Irish Heritage Celebrated in Music and Words
BY KATHLEEN WARNOCK | While the St. Pat’s for All Parade is held on the first Sunday in March every year, the celebration begins the Friday evening before, with the Concert for St. Pat’s for All, which serves as a fundraiser as well as a chance for supporters to get a taste of what’s coming and consume food, words, and music at the Irish Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side.
Each year, the concert brings back favorite guests and adds new participants, who may reflect on world, national, and local events that occurred over the previous year.
Patrons perusing the concert and parade program could find, amid the usual banner ads from politicians, businesses, and social groups, a half-page display that read:
“St. Patrick’s Day Message to President Donald J. Trump from Irish American Democrats:
I summon today all the powers
Between me and those coils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets
– St. Patrick
The concert, organized and hosted by playwright and novelist Honor Molloy (whose play, “Crackskull Row” is currently running at the Irish Rep Theater), began with a welcome from Irish Arts Center leaders Pauline Turley and Aidan Connolly, who described St. Pat’s for All as “emblematic of our values.”
Two evenings ahead of Queens’ St. Pat’s for All Parade, Manhattan opens the show
“It’s an amazing and challenging time,” Brendan Fay, co-chair of St. Pat’s for All, told the audience. “We know what it’s like to be immigrants, refugees, people on the move.”
In December, Fay and his co-chair, Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, received awards from the president of Ireland in December for “sustained and distinguished service to Ireland and Irish communities abroad.”
Last March, Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for the first time, allowed an openly LGBT Irish organization to march in it, the culmination of more than 20 years of perseverance by a group that included the founders of St. Pat’s for All.
One of this year’s grand marshals, disability activist Anastasia Somoza, a native New Yorker and daughter of immigrants who has participated in the parade since its founding, talked about how she was afraid she couldn’t be in the first parade in 1999, because her motorized wheelchair was broken, and she wasn’t sure she could make it all the way through.
Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, there with then-aide Bill DeBlasio, volunteered to help, and pushed Somoza, who marched with her sister Alba, the entire parade route.
“I learned the lessons of activism,” Somoza said, “from being around people like Brendan Fay, and his husband Tom Moulton, and learned the lessons of equality and love.”
The program featured several readings by women writers (a response to the “Waking the Feminists” movement that began at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, and spread to the US).
Several young athletes from the Shannon Gaels – Liam Abernethy, Niamh Maguire, Ronan O’Leary, Conor O’Leary, and Audrey Ward – read selections from Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” poems by W.B. Yeats, and “New Colossus,” the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, which includes the lines “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and is inscribed at the base of the Statute Of Liberty.
Singer Mary Deady urged the audience to “Make Them Hear You,” (a song from the musical “Ragtime”). Actress Aedin Moloney read a passage from “The Green Robe” by Anne Enright, and actor and playwright Erin Layton performed a selection from her solo show, “Magdalen,” about the journey of an Irish immigrant to America.
The first act ended with a story and a song from Honor Finnegan, and a singalong to Bernice Johnson Reagon/ Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” led by Shannon Harris.
The audience returned for some music and dancing, with renowned Irish fiddler Tony DeMarco, drummer Brian Fleming, and Niall O’Leary on accordion.
O’Leary brought on several students from his School of Irish Dance, who performed traditional reels and jigs. Filmmaker Sheila Brosnan showed the trailer for her upcoming documentary about St. Pat’s for All.
Actress Maeve Price read a powerful passage from Kevin Holahan’s novel “The Brother’s Lot,” set in a Magdalen Laundry asylum, then a filmed greeting from the SAOL project (an organization that helps women out of poverty and addiction in Dublin) was shown.
Playwright and actress Florencia Lozano presented a scene from her Off-Broadway play “underneathmybed,” with Vanessa Aspillaga and Irene Lucio. Lozano then read “Gauntlet,” a poem by Jackson Heights poet K.C. Trommer, which included the lines, “Be brave: the race is not yet done by half…”
The evening culminated in Irish writer, storyteller, and activist Malachy McCourt holding forth with observations from his 85th year. He concluded – as he always does – with a traditional Irish song: “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” (also known as “Wild Mountain Thyme”). The evening’s artists and the parade committee were joined by the parade grand marshals, Somoza and Phil Donahue, and honored guests, including marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor, piled onto the stage to join in the song, with McCourt urging them all to “Sing, children! Sing!”
Many knew the song well, and others managed to follow along, singing this chorus:
And we’ll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, lassie, go?
Word had it there was an afterparty of traditional music singing at a nearby pub, but most of the crowd headed home in the biting wind, with preparations still to be made for Sunday’s parade.