As the tunes went gently round in my head the morning after the concert I was reminded yet again of the particular power of music to both bring people together and to transport us to deep places of memory and emotion.
We were back, live and in the flesh, for our ‘Celebration of Irish Music and Dancing’ at St James’s church, Piccadilly’, a splendid yet intimate venue in the heart of London, and also now the location for a Bridgerton wedding! It was, as it always is, a wonderful bringing together of the generations, from the talented young people of the London Celtic Youth Orchestra and the Holy Family School Choir to the more mature members of the Irish Pensioners Choir. I was touched that the Pensioners Choir began with Danny Boy, and song sheets had kindly been provided so that the audience could sing along. I didn’t need the words. My mum used to sing that song to me as a child and I, in turn, sang it to my children. I recall as well being on a L’Arche event in Portland, Oregon in 1995 and being asked by his Irish wife to sing it on the birthday of a Canadian man, Rosaire. This man, built like a lumberjack, was in floods of tears. It happened to be one of the last songs I sang with my old guitar because it was stolen shortly after. That theft, however, led to a complete stranger giving me his guitar. It’s a hand-made Ovation and it’s the one I use to this day, and the one I was playing at St James’s. One of the songs I sang with it was ‘Fibber McGees’, which I wrote in 2012 after a highly memorable night out in the Belfast music bar of that name. There’s a bit of a story behind the song, and the lyrics below explain it in part. As I said in the introduction to it at the concert, the song is, in a nut-shell, about that particular power that music has to bring people together.
I’d been with Yim Soon at Fibber McGees and it was part of a special trip to Ireland to mark our 20th wedding anniversary. It was very fitting that one of the audience members at St James’s was David Standley, one of two L’Arche priests called David who married us. And in the introduction of the MC to Lucy Winkett’s set it was pointed out that she had sung at our wedding! Lucy did her usual Mary Black tribute and she sang the song which I first heard her sing in 1992 when we were assistants in ‘Cana’, one of the L’Arche houses in Kent. Each time she performs ‘Once in a Very Blue Moon’ I am transported back in time to the living room at Cana, sitting and relaxing in the evening with a motley group of people with and without learning disabilities; and Lucy and I doing a few songs.
In the interval I was approached by Tom, a teacher at St John XXIII Primary School in West London which is one of the schools with whom we are developing an inter-generational project bringing together children and older Irish in faith and friendship. When we visited the school recently I was excited to meet the Deputy Head, Sinead who happens to be from Newry, my mum’s hometown. I mentioned to her that whenever I meet anyone from Newry they always turn out to know someone who knows my Uncle Pat. She promised to make enquiries with her mum. Shortly after that I had a message from Tom to say that Sinead’s family knew my family, but there were no further details. At the concert Tom showed me a text from Sinead saying that she and her mum had been in Dunnes’ in Newry and had bumped into Pat’s sister Eileen (my Aunty Eileen!) and his sister-in-law Margaret (wife of my Uncle John). As they say in Spanish, ‘El mundo es un pañuelo’: the world is a handkerchief.
How appropriate that the meeting should have taken place in Dunnes, a place forever associated for me with childhood holidays in Ireland. At that time there were no Dunnes stores in the North so the trip across the border to Dunnes in Dundalk was like a pilgrimage for my mum and her sisters and my sister and our cousins. In recent years I was introduced to an Irish man in a care home in London who appeared to be very withdrawn and uncommunicative. I asked where he was from and could just about make out the word ‘Dundalk’. “Oh,” I said excitedly, “we used to go shopping in Dunnes there when I was a child.” His face lit up and he became really animated as we chatted about his hometown. Another special Dundalk memory for me is that it was place of my second ever live concert. When we were over in 1980 there happened to be playing at the Imperial Hotel in the town a band which had just burst onto the scene, Dexys Midnight Runners, and I went along with my sister Eileen and our cousin Louise, with us getting a lift down from Newry from our Uncle Joseph. I still remember standing in the darkened ballroom of the hotel as those cool-looking guys in their donkey jackets and wooly hats sang the songs from their just-released debut album, and I remember the ‘stomp, stomp’ of their hit single Geno, and I remember that feeling of entering into an exciting new world.
I’m so grateful for these memories and for the musical soundtrack which plays alongside as I visit and revisit them. I hope that our concert at St James’s will be a source of good musical, and other, memories for those who attended. And I’ll look forward to us creating some new ones next time.
There were people there from Germany, Canada and Dublin
From South Korea, England, and the county of Tyrone
Women from Bulgaria, and Swedish men from Karlstad
They’ve come to share the craic, for in this place you will never be alone
At Fibber McGees on Victoria Street
All the whole world’s there for you to meet
Everyone is welcome, so get on down
Wherever you’re from you can come along
‘cause we’re all singing the same song
United by more than divides us, in a bar in Belfast town.
No-one’s asking what side you’re on, the only flag here is the one for the beer
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or the kind of drum you play
We’ll sing and dance, share our stories, toast our common humanity
With the music and the craic, we’ll be as one at least for today
The band appear at eleven, by which time the place is heaving
They start with the ‘Irish Rover’, slow down for ‘Sweet Sixteen’
The Swedes are swaying next to us; they know the words of every song
They raise their Guinness high, they’re happy to behold this joyful scene