Ireland 2001

Joanne Connolly’s Trip Diary

– Published in the York Weekly, August 1, 2001

When I started Voices from the Heart in 1995, I couldn’t imagine that six years later 130 of us would be setting off to Ireland on the trip of our lives; that the multi-cultural songs we sang of hope and peace and of our own country’s struggles could touch hundreds of others in a country so far away. That the music we make could help raise thousands of dollars for women’s refuges (what we call shelters in the United States) and an organization in Northern Ireland called Global Harmony, which sends Irish kids to a peace camp in New Hampshire. It was my idea to create a group here on the Seacoast where women could come together to feel the pure power and joy of singing soulful, multi-cultural music. But it was the combined ideas, hard work, creativity, passion, and myriad of skills of so many that brought us on our voyage of hope to Ireland.

28 June 2001: We set off on a dream-like voyage, out of time.

Many wonderful people turned out to send us off with signs, good wishes, waves, bubble-blowing, and wonderful speeches at Pease Tradeport, among them; Paul Peter Jessup, Burt Cohen, Will Saunders, Mayor Eileen Foley, and wonderful “Voices” members who were not going on our trip, but were there to wish us well. We boarded three busses for Logan Airport and flew to Dublin leaving at 7:20 p.m., and landing in Dublin at 6:15 a.m. 29 June 2001.

The five-hour time difference kept us in that dream-like state. Most of us had not slept much more than an hour or so on the plane all night. We stayed in New Castle, Northern Ireland; walked on the beach, rode horses, relaxed, napped, explored and even went out that night to play music in the local pubs. It stays light until about 11 p.m. in Ireland wonderful! At least seven of us had brought our instruments with us to play some traditional Irish music. New Castle was just beautiful! Our hotel looked out over the rolling waves and the Slieve Donard Mountains falling into the sea!

30 June 2001: The next day we were off to start our concert tour at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.

The downtown area seemed dark and boarded up. The center of town seemed to just shut down at night. After rehearsal we tried to find some dinner, but finding open restaurants was difficult. The concert venue was beautiful and the acoustics were amazing. Among our 150 audience members we had a blind couple who came out to hear us because, they too, sang in a chorus where they learned in the oral tradition.

Our adrenaline was pumping for our first concert and we were excited to sing one of our favorite pieces, a Japanese song, “Hotaru Koi” in a place with such amazing sound. We planned to surround the audience and have the sound echo around them. I explained to our audience that the piece was about fireflies small bugs that lit up on summer nights in the States. They looked at me quizzically so I continued to talk about the bugs in more detail realizing they didn’t have such bugs in Ireland. They seemed to enjoy the piece, but with a subdued response. On boarding our bus I was told by the Irish bus driver that at he next concert I should be sure to refer to the “bugs” as “insects.” In Ireland, “bugs” means “viruses,” or “illness.” No wonder they didn’t want us coming into the audience and surrounding them with some “foreign disease!”

The audience was very warm, but still somehow subdued. Later we found out that in preparation for marching season (sectarian parades by Catholic and Protestant factions) eleven cars had been hijacked that night, and that the large helicopters we had seen near our hotel and en route on the busses were the Garda (police), ready for trouble. The Marching Season in Northern Ireland was just two days away. We had had a brave audience come out to see us. A week and a half later in a shop in Lisdoonvarna, in the Republic, I heard the news that 100 police had been injured when riots broke when the Orange Men marched through the city.

I remembered the people we had met in Belfast, Eileen who sang in a chorus in Belfast, and a lovely older couple who all followed us to our next concert in Carrick Fergus, the blind couple, our Voices alumnus, Heather Cardinale, and the little old man in Carrick Fergus who said they needed hope, and I cried. I bought the Irish Times that day to see a large picture on the front of three men throwing Molotov cocktails from behind hijacked cars at police. The caption read, “Petrol bombs and hijacked cars are used to attack police during last night’s rioting in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Police were sealing off the area for the return of an Orange Order parade when the violence flared. Last night saw some of the worst rioting in anti-nationalist areas of the North in many years.”

Sunday, July 1: We left beautiful New Castle on our way to Portsmouth’s sister city, Carrick Fergus.

We were greeted by the mayor’s recreation director, Norman, with a reception, and gave a mini-concert in return. We had a wonderfully warm audience who gave us a standing ovation and came up to shake our hands and give us hugs after we sang. Of course we sang “Carrick Fergus” an Irish song about their hometown which is popular in all of Ireland. Earlier that day we had visited the Carrick Fergus Castle where a plaque to former Portsmouth Mayor Eileen Foley marked her visit there, and a special sister-city relationship between the two cities. We met the former and present mayors of the town.

We ended our short concert with “Finlandia,” a piece we closed each concert with in Ireland.

Before we sang our last song I explained to the audience that the money from all of our concerts in Ireland would benefit two organizations Global Harmony, an organization in Northern Ireland that raised money to bring Catholic and Protestant teenagers to a YMCA camp in New Hampshire, and I was immediately interrupted because the audience broke into applause.

I was very touched and felt a deep connection to them. I continued to explain that we would also be benefiting refuges for women and children (safe places in the United States). After more applause we began to sing: This is my song O God of all the nations A song of peace for lands afar and mine This is my home, the country where my heart is Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. By the last few lines, I had begun to cry again and closed my eyes while I conducted the last strains of the music. I knew the chorus was crying, too our pianissimo was the softest yet as there were few voices left to sing. Warm handshakes and hugs followed as we boarded our buses for Dublin. I remember the words of one elderly gentleman particularly well, who, when he reached out to shake my hand said, “This is what we need here, hope.”

Dublin was a beautiful city, rich in history and the arts. The Temple Bar section of the city rivaled any European city. We were with a few of the Dublin Welsh Male Voice Choir members that night to discuss the next evening’s concert. We sang a few songs, reviewed the Welsh words to one of our combined pieces, “Calon Lan,” and drank Guinness in the hotel lobby.

2 July 2001: The concert was as the Irish say, “brilliant” all around.

Wonderful music was made, money was raised for the Aoibhness Women’s Refuge, and a “grand audience” stood and shouted “More, more” at the end of the evening. We taught the audience and Welsh men a South African anti-apartheid song on the spot as an encore and ended the concert portion of the evening. What followed was truly extraordinary. A hope that I have for all people is to share themselves and their cultures in song. We rented a hall above a pub near our hotel and began singing with the men’s choir at 11 p.m.

By 2:45 a.m. we were singing all the good-bye songs we knew, and more. It was like a friendly competition. A teacher of mine had said “you sing until the song is sung out” and that is just what we did. After both choruses went back and forth for a few hours, individual Welsh men and some women from “Voices” would stand on tables and sing solos. As the Irish say it was “craic at ninety” (craic is an Irish word for a grand time!)

5 July 2001: The next day found us in Waterford at the Good Shepherd Chapel raising funds for Oasis House.

We went from Dublin to sing with the Unity Singers under the direction of Sean O’Neil, in the beautiful city of Kilkenny. The day was busy a tour of the Waterford Glass Factory and sharing an impromptu song from a high balcony there, as well as a tour of the Oasis house. The trip had been exhilarating and exhausting all at once.

I had been looking forward to seeing one of the refuges we were benefiting and Chris Anderson, the refuge director, took myself and three other “Voices” members Susan Whitford, Becky May, and Mary Jo Brown who are all connected to A Safe Place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a tour of her refuge. Chris Anderson was amazing in her energy and her forward focus on what was to be done here for women and children. They have had to turn away battered women who had older boys with them and were raising money to build an adjacent facility for them. She showed us the very small cubicle and connecting bathroom that would house a mother and her four children. We saw a play-room with two little girls about — and 8 years old playing there, and met three of the women who were living there presently.

They smoked and held their heads down. One spoke with us and had seen a video of the chorus that had been sent to them. Chris went on to tell us of the procedures for when women are threatened after the move to Oasis House, how she herself had been physically threatened as the director there; about the difficult procedures to get restraining orders against perpetrators.

That evening was a very special one: an amazing audience, and a community gathered around an issue that some would rather believe did not exist.

It was almost five, we had a rehearsal at 6 p.m. and a concert soon after that. I was exhausted, and after seeing the harsh reality of these women’s everyday lives it all seemed to come crashing down on me. I told them I would need to leave to prepare for the rehearsal and concert and began to cry.

Hundreds of people began coming into the Good Shepherd Chapel including the mayor bedecked with his silver medals worn around his neck on a chain, local nuns and priests, women, men and children. The audience just kept coming until finally some “Voices” members had to give up their seats in the back of the Chapel for the audience. We were lifted up on a great tide of energy and the audience responded in kind.

As we sang that night bright lights blinded from my left side I stole a moment from the music to see that Irish National T.V. was filming the concert. I sang a favorite song of mine at all the concerts the title track of my own CD, “Like I Do,” and dedicated it to my son, Jackson:

Some have furs and fancy cars, but I have you, I have you
Some have silk and caviar, but I have you, I have you
Some are always dressed in style, but they can never catch your smile
Like I do, Like I do, Like I do…

Afterwards I spoke with Chris Anderson and asked her about her own children. I had been told she had three. She introduced me to two girls and then told me that her third child, Ethan, lived with God. She told me that she had had to leave for a bit during my song. She was a woman of amazing strength and resources. The audience ended the evening with a standing ovation and we returned with “By the Waters of Babylon” complete with our African drummers, Jeanne Russell and Nancy Hotchkiss. Everyone seemed to know it and sang along as we danced our way out the doors singing.

That evening we had raised over 5,000 pounds for Oasis House.

They presented us with a Waterford crystal bowl called the “Voyage of Hope” bowl. Inscribed on the bowl was our trip logo created by Cynthia Harriman and the words “Voices from the Heart, Ireland 2001 Tour.” It had been a very amazing evening.

7 & 8 July 2001: And then on to our last concert in Limerick.

The night before the concert 40 family groups had flown over to meet us for a banquet and our last show. It was wonderful to see them coming down to meet our bus. Eric Ebbeson was the first there to meet his wife Sue. Just seeing him started my tears flowing again! Two dads of “Voices” members were celebrating their 60th birthdays and their families had flown them there for this special event. Mary Beth Blight brought 14 family members! We banqueted and sang and shared wonderful stories about our sojourn.

Our last concert was at the University of Limerick Concert Hall, our most magnificent venue. The acoustics, the technical support, the sound equipment were all amazing. We had a wonderful audience of over 500 old and new friends. One of our new friends was the famous Irish singer, Francis Black, who joined us for the evening and did a set in the middle of our two sets. She said to the audience that she had always wanted to raise money for battered women in Ireland and this gave her the chance to do it. I rehearsed with the chorus after a day of being with my family and riding horses through castle ruins.

I sent the chorus off to dinner and stayed behind to rehearse my own song. Warming up in that hall that last night, singing with my friends and accompanists, Sam Goodall and Agnes Charlesworth, I sang the song just about through and was almost done but suddenly, and unconsciously, as I looked out into the vast dark hall I stopped singing to marvel at this amazing Irish experience and this incredible hall. The two instrumentalists continued playing. Suddenly I realized I needed to be singing laughed and finished the song. I think our trip was very much like that: moments when you were just struck dumb in awe of that moment’s experience, something was telling you, “Stop, take this moment in, see it’s power, joy, sadness, and hope” moments etched in our minds that will be with us always.