A little more than a century ago, William Butler Years, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory and other writers and artists wandered into the Irish countryside and discovered a rich, complex folk culture that had survived centuries of oppression and neglect. It was a revelation. They went into the fields and workhouses, spoke with keepers of ancestral memory and ancient lore and, thus inspired, they created the art that became known as the Gaelic Revival. In their plays, poems and stories, they transcended the political squabbling that so marked their era, and reminded the world of the ancient splendors of Irish culture.
On this first St. Patrick’s Day of the new century, Tommy Makem, the folk singer, poet and onetime owner of a sorely missed mecca of Irish culture on East 57th Street, is embarking on a mission similar to the journeys of Yeats and Company in the 1890′s. Mr. Makem is a native of County Armagh in Northern Ireland; more particularly, he is from the southern portion of County Armagh. The area near his hometown of Keady has been under quasi-martial law for nearly three decades. His onetime neighbors have lived in the middle of a low-intensity war between the Irish Republican Army and the British Army, and the soil of south Armagh has been so bitterly contested that the British were forced to supply their barracks by helicopters only.
With the Irish peace process faltering but still intact, Mr. Makem has seized on an opportunity to rediscover the beauty, history and culture of a region that, he says, “has been denigrated and darkened for the past 30 years.” He and his friends in Armagh will inaugurate the Tommy Makem International School of Song this June near the lovely Ring of Gullion in south Armagh. The weeklong event, which organizers hope will draw people from around the world, will feature examinations of Irish music, poetry, dance, storytelling, mythology and folk culture. Among the event’s patrons are Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger, friends of Mr. Makem’s from the days when he and the Clancy Brothers were entertaining audiences in Greenwich Village with Irish folk songs.
“I would consider this to be the first major cultural benefit of the peace process,” Mr. Makem said from his home in New Hampshire. “It’s nonsectarian, it’s cross-border, it’s wide open to all people.”
It has nothing to do with politics, and yet everything to do with politics-that is to say, the new kind of politics that people of good will in Ireland are embracing as they put aside the ways of the old millennium. Through culture, through the antiquity of the land the Irish share with the descendants of Scots and English settlers, perhaps the competing traditions in Northern Ireland will find common ground. The Scots Presbyterians of Northern Ireland often reject the very idea that they are Irish, even though their families have been in Ireland since the 17th century. Mr. Makem hopes that through this exploration of culture, the pro-British Unionists in Northern Ireland will learn something about themselves, as well as their Irish Catholic neighbors. “Some Unionist people are afraid of this, they believe that the music of Ireland has nothing to do with them,” Mr. Makem said. “But in fact it’s their culture as well as mine. What you have to do it invite people in, welcome them, and say: ‘This belongs to you, too. Enjoy it.’”
Mr. Makem’s cultural festival also comes at a time when the young people of the Irish Republic, so many of them reaping the rewards of one of the world’s most astonishing economic turnarounds, seem prepared to sacrifice their identity and ancient culture as they embrace the idea of deracinated Europeanism. “If you talk to anybody in Dublin 4 [roughly the equivalent of the Upper West Side],” Mr. Makem said, “They’ll say, ‘We’re not really Irish. We’re Europeans now.’ As a result, young people are being denied their natural inheritance of culture and identity as they pursue the almighty pound. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but if you lose your identity in the process, you’re gone forever.”
Mr. Makem hopes that his school of international song will serve the healing process under way in Northern Ireland, remind young Irish people in the republic of their distinctive culture-which inspired so many artists and writers-and will call attention to the cultural treasures of South Armagh. “This song school can be a great beam of light over Europe,” Mr. Makem said.
Once before, about 40 years ago, Mr. Makem and his friends the Clancy Brothers introduced New York to the joys of Irish folk music, filled with references to the island’s ancient traditions. Now Mr. Makem has a chance to reintroduce the Irish to some of the traditions he and the Clancys revived in Greenwich Village in the 1960′s.
Peace makes dreams possible.