Reflecting in song what it means to be Irish in London
Michael McDonagh switched from his beloved pop and rock for an evening to classical music
Camden Town was the epicentre for the thousands of young Irish men and women who, through lack of work at home, were forced to leave their homes and farms to come and find work in London. This was especially so in the 1950s and 1960s but was a pattern of Irish life over generations. Many thought they would only be here for a couple of years but ended up settling, getting married, having children and making England their home, never returning to live in the places where they had grown up.
So it was fitting that the world premier of a new song-cycle for soprano, harp and electronics should make a debut in Camden Town at the excellent Forge Venue in Delancy Street. The evening was presented by Irish Heritage a respected organisation that seeks to promote and support young Irish musicians and featured Daire Halpin (soprano) and Jean Kelly (harp).
The music for London Irish Reflections composed by David Wallace and the text written by Dan Milmo was inspired by interviews and moving conversations with the elderly attendees at the Southwark Irish Pensioners Project who recalled their experiences of coming over to London, working and settling here. Some of them were suffering from dementia but when those old favourite songs like Danny Boy were sung to them they lit up and joined in as the songs were clearly embedded in their collective memories.
Dan Milmo brought the interviews together under themes such as Displacement, Arrival, Belonging, and Homecoming, where all these voices “can coexist and create a common identity a shared experience”.
Before the debut of the main piece we were treated to a selection of those very familiar classic Edwardian songs that had meant so much to the Irish Pensioners. For years we have all heard these songs like I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen or Carrickfergus thrashed out by a variety of singers and bands to the point where they are clichés but tonight it was wonderful to hear these enduring songs stripped back to the elements that made them so popular, the purity of Daire’s remarkable voice and the subtle clarity of the sound of the harp, played by virtuoso Jean Kelly.
Hearing the songs like this was an emotional evocation of times passed, reflecting perhaps how the songs would have been heard in the parlours or salons of Joyce’s Dublin. It also made it apparent just how clever and apposite the lyrics of these songs are. Irish emigrants were found ‘digging for gold’ in the streets as the newly arrived Irish young emigrant in the timeless Percy French song,
The Mountains Of Mourne (1896) observed. This character personifying the voice of the song was surprised by the revealing fashions of the ladies in London but that was as true back then as is doubtless true now for the more recent immigrants from Syria or Eastern Europe. It is why it is a classic song and why it is still beautiful and relevant when heard like this now. After introductions from composer David Wallace and writer Dan Milmo the more formal performance of the main work took place in front of an attentive audience, giving Daire the opportunity to show off her impressive operatic vocal range.
The programmes included the text of the pieces based on the transcripts of the original interviews so we could follow along with the music and there was some back projection of imagery associated with emigration. “A word, a song, a dance a tale like a smugglers trade that brings gold from one shore to another.”
This contemporary sophisticated musical gold was warmly applauded by the audience at the end of the impeccably performed piece and it is a credit to Irish Heritage for giving us the opportunity to experience the evening.
By Michael J McDonagh