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A Letter From Ireland – May 2015

Driving north from Cincinnati, I’m on my way to Columbus and the 2015 St Patrick’s Day-Shamrock Club’s Family Gathering. Staged in the city’s posh downtown convention centre, it’s a big affair. With two thousand-plus people, each dressed in their best green get-ups, the festive throng will gather around tables of sundry food and drink, all tapping their toes to the strains of live Irish music. Aided by the creative talents of former Shamrock president Patrick Fallon, who ingeniously designed the green, white and orange lighting scheme, the club’s membership will happily keep the party going all through the afternoon.
It will be good to see the Fallon clan again after the recent six-month winter hiatus. I’ll renew friendships, sign some books, pass out copies of IANOhio and ring up a few sales for Fallon’s Irish Imports. In between, we’ll enjoy the odd beer and talk of another coming summer festival season. It’s a great life if you can make a go of it, but I find that more and more difficult to do these days.
Interspersed with eager anticipation and fleeting melancholy thoughts, the two-hour morning journey found me playing some of my favourite CDs…two in particular. The first, was a tribute to Jim McCann, who’d died only days before. For years, Jim enjoyed a fine solo career of writing and singing, all occasionally punctuated with musical performances shared with The Dubliners. Probably, his greatest claim to fame was his recording of Frank and Seán O’Meara’s song, “Grace”, the story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett’s marriage in Kilmainham Gaol on the eve of Joe’s execution in May 1916.
Jim, a Dublin man, had struggled with throat cancer since 2002, but alas, had finally succumbed to the ravages of that damnable disease. In a recently recorded interview, you could hear his once melodic but now raspy voice struggle to retell the story, as he once again spoke of that fateful wedding.
As I listened to Jim’s music, I couldn’t help but think of another Dublin friend, Danny Doyle, who now has forsaken his celebrated musical career because of throat surgery gone awry. It is Danny, who so eloquently places the role of the Irish ballad in its proper context. “I long ago came to understand that the ballads and the history are the same. The ubiquitous balladry sings the stories of those who lived the events, leaving a legacy of poem and song that binds us to our past and country…. Balladry is perhaps better suited than narrative history to explain the driving forces behind events in Irish history, forces sufficiently compelling to send men out with hay-forks in 1798 and poets out with rhetoric in 1916.”
As the stained glass windows and the mosaic artwork found in centuries-old cathedrals once taught an illiterate congregation bible stories, the balladeer’s song retells the old stories of Ireland’s noble though tortured past. Through scores of generations, each imbued with the desire to overcome the Stranger’s oppression, Ireland continues to hold the seeds of a proud people, waiting for the day they’ll sprout anew. Patiently, she nourishes them, repeatedly inspired by the songs of the balladeer.
This is what Danny means when he speaks of the power of balladry. In one of his songs, “The Minstrel Boy” words written long-ago by Thomas Moore, The Doyler carefully weaves the words of Pádraig Pearse’s poem, “The Rebel” into the ballad’s lyrics:
“I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow;
Who have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory of an ancient glory.
My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs.
The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten
Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,
and though gentle, have served churls.”
…………
“And now I speak, being full of vision;
I speak to my people, and I speak in my people’s name to
The masters of my people.
I say to my people that they are holy,
That they are august despite their chains.
That they are greater than those that hold them
And stronger and purer,
That they have but need of courage, and to call on the name of their God,
God the unforgetting, the dear God who loves the people
For whom he died naked, suffering shame.
And I say to my people’s masters: Beware
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people, or that law is stronger than life,
And than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed.
Tyrants…hypocrites…liars!”
Yes, McCann’s, Doyle’s and Pearse’s words continue to inspire. They serve as templates for today’s Irishmen and women to judge their resolve against all that have gone before.
Now happily, I’m able to end this piece with a bit of good news. Here on 1 April, RTÉ announced that the Irish Government finally would buy the Moore Street [Dublin] 1916 Rising site. In its press release, they stated, “The Government has said it is to acquire the national monument site at 14-17 Moore Street. The site was the location of the final council of war of the Leaders of the 1916 Rising, and is where the decision to surrender was made. It is planned to develop the monument as a commemorative centre.”
Pleased beyond what any words can express, I remain yours, Cathal Liam

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