A trio of Cork musicians have turned Irish language poetry into more adventurous sounding songs 

B.O.W. making noises as they put a new twist on Irish language poetry for primary school children, writes Don O’Mahony
A trio of Cork musicians have turned Irish language poetry into more adventurous sounding songs 

B.O.W. — Hilary Bow, Cormac O’Connor and Mark Wilkins.

This month saw the release of a unique artistic and musical collaboration between Irish language poet and translator Gabriel Rosenstock and musicians Hilary Bow, Cormac O’Connor and Mark Wilkins. The result is an album titled Cosa Fada recorded by the three musicians under the name of B.O.W., an acronym of their surnames.

Rosenstock’s connection with the band is through Hilary, a relationship that goes back to 2005. Inspired at the time by the French musical outfit Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova interpretations of ’70s and ’80s indie and alternative standards, Cork singer Hilary embarked on making a bossa nova record as Gaeilge. The resulting album, Sean Nova, featured torch songs and jazz standards arranged by leading Irish jazz musician Ronan Guilfoyle and translated by a range of leading Irish language poets.

 Hilary Bow and Mark Wilkins in studio.
Hilary Bow and Mark Wilkins in studio.

“I was always interested in the Irish language,” says Bow. “I wouldn’t have known any of the poets that translated those works for me for Sean Nova. It was really just picking up the phone. I was a stranger to them and they all responded really well. I remember being really chuffed that Máire Mhac an tSaoi was really excited about it. She loved the idea.

“That was my first introduction to any of those poets,” she continues, “and Gabriel was one of them. He translated Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ for me. I think I got their numbers from Aosdána and Poetry Ireland and just rang them up. And it worked really well.”

Through meeting Liam Carson, the director of the Irish language and literature festival IMRAM, at the Sean Nova album launch, Bow’s many performances at IMRAM events have seen her sing Irish language translations of songs by David Bowie, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen that had been crafted by Gabriel Rosenstock.

While those collaborations have been commissioned by IMRAM this latest one saw Rosenstock approach Bow directly and what he had to propose captured the Cork singer’s imagination. Where previous projects saw her sing well-recognised songs, this time around the poet was offering a previously unpublished suite of 16 poems that were written in response to paintings that are in the public domain. Titling the collection Cosa Fada an Lasaire´In (The Long Legs of the Flamingo), Rosenstock conceived them as children’s songs.

Gabriel Rosenstock
Gabriel Rosenstock

“He had a very particular vision,” says Bow, who believes that Rosenstock feels that “a lot of the Irish language songs and material and poetry for kids in primary school were not interesting enough for the older kid. And he could really see that the older kid likes the material to be maybe a bit darker to grab their attention.”

Having secured funding from the Cork City Arts Office and The Council for Gaeltacht Education & Gaelscolaíochta, Bow recruited Mark Wilkins, who she had first met through early ’90s band The Bedroom Convention, and he in turn secured the involvement of producer Cormac O’Connor of The Maple Rooms studio.

Although Rosenstock was pitching his poetry at 8-12-year-olds, B.O.W. soon saw it had scope for a more general audience.

“We had license to make it quite dark,” says Bow. “It was to capture the imagination and the interest of the older primary school kid. And then as we were recording it, as it evolved, we could see some of this stuff would appeal to a really general audience, not kids at all.

“It’s a full suite of 16 songs, but then Mark picked 10 of them for general release and adults.”

Says Wilkins: “I remember one stage when we were recording, Hilary was even thinking this is too mature, the musical ideas. But I thought they sounded excellent. We just let the music come out the way it did. I said to Hilary, look, of the 16 songs there’s 10 of them which I think could be collated on to an album that could appeal to adults as much as kids, and she let me run with that.

“I remember listening back at Cormac’s and thinking this music could actually appeal to adults as well.”

While Rosenstock’s Cosa Fada an Lasairéin is one thing, the 10-track album is titled Cosa Fada because Wilkins felt it rolled off the tongue. For Wilkins this chimes with the simplicity of the poetry.

“Because it was written for kids,” he explains, “it made it easier to translate to music. There was a musicality in the words and a repetitiveness, and I think that it made it easier for a singer to write melodies for or for me as a musician and composer to write musical arrangements for.”

The Cosa Fada album is one part of the project, and as a result of the funding they received, Bow is overseeing a schoolbook for teachers to accompany the full suite of songs.

For her part she particularly enjoyed the collaborative nature of the project.

“I loved the way Gabriel’s words are responding to paintings and then we take them and respond to that,” she enthuses. “I loved that process. I loved the overlapping of it. You know, everybody bringing their own interpretation along the way.”


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