Songwriter sets to music the stories of Northern Ireland’s historic buildings

The stories behind some of Northern Ireland’s most treasured historical buildings have been set to music in a project from singer-songwriter Brigid O’Neill.

The Co Down artist will release her new EP Intangible Heritage in January with songs inspired by the old Armagh jail building, Austins department store in Londonderry and the art deco former Bank of Ireland building in Belfast city centre.

Brigid, who is soon to return to Nashville to record a new album, said she had inherited a love of old buildings and heritage from her parents.

The first single from her EP is Sisters Born Here, a ballad inspired by the stories of women who served time in Armagh jail.

Brigid said: “It was a building which held mainly women prisoners from both sides of the divide during the Troubles.

“This song was inspired by a conversation I was lucky enough to have with someone who spent time there.

“She told me how the women shared so much and became so close and used to sing with and to each other at night-time to keep in contact.

“While the song talks about the experiences of the women, ultimately it speaks of the amazing resilience and hope that the women held on to.”

Brigid was commissioned to write a number of songs about landmark Northern Ireland buildings by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 2019. Plans to turn the songs into an album were put on hold when the Covid pandemic struck and lockdown severely affected the music industry.

Instead, Brigid received a grant from the British Council as part of the UK-China Contemporary Culture Festival and was able to record the three songs which feature on her new EP which will be launched at the Out To Lunch Festival in Belfast on January 22 at 4pm.

Like most musicians, Brigid has seen lockdown restrictions end a number of projects and curtail her ability to perform live.

Brigid O’Neill told how the Covid pandemic had a huge impact on the music industry (Brian Morrison/PA)
Brigid O’Neill told how the Covid pandemic had a huge impact on the music industry (Brian Morrison/PA)

She said: “I had a lot of major projects arranged for that year when it began, I had a tour planned and it all went to the wall.

“The income completely dropped, especially for commissioned pieces. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland were very supportive.

“After a while you start to think, if I can’t play live in venues then what can I do?

“I started doing these live sessions from my kitchen. It took a lot of nerve sitting here on my own with the dog, but it became clear quickly that there were an awful lot of people who relied on it.

“A lot of people have since told me those live sessions kept them going through the lockdown.”

Brigid, who describes her style as country-folk with some jazz, said she had always performed as a singer, but it was a visit to Rathlin Island a decade ago which began her journey as a songwriter.

“I went there for a writers’ weekend, even though I wasn’t a writer. But when I was where I wrote my first song.

“I started to write more songs after that and when I played them in sessions it turned out that people kept asking where they could get them.

“I have so much material now that I don’t put covers into my sets. You inhabit your own songs, you know and mean every word and that comes across in a performance.”

With a return to live performances now possible, Brigid is looking forward to a number of projects in the new year.

“As well as the Out To Lunch Festival, I will be going out to Nashville soon to release a new album.

“After that I am expecting to be doing lots of gigs and touring. It could be my busiest year ever.”