- 02 Feb 24
The Nothing Compares event, hosted by Laura Whitmore, featured life-affirming performances from Imelda May, Camille O’Sullivan, HamsandwicH, Roisin El Cherif, Nell Mescal and Niamh Regan – as well as powerful readings from the First Woman of Ireland, Sabina Higgins.
Irish music has always been shaped by trailblazing women – and last night's Nothing Compares concert at the Moat Theatre in Naas, Co. Kildare, provided a crucial opportunity to celebrate and recognise that through empowering performances from a genre-spanning selection of artists, all sharing the stage for one special night. In front of an enraptured room of music fans, appropriately including the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and the First Woman of Ireland, Sabina Higgins, the magic of Brigid's Day was brought to life in song, poetry, and crucial conversations about the state of the world we all share.
Presented by Hot Press and Kildare County Council, the concert was one in a series of Nothing Compares events taking place as part of the Brigid 1500 programme, all of which have placed a special emphasis on celebrating the unique creative spirit of Irish women. In addition to the show at The Moat Theatre, last night also saw Naas play host to a special Q&A (conducted by Hot Press Film Editor Roe McDermott) and screening of Blood Fruit – Sinead O'Brien's superb film about the famous Dunne's Stores workers' strike against apartheid – in St David's Church, as well as music from rising stars Leah Moran and Gemma Cox in the town's nearby Potato Market.
Over at the Moat Theatre, DJ Maria Lawlor was on hand in the foyer to help all arriving guests embrace the spirit of the evening before proceedings officially kicked off – with her joyful tunes even inspiring the Mayor of Kildare County Council to jump behind the decks and give it a go.
With the arrival of the President and First Woman adding another palpable layer of significance and excitement to the evening – and the audience members taking their seats in entranced anticipation of the night's events – internationally renowned presenter and broadcaster Laura Whitmore stepped up as MC. Her effortless warmth and conversation proved crucial throughout the night, weaving together the individual performances into one vibrant tapestry of song and connection.
The first of those performances came courtesy of one of the country's most promising young stars, Nell Mescal. Fresh from her UK tour, it was a homecoming in every sense for the singer-songwriter, who hails from Maynooth in Co. Kildare, and had played a support slot at the Moat Theatre when she was just 16. Her tender, introspective lyrics about the muddled emotions of young love felt particularly suited to the intimate room, as she performed acoustic, stripped-back versions of 'In My Head' and her new single 'Killing Time'.
That raw acoustic energy was also embraced by Galway's Niamh Regan, whose sound embodies the spirit of the contemporary Irish folk scene – reaching into the past, to traditions spawned on these shores and further afield, while also speaking directly to our current reality. In addition to beloved tracks like 'What To Do' and Hemet's 'Save The Day', her vocals and guitar skills were powerfully showcased on brand new track 'Madonna', set to be released next week.
Of course, it would be impossible to dedicate a night to the strength and creativity of women in the world today without addressing the ongoing devastation in Gaza – with Israel's ongoing attack having displaced one million women there, and killed over 27,000 Palestinians.
Over these past few months, Irish-Palestinian singer-songwriter Roisin El Cherif has played a crucial role in helping to articulate this suffering to the Irish people – sharing heartfelt commentary on social media, and penning poignant reflections for Hot Press. Speaking powerfully to the Moat Theatre audience about her family in Gaza, and the inspiring resilience of both the Irish and Palestinian people, she emphasised the strength of that connection with a hauntingly soulful Irish-Arabic medley, made up of Fairouz’s 'Zahrat al-Mada'en' ['Flower of the Cities'] and ‘Siúil A Rún’.
Her performance also included the night's first tribute to the woman who originally inspired the title of the Nothing Compares event series, a whole year ago now, for Brigid's Day 2023: Sinéad O'Connor, who tragically died in July 2023. Inspired by the song's "honesty" and "rawness", Roisin sang one of the most painful songs in Sinéad's discography, '8 Good Reasons', accompanied by keys and bodhrán.
Few artists could fill the profound space Roisin's departure left on the stage quite like Camille O'Sullivan – shifting gears entirely, and bringing us irreverence and heartfelt passion in equal measure. Commanding the stage entirely on her own – aside from a brief appearance by a hula hoop – she once again proved to be the ultimate entertainer, whether performing a capella or alongside a backing track. With an eclectic set ranging from Nick Cave covers to a powerful, stomping rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’, she showcased the thrilling range of her vocals, while also allowing some raucous hilarity and joyful messing to erupt between lines.
Camille ended her set with a tribute to some of the lost icons of Irish music – including Sinéad, Shane MacGowan, Christy Dignam, Bagatelle's Liam Reilly and Luke Kelly, who died 40 years ago this week – in the form of a moving version of 'Haunted', with the lyrics repeated back in tender whispers from the crowd.
Of course, given Brigid's status as the patron saint of poetry, it felt fitting that both Ireland's poet president and Sabina, an accomplished actress and performer of poetry, were seated in the Moat Theatre's front row. But when Sabina took to the stage herself, the room fell into a stunned silence – as the First Woman, deeply moved by the performers who had gone before her, spoke passionately, and with righteous fury, about the "abomination" of war.
After reading an excerpt from ‘Witnessing’ by Alexandra Magearu – a piece, centred around the poem ‘Diaspora’ by Arab-American writer Hala Alyan, that explores "the fragmentation of Palestinian society" by Israeli forces – Sabina spoke about Brigid as "a peacemaker."
“In the icon in the church in Kildare, she’s depicted with her foot on the sword, as an anti-violence statement," Sabina told the room. "She was a diplomat, and intervened in the quarrels and the feuds that arose between the chieftains and the different powers of her time.
“I would imagine that if she were here now, to see her beautiful earth drowning and burning, and the people starving, she would agree that there is no justification for war," she continued. "And that the trillions spent on armaments should and could be spent on ensuring that there is no poverty, and no hunger.”
The night's next performers, HamsandwicH, also included a direct call to the room in their set, urging people to support the phenomenal Irish women making music today: "We're here, and we're ready to be heard," proclaimed Niamh Farrell.
HamsandwicH proved exactly why they've been a prominent force in Irish music for over two decades – showcasing the eclectic range of their sound, from the stunning harmonies of 'All My Blood' from their latest album Magnify, to the brilliant energy of 'Illuminate'.
For the night's final performance, there were few other artists who could capture the multi-faceted essence of Brigid quite as powerfully as Imelda May – from their shared association with poetry, to Imelda's deep, spiritual understanding of Brigid's pagan roots.
Soaking up the vibrations of the room, the Dublin artist's deeply emotional set opened, fittingly, with a reading of the poem she penned for last year's Nothing Compares concert: 'Queen of Ireland', a tribute to Brigid as a "healer" and "leader". Her poem 'Becoming' was another apt choice for the night – celebrating her womanhood in its many forms, as a "mother, daughter, sister, free thinker, activist, writer, boss, singer, sinner, lover, carer, endless beginner, introvert, extrovert – every kind of vert…”
With the audience spellbound by every well-placed word and playful turn of phrase, Imelda went on to showcase the many sides of her own artistry. Accompanied by pianist Sean Gilligan, she moved effortlessly from the jazz-influenced 'Sixth Sense' to Brendan Behan's 'The Laughing Boy' – the latter taken from Mother Of All The Behans, the one-woman show about Kathleen Behan that Imelda's set to star in once again this summer.
Reflecting on love and loss, she went on to share a particularly poignant tribute to Sinéad O'Connor: 'This Is To Mother You' – which, as Imelda pointed out, showcased the late artist's profound, and sometimes overlooked, talents as a songwriter.
However, it wasn't the night's last tribute to Sinéad. Imelda was joined on stage by all of the nights performers, who led the room in a marvellously life-affirming rendition of 'Thank You For Hearing Me' – a song, with its beautifully simple, repeated phrases, that has taken on a multitude of new meanings since the passing of the Irish icon.
Saluting the profound talents of Irish women in the past, present, and into the future, this year's Nothing Compares concert once again served as a crucial reminder of the importance of community and shared connection – as well as the uniquely transcendental and empowering nature of brilliant Irish music. It was a magical night that will surely go down in Irish music lore.
Some of the leading names in Irish music, including Moya Brennan, Loah, Lisa Lambe, The Henry Girls and Brinda Irani, are set to gather in St Brigid's Cathedral in Kildare this Sunday, February 4, for the next event in the Nothing Compares series: She Moves Through The Fair, a sold-out celebration of traditional and contemporary songs about Irish women.