RESONANCE Connection and Catharsis: Lankum’s “Between the Earth and Sky” By Mike McGrath-Bryan · Illustration by Luis Mazon · November 22, 2023

I couldn’t tell you exactly how and when I’d heard of the band that became Lankum, the (rightly) un-Google-able Lynched. I suppose the moment that stands out in my decaying memory is the 2014 release of self-penned ballad “Cold Old Fire,” a smoldering lament for the lacerating injustices and lasting hurts at the sharp end of the post-2008 austerity that disproportionately afflicted the Irish working class. It quickly took its place on a shallow mantle of songs that properly addressed the issue and succinctly foreshadowed an emergent phenomenon.

Lankum are a four-piece folk group from Dublin, Ireland, comprised of brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch; Radie Peat; and Cormac MacDiarmada, all of whom are multi-instrumentalists, and have shared vocal duties across the band’s discography. Their work takes threads of the vast and complex Irish musical tradition, as well as those of its close relatives, and weaves them with those of a contemporary sensibility initially partly informed by the Lynchs’ experiences as part of Ireland’s small but feverish DIY underground in punk, crust, and black metal bands like The Dagda and Sodb, and latterly by an exploration of broader sonic horizons, including evocations of contemporary composition and the avant-garde.

Avid song collectors and keenly honed folk songwriters, the band’s work has resonated with a generation of Irish people for their aforementioned marriage of tradition and modernity. In that respect, they expand upon the work, legacy, and cultural contributions of the likes of composer/arranger Seán Ó Riada and subsequent revivalist groups like Planxty and The Bothy Band by placing sometimes centuries-old compositions in current sonic and sociopolitical contexts through radical reimaginings, and further helping generations of Irish people conceive of a distinct Irish musical voice amid their respective waves of domestic and international tumult.

But they have also added in no small way to the established canon with a brace of original compositions that further their mission of connecting a living and breathing tradition with the condition of existing in Ireland’s near-surreal localization of late-stage capitalism, often empathetically drawing connections between historic oppression and current inequalities, hurts, paranoias, and ultimately, catharsis.

I can tell you the exact second that I made that connection with their music. It was pressing play on a pre-release listen to “What Will We Do When We Have No Money?” the band’s rendition of a traditional piece as arranged by Irish Traveller singer Mary Delaney. It’s a monolithic moment that functions as the opening track of their second album, and the first since their re-monikering, 2017’s Between the Earth and Sky.

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Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority, Travellers, also referred to as Mincéirí or an lucht siúil, to this day face generational social, cultural, and infrastructural inequality, much of which has roots in centuries of isolation from “settled” Irish culture, including attempts by the Irish State to assimilate the Traveller population from the late 1950s, and the effective criminalization of the nomadism at the heart of its culture. It is a profound sadness that only in comparatively recent times has their role in preserving Irish songs and stories been recognized and respected.

Lankum’s rendition of the song begins with a titanic, treacle-thick drone that not so much oozes, as inches agonizingly forth, from the lowest reaches of the bellows of an uilleann pipe—an immediate tone-setter for the band’s intent to physically test the temporal bounds between the tradition as widely understood by generations of Irish people and the diaspora, and the curiosity and hope at the heart of sonic experimentation.

Radie Peat’s vocals, seemingly summoned from some other plane in stark contrast to the grounding of the song-long note underpinning them, easily carry, with a quality akin to the buoyancy of the pipes’ upper reaches, the song’s intent. Speaking both to the existential uncertainty of poverty and the irrepressible instinct to survive, and aided at the end of every refrain by a building set of gentle vocal harmonies, the song concludes at a single, simple resolution.

It helps the band establish, for the benefit of a new ear, the ground into which they have placed their sonic roots, and conveys the conviction with which they have been placed, into the deepest earth, sinking into the soft heart’s core of history and experience. From there, over the course of a front-to-back listen to Between the Earth and Sky, Lankum reach toward the hopeful, the infinite: an earnest, empathetic exploration of what it has, is, and will always be, to be Irish, and to be human.

The pace picks up with a rendition of anti-conscription song “Sergeant William Bailey,” written by Peadar Kearney (he of “Amhrán na bhFiann,” the Irish national anthem). The tune glories in the sight of an aging British Army recruiter finding fallow ground in Dublin for boastful, imperialist tales of adventure and conquest, in service of a crown that so many of the city’s young people had viciously rejected. Starting as a mid-paced poke at the dying embers of British imperialism—”For to improve their station, he shouts in high elation/ To come and fight for king and country/ But for all the noise he’s making, the bait they aren’t taking”—the mockery escalates into a full-scale coda pockmarked with military fife-and-drumming.

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It is Lankum at play, tapping with a broad smile into the rebellion and irreverence at the heart of the oft-suppressed Irish condition—a tone reprised later in the record with the first of three original compositions, “Bad Luck to the Rolling Water,” a dancehall-esque number wherein an old man recalls a love lost to the high seas, spinning tales of his paramour’s equal proficiency with drink, her fists, and her way with the ivories before being sweet-talked into the international smuggling trade.

A similar sense of tricksterly good nature could also be accorded to the album’s sole instrumental piece, “The Townie Polka,” looping its spritely, yet somewhat foreboding fiddle melody around an interplay of guitar, pipes, and increasingly murky harmonium. Fitting, considering its close musical relation to “The White Cockade,” a version of which was the calling card of Travelling musician Jimmy Irwin, whose own idiosyncratic rendition of the tune was rumored to be heard on the roads of rural County Donegal late at night, years after his passing.

And it’s perhaps the joy of this record, then, that a listen-through is as easily parsed in historical connection, as it is in sheer feeling, as it is in chronological running order—that complex network of roots, sinking ever-deeper into the forest floor of the personal, national and diaspora psyches, communicating reference, remembrance, revolution and trauma, in turn helping to make fertile ground for a new way of considering our country, what has been salvaged and reconstituted of her tradition, and her ongoing story.

Not that the album preoccupies itself with narrow nationality, though. Far from it; for many, the highlight of the record is the third track “Peat Bog Soldiers,” a rendition of the anti-fascist koan to freedom and hope in the darkest days of human experience, written in concentration camps placed on Lower Saxony’s moorlands amid the horrors of Nazi Germany. Unaccompanied, and sung in four-part harmony, it stands stark against the lush instrumentation and deep rumination found elsewhere on the record, as a simple reminder of the universality of suffering and oppression, the immutable importance of solidarity, and the urgency of maintaining empathy in the face of unending geopolitical tumult.

Nor is the album merely an exercise in interpretation, for that matter—it is in the pair of remaining new compositions that the aforementioned generational connections would be drawn in earnest, and both the album itself, and an appraisal of the band’s wider body of work, begins to take wing.

“Déanta in Éirinn,” written and sung by Ian Lynch, speaks to the immediate frustrations of life in post-recession Ireland as an ominous low-end drone is joined by gently gathering string-borne discord around him—”Well, oft-times we grumble, and oft-times we groan, and oft-times we sit and we whinge and we moan/ Of how our sons and daughters are forced to leave home, and bid farewell to auld Éireann”—before bemoaning the placidity of mainstream Irish discourse, and a contemporary dearth of anti-austerity action.

The self-examination extends to shame around wider perceptions of our historic heroics in the face of its consequences, questions of emigrant identity abroad, and the machinations of the Republic’s rusting machines of political conservatism and end-stage capitalism—the latter of which is particularly satisfying, even if a nearly-inevitable pimps-and-whores euphemism comes off as a little well-worn.

But arguably, the emotional crest of the album arrives in “The Granite Gaze,” dedicated in the album’s sleeve notes to the women of Ireland. Further exploring the alienation and detachment of generational injustice and economic austerity, the song evokes cycles of generational complicity and inherited trauma in the State’s abhorrent historic treatment of women, comparing and contrasting the pomp and circumstance of the then-impending visit of Pope Francis to Ireland (remarkable for the sight of the Popemobile sputtering up Dublin streets that were almost empty, bar barely-attended barricades, to a half-empty Phoenix Park) with the silence in which generations of women had to move in order to obtain basic reproductive healthcare, prior to the 2018 repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, legalizing abortion in the country: “And it’s the last gasp of wonder, for a cretin on a throne/ As our daughters sneak away across the foam.”

Once again, the whole enterprise is lifted by Radie Peat, whose voice is brought to a relative simmer against which her justified rage audibly struggles, creating an in-song dynamic that serves to compound the import of her words as a downbeat Irish folk song slowly rises from its crawl into a cerebral, Philip Glass-informed whorl of harmonium and concertina that at once summons and makes crystalline the tumult at the heart of what it is to be Irish: the proud history; the post-colonial questions; the shame and emptiness of cultural and mental dominion; the resolve to identify and pick apart the underpinnings of a system that stops us from being a nation that fulfills the promise of rebellion and cherishes our children equally.

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As if to quiet a tempest of body memory and injustice, then, the final stretch of the album rightly acts as cleanser and thematic revision alike.

“The Turkish Reveille,” a version of Child Ballad “The Sweet Trinity” that taps into a rare Irish version from County Kerry recorded in 1938 and found in the National Folklore Collection, sprawls into storytelling and interpretation, a patient unfurling across its 12 minutes that allows an album listener to gather their breath and their thoughts, as Ian Lynch and Radie Peat’s voices crack and intertwine beautifully around a tale of treachery and mercenary action, again underpinned by those recurring low-end drones, ornamented beautifully with Daragh Lynch’s sparsely-picked acoustic guitar, in general, an exemplar of modern traditional accompaniment on the instrument.

That wider eye on the shared cross-pollination of tradition and song collection helps wind the album to its majestic close, with the group choosing to resurrect a song that, while agreed to have been penned in Ireland, was largely forgotten, bar its endurance in the Appalachian regions of America, where many Irish emigrés settled and placed roots. “Willow Garden,” the band’s version of “Down in the Willow Garden” or “Rose Connolly,” draws its lyrics equally from passing phrases noted by 19th-century academics, and couplets that were handed down across generations in the Kentucky mountains—the latter of which also leaves its sonic mark on this rendition, with Cormac MacDiarmada’s fiddles bearing the slightest hints of bluegrass in pacing the album to a fitting end, the song’s protagonist bemoaning his fate at being executed for the murder of his lover: “They are going to stretch me up/ Between the earth and sky.”

Lankum’s tangible reverence for the awe-inspiring breadth of expression and documentarian spirit that forms our musical tradition is matched by their desire to move the feelings, ideas, and instrumentation of Irish music into the avant-garde of the present—pushing at the very boundaries of the former, to (sometimes quite physically) wrestle them into something challenging, both to gatekeeping arch-conservatism, and the soft, silly ideas of a commercial, export-ready Irishness built to cynically tap that same alienation in generations of Irish diaspora.

Their Trojan work in helping a generation find and contextualize a cultural ground lost amid postcolonial shame and end-capitalist distraction is one thing. But in creating and interpreting with empathy and catharsis, Lankum’s Between the Earth and Sky transcends mere personal importance, or even enduring taste. Because while that ground, into which those roots have sunk and entangled, is that of a rich, shared historical and cultural inheritance for Ireland and all who love her, what has grown from them stands as sturdy and distinctly as an oak, reaching skyward, to a future that has still only begun to unfold.

Mike McGrath-Bryan is a journalist and features writer from Cork, Ireland. He’s a staff features journalist at The Irish Examiner; writes about local independent music for Cork daily metro The Echo; and occasionally keeps radio mics warm at state broadcaster Raidió Telefís Éireann. He has previously written for Drowned In Sound,, The Thin Air, Alternative Ulster, and other Irish and international outlets; has made radio and podcasts for Cork’s RedFM and Dublin Digital Radio among others; and has served as a judge at Ireland’s national music awards, the RTÉ Choice Music Prize. This is his first piece for Bandcamp Daily. Find him on his website, Instagram, Mastodon, and Bluesky.

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