On March 11 the Albany Symphony Orchestra rested to make way for a gaggle of Irish musicians, singers and dancers who, lead by the irrepressible Eileen Ivers, thrilled a packed house with every kind of artistic expression for which the Irish are especially famous. This was pure joy and entertainment.
One would hardly realize that it was all born of and developed by centuries of hardship and privation brought by crop failures in the eastern bogs, the primary food source; the worst occurring in the 1840s causing widespread hunger and starvation. To many, the only escape was to leave their beloved land for distant shores. The stage was backlit by an ever changing screen showing scenes that vividly described almost every aspect of life and influence encountered by this people.
In their journeys to find relief and new life in a new world, they did not perforce turn loose their indigenous culture, but kept it and imbibed others cultures with which they came in contact.
Back home, Irish culture continued apace with ever strengthening power despite the loss of so many thousands to other lands, especially to Canada and the United States where freedom and prosperity held such great hopes. Traditional credit lies in the intrepid personality and genius of a single personality: Saint Patrick who Christianized this small island lying, forlornly, to the west of the British United Kingdom and made it Catholic. His feast day on the Church's liturgical calendar has just been celebrated this past Wednesday.
To say that St. Patrick is merely the patron Saint of Ireland is an understatement. His luminosity over the whole panoply of Irish culture is, quite possibly, indescribable. Young men and women reeling under his influence during and since his time have been filling the nation's seminaries, convents and monasteries, then pouring out again in dedicated service to Catholicism in their homeland and throughout the world.
Following the dreadful pogroms of continental Europe beginning with Luther's protest in the 15th century, the subsequent revolts of Henry VIII, Cromwell, et. al., the rise of Calvinism, the competing papacies at Avignon, and Rome, the Inquisition, papal assassinations, and plagues, Continental Catholicism seemed to be dying. The Church finally appealed to Ireland, where isolation from all this had produced a vibrant Church. Ireland answered the call. Its missionary experience in this historic instance developed into the wider world one which we enjoy today. The Georgia Diocese of Savannah and Albany's St. Teresa's Church (under the present pastorate of the Rev. Finbarr P. Stanton) continue to enjoy the Spiritual largesse of the Ireland Church's effort.
The dynamic microcosm of Irish culture was on full display as we traveled with it down The Bog Road and beyond. Clog dancing and the jig by variously costumed dancers "competed" with singers, with instrumentalists playing a tantalizing variety of idiophones (drums, guitars, acoustic and electric violins, electric banjos; all of them virtuosos, playing and singing a broad variety of songs expressing many experiences and affective contacts as they traveled the highways and byways by ship, wagon train, railroad, etc., on their heartbreaking journeys into exile. Acute sensitivity to unfamiliar people and adaptation are trenchantly expressed in songs like "Irish Black Bottom," "Irish in the City," "Appalachian Set," "French -Canadian Set." Heart-rending departures from loved ones by "Emigration," "Farewell My Love."
The passion, bewilderment and joy in this music seemed to meld into one giant outpouring of expression that satiated the senses. If that was the intention, aided by background visual effect, there is left but one word to describe it -- stupendous!
James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music at Albany State University, retired.