touches of optimism, the eternal Celtic spirit that always seems to find hope in the future. Other tracks just beg for dancing in that oh-so-Irish high-footin' way.

While some of the music here sounds traditional, don't believe it. Every lick is written by O'Loghlen (except for one track, where his wife and bandmate Anne Dormer gives him a hand). The man has pulled together an amazingly diverse set of sounds -- at times sounding fresh from the pub, at times sounding like the latest tracks from a hot Irish rock band and at times sounding like something lifted from an appropriately Celtic Hollywood feature soundtrack.

O'Loghlen is a busy man throughout, being credited with vocals and playing the acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars, electric guitars, bass, keyboards, vocoders, programming, Highland pipes, small pipes, low and tin whistles, bodhran, drums and other percussion.

Cotters Bequest holds up its share of the sound as well. The band is Angelee Theodoros on cello and vocals, Stephanie Graeber and Suzannah Graeber on violins, Harry Theodoros on accordion, and Anne Dormer on fretless bass and vocals. They're also joined by Anthony Wilson on didjeridu, Jacqui Yeo on vocals and Jack Brennan on Northumbrian and uilleann pipes. Malachy O'Reilly provides some genuine Irish-accented dialogue and Cait Wallace provided O'Loghlen with the Gaelic translation for some of his lyrics.

The first section of the album is almost a slideshow of O'Loghlen's journey through Ireland. The band pays musical tributes to "An Burren," a somber Gaelic song about the barren area in County Clare where O'Loghlen's ancestor made his living; "In the Mists of Lough Derg," an equally somber portrait of the atmospheric setting, with a particularly strong melody by O'Loghlen on whistle; and "Carraig Chaiseal," a Gaelic tribute to the Rock of Cashel, which went from pagan ceremonial site to Roman fortress to Irish throne to Catholic church, then Protestant church and, lastly, ruin. (Pretty good tourist spot, too.)

Things take a decidedly cheerful turn with "Cloghans," a rocky set of dance tunes honoring the rocky structures once thought to be the remains of a medieval city, but which later turned out to be shelters built in the 1920s for storing and cooling milk. Next, "The Two Donkeys of Sliabhe Elbha" tells the merry tale of, well, financial ruin for a bunch of hapless farmers. But things turn out very nicely for the pair of donkeys left behind! "Gallorus Oratory" is another atmospheric instrumental evoking the worshipful and joyful moods of an ancient stone structure on Dingle Peninsula. (Yes, this one really is as old as they claim!)

"Ballinskelligs Bay" tells the tale of two woeful Irishmen. Not only had the drained their last drops of Guinness, but their cow had taken last place at the Lisdoonvarna Fair. They take decisive action to rectify this wrong before next year's competition, but they didn't wisely check the grazing lands in advance. The last track on this first part of the album is a rollicking instrumental for guitars, bagpipes, violin, keyboard and percussion titled "And the Donkeys Inherit the Earth." Only fitting, I suppose, since they proved pretty smart in their song, but the cow didn't fare so well.

The remaining five tracks are grouped under the heading, "The Famine Suite." Here's where things turn grimmer, as the titles will suggest: "Absentee Landlords 1840," "Blight 1845," "Winter 1847," "Eviction 1849" and "Cork 1854 -- The Voyage." Not as fun as the earlier tracks, to be sure, but every bit as musical and very moving indeed.

These tracks tell the story of O'Loghlen's ancestors. In 1854 his paternal great-great-grandfather, Michael James O'Loghlen, and, 11 years later, his maternal great-grandfather, John Henry Cahill, sailed from Ireland to South Australia after losing their livelihoods to the devastating potato famine. In the Irish way, of course, it ends on an upbeat note as the stricken families travel across the sea to their new home and future.

In the Home of My Ancestors is a triumphant album which accomplishes even more than O'Loghlen intended. While he certainly dominates the album -- and fittingly so, given the intensely personal nature of the journey he captures here -- he's blessed by an excellent group of musicians who support and accent his work at every turn. Extra kudos for excellent liner notes: complete lyrics, personal explanations of each track, some family and Irish-Australian history, and full-color art on every page.

This is worth tracking down. Know any good Australian distributors? If not, contact Locrian Records for a hand.

[ by Tom Knapp ]