Music has a particular power to transport us to another time and place, and one of the songs performed at our St Brigid’s concert had me back in the cosy living-room of a house in a village in East Kent in 1992.
For the second year running the Irish Chaplaincy was hosting a ‘Celebration of Irish music, poetry and dancing’ at St James’ church, Piccadilly and we had assembled an impressive and varied line-up. First on stage were 43 members of the London Celtic youth Orchestra, directed by the amazing Eilish Byrne-Whelehan and they had the audience of several hundred clapping and tapping their feet. They were followed by a host of talented solo singers, dancers and poets; as well as an ensemble, the Luckpenny Ceílí band. There were many special moments, although the highlight for me was the tribute to Mary Black by Lucy Winkett who is Rector of St James.
Lucy and I first met when she came to spend 6 months in the L’Arche Kent community prior to going to theological college (and she describes this time as being one of the two strongest spiritual influences in her life, the other being a 30-day silent Ignatian retreat). Lucy was an assistant in Cana, the L’Arche house in the village of Eythorne (between Canterbury and Dover) where I happened to be the House Leader for three years before I got married at the end of 1992 (and Lucy says she still thinks of me as her boss!). So there we were, sharing life together as part of a group of a dozen or so people with and without learning disabilities and it was a delight to have Lucy there. There was a particular routine in those days. We’d all eat together in the evening around a large wooden table, then go into the living-room for a simple but very intimate time of prayer, during which I’d normally lead a couple of songs that people could join in with easily. Then one time after the prayer Lucy produced her own guitar and sang a song she’d just learnt. I thought ‘oh my God, she sings as well’! It was one of the songs that she’d been listening to on a Mary Black album (and she subsequently learnt all the songs on that LP!). It was ‘Once in a very blue moon’. And it blew me away.
I’d had a similar experience four years earlier when coming for my first visit to L’Arche Kent. I’d arrived at Little Ewell, the big old house in the village of Barfreston, near to Eythorne: the first house of L’Arche in the U.K. when it opened in 1974. I showed up just in time for the evening meal, and I still remember what we ate (food, like music, can invoke strong memories). It was home-made tuna pizza, enjoyed with a group of about twenty people around a very big oval-shaped wooden table, with great banter to go with the delicious food. I was thinking ‘what an interesting bunch of people’. And after the meal we processed into the large dining-room for a simple but incredibly moving time of prayer, after which a guy called Gerry O’Riordan picked up a guitar and sang some James Taylor songs. I knew it was the place for me.
Fast forward to 2020 in St James’ church in the heart of London. Lucy comes on in the second half of the concert, and she’s sitting at the grand piano (a last-minute decision to use that rather than guitar). And she sings the song she sang in the Cana living-room in 1992. And it is so beautiful. I’d shed a few tears already when I’d heard her practice it earlier in the day. She’d asked my advice about what to do as a second number. I’d said “do whatever you like, as long as you do ‘Once in a very blue moon’”! My eyes are dry for the ‘actual’ performance but it’s such a privilege to be surrounded by such goodness. And it’s a privilege as well to finish the concert with a couple of my own songs. I wrote ‘Twenty Years Ago’ for my wonderful wife Yim Soon for our 20th wedding anniversary (and Lucy had sung at our wedding). ‘Fare ye Well’, the final song of the concert, was written for a special L’Arche event in 2012.
I was touched recently when somebody said they liked that I sometimes gave a link to a song in my blogs. So this time I’m going to give a link to not just one but three songs! The first two are what I sang at the concert. The third was written when Little Ewell (the L’Arche house mentioned above) had to close in 2013.
And I hope that Lucy will sing that song again next year!