Ó Bhéal – Irish Film Festival London 2023

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Director: Ciara Nic Chormaic

So Irish Hip-Hop is a thing. Spitting bars either in the Irish language or rapping about Ireland’s housing problems, Hip-Hop is alive and kicking all over Ireland. In many ways, Ciara Nic Chormaic’s documentary is the unofficial sequel to The Job of Songs, a recent film that examined how young people are continuing the long tradition of Irish music. While those musicians looked to the past for inspiration, the four artists in Ó Bhéal have grasped the future by its lapels.

We meet Dublin’s Mory who is the first singer to rap in Irish, his lyrics a call to arms. Oisín Mac from Arklow also raps in Gaelic and we see both of them working on their music and performing gigs. Fehdah is a little different as she combines West African influences with an electronic beat. She collaborates with another musician to create spiritual sounds that seem new and yet timeless.

However, it is Strange Boy who really stands out in this documentary. In his flat cap and glasses Strange Boy seems quiet and unassuming, but when he raps, in English, the backing track is full of Irish beats. We see him in the studio with his producer making the backing track by recording an Irish dancer hitting her shoes against a wooden board as a young man strikes out a rhythm on a bodhrán, a kind of Irish tambourine drum. Rapping over these Irish beats provides a unique sound that merges the present with the past.

The best scene of the film is when Strange Boy performs live in an Irish pub with a traditional Irish band. Here the bodhrán is subtle and instead, the twangy guitars provide the backing track. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does and the song, Sorrow, conjures up a melancholy in the same way that early UK Drill sounded. The lyrics, “Cry with the wind when it wails on the Morrow/ cry just to cry then cry tears of sorrow” seem like an elegy for Ireland itself.

Adding to the sense of despair, Chormaic shoots the whole film in black and white, reminiscent of Anton Corbijn’s videos for Depeche Mode. This monochrome decision works well with the music of Strange Boy, and the footage of the other singers rapping in underground clubs or bars. However, Fehdah’s music is more uplifting and feels more suited to colour.

Running for 70 minutes, perhaps Chormaic’s film is a little too long showcasing just four performers, but it demonstrates how Irish music is modernising without losing its roots. If Hip-Hop still isn’t your thing, check out Radio Clare FM’s Sunday night show The Francis Street Sessions which is a celebration of new Irish music. And the solo work by Strange Boy’s producer, Enda Gallery, is definitely worth seeking out too.

Ó Bhéal is screening at the Irish Film Festival, London 2023.

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Hip-Hop elegy

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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