By Javier Soegaard
Inis Mór* is the largest of the three islands in Galway Bay called the Aran Islands. The islands are famous for their sweaters, a naturally formed rectangular pool, and for being just far enough out of the way.
I ventured to Ireland in the summer of 2012 on something of a spiritual adventure / college football pilgrimage (the two go hand in hand I promise…), eventually taking a ferry to Inis Mór for a day and a half. Wisely and unsurprisingly I made sure to book my room at a hostel with a pub (or was it a pub with a hostel?). After a long day of getting lost on hills and getting lost in prayer, I knew a Guinness would be a welcome comfort, so I headed back to my lodgings.
As travelers and pilgrims are wont to do, I made friendly with my hostel bunkmate, an Italian 20-something named Mateo. Between his forming English, my Spanish, and our mutual love for soccer we were able to have quite an enjoyable evening of conversation.
As later hours approached, revelation came bounding through the door in the form 10 boisterous Irish women, all of various ages. Instruments and music books in hand, they immediately asked the pub manager, “Ya mind if we have a bit of a session? We’re not terrible.” With the smallest, but surest of nods he went back to his business of minding to the wonderful balance of strangers and locals.
As the music began, my attention to Mateo drifted quickly. There was something magnetic about the way the room began to fill with volume and harmony. These were women from a country—the kind of people who don’t play music; they unearth it.
I couldn’t help but join in, singing the words I knew, humming the tunes I didn’t, and providing the percussive thumps only made by the bottom of a pint glass. Mateo joined in too, not with words or tunes, but with clear investment in this cultural phenomenon immediately before him. Sadly, however, a day of hiking left him fatigued; thus, he bid us farewell around 12 midnight.
For a time I sat contentedly on my own, but with brusque and forceful hospitality our lively musicians made me join their party. In a lovely twist of life, I came to find out that these women comprised a Catholic Gospel Choir at a parish in County Offaly. They were even more surprised to find out I was studying theology as lay Catholic male…well really just that I was a practicing Catholic.
Now, I could not give you a list of the songs we sang, I could not repeat back to you the stories and jokes were told…heck I could not even tell you the names of the friends I made that night. Yet it was a night I hope never to forget.
What seems to distinguish the Irish from most types of people is their willingness to engage a range of emotions, even in large public gatherings. On a typical night at an American pub you might find someone who is upset, but the likelihood is that person’s friends are trying to cheer them up. There in that pub, however, folks were keen to cover the entire emotional spectrum. Festive songs like Wild Rover were followed by hymns of praise to God, which in turn were followed by harrowing songs of loss and rebellion.
In the midst of all the songs about love, freedom, faith, and the like, only one song stood out. There was a bearded young man, about my age, but clearly of a more hardened disposition than I. He had been listening intently for hours, but not singing himself. Finally one of the leaders of the choir invited him to make a request or sing a song himself. So he started…
On Raglan Road of an autumn’s day
I saw her first and knew
that her dark hair
would weave a snare
that I might one day rue…
Crackly and strained, but richer than any silky tenor or booming baritone, each word seemed to drum up Luke Kelly’s ghost.** The din of the whole pub was swallowed up; there was something urgent, something morally binding about listening to his voice. To ignore it would be to ignore something holy, even though he sang not of God or Christ or Mary, but simply heartbreak.
When he sang his final words we greeted him not with applause, but with a handful of inarticulate noises that authors usually spell hmm. While the song moved us all to contemplate our own particular memories of unrequited love, there was something shared in the air, despite our varying sets of memories. In that sense, it was profoundly liturgical: it de-centered us, tapped us into something greater and more meaningful. It was everything that art should aim to do.
When the night finally came to a close (somewhere between 3:30-4:00am), a parting glass was lifted; hugs and blessings were exchanged by friends old and new. While there would be no repeat on the following night, or any night thereafter, the memory still lingers strong, especially when I witness lackluster gatherings of Christians.
As we approach Holy Week, its history, and its emotional swings, it is crucial that we reboot our own personal investment to liturgical participation. Through the sincerity, the grit, and the truth of our prayer during this week of weeks we have the chance to remind folks of the abundance of God’s grace in what we do. While this is no small task, it does not require us to be professional singers or orators, simply folks who show up, sing out, and invite others to do the same.
*(pronounced INNish Moor)