Ten years ago I took my first trip overseas to Italy. I learned about art, world history, and the dazzling Tuscan and Amalfi landscapes.
“You Americanos eat too fast and put too much on your pizza pie,” a group of well-meaning Italians told me. “Rallentare gustare il cibo e la vita. . . Slow down, savor, enjoy life!”
On my next venture across the pond to the UK, I discovered fascinating historical perspectives, but the most extraordinary learning experience was from Ireland—and not in a way I would have predicted. When I visited Ireland the first time, I felt a pull for something I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t until recently that I understood the reason.
I wasn’t familiar with my Irish heritage until I became an orphan and a close friend advised me to research my family. I found I’m a second-generation American on my father’s side. My grandmother’s family lived in Avoca, Wicklow, Ireland, where her father worked in the copper mine. When he was laid off, her family emigrated to England, then America in the early 1900’s, to work in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.
Coincidentally, when browsing writing websites, I met Elaine Nolan, a writer, composer, and musician who lives in Carlow, Ireland. Our friendship grew and before long we skyped and exchanged thoughts about our writing projects. How thrilling it was to watch in real time on my computer in Alaska as Elaine launched her novel, Of Heroes and Kings, in Ireland.
Late last year, Elaine asked me to write a song for one of Ireland’s April 2016 centenary celebration concerts in Maynooth, County Kildare. Ireland is celebrating their 100th year of independence from Britain, with tribute festivals and concerts around the country. Elaine suggested I write the lyrics from the point of view of a descendant of Irish emigrants to America. Her request posed a daunting task for me, as I’d never written a song. Ireland, after all, is a land of music and songwriting. This endeavor was somewhat intimidating.
Where to start? I embarrassed myself when I asked Elaine, “Is the Easter Rising Centenary a religious holiday?” I sensed her eye-roll half a planet away as she referred me to the Proclamation of Independence for the Republic of Ireland, the most important document in Irish history because it signified a turning point in Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain.
On April 24, 1916, the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army wrote The Proclamation of the Republic during a rebellion known as the 1916 Easter Rising, so named because it took place on Easter weekend. Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Rising, read the Proclamation on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin to declare Ireland’s independence from Britain.
The Proclamation consisted of several principles, including “. . . a guarantee of religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all Irish citizens.” This was the first mention of gender equality, given that Irish women under British law were not allowed to vote in 1916. (In 1918, Irish women obtained the right to vote, but they had to be 30 years of age and own property. In 1922, all Irish women over 21 obtained the right to vote. American women obtained the right to vote about the same time, in 1920).
The seven Irish Republic leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising knew when they signed the Proclamation, they would face a British firing squad should their insurrection fail. The Rising lasted six days until the British army suppressed it. Pearse agreed to surrender on April 29, 1916. The British executed the seven leaders, including Pearse, but the Rising succeeded in bringing republicanism back to the forefront of Irish politics.
Each year on Easter Sunday in Dublin, an Officer of the Irish Defense Force reads the Proclamation aloud outside the General Post Office to commemorate the 1916 Rising. The original document currently resides at the foyer of Leinster House, in the Irish Parliament Building in Dublin. This April, one-hundred years later, the entire country will celebrate.
As I read the Proclamation to write the lyrics for the centenary celebration song, I tried to envision what it must have been like for Irish citizens forced to flee their homeland. I learned about Ireland’s struggle for independence and reflected on America’s struggle to maintain freedom and the sacrifices made to keep it. The process of researching Ireland’s struggle for freedom turned out to mean more to me because my country struggled for independence from the same tyranny.
I wrote the lyrics as a letter from America to Ireland, held my breath, and hit the ‘send’ button to Elaine. “If you don’t like this draft, I can write another that doesn’t rhyme,” I gushed in my email, self-conscious about my first attempt.
“No need to write another, I like this one,” she replied. I was astounded, yet ecstatic, since I was poised to write several drafts. Our music project became reality when Elaine composed the melody and emailed me the sheet music, Dear Ireland. It’s been fun collaborating with a friend half a world away on something we both feel strongly about, each of our country’s hard-won freedom.
Since winning her grant to produce the centenary concert, Elaine has worked tirelessly, pulling together musicians and singers for the concert she is producing in Maynooth, County Kildare on April 10, 2016 at St. Mary’s Church. I feel the pull to be in Ireland for this concert and am planning to go. When Elaine knew I was coming, she invited me to sing with the choir alto section for several music pieces she has composed for the 1916 Easter Rising Commemoration Concert in Kildare.
Odd coincidences have occurred: When in Ireland the first time, before I knew where my grandparents had lived, I bought a coat at a shop in southwest Ireland. When I learned my grandparents were from Avoca in Wicklow, I googled it and saw the Avoca Handweavers website. I spotted a familiar color pattern, the same as the coat I’d purchased back in 2010. Curious, I peeked at the inside coat tag: Made in Avoca, Wicklow. What were the chances I bought a coat from my grandparents’ stomping grounds before I even knew where they lived? One of those serendipity things (Twilight Zone music playing).
Never in my wildest dreams did I envision such unique, wonderful opportunities as a result of my Irish heritage. I believe the choices we make and the experiences that lead us from one moment to the next are a combination of fate and serendipity, similar to the Forrest Gump-ian philosophy of life being part destiny and part chance. I’ve learned to look for these moments and opportunities in a carpe diem kind of way. Only 4, 271 miles to go!
Music Composition by Elaine Nolan, Lyrics by Lois Simenson
You became the dreams they dreamed, freedoms borne of war, Some stayed to fight the tyranny, to settle up the score. The sixteen hundred all stood firm, determined to be free, Your children told the stories of Padraig and Connelly. Your exiled children’s stories were told in another land, They were exiled to a liberty they did not understand. Their broken hearts for those they loved, the ones that stayed with you, sons and daughters know the sacrifice, this freedom gift from you. And from this cost and sacrifice, their hard-won liberty, On east and west Atlantic shores, freedom wasn’t free. O Ireland, all your children know ’twas hard-won liberty…hard-won liberty. – Lois Paige Simenson
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS