Skelpin Performs Irish Music And Local Irish Tell Their Stories
Skelpin is a San Diego band that plays modern and traditional Irish music. The members of the band are:
- Tim Foley: vocals, guitar, uilleann pipes, reed and wind instruments
- Patric Petrie: vocals, fiddle
- Enrique Platas: drums, percussion
- Wes Forsberg: bass guitar
- Jimmy Patton: flamenco/lead guitar
Veronica Murphy and Walter Ritter will read some Irish poetry for us today. They are the founders of San Diego's Write Out Loud, which performs readings of literary works.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. On St. Patrick's Day, they say everyone is a little bit Irish, and in America, that's almost true. More than 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, and by the time this hour is over, you might add your name to the list. This morning we're celebrating St. Patrick's Day with stories, poems, some laughter and, of course, music. So let’s start things off with the band Skelpin and a tune called “The Singing Bird.”
(audio of Skelpin performing “The Singing Bird”)
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That’s “The Singing Bird” performed by the band Skelpin, the San Diego band, and featuring Tim Foley, Patric Petrie, Enrique Platas, Wes Forsberg, and Jimmy Patton. And, Tim, that song is based on an Irish ballad, isn’t it?
TIM FOLEY (Musician): Yeah, it’s an old, it’s like an old kind of love song or poem about comparing his love to a bird. And we kind of took it and made it our own, so…
CAVANAUGH: You sure did.
FOLEY: …maybe we brought it to maybe modern – sounding a little more modern, I don’t know. So, it’s usually a lot slower, maybe something that the Irish Tenors would have sung in that style. So…
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Skelpin a little bit later in the program. I’d like to introduce my guests for our St. Patrick’s Day show. Joining us over the phone from Dublin, Ireland is Grace Delaney. And Grace is an actor and dialect coach in San Diego. Welcome to the show, Grace.
GRACE DELANEY (Actor/Dialect Coach): Oh, thank you very much, and it’s great to talk to everybody. And happy St. Patrick’s Day.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, thank you. Back at you. And here in studio with me is Mick Ward. He’s owner of the Ould Sod Pub on Adams Avenue. Mick, thank you for being here.
MICK WARD (Owner, Ould Sod Pub): Delighted to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And we have Fergal O’Doherty, teaching Irish literature and writing classes at Palomar College. Fergal, welcome and thank you for being here.
FERGAL O’DOHERTY (Instructor, Irish Literature, Palomar College): Oh, you’re welcome, Maureen. It’s a delight. Thank you. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
CAVANAUGH: Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you. Grace, we’re going to start with you because you’re actually in Ireland for this St. Patrick’s Day. How is the holiday celebrated in Dublin?
DELANEY: Well, mainly it’s celebration, it’s total celebration. It’s a time to be proud, it’s a time for family, and we have a lot of parades and we – at the moment, it’s a six-day festival so it starts since last Friday and it’s continuing on, and it finishes tonight with a fireworks display. And there’s events all ‘round the country. For example, this afternoon there was an open ceili so everybody was out on the streets dancing in Dublin city center. And there’s all types of things going on and there’s actually the opening and the last week of the National Leprechaun Museum. Now, and you can actually Google it, I kid you not, on the – and it’s just opened and a gentleman came up with the idea because he wanted to know what would it be to be the size of a leprechaun. So when you go into the actual museum, everything is in giant size. So if you’re sitting on a little chair, you would be the size of a leprechaun and what a leprechaun would visualize when he looks up at things. So there’s that going on. And the main parade, there’s about 3,000 participants in it in the city center of Dublin and we have dignitaries from all around the world come to that as well. But there’s, overall, nearly 100 parades throughout the country, so it’s quite a day for celebration to be Irish.
CAVANAUGH: Grace, I’m wondering, you know how here everyone wears green and wears a big shamrock and – is that done in Ireland? Or is that just an American thing?
DELANEY: No, it’s done in Ireland as well but it’s mainly tourists would wear the green and a lot of Irish people would wear shamrock as the years go on. But and as the day goes on, Irish people would start to put on leprechaun hats and wear whatever green they could find because they might’ve had a couple of pints or two to help them along with the merriness.
CAVANAUGH: They might’ve.
DELANEY: Yeah, but overall and I think, you know, Irish people would be a little bit more subtle because if you’re Irish, you know, if you’re from the actual country, you will maybe have your shamrock or whatever but you wouldn’t go as crazy as the younger people would. I’d say the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds would wear leprechaun hats and everything else they can possibly find and they’ll wear jewelry with shamrocks hanging out of their ears and necklaces and things like that as well. So it’s almost like a Mardi Gras effect.
CAVANAUGH: Mick, you grew up north of Dublin. I wonder, how was St. Patrick’s Day celebrated while you were growing up?
WARD: Well, back in those days, it was very much a quieter affair. I grew up in a little village called Cullin, which is about 30 miles north of Dublin in County Lough. And Drada’s a close town and we’d go. There’d be a parade in Drada. We often went to the parade in Dublin also but, I mean, the whole festival that Grace was alluding to there, I think that’s only a relatively new phenomena. It’s only come on here in the last few years. Up until then, of course, it was a great big parade and Dublin being the capital city, it’s the biggest one in the country and, like she said, all the dignitaries and that were there. But actually the whole festival effect, the open air ceili, the streets, certainly back in the seventies and eighties, that wasn’t a part of it, although it was a great festival, a great festive season and time of year just to celebrate your Irishness.
CAVANAUGH: I’m not familiar with the term open air ceili. What does that mean?
WARD: Well, a ceili is a gathering of Irish dancing and Irish music and Irish storytelling and all of that. And then the ceili, the word ceili comes from the old Gaelic. It just means a meeting or a visit. And an open air ceili would be where a lot of people get together at a crossroads or in Dublin City Center or wherever and dance the Irish jigs and reels and tell Irish stories and sing Irish ballads and songs.
CAVANAUGH: And, Fergal, I know you grew up in the north of Ireland, is that correct?
O’DOHERTY: Yeah, I grew up in Derry city, which is actually inside the borders of the north of Ireland. And, of course, we dispute the name of Derry. The BBC calls it Londonderry, the people in Derry call it Derry. And, you know, there’s everybody’s fighting about everything.
O’DOHERTY: So even St. Patrick’s Day had a bit of controversy to it. Really, like the Roman Catholics of the city who lived in our area in the center of the city, on the bog side, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day but it had a slightly political side to it because people would stick out the green, white and orange flag, the flag of the Irish Republic, which was, in fact, actually an illegal act in the UK at that time, still is. So it really had much more political and religious overtones to it.
CAVANAUGH: So I’m wondering, when you see how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated here, what’s your reaction to it, Fergal?
O’DOHERTY: Oh, it’s just really great. I mean, it’s so – it’s so much freer here. It doesn’t carry the same kinds of – kind of burdens of history. And, really, when I look here at St. Patrick’s Day, I think, oh, my goodness, all the immigrants who came here over the past couple of hundred years from Ireland have really – are celebrating their Irish heritage, right? They’re – It’s not – it’s a really very different celebration than the one in Ireland where in Ireland it’s a day of holy obliga – it’s a holy day of obligation whereby we have to go to mass in the morning and then we have to sing all these glorious St. Patrick’s Day hymns and we receive communion and then we’re released, you know. And it’s a little bit more dour and less celebratory although, you know, I’m sure, like we definitely liven up the hymns during mass.
CAVANAUGH: Now I grew up in New York where the St. Patrick’s Day parade is just way, way over the top, Mick. They just go for broke. Is there – Would you like to see more of that here in San Diego? Or do you think we do it – we balance it out pretty well?
WARD: Well, I mean, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York is actually the biggest parade in the world.
WARD: And it’s been going on for a couple of hundred years now. But actually here in San Diego, we just had our St. Patrick's Day parade. We have it on the Saturday preceding St. Patrick's Day every year, and it’s actually the largest parade west of the Mississippi. It’s been 30 years on the go now and it’s just a fantastic day and we got hundreds of – I done the emcee for additional 330 entries, fifty, sixty thousand people along the route. We have a great festival of Irish music in the park afterwards. So we definitely – San Diego has come a long, long way in adopting the whole spirit of St. Patrick's Day and having a lot of fun with it and celebrating our culture, especially our music and our song and dancing. It’s just a fantastic opportunity for Irish people and Irish-Americans to celebrate where they came from and what they’re so proud of.
CAVANAUGH: And, Grace, I just want to ask you briefly, if I may, what – Do Irish, the real Irish people, make fun of American-Irish in the way they celebrate St. Patrick's Day?
DELANEY: A little bit.
CAVANAUGH: A little bit.
DELANEY: It’s can get slightly messed up along the way. I’ve noticed a lot of cakes, when I first went over to America, had Happy St. Patty’s Day. And it’s actually St. Paddy’s Day but that’s actually a bit of fun. We get a giggle out of that because we thought St. Patty might be St. Patrick’s sister because we just didn’t know what was going on with that. And it’s actually lovely to see. I’m spot on with Fergal. I totally agree with what he’s saying there because it’s really – the San Diego celebrations of St. Patrick's Day are beautifully done and very relaxed and a real feeling of heritage and – but not in the same way as at home. It’s different. It’s – Everybody’s proud to be Irish. Everybody’s getting out and having fun and enjoying the day and it’s just beautifully done. But sometimes when we have American visitors over here, especially around St. Patrick's Week, it’s usually spot the tourists because usually Americans have a lot of chewing gum and very bright clothes and in comparison to the darkness of where we are because we’re a little bit more northern, you can spot them a mile away because our clothes aren’t as brightly colored. So there is a little bit of fun goes on, all right.
CAVANAUGH: Grace, thank you. We have to take a break and when we return, we’ll hear more from the band Skelpin and continue talking with our guests on our St. Patrick's Day show. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re joined in studio by members of the Irish community here in San Diego. Grace Delaney joins us over the phone from Dublin. Mick Ward is the owner of the pub the Ould Sod. And Fergal O’Doherty is an Irish literate – literature professor at Palomar College. And in a few minutes, we’ll have another performance from the band Skelpin. Mick, how many – how many people are in the Irish community here in San Diego? How big is it?
WARD: That’s a great question actually. Relatively speaking, towards San Francisco or Chicago or Boston or Philadelphia, it’s very, very small. I mean, Fergal might – I would guesstimate maybe no more than a thousand native born Irish people in San Diego. But what we have is a very, very active Irish community. And, of course, we’ve a huge diaspore and Irish-American contingent also. But actually, as I said, relative to the other great hubs of Irish immigration over the years on the east coast and San Francisco on the west coast, it’s very, very small.
CAVANAUGH: How did you end up in San Diego, Mick?
WARD: Actually, I was playing Gaelic football in Boston back in 1980 and I was – been there during the summers when I was in college in Ireland for a number of seasons. And I met a friend of mine who’d joined the Marine Corps here in San Diego and he told me they were starting a Gaelic football team and they needed somebody to come out and coach and train the team to get it started. So I was kind of at a loose end at the time, was heading back to Ireland, and then I decided I’d give it a shot over here and I arrived here for six months…
WARD: …in 1984 and that’s 26 years ago, and I arrived on the 27th of February and it was 82 degrees and there was palm trees blowing in the wind and I said, what the heck is this all about? So…
CAVANAUGH: Why am I not here? What is, you’ll forgive me, Gaelic football?
WARD: Well, Gaelic football is the national sport of Ireland. GAA is the organization which promotes Gaelic football, hurling, handball and Camogie, which are the four national sports. It’s been 125 years in existence and it is, by far, the most popular sport in Ireland. To kind of give it in layman’s terms, I suppose Gaelic football can be best described as using the basic skills of rugby, soccer, basketball and volleyball all combined. Fifteen people on a team and it’s a full contact sport, played with a round ball like a soccer ball almost. And people are probably more familiar with Australian rules football, Aussie rules, and Aussie rules actually is a direct derivative of Gaelic football. The main difference being they play with the oval ball, and we play with a round ball.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Thank you for explaining that. It sounds really interesting. You know, in the conversations that we’ve had leading up to our St. Patrick's Day show, there’s been a lot of mention of the rebellious streak in the Irish even in everyday life. And, Grace, you’re speaking to us from Dublin today. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
DELANEY: Yeah, well, I mean, there’s a fairly good whack of it but even in today’s society the Irish are born to rebel. It’s – I say it’s 600, 800 years of just not wanting to be told what to do. And I think even, for example, if we want to cross the roads over here. Normally, you know, a pedestrian, you’d press your button and you’d wait to cross the road until we have the little green man but – and that’s what people would do in San Diego and not be – not jaywalk. Nearly over here, people just go when they feel like it. And, for example, the main street in Ireland is O’Connell Street and there’s normally about 30 to 40 people, each side of the road, wanting to cross at the same time. And normally what happens is one person eyes another and it’s like let’s go from opposite sides of the road. And everybody just goes, and the cars are just left there sort of like, what is going on here? That’s very much the type of – I think it’s just our culture. Fergal will probably be able to, you know, comment on that a little bit more with the historical end of things. But it’s just bred into us, you know, to break rules, to question rules, to, you know, figure out do we want to obey them or not and most of the time Irish people don’t. We’re trying to get better as time goes on but I think it’s just a ‘I don’t know whether I want to do that today.’
CAVANAUGH: Well, Fergal, is this part of what you – some people refer to as Irish perversity?
O’DOHERTY: I think it is. I mean, I think that there is a rebellious streak in us naturally, I think as a result of our history of oppression by English and, you know, I think we’re still sort of rebelling in several ways and I think it’s sort of in our – it’s part of our blood right now, you know. And so even when we’re in America, I notice that we tend, the people from Ireland, we tend to even rebel against our own Irish-American community here by maybe calling people out on their authenticity, you know, like…
CAVANAUGH: I’m more Irish than you are?
O’DOHERTY: Well, it was just sort of funny because I’ve seen so many people wearing kilts, you know, and I says, oh, yeah, my cousins in Scotland, they all wear kilts, you know. But I’ve never seen anybody in Ireland wearing one. But there you are, you know, it’s kind of – We just have a bit of fun about it, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is – does this come from, as Grace says, this – the English oppression for hundreds of years? Is there another force that sort of engenders this rebellious spirit in the Irish?
O’DOHERTY: I think there’s several forces. I mean, one of them also is, you know, is the church. I mean, we have a very sort of mixed relationship to that because, you know, St. Patrick, of course, is always depicted driving the snakes out of Ireland, at least in the picture that we had in the St. Eugene’s Convent School where I went to school. And the nuns pointed up every St. Patrick's Day and said, there is St. Patrick and there he is driving the snakes out of Ireland. And, of course, you know, of course this was, to us, as little kids, was true because, you know, we didn’t see any snakes so he must’ve driven them out. So it was kind of like our first science lesson really but without much scientific method. But, you know, when I look back on it, I think that the other – the other rebellion we have is against like any kinds of authority in general and that can go anywhere from the Pope down to any sort of authority figure at all. I mean, we’ve always had that kind of rebellion.
CAVANAUGH: Do you feel that coming out in you, Mick?
WARD: Oh, I think it’s natural that it does, Maureen, and just to follow on exactly what Fergal said, I mean, it’s kind of ingrained into us that we kind of rebel against authority. Yeah, it’s – when you’re living, you know, in a circumstance for eight centuries, some of it’s going to be handed down from generation to generation. And then, I mean, obviously we’ve – the cease fires and the peace process is going very well in Ireland at the moment so we don’t have the open rebellion, let’s say, that we had over the centuries. But the little things are, yeah, as Fergal alluded to there, I mean, little things would be – and as Grace said in Dublin there, if there’s, you know, a sign that says no parking, well, of course you’re going to park there. Why would you not park there? It’s a perfectly good looking parking spot. You just can’t say to us you can’t do it. I mean, and yeah, it means little things that’ll mean – it’s just like, you know, I mean, not to belittle handicapped parking spaces but they’re not very in vogue in Ireland. They’re there and I suppose there’s a handicapped parking space as anybody close to a pub as well, you could say that. I mean, if you’ve a insatiable, perpetual thirst, that’s a handicap, so…
CAVANAUGH: That’s a handicap.
WARD: …use it, why not?
CAVANAUGH: We’re going to hear a little bit more from the band Skelpin in a minute and, Fergal, I’d like you to talk about the role of songs and music and singing when you were growing up in Ireland.
O’DOHERTY: I mean, songs were absolutely central to our sense of our Irishness growing up because, I mean, I grew up in a mixed area of Derry like right on the edge of the bog side, near the city center. So some of our neighbors were Protestants and I started noticing when I was in my friend Terrance Moore’s house across the street, I went in it and I saw he had a picture of this woman with a crown on her head on the wall. And he said that’s the queen. And I said, no, it’s not, the queen is the Virgin Mary because we had a picture of the other queen in our wall. And he said, she should be wearing her blue robes and she’ll have her hands joined and her eyes should be looking up at heaven in a very holy way. And, of course, our Virgin Mary was also Irish. So when I saw the – He said no, no, Queen Elizabeth, that’s our queen. So immediately like the politics was going on when I was about five or six, seven years old, so, yeah, so I think it’s very much a central – it was a huge part of it. So the songs that I was taught as a kid were all sort of Irish rebel songs taught by the Christian brothers, by the nuns, and by my own dad and my – Several of my father’s sisters and brothers were members of what we call the old IRA, they were part of the rebellion against England in the 1920s.
CAVANAUGH: Since Mick mentioned, you know, the peace process is going well, Grace, I’m wondering, since you are in Dublin, is Ireland moving past that history of the songs and carrying on the rebellious spirit one generation after another?
DELANEY: Well, I think to a certain extent we are moving forward but at the same time it’s important to remember where we’ve come from because where you come from is where we are, you know, is where you end up being. And you have a broad – we have a broader mind about things as well and we’re trying to all get on well together. There’s an awful lot of things going on up in Northern Ireland at the moment with Stormont where the governments are having discussions about the British government, the Irish government and the people of Northern Ireland, the government there as well. They’re trying to work things together and make things happen because everybody’s had this beautiful few years of relative peace and children are growing up in that and it’s a different environment and nobody wants their child to be frightened or terrified. Nobody wants to walk down a road and not be sure whether they’re going to be blown up or not or shot. It’s just – So from that point of view, I think things are moving forward. People want something more positive and they realize they can sit around a table and talk, and maybe sometimes actions around a table can be stronger than anything else but, definitely, I think we are going forward. And at the same time, it’s important not to forget where we have been because there was an awful lot of people died over the years through the troubles, through 1920, through all the rebellions but also through the famine and other historical events throughout the years. There was a lot of, you know, subordination and there was a lot of tough times but I think – And going through suffering, it makes people stronger, and I think that’s what it is with us. We’re actually becoming stronger as a people by just going forward as well, you know.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Mick, do you keep that tradition alive at the Ould Sod of music, especially Irish music.
WARD: Absolutely. We do a traditional Irish session with traditional Irish music every Tuesday night and we have live music on Friday nights as well. We try to use Irish music also. But just following on on the point, Maureen, there, I think it’s very important that from a historical perspective, music was so, so important to Irish people. We learned our history in the classroom, obviously, but I know personally the songs of the Wolfe Tones, the Dubliners, from Paddy Reilly, and the Clancy Brothers, these were the men and the women who handed my generation a historical perspective of Ireland through song, through folk music, through the Irish ballads, through Irish rebel songs. And that really was a pivotal part in the – it played for educating Irish people about their history.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we’re speaking of music so let’s hear some more from the band Skelpin. And, Patric, you’re going to do a set of Kerry polkas for us.
(audio of the band Skelpin performing Kerry polkas)
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That was the Irish folk band Skelpin performing a medley of polkas for us. And you can see Skelpin perform tonight at Gallagher’s in Ocean Beach, also tomorrow night at a bar called Hensley’s in Carlsbad. Now, Patric, you are not a usual Patric. You’re a female Patric.
PATRIC PETRIE (Musician): I am. It’s…
CAVANAUGH: And – Yes?
PETRIE: It’s just a family name. Originally, it’s Portogeen.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see. Okay. Now, you perform – you just performed that fiddle for us.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for that. That was great. We don’t think of polkas and Irish music in – usually going together.
PETRIE: Well, they’re very common in the southwest of Ireland, in Kerry, in the Kerry area. So…
FOLEY: Patric’s originally from Mayo – County Mayo in the northwest but we make her play Kerry tunes anyway. We…
CAVANAUGH: And that’s the price you pay to be in Skelpin.
PETRIE: It is.
FOLEY: We always say that Irish polkas are not like Mexican polkas or German polkas or Polish polkas but they are polkas even though they don’t sound like it so…
FOLEY: …I think they’re better. No offense everybody out there.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Tim, I know that one of the instruments you play—you’re playing the guitar for us now…
CAVANAUGH: …but you play the uilleann pipes. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
FOLEY: That’s correct, yeah, uilleann pipes.
CAVANAUGH: How are they different from Scottish bagpipes?
FOLEY: Oh, where should I begin? They sound much better. No, I’m just joking. They – you don’t blow into them. You use a bellows on your right elbow to blow up the bag under your left elbow. And they can, for all the musicians out there, they can play in staccato, they can play in two full octaves, fully chromatic where the Scottish pipes are nine notes. And Scottish pipes are definitely difficult and beautiful in their own right but Irish pipes are – have little bit more of a quieter, more melodic sound and are a unique sounding instrument but most people have probably heard the uilleann pipes because they use them in many movies and many films in soundtracks but they just might – it’s a ubiquitous kind of pipe sound that they mightn’t realize is actually uilleann pipes and not Scottish pipes, so…
PETRIE: It’s a fairly rare instrument in America.
CAVANAUGH: And, obviously, they are better.
PETRIE: Well, you can also drink and play at the same time.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we do need to take a break but before we do, I have to say goodbye to Grace Delaney. She’s joined us by phone from Dublin. And, Grace, thank you so much for joining us for our St. Patrick's Day show.
DELANEY: Okay, you’re very welcome and it was great to chat with you as well, Mick and Fergal. And (Irish phrase).
WARD: And (Irish phrase), Grace.
DELANEY: (Irish phrase).
WARD/O’DOHERTY: (Irish phrase)…
DELANEY: (Irish phrase) See you soon. Bye-bye.
WARD: (Irish phrase)
CAVANAUGH: We’ll come back with some translation and more stories and more music and some Irish poetry when These Days continues on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking all things Irish on this St. Patrick's Day with San Diegans Mick Ward and Fergal O’Doherty. And the band Skelpin is in our studio. We have two readers here to read some Irish poetry for us. They are the founders of Write Out Loud, Veronica Murphy and Walter Ritter. And Veronica Murphy will read first. It’s a piece called “The Farewell” by Winifred Hoy.
VERONICA MURPHY (Founder, Write Out Loud) (reading poem): ‘A young woman and her bridegroom are waiting for the bus that will take them on the first step of a six thousand mile journey. They are immigrating to America. They leave behind all that is familiar to them, to start a life alone in a culture and land that is unlike anything they have ever known. Her father waits with them. With a rush of air and a squeal of brakes the bus appears out the mist drifting down from the surrounding hills. When the bus comes to a halt, her husband steps on. The young woman turns to follow. Her father reaches out and rests a calloused hand on her shoulder. He does not speak. The conductor rings the bell. Her father removes his hand, and the chill of the damp air replaces its warmth. She boards the bus and takes a seat beside her husband. She looks back. Her father stands motionless, staring at the wake of the red bus.’
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Veronica. That was a poem called “The Farewell” by Winifred Hoy. And I’m wondering, tell us a little bit about the woman who wrote this poem.
MURPHY: Well, Winifred Hoy was born in Belfast and she was educated there. Just as the woman in the story, she did leave just after she was married to come to America. They planned to be here for three years and that was in 1957. She did not actually start writing until about five years ago and she has written many stories. She has written several stories that we have read and we will be reading an expanded version of this story at one of our programs. She’s regularly published in a publication called “Julien’s Journal.” And much of what she writes is autobiographical. She also said that while she did leave on the bus like this, the story is actually more based on the last time she saw her father when she was visiting and this was what their farewell was.
CAVANAUGH: That’s a beautiful poem. Thank you for reading it for us. The next piece we’re going to hear is an old Irish poem called “Pangur Ban” read by Walter Ritter. And, Fergal, before Walter starts, can you tell us about this poem? A little bit about it?
O’DOHERTY: It’s a very old poem. We think it’s from the eighth or the ninth century by a monk, an Irish monk who actually was in a monastery over on the border of Austria and Germany and it’s really kind of a playful and beautiful poem because it talks about the monk sitting writing the scribe and his only sort of relationship with anything living is with this little kitty cat, little white cat. Pangur is the name of the cat. And it’s so playful and nice and it sort of humanizes the monk as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s beautiful for that reason. It makes those ancient monks whom we generally think of as being – sitting in these chairs writing all day, and this fellow is really playful and is playing with his kitty cat.
CAVANAUGH: Well, here’s the poem “Pangur Ban” and Walter Ritter is to read for us.
WALTER RITTER (Founder, Write Out Loud) (reading poem): ‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat, 'tis a like task we are at. Hunting mice is his delight, hunting words I sit all night. Better far than praise of men ‘tis to sit with book and pen. Pangur bears me no ill will, he, too, plies his simple skill. 'Tis a merry thing to see at our task how glad are we, when at home we sit and find entertainment to our mind. Oftentimes a mouse will stray into the hero Pangur's way. Oftentimes my keen thought set nets a meaning in its net. 'Gainst the wall he sets his eye, full and fierce and sharp and sly. 'Gainst the wall of knowledge I all my little wisdom try. When a mouse darts from its den, oh how glad is Pangur then. Oh what gladness do I prove when I solve the doubts I love. So in peace our tasks we ply, Pangur Ban, my cat and I. In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine, and he has his. Practice every day has made Pangur perfect in his trade. I get my wisdom day and night, turning darkness into light.'
CAVANAUGH: That’s fabulous. Thank you so much. That was Walter Ritter and, along with Veronica Murphy, founders of Write Out Loud. Thank you so much. Now, Fergal, I wonder if you could read the first two verses of “Pangur Ban” for us in Irish.
O’DOHERTY: I’ll give it a shot.
CAVANAUGH: All right.
(audio of O’Doherty reading “Pangur Ban” in Irish)
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. How did you learn Irish?
O’DOHERTY: Sister Immaculata started working on our Irish on the second – it was the second day of school, I remember. And she wrote these letters up on the board that spelled out the words Báidín Fheidhlimidh which means ‘the little boat of Feleme.’ And she pointed with her yardstick. Sister Cecelia, God rest her soul, was on the short side and she was just slightly taller than most of the first grade kids in our class. But she taught us this song in Irish. I had heard Irish, of course, from some of my older relatives and cousins down Donegal who lived near the Gaeltacht. And, of course, my mother used lots of Irish words in her everyday speech. She called spuds ‘pratie,’ the old Irish word. And so lots of – it was sort of like the Irish equivalent of Spanglish. There was Gaelish, we call it where there’s some Gaelish and there’s some Gaelic and Irish mixed together in a lot of our language. So, yeah, I remember well the first song I learned was Báidín Fheidhlimidh, which is a traditional Donegal song about a man whose boat goes over and back to Tory Island, which is the sort of most northwesterly island off the coast of Ireland.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m interested, you referred to the language as Irish. Now I used to hear about people speaking Gaelic. So why is it now Irish instead of Gaelic?
O’DOHERTY: I don’t really know. I think we called it Irish because it’s the Irish form of Gaelic.
O’DOHERTY: And our cousins over in Scotland, my mother, funny enough, was born in Greenock, and so her relatives over there, of course, they spoke Gaelic, too…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I…
O’DOHERTY: …over on the Isle of Skye.
O’DOHERTY: And also over in – outside of Glasgow, so that was Scots Gaelic. So…
WARD: Yeah, that’s right, Ferg, I think in Scotland they pronounced it Gallic (phonetically) is the language they speak.
WARD: But in Ireland, and we would just refer to English translation of Gaeilge, the Irish language. But Gaeilge is the spoken word.
CAVANAUGH: Now how did you learn to speak Irish?
WARD: Well, we – everybody – In Ireland, it’s compulsory for every school child to learn Irish in school up through grade school and through high school. It’s a subject just like geography or history or mathematics or whatever. So there’s – you got your initial foundation. And then if you have a love for the language or like to go forward, as Fergal alluded to, there’s places called the Gaeltacht where Irish language is the first and spoken language of Ireland on the west coast, in Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry, so students take a three or four week break during the summer and they live with families in the Gaeltacht areas, like Fergal did and I did, in Donegal and I’ve learned where the Irish language is the spoken language all day every day.
WARD: And, yeah, and actually, it’s come true, a great rebirth in Ireland. The number of all-Irish speaking schools has grown exponentially over the last number of years where every subject is taught through the medium of Irish. So I think the more that Ireland becomes assimilated into Europe, the more important our identity and especially our language becomes since here in San Diego, we have an Irish class. I taught it myself for many years where we speak – we teach basic Irish to Irish-Americans and Irish people wishing to brush up on their Gaelic. And even I have a little daughter, she’s five and a half, and right now she knows all the words, I mean all the colors, how to count in Irish, how to give the greetings in Irish, so it’s just keeping the language as a change biol (sp), as a living language.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s fascinating. So, Fergal, if you go to Ireland, how much Irish might you hear just spoken, you know, on the streets, on a train, in pubs, you know, that kind of thing?
O’DOHERTY: You can hear it almost anywhere, really surprisingly. You know, I mean, when I think about like when I was a kid and I was first sent to the Gaeltacht, I was eleven years old, and I think one of my family’s primary reasons for sending me and my brothers to the Gaeltacht was just to get a break from the kids the way American kids are sent to camp, you know, so the parents can actually have some time for marital things? And, you know, so we were all packed off and sent to the Gaeltacht and I lived, actually, with a really famous seanachaí, called—I didn’t know he was famous at the time, I just thought he was an old man who sat by the fire and spat and drank tea. And – But he told stories every night. His name was Mickey Hyun (sp), New Wale, and, you know, there are recordings of him now.
CAVANAUGH: And you called him – you referred to him by a title. A seanachaí?
O’DOHERTY: A seanachaí. Seanachaí means storyteller.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.
O’DOHERTY: And that’s from the Irish oral tradition of storytelling. I mean, because actually writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until like the fifth, sixth century by Christian monks, really, because we didn’t have a system and alphabet so we borrowed the Roman alphabet.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.
CAVANAUGH: So with Irish, the Irish language, being revived as a living language, with Ireland now pretty much at peace, it seems that the song and celebration that’s incorporated into most of Irish traditions used to have this very, very sad side, you know, all their wars are merry, all their songs are sad. Is it more now, Mick, on one tone? Is that grimness sort of letting up a little bit, do you think?
WARD: Well, it could be, Maureen, but I think really the grimness dates back to when we – the song and story of Ireland told a very, very troubled history of colonization going back for eight centuries. Thankfully, those days are behind us and we’re moving into an era of peace and justice in Ireland. So the – definitely, that’s reflected in the songs. If you look at the songs in movies that have come out of Ireland in the last 20, 25 years, starting probably with “The Commitments” which was a big kind of a revolutionary one back then where these Dublin kids in, you know, the city playing – singing the blues, and from then these movies like “Once,” and numerous other Irish movies, they really have projected Irish song and culture into a new, I suppose, more modern era. I mean, we still love the Dubliners and the Wolfe Tones and the old Irish songs and stories but the new modern Ireland, certainly, U2 and – it’s a case in point where it’s now holding its place on the world stage with any of the greater genres of music really.
CAVANAUGH: I just have to ask you both really quickly how you’re spending this St. Patrick's Day? Fergal.
O’DOHERTY: Oh, I’m going to spend the day teaching…
O’DOHERTY: …my students and having parties in all of my classes up at Palomar College. Thank you, Palomar, for releasing me for the day.
CAVANAUGH: Well done. And you, Mick.
WARD: Well, it’s very simple for me, Maureen. Actually, myself and my partner Tommy Quinn and Tony Finglas and Martin Brennan and the lads, we’re going to be working flat out at the Ould Sod from early morning until early the following morning just celebrating St. Patrick's Day in a traditional Irish pub affair.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. This is a day of hard work for you.
WARD: A day of hard work for sure.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Tim and Patric, you and the band Skelpin are going to perform one last time for us to take us out of the show. And you’re going to perform a song called “The View” from your new album “Trip to Skye.” And, Tim, you wrote this song. Tell us what it’s about.
FOLEY: It’s really about – It means something to me but it’s kind of what Mick was saying about Ireland assimilating into the world and it’s really just – it’s a story of a people, of a nation, of whatever, of a family, of a band (wink-wink), so – and it kind of reflects our band. Our band is a mix of traditional Irish and some Latin and even Middle Eastern influences. And so it kind of brings everything together.
CAVANAUGH: And it just won an award.
FOLEY: Yeah, it won a John Lennon Songwriters Award. And so, everybody, we won a grand prize in that, yea for us. And we – everybody’s going to have a chance to vote on this online to be the overall winner for the whole year, so that’s coming up here in the next couple of weeks.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, great. I want to thank everyone who’s spoken with us today. Thank you so much for spending time with us and our listeners on St. Patrick's Day. Taking us out is the band Skelpin with the song from their new album “Trip to Skye.”
(audio of Skelpin performing “The View” from their album “Trip to Skye”)