Ireland and America: the music

The concert presenter was so excited. “We’re bringing you a show of Irish music, and it’s not even March!” she said, bubbling over with enthusiasm. When the woman behind me muttered to her companion “I’m Irish three hundred and sixty five days a year, how about you?” I had to smile. So am I, and so was the featured musician that autumn evening.

March is a time of year when many people, with connections to Ireland and with no connection at all, find their thoughts turning to the small island off the northwest coast of Europe. There’s more to it all than green beer, corned beef and cabbage, a few too many pints and a few overdone renditions of sentimental ballads and hearty drinking songs. Across the years, the people of Ireland have woven their own strands of green into the fabric of American life. If listening to Celtic Thunder or Lord of the Dance or Celtic Women or those pub drinking songs has you intrigued by Irish music, take a listen to these Irish American musicians. Open your ears, and just perhaps your mind and heart, to more of what it means to be Irish and American.

pub session ireland copyright kerry dexter

Liz Carroll plays the fiddle, and composes with such power and imagination that many of her tunes have become standards wherever Irish music is played across the world. She has played with groups including Trian and Cherish the Ladies. It was recently announced that TG4, Ireland’s irish language television network, will honor her with their tradition composer award this spring.

A fine place to hear Carroll’s work is on the album Double Play, where she joins up with guitarist John Doyle for a range of traditional and original tunes. There’s a high speed set which includes Paddy Glackin’s Trip to Dingle, and The Top of the Stairs, a geography that goes from the west of Ireland to the midwest of the United States and back again. The pairing of Castle Kelly and Galway Rambler find Carroll’s fiddle evoking another sort of journey, while Lament for Tommy Makem is a contemplative tribute to a musical friend.

Somewhere Along the Road is about my identity being an Irish American in the world, that was my central idea with that album,” says Cathie Ryan. Thinking about this, Ryan, a first generation Irish American who has lived and worked in both countries, chose a deeply felt love song in Irish, an Appalachian ballad, a pair of jigs in Irish she named the Raking and Rouging set, and her own reworking of the story of Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley. She considers, too, the intertwining of Ireland and America in two thoughtful songs she wrote for the album, the emigration song Rathlin Island (1847) and In My Tribe. “In my tribe, music is blood memory,” Ryan sings.

Shannon Heaton has that blood memory of Irish music and the connections that being Irish American brings, as well. She often explores that in songwriting and singing. For her album The Blue Dress, though, she chose to work on that idea through the sound of her flute. There is a phrase in Irish which is used to mean both playing the flute and feeling the pulse, an intimate connection which is present through the album. Against the Grain is a generous and joyous set of original jigs written to honor friends. Red Molly comprises slip jigs from the tradition, while Aunt Jane’s Trip to Norway pairs that original reel with traditional ones. The title track is a gentle yet powerful waltz which Heaton, in her notes, dedicates to the fun and freshness of playing irish music.

There’s a lot of that fun and freshness going around in Irish music, in March and through the rest of the year as well. Take a listen. Take several. You’ll be well rewarded.

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