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My Green Heart Strings: The Music of Ireland

creativity enjoyment Mar 18, 2022

by Darci Balkcom

Ireland is famous for its mythical backdrop of endless green, misty rain, dramatic coastlines, and ancient ruins. But it is the music that keeps pulling me back…


During our first trip to Ireland, my mom and I were drawn into John Benny’s Pub.

As we stepped inside, our eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark-wooded, dimly lit interior. The musicians were setting up for the evening. The guitarist fiddled along his strings. The box (accordion) player moved the buttons and bellows of his instrument. We ordered some greasy pub food and settled ourselves, pints of Guinness in hand.

A man began playing a cajón with a heart-pumping rhythm. A wave of sound filled the whole pub with energy and life. My heartbeat thumped in my ears. I could barely take my eyes off the box player, how his fingers whirled across the keys. As the musicians took on us on a journey of jigs and reels, we clapped our hands, tapped our feet, and lifted our pints in salute to their infectious music-making.

I’m always shocked when I walk into an Irish pub and see toddlers and 80-year olds all dancing and clapping along to the music. Music is the primary way Irish people connect after a long day of work or during challenging times in Ireland. A typical evening takes place in a pub or living room full of people with their instruments and pints of beer, sharing music, “the gift of gab”, and mighty “craic” (pronounced ‘crack’ and meaning ‘good fun’).

Each county in Ireland has their own ballads, reels, and jigs that are passed down by ear through the generations. This music contains the memories of the people. And like a big game of telephone, each generation adds their own flavor of experience to the music.

Traditional Irish music has its roots in the tribal group of migrants called the Celts. For many centuries, the Gaelic aristocratic rule preferred the harp to other instruments. The harpist, or bard, was held in very high favor in court. When the Irish Chieftains fled in 1607, due to conflict with the English, musicians began to travel and pick up new instruments. The musicians spread the news, political beliefs, and most importantly, Irish culture and music.

When I listen to these 7 pieces, I connect with people, emotions, and stories from hundreds of years ago, immortalized in the music. 

So grab your mug of Irish Breakfast tea or pint o’ Guinness and take a musical journey through Irish history with me.

Sláinte! (Gaelic for “Cheers”) 


The Parting Glass

In October 2019, my friend Molly Kittle and I stumbled upon a tiny little pub inside an Irish house in County Clare. It looked like the inside of a living room, complete with a terrifying Irish Catholic grandmother, who scolded anyone speaking above a whisper. Pictures of the Pope stared at us from the walls and the smell of peat wafted from the fireplace.

Ten musicians sat crammed together playing with pure energy. This was the lively type of “trad session” I live for. Five hilarious lads from Dublin, who had angered the Irish grandmother, befriended us. They asked permission for us to sing (it’s rare that an outsider is allowed to join in with a group of Irish musicians who play together frequently) and before I knew what was happening, I was pushed, whiskey glass in hand, in front of the skeptical crowd.

The pub went dead silent. Everyone stared at me, including the terrifying Irish grandmother. I tentatively started to sing "The Partin’ Glass." Yet as my voice got stronger and clearer, so did the crowd’s enthusiasm.

By the first chorus the entire pub raised their glasses and sang with me:

“So fill to me the partin’ glass and drink a health what e’er befall, So I’ll gently rise and softly call, Goodnight and joy be with you all.”

At the end, my eyes were filled with tears, knowing I had just created a memory I would treasure forever. As I walked to the restroom, on a pure performance high, one of the older Dublin lads took my hand, dropped to one knee, and said, “Lass, after hearing that song, if you weren’t married, I’d make you my wife.” 

This song, which dates back to the 1600s, can be sung for any farewell: the end of a great night in a pub together, a graduation, or the end of life.  


Fill, Fill A Rún

From the first plaintive cry of the lone female voice in this song, performed by Irish choral group, ANÚNA, I feel a pull on my heart strings. This song is one of many songs born of the historical divide between the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. The haunting melody is the lament of a Catholic mother whose son has become a protestant minister. It has been linked back to the mid 1700's, demonstrating how far back religious and cultural divisions run in Ireland. 


Mo Ghile Mear 

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the TV show Outlander. My secret love for this show (and leading gentleman, Jamie Fraser) got me interested by the Jacobite era of Scottish and Irish history. The poetry for this song was inspired by two poems from the Jacobite risings. "Mo Ghile Mear" translates to “My Gallant Hero” and the song is a lament sung by the Gaelic goddess Eire for Bonnie Prince Charlie (even though according to history and Outlander, he was quite a brat).

It was often sung to the tune of a popular Irish love song of the time. In the 1970s it was arranged by Dónal Ó Liatháin. When I first watched the video of the Choral Scholars of University of Dublin singing this, I couldn’t stop hitting replay. Each time I listened, the song drew me in a little more. At the 1:08 mark, when the lone tenor soloist is joined by the bodhran, I want to thump my chest with Gaelic pride! 


Dulaman

I first heard "Dulaman" on the Chanticleer album Wondrous Love many years ago and it has remained a favorite ever since. A few years ago, while on the way to Ireland, I watched a beautiful Irish movie, Song of the Sea, where the Irish fairies hummed a very different version of the song. The song is an Irish courting song, using seaweed as the main metaphor for the desired love.

When preparing to perform this song myself, I met with an Irish fiddler to help me with the tongue-tying Gaelic pronunciation. He said during the Great Famine seaweed became a real treasure, which this prosperous lad uses as a metaphor. Seaweed harvesters did well during the Great Famine by providing a nutritious food source for the people lucky enough to live near the sea. The Great Famine ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1849. One million people died and one million people emigrated from Ireland during this time. It is a true testament to the Irish people’s love of story and music that, to this day, there is still music played with themes intertwined from the famine. Even though it comes from an era of sadness, this song’s tone of girlish desire for the sexy seaweed farmer, wearing “beautiful black shoes”, is pure joy.


Carrickfergus

The Great Famine created another genre of ballad sung by Irish emigrants longing for the comfort of their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Irish ended up in Boston, New York, and Chicago during the Great Famine.

"Carrickfergus" is one of the many songs that originated before the Great Famine that became a favorite of Irish Americans afterwards as the Irish lamented the distance between them and the people and life they knew in Ireland. This is one of those songs that was passed down by ear and changed over time. It has even been suggested it was originally two very different songs that were later combined. When listening to Voces8’s version, their exquisite harmonies create the Irish landscape in my mind’s eye. The soloist adds the melody, in wistful longing for that very landscape, her tone creating that same homesickness for Ireland in my heart.


The Foggy Dew

While walking in Dublin, I was shocked to see bullet holes in the grand Roman columns of the Post Office. A local told me the bullet holes were from the Easter Rising of 1916. They leave theme there so they will never forget.

During World War I, Irishmen were called to join the British Army to fight. However, after an initial slaughter of thousands of Irishmen in Gallipoli in 1915, general Irish favor turned against the war. Several hundred Irish Republicans, also considered nationalists, seized several important buildings in Dublin and proclaimed them the Irish Republic. Britain brought in thousands of artillery and eventually bombed them out, suppressing the rising. Thousands of Irish civilians were mistaken for rebels on the street and killed or wounded. This, combined with the public execution of the leaders of the Rising, created the conditions for the mass movement towards Irish Independence.

Inspired by the events of Easter Rising, Canon Charles O’Neill wrote the poetry for "The Foggy Dew" to honor those who had lost their lives in the rising. The poem also mentions the “other” soldiers, talking about the Irishmen who died in WWI, and how it is “better to die beneath an Irish sky.” He set the poem to a traditional love song, “The Banks of Moorlough Shore.”

This is my favorite rendition of this song. I love the Young Dubliners mix the Irish lilt and traditional Irish instruments with a contemporary rock sound, especially the fiddle that serves as a steady backbone to the piece.


Sunday Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday was a tragic event that happened in Derry, Northern Ireland. 28 peaceful protestors were shot by British soldiers and 13 died. U2 purposefully kept their political views out of the song. The members of the group did not want to cause more bloodshed by making a public statement that picked a side. These particular lyrics, a reference to a biblical verse, Matthew 10:30, touch me deeply: “There's many lost, but tell me who has won; the trench is dug within our hearts; and mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.” To this day, this song remains one of U2’s most famous songs and is on Rolling Stone’s “Greatest Songs of All Time” list.


Darci Balkcom is a member of the TVF faculty, a certified Alexander Technique teacher and the founder of BodyTunes Studio. She is a passionate educator and bases all of her teaching (including voice and yoga) on the principles of F.M Alexander. Based in New Mexico, Darci spends her time teaching privately and at the New Mexico School for the Arts, making music, and snuggling up with her big German Shepherd.

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