It’s hard to tell or recognise a classic when it plays before your eyes, but Clannad had the good fortune of recording with Bono, so they must have had a strong idea of what was what. And the finished result is one that carries a power of strength and fortitude that understands the geography of the track in question. The finished tune, ‘In A Lifetime’, was recorded by Clannad, a family output from Donegal, who were best known for the startling ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’, recorded almost entirely in the Irish language itself.
Their horizons were widening, and they felt confident enough in their abilities to work with a singer of Bono’s calibre by the time they recorded ‘In A Lifetime’. They were a family unit, no hollow metaphor, but a signifier of their place as a family of artists. The band consisted of siblings Ciarán, Pól, and Moya Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan (Enya Brennan, yes that Enya, was briefly a member of the group, although she felt the need to find her own path, which she still leads to this day.)
They were a lo-fi pastoral band from the north of Ireland who were determined to bring the mysteries of life into the forefront, by channelling the songs and tapestries of their forefathers.U2 came a world away from that, having grown up in Dublin on a diet of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Who.
Paul Hewson was nicknamed ‘Bono’ on account of his strong vocal prowess, and he was adept at trying out new styles of singing. When he enters on the song, it’s like the sound of a God thundering in, swinging his way for battle, by summoning a vocal from the ground beneath his feet.
“He just walked in the studio and improvised his vocal in 2 takes, making up a lot of lyrics on the spot,” Clannad singer Maire Brennan remembered. “The whole thing took about 10 minutes. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in a studio.” Bono fits the milieu in question, and although he isn’t an Irish speaker – ‘An Cat Dubh’ aside, U2 aren’t thought to have recorded any songs in their island’s vernacular – he acquits himself nicely to the pronunciation in question.
The video was shot in the band’s hometown of Gweedore, bringing viewers back to the 1930s, as village people walk in the clothing of the era, wrapping themselves in the cloaks, in the hopes of battling off the breeze of the world around them.
It’s a deeply evocative video, creating a sense of geography and purpose in the Ulster that remains unconquered as of the time of print. The video highlighted the Ulster region that was part of the Republic of Ireland, as the neighbouring areas delved into an entirely different way of working and culture. And yet the greenery, mythology and form of singing has united the two Ireland’s as one island, incorporating a sense of property in the world around them.
Bono lets his rock voice guide him through the poetry, centring on the land he knew little about. U2 were in a process of re-discovering Ireland by the mid-1980s, particularly with The Unforgettable Fire, which was recorded in the middle of a castle in Leinster, free from the trappings of a studio in London. Having returned to nature, he was creating a more striking vocal performance, jumping from the natural habitat into a more natural abyss, where the world in question surrounded the band to allow them to embrace their inner animal.
As it happened, the voices that built the island that seep into the recording are the shackles of the ancestors who helped create the mythology. Music needs a great purpose in order to realise its potential and possibility. And in the main impetus of the recording, Bono showed that he could work outside of the U2 bandwidth to create compelling vocal demonstrations. His voice melds nicely with Maire Brennan’s, and the two vocals slide in and out of the work to create a more impressive vocal choreography. Tellingly, the two vocalists have their backs turned against each other, guided by the power of their partner’s timbre.