West Ocean String Quartet

Composer and cellist Neil Martin on celebrating his band's tenth birthday. Click Play Audio for a podcast featuring songs from the album Ae Fond Kiss

Any new work from multi-talented, Belfast-based musician and composer Neil Martin is always something to look forward to, not least Ae Fond Kiss, the latest album from Martin’s West Ocean String Quartet.

Following on from virtuoso albums Unwrapping Dreams and The Guiding Moon, Ae Fond Kiss celebrates ten years of the group. 'It’s hard to imagine that a decade has gone by since [band member and fiddle player] Seamus Maguire first suggested the idea to me,' remarks Martin on the eve of the album’s release.

'Seamus always wanted to play in a classical string quartet made up of two violins, a viola and a cello, which would be geared in to the traditional world. After all this time, it’s kind of appropriate that we have recorded this new album for our tenth birthday.' '

The West Ocean String Quartet, which also includes violists Niamh Crowley and Kenneth Rice in its lineup, were, nevertheless, initially careful not to over perform. 'Although we started in 1999, the first album Unwrapping Dreams was not released until 2004,' adds Martin. 'We want to keep it special and we were very determined that we had to learn how to walk before we ran.'

Well known Donegal singer Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill also features on Ae Fond Kiss - the band's first choice to interpret the song cycle 'Oileán na Marbh'. Martin recalls the origins of the song.

'In 2006, the Temple Bar Cultural Trust in Dublin commissioned me to compose a piece and I chose to write about a small island off the west coast of Donegal called Oileán na Marbh. It is a small grassy rock one hundred yards out to sea where, during the 18th and 19th centuries, children who died before baptism were buried.

'Church laws at that time forbad their burial on hallowed ground. I quickly realised that the human voice, and a mother’s voice at that, had to be part of the process. Maighread also comes from that part of west Donegal.' Combining Martin’s music with the haunting voice of Ní Dhomhnaill and the words of poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, the song is an emotional high point on the album.

The title track 'Ae Fond Kiss' reflects Martin's interest in the writings of Scottish poet Robbie Burns. 'I love that whole era of the second half of the 18th century,' Martin enthuses. 'I had this notion that I would loved to have been around then. Of course, I would not - there wouldn’t have been central-heating, or cars or comforts like that!

'But there was a sense of liberty coming into the world then. I love the venacular poerty of the time. Burns wrote some of the most beautiful words that could be easily accessed. This song is perfect for recording as an instrumental.'

Martin also uses this latest album to combine new material with older songs from the West Ocean String Quartet repetoire. His jig 'Packie Bonner’s', is named after the former Republic of Ireland goalkeeper who comes from the Donegal parish where Martin spends much of his time. 'Planxty Stackallan' is dedicated to the memory of a fine evening spent with the Stackallan family in County Meath.

And Ní Dhomhnaill’s version of the County Derry song 'Slieve Gallen Braes' is a reminder of absent friends. 'When I hear it I always think of three great friends, Tony McAuley, Jim Skelly and David Hammond,' comments Martin, 'who have since passed away. It’s an extraordinary song with very beautiful words and the melody still makes me shiver. Whatever it is these traditional airs have, so many of them are crafted to perfection.'

Ae Fond Kiss will be available from the West Ocean String Quartet website after the album is launched on December 28.

Padraig Coyle