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When March arrives, two things immediately come to my mind – the series of basketball tournaments constituting "March Madness" and Irish music in conjunction with St. Paddy's Day. Our area in the Appalachian Mountains has fortunately attracted over time a series of seasoned Irish groups to perform in March, and there is something wonderful in hearing music that hearkens back to the early music traditions of the people who once settled here. For this performance at the Flat Rock Playhouse Mainstage we heard a new sort of Irish troupe called The Young Irelanders, a group of dancers and musicians on a mission to transform their traditional music into sounds which embrace other performance styles.
Brought together by the Irish Cultural Academy, the musicians, all still in their 20s, were Aimee Fitzpatrick (vocals), Fionnan O Connor (whistle & pipes), Rosie Ferguson (fiddle), Kevin Murphy (accordion), Cillian Mac Cabe (guitar and banjo), Enda Rafferty (keyboard), with dancers Leona and Rory. Their 2018 tour, entitled Wild Atlantic Way, recalls the longest signed coastal route in the world of the same name running along the west coast of Ireland from Donegal to West Cork. Their transformative approach to their music is reflective of both the porous nature of the Irish sea coast, as well as the deep traditions which took root within the country.
We heard such traditional Irish acoustic instruments as the penny whistle, Uilleann bagpipes ("pipes of the elbow" for their underarm inflation method), guitar, accordion, and fiddle, combined with electronic keyboard and, for a single number, banjo. The most traditional elements of the show were seen in the two dancers, whose masterful execution of Irish stepdance with both taps and soft shoes brought some of the afternoon's loudest applause.
The most obvious music "import" was constituted in the style of singer Fitzpatrick, whose singing emulated any number of American and British pop and country western singers. With her singing every song in English (the universal language of pop music) with little trace of an Irish accent and in such a breathy, crooning style, one could imagine the song fitting in more with the popular music canon than a body of traditional songs. While some of the songs were selected for their regional provenance ("Galway Bay," and songs of Innisfree and Lord Mayo), each shared a penchant for unrelenting sentimentality and sweetness which begged for more stylistic variety. Other obvious foreign imports were the jazz and blues inflections heard in keyboardist Rafferty's harmonies.
The band, which remained onstage for the entire time while the singer and dancers entered and exited, soldiered through a number of reels, many grouped as medleys, the end number of which was often the fastest and which brought on the dancers. There was some solid playing among them (especially fiddler Ferguson and piper O Connor), but they did not share the same deep-seated connection between them that one hears in established professional groups, nor did they seem entirely comfortable before this audience. Despite that, the audience was invited to join in the fun and sing along in several numbers. Two audience members were invited onstage to learn a traditional dance using two "brushes" (brooms) alongside the dancers, resulting in loud laughs and applause.
For an encore, Fitzpatrick led the ensemble in a pop-blues rendition of "Danny Boy," its fused style light years away from its simple origins. While these Irish musicians may represent the cultural traditions of their country, they also hold up to us Americans a mirror of our own.