How Irish Music Changed (and might still be changing) My Life

When I think of Irish music, I think of calling in to the help desk for my then-new IBM PC and getting an Irish customer service rep:

Me: “Oh, you’re from Dublin! I love Irish music.”
CSR: “Around here, we just call it music.”

In 1995, my then-boyfriend/now-husband and I went to Milwaukee to visit my parents. Our visit coincided with Milwaukee Irish Fest 1995. I had been to IrishFest before with my ex-husband, probably in the first year or so of its existence, and we just didn’t have a good time. Then again, we rarely had a good time together. He was the only man I knew who could sit through a rock concert stone-faced and then claim that he was having a great time.

Bill, on the other hand, took to it right away. He loved everything about it; the music, the dancing, the cultural exhibits. And when we got back to Baltimore, and he started researching cities with family medicine residencies, Milwaukee suddenly became a place he wanted to go. And that’s where we wound up. And we went to Irish Fest every year for the next 17 years, till we moved. And we’ve been back twice since then and will be going back next month. We’ve also been to Ireland and want to go back.

There’s not a drop of Irish blood in me. I’m Slovenian and Estonian, but my parents never really introduced me to their cultures as far as music was concerned. And my ex was 100% German, and I was briefly in a German polka-rock wedding band (another story for another time), and I speak a bit of German, but I always hated German food and the music didn’t move me. (Lieder is another story.)

I coordinated two Irish themed concerts for the MacDowell Club in Milwaukee, and I was particularly proud of the second one. I did a lot of research on Irish classical composers, and coordinated pieces for clarinet, piano, piano trio, organ, and voice. Finding contemporary classical vocal pieces was particularly difficult – I could find pieces with texts by Irish composers, but not a lot of pieces by Irish composers, and nothing with Irish Gaelic texts.

About 7 years ago, I found three poems that I particularly liked by Irish poets that were written in Irish Gaelic (with translations provided by the poets). I wrote to the poets and asked for their permission to have the pieces set to music. And then I just sat on it for the last 7 years. I did contact the Irish Fest Center and Irish Cultural & Heritage Center in Milwaukee to see if someone could help me with pronunciation, but no one returned my messages.

A few weeks ago, I put the word out on the listserv Nextdoor that I was looking for help with pronunciation and got multiple offers. Today someone got back to me with the pronunciation for the first piece. Wow. I can see that my next project will be to figure out the IPA for this – I never could’ve done this on my own.

The other thing I need to do is to find a composer who will be willing to set this to music. I thought I had someone in Milwaukee lined up, but she hasn’t returned my messages. (Do we see a pattern here? Perhaps the pattern that resulted in my moving in the first place?) Ideally, I’d like someone of Irish descent, but that’s not a dealbreaker.

My goal is to have these pieces ready to perform in the 2018-2019 season, as part of the Out of The Box concert that I wrote about a week ago. And maybe, just maybe, the Irish Fest Center might be interested in sponsoring a performance of them….

Not holding my breath about that.

This is the song that closes Irish Fest every year, and why we stay till the last note is sung on the last day (which is called “The Scattering”). It ends the jam session of all the musicians on the grounds. This recording is by the late Tommy Makem, who I saw perform many times before his death in 2007. It’s a very special song to me. 

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