A note on Irish Music in this year’s
Christmas Revels

It’s not the Christmas Revels if there isn’t music, and we’re lucky that this year’s show has had so much wonderful music to choose from. Although you will hear some old favorites, our Revels musical leadership sought some pieces unfamiliar to many audiences.

I asked Betsy Branch, our associate music director, to talk about some of the music in the show. Here’s what she has to say about one piece we’re doing:

One of the songs that stands out for me in this show is Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore.  As soon as we started talking about doing a show about the sea voyage to America, this song sprung into my mind.  The whole song is simply a story about the voyage—leaving Derry Quay, boarding fresh water for the trip, getting seasick, being all alone and scared, and finally arriving in New York. 
In Celtic Crossing the people on-board ship, including us in the Revels Band, gradually come together as a community as we share this experience, and that happens in the song, too.  At the end, they drink a parting glass, “in case we might never meet more.”  The song reminds me of a letter home, describing this new and scary and exciting experience to the loved ones left behind.  I learned this song from the singing of Portland harpist Elizabeth Nicholson, who I met when Revels hired her to play in our 2009 Irish show. We have been working together ever since. Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore is special to me because I didn’t learn it from a recording or from sheet music—I learned it from a friend. 
This song is typically sung as a solo ballad, so one of the challenges was to make it into a form that could be sung by a chorus on stage. I arranged it with that idea in mind.  It can be sung mournfully and slowly, but I didn’t want to do that with the chorus for a number of reasons—I didn’t want it to sound like a dirge, and it would just take too long to sing in a show!  We’re doing it more up-tempo, and I like to think of us singing it strongly and bravely, as a way to help us cope with how terrified we all are on every level about this voyage.

One of the songs that is interesting to me is Green Fields of America which Betsy also arranged for the chorus, so I did a little research. It strikes me as so much of a lament, with the sorrow of leaving behind a homeland that one would most likely never see again. We’re singing it a bit more up-tempo than the recordings I found on youtube, but the sentiment still comes through.

The original song (or its variants) goes on for some twelve(!) verses, including:

Oh who would stay here, among want and starvation
to hear the poor children crying for bread.
And many poor creatures without habitation
without a roof to cover their head.

No more will I stay, in the land of oppression
No cruel task masters shall rule over me
To the country of liberty I’ll bid a good morrow
in the green fields of America we will be free.
Farewell to the dances in homes now deserted,
When tips struck the lightening in splanks from the floor,
The paving and crigging of hobnails on flagstones
The tears of the old folk and shouts of encore.

But ends on a positive note:

And if you grow weary of pleasure and plenty
Of fruit from the orchard and fish from the foam,
There’s health and good hunting ‘way back in the forests
Where herds of great moose and wild buffalo roam.
The song is sometimes known as the “Green Fields of Canada” with similar verses. The idea of emigration as a voluntary act is somewhat a new one. The Irish Gaelic word for emigration, eisimirce, wasn’t in common use until the early 20th century. Before that, the Irish used the word deorai meaning exile. Emigration then was not exactly a voluntary act – especially in the famine years when individuals and families were given tickets to America as they were dispossessed of any means of survival. Even in the post famine years, while people emigrated for a better life, it was not exactly seen as free choice the way we might think of it today.

We’re not only singing songs of longing. Some Irish favorites, including Whiskey in the Jar, will be featured. And Whiskey has a surprise up its sleeve for the audience (no I won’t tell you what it is). I heard it years ago as a traditional tune done by the Dubliners with slightly different words. You might expect that primarily Irish bands have performed the tune, and while that’s mostly true, I was surprised to learn that both the Grateful Dead and Metallica have covered it. Even Belle and Sebastian and Thin Lizzy have recorded it. Like many songs in the popular vernacular, it has roots going way back, possibly to the 1600s and certainly by the 1800s it was pretty commonly sung. One writer called it “a drunk Grimm’s fairy tale”, given that the hero is a highwayman with a bad history. No matter, our upbeat take will be coming to a theater soon. We hope you’ll join us.

(In the interest of research, I did listen to some different versions of these songs on youtube. And you can too – just search for Whiskey in the Jar).