Ríoghnach Connolly has two sides to her. In between songs, the vocalist and multi instrumentalist (and, lest we forget, current holder of the BBC Folk Singer Of The Year title) is a bawdy, welcoming mother goddess who jokes about flatulence in church. As soon as the still of the Union Chapel is pierced by her voice, however, she transforms into a queen. The magnificence of her voice as it plays among the salty updrafts along a remembered Irish coast commands our attention with every lilted note.
The Breath @ Union Chapel
We’ve huddled into the Union Chapel in Islington to see The Breath, Connolly’s duo with guitarist Stuart McCallum. Our coats stay firmly on our backs as we position ourselves under the halogen heaters and the watchful eyes of the bare brick saints high above us. “There’s a few more of you than we expected,” says the Armagh-born, Manchester-based singer and flautist, widening her eyes and taking a sip of water. She gives an impressed whistle. “A lot more of you than we expected…” Her hoarse speaking voice dissolves as the slow distant waves of the pump organ she leans on swell, joined by light seashore guitar chords. We’re transported to the coastline as she hums, and her flute feels like the rays of the dawn. The Breath’s music moves gently between tender silken intimacy and sepia nostalgia, bringing to light images which fade as softly as they appear,. For You feels like a invitation to a photograph of a barely colourised bedroom.
It’s Cliona’s Wave, their song about a siren figure in Irish mythology, that cements how important Connolly’s national and cultural identity is to her. It’s a song of regret, salt and isolation, stunning in it’s world building. A truly admirable feature of The Breath’s sound is how they bring us into their imagination. Connolly sings one song in Donegal Irish, forcing us to appreciate the beauty of the language of her ancestors. Each strum of Land Of My Other is a smoothened thread tying us to a homeland and faces that we’ve never seen. Carry Your Kin is a midnight tribute to the those whose hopes you carry, it’s strength apparent in every quavering note and plucked heartstring. Connolly hums when words alone aren’t enough to express what she feels.
The Breath’s set isn’t as long as they wanted it to be. There’s been “too much shit talk” according to Connolly, but we don’t mind. We could listen to her read the phone book for all we care. Long awaited whiskies in hand, their acoustic version of Harvest could charm saplings to grow and pale flowers to bloom under moonlight. The 55-year-old’s voice isn’t all sweetness though. “We need more howlers in folk,” she declares before ripping into the martial tapping of Lift Your Head. The echoes of that howl bounce around our heads and up to the gothic rafters. The Breath are capable of fire too, which growls and burns through a steadily produced megaphone on numbers like Antwerp, and while we love the ability to close our eyes and float away to a distant plane of existence, it’s the roaring numbers which really showcase what the duo are capable of.
“I’m a terrible capitalist,” giggles Connolly, remembering at the last minute that she should mention that they have an album to sell, but before we go she has ‘another miserable one to send you off with’ to play.
‘Miserable’ isn’t the right word to describe The Breath’s music at all though. While there is sadness around every turn, there’s also love, hope and remembrance. The Breath let the light shine in with their brand of timeless folk and deserve our full appreciation.
Review of The Breath live at the Union Chapel, Islington on 16th October 2023 by Kate Allvey. Photography by Camila Pastorelli.