By STEPHEN WINICK and MAGGIE KRUESI
From its population of more than one and a half million people, Northern Ireland has produced many remarkable musicians, artists and folklorists living and working in the world today. The Library’s Music Division and American Folklife Center presented concerts, lectures and a symposium featuring such notables throughout March, April and May as part of the Rediscover Northern Ireland Program sponsored jointly with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Launched at the Northern Ireland Bureau’s St. Patrick’s Day event on March 15, 2007, the Rediscover Northern Ireland program included more than 40 cultural events highlighting the region’s trade and business, arts and culture, tourism and education. The program is anchored by Northern Ireland’s participation in the 2007 Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival from June 27 to July 28 on the National Mall. Some 160 of the region’s musicians, storytellers, craftspeople, chefs and cultural experts were on hand to share their traditions with festival-goers. For more information about the Rediscover Northern Ireland Program, visit www.rediscoverni.com.
Ballads, stories and the sound of bagpipes lightened lunch hours this spring when the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC) and Music Division hosted a number of events featuring performers, scholars and lecturers from Northern Ireland.
The events formed part of the Rediscover Northern Ireland Program, a larger initiative of the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Through this program, Northern Ireland’s culture was in the spotlight in Washington, D.C., with concerts, plays, exhibits and a featured place at the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
“It’s especially gratifying to be celebrating the traditional culture of Northern Ireland at such a momentous time in the country’s political history,” AFC Director Peggy Bulger commented.
Bulger was referring to the recent historic formation of a Sinn Fein/Democratic Unionist Party power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, considered by many to be the definitive and long-awaited fruition of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Kicking off the Library’s schedule of events was a March 23 concert featuring pianist Barry Douglas and his orchestra Camerata Ireland. The program included works by Mozart and Beethoven, along with the world premiere of a newly commissioned work, “The Magnificent Peak” (“An Speic Seoigheach”), by Irish composer David Morris.
On April 27, the Brian Irvine Ensemble performed original works blending jazz, improvisation, classical, pop, punk and rock reminiscent of Frank Zappa, Carl Stalling, the Pistols and Leonard Bernstein.
Unaccompanied singing graced the series on May 9 when Rosie Stewart gave a concert in the Coolidge Auditorium. Stewart, who is from Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh, is among the most distinguished of Irish traditional singers. Stewart sang several local songs that served as a tribute to her father, Packie McKeaney, who had passed away only two months before Stewart’s visit to Washington. Stewart, whose concert consisted entirely of unaccompanied singing, thrilled listeners with a combination of fascinating historical songs and lighter, more amusing fare.
The former included ballads that derive from the Napoleonic wars, such as “The King’s Shilling” and “Banks of the Nile,” as well as others that detail the Irish people’s struggle to integrate into British and American society, including “Do Me Justice.” Her humorous songs, including older pieces such as “The Rollicking Boys Around Tanderagee” and modern compositions such as “The Errant Apprentice,” kept the audience entertained, as did the stories of her life in Ireland that she told in between songs.
A concert on May 16 featured the McPeake Family, a family band that has been well known in Irish music circles for more than 80 years. During the British and Irish folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, the McPeake Family was an important part of the scene, and their song “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go,” adapted by family patriarch Francis McPeake I from a traditional song of Scottish origin, was a mainstay of the revival.
These days, the family is involved primarily in teaching Irish music at the Francis McPeake School of Music in Belfast. The group that performed at the Library included Francis McPeake III and his son Francis McPeake IV, along with fiddler Mairéad Forde and accordion player Sean O’Kane, faculty members at the school. Both McPeakes sang and played uilleann pipes, the very complex bagpipe typical of Irish traditional music.
In addition, the elder McPeake played tenor banjo and the younger McPeake played tin whistle. They entertained the large Coolidge Auditorium audience with a set of traditional tunes ranging from jigs, reels and hornpipes to laments such as “The Battle of Aughrim,” several songs such as “Fair and Tender Ladies” and, of course, “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go.”
During the concert, the McPeakes and the audience were treated to a special film screening: two songs, performed by the McPeakes at their home in Belfast in 1964 and captured on film by Pete and Toshi Seeger. The footage is now part of the Pete and Toshi Seeger Film Collection, acquired by AFC in 2003.
May 23 was a special day for Dáithí Sproule, a singer and guitarist from Derry city, who has been living in the United States for many years. It was, in fact, Sproule’s birthday, and his concert at the Library of Congress marked the first time he had ever been asked to perform anywhere specifically because he is from Northern Ireland.
Even before he left Ireland for America, Sproule had mainly played in bands associated with Donegal and with Dublin, both parts of the Republic of Ireland. Once he arrived in the United States, he continued to play with many important groups, including Trian and, most famously, Altan, with whom he still performs. At the Library, Sproule played a solo set, in which his sweet singing voice and delicate guitar playing were applied to traditional songs in both Irish and English.
Joining Sproule on the bill was highland bagpipe player Robert Watt, one of the best young pipers in the world, who comes from the Northern Ireland town of Maghera, Co. Derry. Dressed in full highland regalia, including kilt and sporran (but without the sgian dubh, or ceremonial dagger, which would have been deemed a security risk on Capitol Hill), Watt took the stage for a rousing series of marches, jigs, reels and strathspeys.
Since the pipes are primarily used in military bands and for dance tunes, this is the typical music of the pipes. But Watt also played some of the less typical and more difficult music associated with the instrument, known as Piobaireachd, a form of classical pipe music, providing the audience a glimpse of one of the more unusual traditions in Celtic music. The combination of gentle ballads and martial bagpipes proved very popular with the audience.
The Library’s series of lectures on Northern Ireland began on May 2, with a talk by John Moulden, one of Ireland’s leading authorities on traditional song. Moulden’s talk highlighted one of the Library’s most important collections relating to the traditional music of Northern Ireland: the Sam Henry Collection.
Moulden discussed Henry’s background, his field methods and his approach to collecting. In 1942, Henry donated to the Library a complete copy of his manuscript “Songs of the People: The Ancient Music of Ireland,” containing 836 folksongs that Henry had published in newspaper columns in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. This treasure trove, which was published in book form in 1978, remains the largest collection of Irish songs ever published. The manuscript (which resides in the Music Division), contains words and notation in tonic sol-fa, a form of music notation that uses the characters on an ordinary typewriter keyboard. Moulden surprised the audience with his a cappella renditions of two songs from the collection.
“All Through the North, As I Walked Forth” was the title for the May 16 symposium on Northern Ireland’s place-names, folklife and landscape. (See story on page 187.) Speakers included Edward Redmond of the Library’s Geography and Map Division; Kay Muhr, senior research fellow of the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project in Irish and Celtic Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast; and Henry Glassie, a professor of folklore at Indiana University.
The final event of the program was a May 29 lecture and performance by two scholars and musicians who are also longtime friends. The fact that Brian Mullen is a Catholic from Derry and Gary Hastings is an Anglican priest from Belfast has not prevented them from maintaining their friendship, or from speaking about the culture that unites both sides of the well-known Catholic/Protestant divide in Northern Ireland.
Hastings discussed the tradition of the lambeg drum, a very large bass drum typically used by Protestant groups to march through Catholic neighborhoods, intimidating the local residents with the sheer volume of their sound. Hastings showed that the drum has precedents in both Catholic and Protestant communities, and that it developed out of fife-and-drum bands that played folk tunes without denominational associations.
Mullen spoke about the tradition of “Orange Songs,” songs that express the Protestant point of view, extolling Protestant heroes and ridiculing Catholic belief and practice. Despite their divisive subject matter, Mullen showed that they used characteristically Irish verse forms and music—the same types shared by Catholic rebel songs and other Irish folksongs. The point both speakers made was that underneath the divisions in Northern Ireland, the population, whether Protestant or Catholic, has always shared a rich common stock of cultural practices. While these practices have been used to divide communities, they can just as easily be used to unite them. It was an excellent message with which to end the series.
All of the performances and lectures in the series were captured on video and have become a permanent collection in the American Folklife Center. They will be accessible on the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.
In addition, most of the performers and speakers were interviewed extensively by AFC staff members, and the interviews are also part of the collection. This will provide a valuable resource for future generations wishing to enjoy and study the culture of Northern Ireland.
Stephen Winick is a writer and editor in the American Folklife Center. Maggie Kruesi is a cataloger who coordinated the Northern Ireland events for the American Folklife Center. Both are trained folkorists.