Wednesday, March 14, 2012

For St. Patrick's Day (written when the original Irish Tenors were still together):


As I watched and listened to the "Irish Tenors" singing during the Prairie Public Television membership drive this week, with each song I felt a closer kinship to them and the Irish. A long time ago I heard someone say that the Ukrainians are the Irish of the East, and the Irish are the Ukrainians of the West. Much in our histories is common: a fierce love of land, independent spirit, invasion and subjugation, intense struggles for freedom over the centuries, genocides by famine, emigration, exile, foreigners settling the land, invaders' attempts to systematically destroy the language, history and culture, loss of ethnic lands, and ultimate independence. Both our people have that ancient folk heritage, and we all sing, dance, cry, fight and love.

The three Irish Tenors are not as famous, nor as operatically gifted, as "The Three Tenors" (Pavarotti, Domingo and Carerras). The latter are professionals, who live and breathe by their enormously wonderful voices. They sing whatever is on the operatic or concert program, in whatever language, although nothing melts your heart more than Pavarotti singing his Neapolitan songs - you can see on his face that these come from his Italian soul. 

The Irish Tenors, Anthony Kearns, Ronan Tynan and John McDermott, have other lives. Mr. McDermott is actually a Canadian of Scottish/Irish heritage, who tours throughout North America. Mr. Tynan is a medical doctor, and a champion equestrian, who has won trophies at Irish and international song festivals. Mr. Kearns is a lyric tenor who currently tours with the English Light Opera Company.

What comes across in their faces and voices as they sing the lyrics is that deep personal sense of love of homeland and longing to return home, bitterness over loss of freedom, acceptance of death for that freedom, and immense belief in the return of independence. Many of these songs from previous centuries are now Irish folk songs, while the ones from the early part of this century are the songs of the freedom fighters. 

These songs are deeply relevant to them and to the audience; they are personal, nostalgic and emotional. In their performances the tenors sing about and live the lives and history of the Irish. Even via the television screen I could feel the intense connection between the singers and their lyrics and the Dublin audience.
A prisoner, after writing words on a cell wall, sings, "Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms, and let this moment linger, they'll take me out at dawn and I will die ..."
In other songs: "... a land that has never known freedom, and only our rivers run free ..." "... a land brought to its knees ... with their tanks and their guns, oh, my God, what have they done to the town I love so well ..." "The tears have all been shed now, we've said our last goodbyes ... and I miss him, the old man." "... and I'll be dead as dead I'm going to be..." "The strangers came and tried to teach us their ways, and scorned us for being what we are..."

Then there is the song about Father Murphy challenging King George's troupes, rallying his rebels, until he is burned to death. These are not just songs of a particular war, they are songs about the continuing centuries-old struggle for freedom.
Sound familiar? Can you relate? Our "striletski" (Ukrainian Sich Riflemen of World War I) and "povstanski" (Ukrainian Insurgent Army of World War II) songs express the same thoughts. In them, as in the Kozak songs, there is the matter-of-fact acceptance of dying for one's homeland and the willingness of that sacrifice. There are plain descriptions of death (e.g., having the kozak's eyes covered with the khustyna [kerchief] or kytaika [silk scarf] so that the birds do not peck them out). We know the stories of the messages on the cell walls of Brygidky prison. Our songs about leaving home for a better place across the sea are just as melancholy. The Lemko songs are especially heart-wrenching, both the lyrics and the melody.

The two countries, while independent, still have ethnic lands under foreign rule. Ukraine has accepted its present-day borders, even though so many Ukrainians live on their ancestral lands now within Poland, Russia and other countries. Ireland has signed the agreement concerning Northern Ireland, but that situation still seems to be simmering.

One sad difference came to mind: although both nations were persecuted for their language and culture, Ukrainians are still able to sing their songs in Ukrainian, while the Irish have been singing their battle songs for Ireland in English, the conqueror's language. Yet it is because of this that the world understands their haunting lyrics.
If there were a similar Ukrainian concert, I think Ukrainian soloists would have harmonized more, but that may just be the style of Ukrainian singing (and, probably, they would not be tenors only).

Hearing and seeing those three men sing their hearts and souls out was a special bittersweet pleasure, because I could relate. Longing for and fighting for one's homeland is universal.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 28, 1999, No. 13, Vol. LXVII

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