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March 2008

The Best Irish Music You Never Heard, Part III

Photo of Switchback performing one of umpteen gigs last St. Patrick's Day. Photo by JS Interactive.

To conclude this feature on Irish music (and shameless plug for Switchback) on Herbis Orbis, I leave you with two songs that highlight the polar extremes of Irish pub music.

Last week, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper wrote an article about "depressing" Irish pub songs, particularly the old standard "Danny Boy." Recently a New York pub owner banned the song from his bar for the month of March partly because it is so depressing, and partly because it was written by an Englishman who had never even been to Ireland. (Apparently the same pub owner also instituted St. Patrick's Day karaoke, so you draw your own conclusions about why the song was really banned.)

I remember my Dad once commenting that the only people to whom "Danny Boy" means anything are the Irish, and anyone else is impervious to its legendary tear-inducing qualities. That may be so, but I've seen Lugh perform it dozens of times and it never fails to impress. His version has received reactions ranging anywhere from standing ovations, to tears, to a wad of hundreds pushed into his hand just to sing it again, to a priceless look on the face of a gobsmacked music snob at Chieftain Matt Molloy's pub in Galway who declared that only Irish-born tenors could properly sing the song.

Anyway, here is the best version I have ever heard, and perhaps if you see Switchback at one of their Irish shows one day (mostly performed at Celtic festivals and during the month of March), you will get to hear it live too. It really makes a difference. Note that an extra verse is included, and certainly anyone who sympathizes with Ireland's struggle for freedom from British rule will see why this particular rendition is so moving.

But I can't leave St. Patrick's Day on such a somber note. At the other end of the Irish pub song spectrum we have the obnoxious comedic drinking songs! This one's called "The Rattlin' Bog" and was recently plucked from the Switchback vaults to be placed on the band's 10th anniversary anthology. Enjoy, and Happy St. Patrick's Day!

The Best Irish Music You Never Heard, Part I

Photo by the awesomeness that is Tipsy McStaggers.

In honor of Spring Equinox and St. Patrick's Day, which I *never* celebrated until I married a full-time musician who also happened to be Irish (he works, I celebrate... sometimes), I want to share some Irish music with you. This is to last you through the weekend. I'll be back with more on Sunday and Monday, including a most amazing rendition of the lately-bullied "Danny Boy."

You've got three choices in this playlist, to fit your mood:

Try "The Galway Shawl," beautifully sung by my own Lugh, for your traditional romantic (yet sad, of course,) Irish ballad.

If you're in a jubilant, bouncy mood, check out the spare bar-room version of "The Wren." Lugh says it's actually a thinly disguised anti-pagan metaphor (the bird represents the Old (Druid) Religion in Ireland). I admit it's a strange fit for this blog but it's a great song and deftly performed.

Finally listen to a dramatic version of the traditional "Star of the County Down" with a distinct rock edge.

If you want to hear more, this trio of tunes is by these guys, (pictured above) and, why yes, I AM biased (espeshully to the one on the left)! Check 'em out... their repertoire only starts with trad Celtic music. Happy pre-St. Pat's Day weekend everyone!

Shopping for Seeds: A Pre-Ostara/ Spring Equinox Meditation

Above: Snowdrops on my front lawn. Photo taken this morning, at 22 degrees F.

If you're lucky, you've been blessed with at least one glimpse into the approaching spring season this year. You know what I'm talking about -- one of those days when Mother Nature parts the veil between seasons, allowing a break in the unforgiving cold, and the sun shines and the ice melts and the birds get excited and catch up on gossip outside your window (which may even be open!).
Even if you're gritting your teeth through the tail-end of a tenacious Arctic winter like I am, the good news is, Spring Equinox and its gentler breezes are not too far away. What do we do while we wait?
Signs of spring are here, but the winter, feeling cheated, can still snatch tender things away (including your health) in its last attempt to hang on. In this way, the spirit of watchfulness and rekindled work from Imbolc continues.
But specifically, these weeks before Ostara (Spring Equinox) are a time to begin thinking about what seeds to plant for the growing season.
Having been with Ima for going on six years now, and having attuned myself to her rhythms, I know Spring can't be far off when haphazard stacks of seed-starting units materialize in different spots around our school. She reuses them from year to year, and they show up still dirty from last spring's seedlings, a bit worn perhaps, but always somehow looking cheerful and eager for another season's work. This year, they appeared in the hall next to a shelf of macerating tinctures. I know that soon we will spend a weekend or two charging the seeds, purifying them with the elements, chanting over them and finally planting them in their little cells according to the planetary hours. These seeds spend their first weeks of life on Ima's inner-city roof in a mini-greenhouse until they are thinned and ready to be planted on her farm in the country. There they are tended until they can be harvested as medicine for the clinic.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Take delight in your cozy winter bed flipping through the colorful new seed catalogues, dreaming of the lovely garden you will create from those pages. But while you're at it don't miss out on the larger spiritual lesson of what it means to prepare for spring.
This is the time to "shop" for seeds you will plant in yourself. These may be extensions of New Year's resolutions you made in the Yule season, or of promises you dreamed and spoke aloud at Imbolc, when that critical transformation from crone to goddess, from winter to spring, was underway.
So what's the difference between this meditation and the Wheel of the Year's other endless opportunities for renewal? Let's go back to Ima and her seed catalogue. The whole point of saving, selling and buying seeds is that you know exactly what sort of plant you're going to get when you put it in the dark ground. In other words, you choose specifically what you want to cultivate because that is what you want to grow. If you wish to grow echinacea, you don't plant spilanthes seeds and hope it'll all work out somehow.
From a magical standpoint, being able to visualize a specific result is key to success. We are talking about internal alchemy here, which works the same way. It doesn't mean you become inflexible about the end result, but having a goal you can envision, taste and feel is a powerful motivator and sustainer of effort. If, for example, you decided some time after Yule that this year you would "be more creative," now is the time to think about two or three ways in which you will specifically be creative. Will you plant seeds that will grow into a recommitment to quilting, perhaps, specifically in the form of a coverlet made of fabric from your beloved grandmother's dresses? Or will your seeds grow into finding a fantastic partner who goes with you to ballroom dancing classes? Maybe you'll plant seeds that will turn into a beautiful newborn baby come next Yule.
When you choose your seeds deliberately, you know what sort of care and nurturance they require. And if you know that, you can provide the best growing conditions for them, thereby ensuring a successful crop -- a healthy, verdant crop of exactly what you intended.
You've got a couple weeks before it is time to harness the magical force of the Spring Equinox to plant those seeds and set in motion the wonderful journey of the light time of year. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this pre-Ostara meditation. It is the one time of year where the pressure to really choose your path is ratcheted up considerably; the Spring Equinox affords a very finite opportunity during which we may partake of a rare and powerful universal force -- the force of birthing and being born!
Timing is everything on this one, folks. Choose your seeds with prayerful love, care... and gusto!