Sean Kay, a professor and chair of the international relations program at Ohio Wesleyan University is the author of the recently released book Celtic Revival? The Rise, Fall, and Renewal of Global Ireland.
This March I had a tough choice to make – play our annual St. Patrick’s Day gig here in Ohio – always fun – or accept an invitation to the White House annual event. After several years of research and writing Celtic Revival? The Rise, Fall and Renewal of Global Ireland, this was an exciting invite so an easy choice. On meeting Glen Hansard, I jokingly told him “I gave up a good gig for this, so it had better be good!” Needless to say, it was. So were those two fellows jamming in the corner – Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.
During the final push on the manuscript I about wore out my discs of Danu, Sharon Shannon, and the Brock-McGuire band. Oddly enough, though, during my summer of interviews in 2010, it seemed no matter where I went in Ireland the song “Hey Soul Sister” by Train was in the air. More intimate, though, was a drive with my daughter over the Connemara mountains – as we ventured out we saw a road sign that said “Stop and Pray” – but we didn’t have to. As we had crossed the peak, in the cloud, Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” came on the radio – if there was heaven on earth it was there, that day on that mountain in Ireland.
Dylan resurfaces in the book – as Ireland’s great voice Sinead O’Connor has redone the classic “The Times, They are A-‘Changin’” – debuted as an instant anthem for Ireland’s current experiences on the Late Late Show in spring 2010.
Ireland is today undergoing an enormous crisis – a loss of its money, its confidence in politics, and a deep crisis in the Catholic church. But Ireland is also embarked on a renewal – with a new sense of public engagement in their own destiny; embracing multiculturalism; striving to not just make peace, but to build peace in Northern Ireland; and setting a model for the world in its foreign policy.
The Irish are facing their challenges head on – and lifted again by the artists.
Ireland’s musicians have always been at the forefront of change. Now, the things that Sinead O’Connor had to say about abuse in the Catholic church 20 years ago are common discourse in the nation today. As she said to me in an interview, as to her emergence as a major global voice now on the Church scandal she said: “I wanted to be sure that when I meet my maker, that it can’t be said that the artists didn’t care.” Each Irish person has a role to play in what former Taoiseach John Bruton said to me would be the “million small steps” that will move the nation forward again.
Also leading here is the singer Frances Black, who has established a foundation for alcohol and drug abuse recovery. She said to me that her goal is to literally “change the face of Ireland.”
In November 2010, Frances Black joined a major protest of the government and the economic crisis in Dublin declaring: “We are saying, ‘We’ve had enough!’” –and voicing that, “It’s legal to rip of a million or two – that comes from the labor that other folks do. To plunder the many on behalf of the few, is a thing that is perfectly legal.”
Christy Moore joined the stage and bemoaned the long line of leaders who had failed the Irish people performing “Connolly Was There” and shouting to 75,000 people at the end: “The system doesn’t work!”
Strangely absent from the Irish renewal is U2. Their songs like “Running to Stand Still” gave voice to the pain many felt in parts of Ireland in the 1980s. Today, though, they are seen as having had nothing to say about their countrymen’s situation while relocating around the world and taking tax money to the Netherlands.
Ireland’s renewal is really about the triumph of the human spirit. Ireland will be back – on a different footing, but it will be back.
The artists –from the busker on the street to the voices of its famous have a role to play in reminding the world that art and music and the soul that lives on in the great traditions of Irish culture will lift the spirits of humanity towards a better place.