In 2006, soon after the group on the Centre alumni trip to Ireland landed at Shannon airport in the West of the country, they checked into the historic, ivy-covered Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, County Clare. The hotel’s pub is named “The Poet’s Corner”—the name a kind of Irish joke: “Sorry, honey, I won’t be home ’til late; I’m busy with poetry.”
Around suppertime the pub began to fill up with families, children, students, grandparents. The food was hearty, the pints and hot Irish whisky were good, but best of all was the traditional Irish music that just sort of happened in one of the pub’s warm and intimate alcoves. A young boy would take out a fiddle. An old woman with a tin whistle would join in. Then a man might show up with Uilleann pipes, a sweeter-sounding bagpipe the musician plays by pumping the bellows with his right arm. Most nights someone had a bodhran, an Irish drum made from goatskin; some nights there was a button accordion. A lone person might sing endless verses of a ballad, or a tenor might sing a cappella.
In 2011, a Sister Cities trip to Danville’s Northern Ireland Sister City, Carrickfergus, started in the same Ennis hotel. One of the Sister Cities travelers said that the music in the hotel’s pub reminded him of “Kentucky Bluegrass music without the frills.” Not surprising, since Kentucky (and Danville, and Centre College) was largely settled by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who followed Boone through the Cumberland Gap in the mid-18th century and whose ancestors had emigrated to America from Ulster. Many of the ancestors had come from or through Carrickfergus, Danville’s Sister City since 2007. The names on the tombstones in the cemetery of the 13th-century Carrickfergus church are names we Danvillians know well: Birney, McKinney, Baker, McClure, McDowell. The Kentucky settlers brought with them the instruments and melodies of Ireland, the basis of today’s Bluegrass music—and enriched by African-American music, country music as well.
The strong Irish connection to these parts hasn’t been lost on the Norton Center. The Chieftains, the group that moved traditional Irish music into the American mainstream in the 1970’s, has enchanted Norton Center audiences three different times. The Abbey Theatre (Amharclann na Mainistreach in Gaelic), founded in 1904 by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and others in the Irish Literary Renaissance, performed its most famous play, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, on the Newlin Hall stage in 1990. Irishman Sir James Galway, arguably the best flautist in the world, has performed here twice. Riverdance, the Irish musicians and dancers who burst into popularity around the world in the late 1990’s, was here in 2010, following a 2001 performance by their offshoot, Spirit of the Dance. And in 2008, Twelve Irish Tenors performed some of the same Irish music that we’ll hear tonight.
What is it about Ireland that spurred music that is today so widely performed and loved the world over? Something in their troubled history? Something in the Irish soul? Something that arose out of their rural tradition of gathering in small groups for music-making and story-telling? Whatever it is, not only music but literature is the better for it. The greatest poet, novelist, and playwright who wrote in English in the 20th century (William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Becket respectively) all came from a country—Ireland—that had only a tiny sliver of English speakers in the world.
The mostly Irish repertoire of the five singers and eight musicians who comprise Celtic Thunder will provide haunting echoes of the melodies, rhythms, and themes that the founders of Danville and Centre experienced in Ireland 275 years ago. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Space and Time”—they avail not! Ireland Forever: Erin go Braugh!
Milton M. Reigelman
J. Rice Cowan Professor of English, Director of International Programs, and Special Assistant to the President
Milton Reigelman has filled many roles at Centre, including serving as Acting President (1997-98), but for more than thirty-five years has primarily been known as a professor of American literature and humanities at the College. At different times during this period he has also overseen admissions and financial aid, student life, development, planning, alumni affairs, the Norton Center for the Arts, and communications.