Friday, March 16, 2012

You Lonely Travelers All

As you can tell from the name, I'm an Irish American. My mother's parents were both straight-off-the-boat Irish, and my dad's family only a generation further than that. So, Ireland and its history and culture still play a significant role in my family's life. And since it's St. Patrick's Day, what better time to discuss the Old Country?

When England colonized northwestern Ireland in the 1600's, the native Irish were chased up into the rocky hills while the colonials took over the fertile lowlands. There, the English built plantations,  constructed dams and ponds, and turned the place into an agricultural engine. One of my grandmother's earliest memories (back during the Colonial period) was being chased by a British landlord's dogs while poaching fish to eat out of a stock pond.

My mom's parents left Ireland for several significant reasons - - not the least of which was that their homes in County Mayo suffered some of the worst violence during both the 1916 revolution and the years that followed. It was really bad stuff - - stuff I've typed and erased three or four times because it's difficult to even think about. Let me give you an idea about how bad things were: my cousin Agnes volunteered to be a nurse in London during World War II because she wanted to be able to watch British soldiers die. Like I said: bad, bad stuff.

Wars end. Things calm down. Today, the stock pond where my grandmother was chased is now owned by my cousins, her great-nephews and great-nieces.  They raise cattle and sheep to sell to the French and the Belgians. There are statues and memorials to family members who perished during The Troubles, but that strife has evaporated over the decades. It's a happy place once again.

I think the turmoil, the anguish, the suffering, and the struggle is what shaped Irish creative endeavors, most notably in Irish ballads and songs. Most of my ancestors were musicians: my grandfathers played the fiddle and the button-box accordion, my dad and my aunts and uncles played the piano, harp and bagpipes. Growing up, I didn't know that there were families who didn't play instruments, and whose houses didn't have live music in them every week. I'm not sure if this is just an "Irish thing," but it always seemed to be so as I grew up. Being able to play a tune or sing a song seems to be as much a part of family life as making a cup of tea or cooking eggs. Music, to me, is what made a house a home, and made people who lived in that home a family.

Hearing live music in the house growing up, I think, made me appreciate the musical talents of others, especially those who can convey emotion in songs. It's not the mastery of an instrument that impresses me - - I've heard clumsy fiddle players who can still bring me to tears by instilling passion in a tune. Sharing music in a home is personal, emotional, and seems to draw people closer together. If you're in a house with someone playing a song on a piano, you'll never feel lonely.

I've meandered about here quite a bit, but let me tie it all up with an example of how music can bind you with others. About three years ago, I had an opportunity to play the fiddle with composer Jay Ungar (he of "Ashokan Farewell" fame). When you play with someone, you get a chance to read their cadences and their playing style, and you attune your own playing to the song they play with you. In playing with Jay Ungar, I learned his bowing style and subdued, easy movements on the strings. So, when I see him playing ensemble in other venues, I can see Jay Ungar playing the same style with other musicians in much the same way he played with our group. It's an odd connection, but if you've played music with someone else, you'll know what I'm talking about. They're links between people that stay with you for a long time. Maybe that's why the Irish play so much music together - - they've scattered across the world, but they keep their connections.

Here's Jay Ungar, his wife Molly, fiddle legend Aly Bain, and Irish singer Mary Black sharing a beautiful song called Farewell, Farewell. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

1 comment:

  1. Happy St. Paddy's day Jimmy! Makes me think deeply about my roots as well. VGMF.