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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Irish folk music take center stage at USCA

March 3, 2018 GMT

A typical program of traditional Irish music includes a number of instrumental pieces, usually dance tunes based on a variation of the reel or the even faster jig, interspersed with vocal ballads.

For their March 8 concert as part of the USCA Cultural Series, the quintet known as Goitse, pronounced “go-witcha” and meaning in Gaelic “come here,” has planned an eight-part program that conforms to the customary pattern.

Of particular interest, I think, are the three ballads. Two are by the contemporary composer Finbar Magee, including perhaps his most popular song “My Belfast Love.” The lyrics of this particular tune tell of a young man’s early morning ramble. Suddenly the “gray autumn” weather is illuminated by a rare “jewel,” a lovely Irish lass with “sapphire eyes” and “ruby lips,” the object of the narrator’s instant infatuation.

The second Magee tune falls into the category of social commentary. The composer, who juggles his musical avocation with the life of a practicing physician, has frequently tackled contemporary issues – his song “Strawberry Winters,” for example, focuses on the ongoing climate change crisis. He admits, “I am often inspired by social issues that bug me.”

Thus, reacting to the recent 100th anniversary of the Great War, Magee wrote “The Hills of Lislea” as a kind of anti-war lament. The “I” of the piece is a soldier writing home to his wife from the battlefront, about to go over the trench into no man’s land. In an effort not to dwell too much on what his fate might be in the near future, he is focusing on the happy times in his past when he was home in the “bonny, bonny hills of sweet Lislea.”

The fighting man in the song takes comfort in the fact that if he should not survive the upcoming offensive, his “note” will be found in his breast pocket along with a photo of his wife and a lock of her hair. Thus, he is certain that his dear Martha will receive notice of his dying wish that she “save their son from being a soldier.”

The third and final ballad is one by early-18th-century poet Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna, who wrote his lyrics in Gaelic. Of his surviving texts, “An Bonnan Bui” is the most famous, and this amusing composition has been translated by no less a luminary that Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

The speaker of the poem mourns for the death of a small bird, a yellow bittern, that has presumably died from thirst. If only he had known about the bird’s plight, the “I” of the poem laments, he would have shared some of his liquor with the poor winged creature. Identifying with the dead bird because he too has “looks and locks” of yellow, the tippler pledges to keep on drinking despite the warnings of his female companion who says that he is digging an early grave. Not so, asserts the speaker, who urges his listeners to take a tip from the yellow bittern who died because “its throat went dry.” Surely “taking drink is what prolongs your days.”

The quintet, which has recorded four critically acclaimed albums, is making its stop in Aiken as part of its spring tour of the U.S., with 13 performances scheduled up and down the East Coast and in California. Aiken will be their only South Carolina appearance.

Goitse features Aine McGeeney on vocals and fiddle, Tadhg O Meachair on keyboard and piano accordion, Colm Phelan on bodhran or frame drum, Alan Reid on banjo, and Conal O’Kane on guitar. For more information about the concert on Thursday, March 8, visit the Etherredge Center website or call 803-641-3305.