Celtic Thunder, ‘Mythology’ Tour

October 25th, 2012

Belmullet, a sleepy fishing town in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, was once described by John Millington Synge, the famous playwright and poet, as “without appeal to the imagination.” Cowered on an isthmus between Broadhaven Bay and Blacksod Bay on Ireland’s west coast, the town eschews the lure of the open Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the peninsula, preferring instead to look to the calmer waters of the bays for sustenance. Fishing has been a lifeline since long before Sir Arthur Shaen began building what soon became a tiny village of thatched roofs in 1715.

Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, widely regarded as his magnum opus, was indeed based on the playwright’s experiences in the area around Belmullet. For a town without appeal to the imagination, he certainly squeezed every ounce of inspiration he could from a place he had dismissed just a couple of years previously.

Imagination often works in this way. We dismiss something – a place, a person, a pastime, a piece of art – as insipid or simply quaint yet plain, only to return and view that very same thing in a whole new light for reasons that seem beyond basic comprehension. A good example of such a thing is the sea.

Around the time St. Patrick was active as a missionary in Ireland – that is, around fifteen or sixteen centuries ago – a humble fisherman named Aífraic went to work one day near what is now the town of Belmullet. Heading to the shore he saw four swans – the children of Lir, Lord of the sea – dancing on the waves and singing sad songs. The children were famous for their beauty and were the most beloved of the tribe of the old Gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Their grief was the result of suffering an extended period of purgatory at the hands of Aoife, Lir’s second wife, who, jealous of the fact that Lir’s children were born to him by her late sister, and Lir’s first wife, Aoibh, condemned the two sets of twins to 900 years of living in the bodies of swans.

“Out with you upon the wild waves, Children of the King!

Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.”

The children still retained their human mental faculties, however, and Aífraic went to see them every day. They came to love each other, and the fisherman, who moonlighted as a poet and storyteller (indeed, the prefix ‘Aí’ means “poetic inspiration” in Old Irish Gaelic) told the story of their suffering to neighbours at evening gatherings. The tale eventually spread across the Kingdom of Connaght in the West of Ireland, where the known world ended and the great Ocean began. Beyond the waves, so they say, lay the Otherworld, Hy Breasal – the haven of lost souls.

It is claimed that if you still believe in the old Gods and Godesses of of the Celtic world, it is possible to do as Aífraic did and hear the songs of the children of Lir. If your boat approaches the island of Inisglora, off the Erris peninsula near Belmullet, you may still hear their beautiful laments from the waves.

Only one of our human senses, sound, is stimulated. The eye is left unprovoked, though one cannot help scanning the horizon for the source of the call, while the wind in the air continues to bring the same sweet, salty air to the nose and tongue as it did before the ear became so excited.

“Celtic spirituality is awakening so powerfully now because it illuminates the fact that the visible is only one little edge of things.         The visible is only the shoreline of the magnificent ocean of the invisible.”

John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong

One could point toward meteorological conditions or a trick of the mind to explain the voices in the wind (the Celtic nations are, after all, the windiest in Europe and some of the windiest in the world, lands where every draft, breeze and gust seems to carry a whisper sent to tease us into believing, perhaps only for a moment, that some soul has absentmindedly left the door to the Otherworld slightly ajar for a while after popping outside for some fresh air), but to completely reject any possibility of a more transcendental reality that lies outside of what can be seen would do a great disservice to our innate yearning for truth beyond our immediate experience.

Mythology, that soft blend of entertainment, ideology and religion, was, of course, originally unwritten, and poets such as Aífraic were oral storytellers. Like those moments when one believes in the reality, or rather the legacy, of the children of Lir based on the perception of a call from the ocean or lakeside, mythology in its truest form was and is an entirely oral and aural phenomenon. This is in spite of the fact that today we are more likely to consume mythology as a visual experience, focusing on words written on a page rather than sounds carried through the air.

Had Aífraic and others like him not divulged their stories to others, those myths would no doubt have been lost to those same winds that today still hint at a heroic past. Even Homer, without a doubt the most eminent storyteller in the history of mythology, drew on a large well of rhapsodic oral poetry in his native Greece.

Celtic Thunder offers a route back toward what mythology was when Aífraic went to work one day and met the children of Lir, back to what mythology was before mass production and uniformity. The aural experience is elevated above the other senses, followed by the visual. Words are to be heard, not read, and when they are heard they are to be heard through song. And just as J.M. Synge had to look twice to find inspiration tucked away in a corner of the Celtic world, what we have is a thread of Ariadne – through a labyrinth of modern distractions, we can wind our way back to where we started, back to something truly worth sharing.

Celtic Thunder, Voyage II

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the second one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.


When the SS Nevada docked at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, it had been twelve days since the ship left Queenstown (now Cobh) on the coast of County Cork, Ireland, having previously departed from Liverpool. It was the usual route for an emigrant ship, but there was something distinctly extraordinary about this particular journey.

The Nevada exited the soft tranquility of Cork Harbour and entered the Atlantic Ocean on December 20, 1891. With the City of Paris and Victoria also due to spend Christmas at sea while bound for New York, and Ellis Island not yet operating as an immigrant landing station, it is very probable that those on board had no idea they would be the first to be processed at the new facility.

The first immigrant to pass through was steerage passenger Annie Moore from Cork, a rosy-cheeked girl of fifteen years, who, along with her two younger brothers, was joining her parents in New York City. The elder Moores had arrived fours years previously at Castle Garden, which was neither a castle nor a garden but a squalid crime-plagued immigrant station at the southern tip of Manhattan.

To mark the occasion, an American Official presented Moore with a $10 gold piece, a sum of money that was greater than any she had ever previously owned. It is fitting that the first immigrant off the Nevada was an Irishwoman, as people of Celtic origin were playing an increasingly prominent role in social, economic, and political life in North America. It was a time when women, particularly young women, were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and it would not be long until they achieved the right to vote.

Annie Moore’s story is usually told in this happy-go-lucky way, but it is often forgotten that every immigrant is, by definition, an emigrant too. The song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears — a staple of the Celtic Thunder repertoire — evokes the more nuanced, bittersweet reality that was no doubt felt by every emigrant setting foot on foreign soil for the first time. For them, every feeling of hope was balanced with pangs of sorrow, each enthusiastic thought compensated with melancholy. Rather than being exclusively a feel-good story, the reality of the Moores and others like them — $10 coins notwithstanding — was much closer to what the Ancient Greeks called pathos, more heartbreak than joy. Even with the exciting prospects of her new life, the song reminds us that, for Moore, the ‘isle of home is always on your mind’ and one ‘you’ll never see again’.

The Celtic Thunder set for this Voyage tour is filled with songs that poignantly elicit those same feelings, in doing so reminding us that, in spite of the material comforts and opportunities offered by the modern world, missing home is a human constant. A rendition of Michael Bublé’s Home reinforces almost identical emotions to those experienced by Moore, the only real difference being that in Bublé’s more contemporary ballad the narrator knows that his pathos is but a temporary glitch, not everlasting.

It is a decisive distinction that differentiates the late nineteenth century mode of thought with its early twenty-first century counterpart. While Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears is in many ways a prototypal Home, its heart weighs heavier owing to the fact that the world was a far larger, less accessible place then than it is today.

What is so captivating about this collection of songs, however, is that it does not reference bygone days just for its own sake, but rather it sets down a vision of the past — our past — that has the potential to be hugely relevant, even helpful, to how we live our lives today. Tacitly or otherwise, what one sees and hears is all influenced by something that came before.

All art is like this. Taking only songwriting, there are millions upon millions of songs and probably billions upon billions of lines. Encased in all these are trillions and trillions of ideas and concepts. To top it all off, there are quadrillions of phrases and words, in countless languages, used to express those ideas. We pull material from the same well, but the real excitement comes from those moments in time when we discover the potential of building our own well. And yet it is still a well. It is the paradox of originality.

Some artists wear their inspiration squarely on their sleeve while others are more esoteric, but success comes from the humility of recognizing that creativity is far closer to innovation than it is to invention. Michael Bublé did not inaugurate the idea of writing a ballad on the subject of missing home, nor did he discover a new musical note never heard before, but ultimately something original and poignant was composed.

The chef creates a delicious new dish out of traditional ingredients. The painter strokes her brush in way that resembles the work of somebody she admires. The metalsmith makes a new type of weapon that is stronger than any other, even though he is using the same metals he has always used. Allusions are made, and creativity forever invents itself. The great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best when he wrote, “Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor.”

What Celtic Thunder offers in this regard is exceptionally rich. Not only are allusions made between songs written in different ages — as in the case of Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears and Home — but the performance itself pulls from a profusion of wells while also building its own. In that sense, it fulfills Emerson’s challenge and more. It is personal and universal, momentary and perpetual, intellectually challenging yet thoroughly accessible. Behind tales of material voyages such as that of Annie Moore, it further reveals a voyage of the mind and of art — the journey of concepts and thought, commodities that belong to the commons of humanity across every epoch. More than anything, it is a richness that belongs to you as much as anybody else.



Celtic Thunder, Voyage I

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the first one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.


There is a poem called An tOileán Úr – The New Island – penned by an unknown Irish poet in the mid to late 1700s, about one man’s reluctance to join the thousands upon thousands of people leaving Europe, and Ireland in particular, at that time.

After much deliberation, the unknown poet arrived in America and, once there, walked mile after arduous mile without seeing a single soul with whom he could communicate. Nothing but dense woods and the roar of wild beasts. Scared and alone, the poet happened upon a modest dwelling where the people asked where he was coming from. “Ireland,” he said, “in the wood of Lisreagh, beside Lough Erne.” As soon as the words left his mouth, wrapped as they were in the soft lilt of an Ulster accent, an elderly woman rose from the comfort of the fireside to greet him.

“God bless you of all the people I’ve ever met,” she said, holding his hand. “Many were the pleasant days I spent in Ireland and beside Lough Erne in the wood of Lisreagh; there’s no other place like it from Wales to the Head of Howth or from Cork to Lisbellaw.”

Realizing that the only thing he particularly liked about the New Island was that he found someone reared not even an afternoon’s journey from his own home, he resolved that he would be happiest back in Ireland, where he could pass the time with people who truly understood him.

We will never discover whether he made the trip home, though it is highly unlikely he ever did. Before steamships became the transatlantic norm, one could expect to spend seven weeks at sea before sighting land once again. His poem made the return voyage across the ocean, however, and became what is now a popular folk song in Northern Ireland. Perhaps he stayed, cultivated land and raised a family. Maybe one of his descendants, lured by tales of gold fields and a faraway ocean on the other side of the “island”, travelled west on a wagon train a century later and helped to create the idiosyncratic Celtic aspects of what is now modern North American life.

The motif of pining for home while on an epic voyage has transfixed humankind since the first stories were ever told. Gulliver travelled, Dorothy had to make it home from the Land of Oz, while Odysseus took ten years to return to his Kingdom of Ithaca, an adventure that in turn inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In many stories, as in real life, music is both the residual beauty that flows in the wake of an epic voyage, as well as often being a catalyst propelling the protagonists toward their destination. Song is both a cause and effect of where and how the journey proceeds, and no group of people understood that more than the Celts. After a migratory and wayfaring history, they have handed down a rich songbook of countless laments, anthems and love songs. The essence of the independent Celtic mind lies not only in what it thinks and how it thinks, but also in how it channels those thoughts for others through the medium of song. They are born entertainers.

It is salient that we seem as interested in the voyage home as we are about the journey to some unknown place. The hero of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, was faced with a choice by the Gods – stay in Greece, grow old, and die in comfort, or get on the ship to Troy and become the most famous and loved of all the Greeks, knowing that he would never return.

Knowing that you would never return. It was a choice faced by millions as they heard stories about the new lands of North America. Looking west from Galway Bay or the rugged Kerry mountains, they debated whether or not to make the journey down to Queenstown on Ireland’s south coast from where they could hope to board a ship west. They might never have travelled more than a few miles from home in their life, yet tales of cheap land, abundant food, liberty and religious pluralism were hard to resist.

But home is also is a difficult place to leave, especially when you know you will never return. At Ellis Island in New York Harbor, for decades the first piece of American land upon which the emigrant would rest his or her weary foot – indeed, the first person to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore from County Cork – a quote is written on the wall below the Registry Room. “Too soon I arrived at the quay and left my last footprint on my native land,” wrote Robert Whyte in 1847, during the height of the potato famine that engulfed the island of Ireland.

My last footprint. Finality. Certitude. Resolution. Hope. Fear. A one-way crossing.

That feeling is lost on those who make the same voyage today. We have airplanes. We have networks. We can make a few clicks of a button on a computer and instantly see family and friends from home while talking to them. Contemporary voyages may be easier and less heartbreaking, but we have lost something along the way – the songs. Music and poetry helped ease the sorrow while leaving an enduring legacy that defines who the Celtic people were and are. There’s no app on any smartphone for curing loneliness. The less tangible aspects of our past – songs, stories, plays and more – are far more important to us than any material invention. Carried along through the ages by passion and pride, they are adapted and freshly moulded to entertain and empower whoever is fortunate enough to hear, see and muse upon such creativity. It is the sound and spectacle of Celtic Thunder.

For nomadic Celts, the ocean was their artery and their vein, moving to and from the heart of the voyage. Railroad tracks, rivers, canals and roads were an extension, smaller vessels running alongside. Of all the peoples that roamed not just across the wine-dark seas, but across the continent during those pioneering centuries, Celts played enormous roles in forging the paths of history wherever they went. From the unknown poet to the most recent emigrants, via American Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, North Americans of Celtic ancestry owe a large measure of their success and freedom to those who came before. We are all indebted to them.