Traditional music fans tour Ireland for film

Film maker Maarten Roos and cellist Ilse de Ziah have produced a feature length documentary called Living the Tradition, an enchanting journey into old Irish airs. It was a labour of love that saw them travelling all over Ireland gathering material.


Here is their story.

In December 2012 filmmaker Maarten Roos was looking for Irish music for cello. His search led him to discover the website of cellist Ilse de Ziah from Ireland. Ilse has arranged, composed and published a CD and book of Ten Irish Airs for Solo Cello. Just over a year later, Ilse and Maarten have released their feature length documentary film, Living the Tradition, an enchanting journey into old Irish airs based on Ilseʼs work.

Maarten, a scientist in a previous career, has been making films since 2006. The themes of his films mostly relate to science, but music is his great passion. Film and music are deeply intertwined and it has been a very strong component in all of Maartenʼs work. Living the Tradition is his first film entirely dedicated to music.

Ilse, Australian with Irish roots, has been living in Ireland for 12 years. She has a deep connection to Irish traditional music and when she looked for arrangements for her instrument, the cello, she found few. Thus her decision some years ago to make her own arrangements and compositions, which resulted in her CD and book Irish Airs for Solo Cello.

Ilse de Ziah
Ilse de Ziah

She published the music along with her research of the stories and histories behind each of the tunes. What a rich treasure she found!

When Maarten heard Ilseʼs arrangements and read the background of the tunes, he was hooked by the beauty of the music and intrigued by the stories. It was clear to him that this could make a unique film project.

In May 2013 Ilse and Maarten launched a crowd funding project to realise their film project. They called it Living the Tradition, based on the expression “a living tradition”, turning the adjective

“living” into a verb. After all, those who perform traditional music, do become a primary source and are thus actively bringing the music to life. One of the airs in Ilseʼs book is her original in the style of the slow airs.

The idea for the project was to go around Ireland on a tour to visit the places related to the origins of each of the Airs and perform, record and film them on location. In addition, the team would find out more about the origins of each tune by visiting and interviewing people who are knowledgeable about them.

Thanks to the supporters from the crowd funding campaign enough funds were raised to go ahead with the plan. During the last two weeks of August 2013 Ilse and Maarten drove 2000 km across Ireland and Northern Ireland in search for the origins of the music.

On their tour they visited Siobhán Armstrong, chair of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. She talked about the air Aisling an Óigfhir (The Young Manʼs Dream) and played the oldest written version of it on her traditional Irish harp.

Séan-nos singer Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire, Head of School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the National University of Ireland Galway, sang A Stór mo Chroí (Treasure of my Heart) and explained its complex history.


They met with traditional fiddle player Matt Cranitch at the University College Cork. He talked about and performed Amhrán na Leabhar (Song of the Books). Composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin took the team through the fascinating sonic and poetic history of the song Éamonn a ́Chnuíc (Ned of the Hill). Ilse and Maarten were also received at the house of the McClean family, traditional musicians from Bangor, near Belfast, to learn more about and hear their interpretation of the song Carrickfergus.

Apart from the planned interviews there were a few totally unexpected encounters with people along the way, which added a truly enchanting dimension to the whole journey. For the air Fanny Power, Ilse and Maarten searched for the location of the 18th century ruins of the house of the Power family, in Coorheen, Loughrea, Co. Galway.

They ran into farmer Peter Kelly, on whose land the ruins once stood! This location has been
completely forgotten except by very few. Also, a chance meeting with the Countess of Dunraven led them to the grave of Tomás Ruah Ó Suilleabhain (d.1848), the poet of Amhrán na Leabhar, and Ilse played the Air by his grave.

The Countess also had interesting information about the actual books that were lost and which are lamented in the song.

Irish Airs
Irish Airs

Filming outdoors in Ireland, where the saying “four seasons in a day” is definitely true, is not an easy task. Luckily the weather did collaborate in most cases, even though for one of the airs a creative solution had to be made to bypass the rain.

llse and Maarten filmed two of the airs at sunrise. One of them on Cape Clear Island, Ireland’s southern most inhabited island. The effort of waking before dawn, climbing steeps hills in the dark through high grasses with heavy equipment paid off: a breathtaking recording, in terms of image and Ilseʼs performance of the air Cape Clear has become the opening scene of the film.

The film finishes at a small beach in County Cork, which is the inspiration for the final air, Inch Strand, that Ilse composed herself.

The film has grown into a feature length documentary (96 minutes). It is a unique journey around Ireland, combining Irish landscapes, traditional music, meeting with local people and trips into the past.

Ilse and Maarten are submitting the film to film festivals around the world. Several public broadcasters have also shown interest.

The film is available on DVD from the website at, where the trailer can be viewed. The box contains 2 discs, one with the full film and another with the music videos of each of the airs and the full performances by the other musicians.

Categorized as Blog

By Michael Kehoe

Michael Kehoe is a writer for Irish Music Daily and Ireland Calling. His favourite Irish Music bands are Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys.