Lucy Healy-Kelly enjoys the blend of song and story at the Summer Salon, featuring playwright Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger and Sons

How It’s New York: The event was the second of three in the Summer Salon series at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Dermot Bolger’s excellent play The Parting Glass just opened on Thursday night, for a ten day run at the Barrow Street Theater (see our review by Michelle Woods ). Colum McCann is a New York resident, whose celebrated Let The Great World Spin is a love letter to the city.

How It’s Irish: The evening featured readings by fellow Dubliners and old friends McCann and Bolger, and songs by Bolger’s sons Donnacha and Diarmuid. The Salon Series is being presented in collaboration with the National Library of Ireland, with the aim of bringing together writers and musicians to share fiction, music, and song inspired by the libraries’ collections in Dublin and New York. The events are also presented in conjunction with the exhibition Ireland America: The Ties that Bind, a part of Imagine Ireland – the exhibition comes down on August 13th so if you haven’t made it there already, get to see it while you still can! (We did a post on it when it opened, but need to go back and check it out again– way too much to see in just one visit).

“Go off and get a good book”, recollects Dermot Bolger, quoting an oft-used command of his grandfather’s from many decades earlier. Wednesday evening in the NYPL was a celebration of storytelling in many forms, of which one feels the elder Bolger would have approved. As an audience there is no need to even open a book, much less go in search of one: we can simply sit back and enjoy the pleasure of just listening, as over an hour of poetry and prose and song is delivered with style and intimacy by the wordsmiths themselves.

The Brothers Bolger are the first on stage, with Donnacha, 22, on lead vocals and Diarmuid, 19, on guitar and harmonies. The songs are their own original pieces, taken from their debut album Skylines which is set to launch in Dublin’s Hedigan’s pub next week (watch a Youtube excerpt from it here!). The three pieces they choose puctuate the beginning, middle and end of the evening and Donnacha is a self-assured and gracious frontman throughout, providing the evening with a warmly familial tone and good unity. They open with Whisper, a gentle, folky ballad whose low-fi sound provides a good showcase for the duo’s pure voices, keen musicianship and well-observed lyrics. They finish with the upbeat and very hummable Rosie, with a lick of Arcade Fire’s ‘Moving Past the Feeling’ woven in. A self-confessed attempt at pop-song greatness, McCann has a share in any future royalties; the song having been penned at his prompting on a previous visit to NYC! The gig seems like an auspicious start to a promising music career.

Colum McCann is the first to read, and he admits to nervousness – or, as he puts it with charming candour, “I’m bricking it”. He tells the delighted audience that after two years of reading from Let the Great World Spin, this is his first public reading of his current work in progress, a novel to be called Transatlantic. This next venture promises as broad a scope as his previous work, and McCann tells us it will encompass the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Clifden in 1919. The excerpt we are treated to takes place a half century earlier, however, and centres around a visit by American Social Reformer Frederick Douglass to Dublin’s Merrion Square. It’s an engrossing portrait of a fascinating character at a a time and place in history that prompts its protagonist to ponder “whether the Irish were colour blind or whether there was just not much colour here”. McCann’s prose is as spellbinding as ever as he evokes the atmosphere of rain and mud and turf, the humanity of a Lord Mayor’s pomposity and street children playing jump rope. The detail is rich and the language direct, and the overall effect transports us with what one can only imagine is a deceptive effortlessness across miles and centuries from the Lincoln Center on a hot July evening.

After another musical interlude from his sons (he segues from their song to his reading by quipping “united by talent, divided by hair’), Dermot Bolger takes the stand. While his sons may have the edge on the hair front, Bolger’s talent is in no doubt as the audience are lulled by his poems, so clear and lyrical and vivid. O’Neill’s Music of Ireland and The Piper Patsy Touhey from his collection External Affairs: New Poems both touch on themes of music and the Irish emmigrant experience in the US; newer work explores familial loss and the journeys we make, in verse as personal as it is universal, and deeply moving. However the spaces between his poetry are filled with easy and immensely entertaining banter of a distinctly Dublin flavour. This gentle flux between tragedy and comedy is also very much apparent in The Parting Glass, and in fully embracing both, Bolger seems to lessen the distance between these two extremes of human experience. This is writing where pain and joy never feel very far apart.

As a platform for words and tunes and stories, with the inimitable rapport of the live experience, Wednesday’s Salon Series was a genuine pleasure. It’s to the credit of both libraries and Imagine Ireland that such unique events are taking place. But once the evening ends we can be glad that we can follow the sage advice of ‘go off and get a good book’. Be it on stage, in verse, sung, spoken, read – between Bolger and McCann they have created a wealth of mesmerizing storytelling in all its guises, and it’s all there to be savoured long after we’ve all gone home.

The next and final Summer Salon will take place on Wednesday, July 27 at 6:30 pm, and will feature novelist Frank Delaney and essayist Robert Sullivan with singer Susan McKeown and Celtic harpist Cormac De Barra.
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    Martin / July 27, 2011 at 6:55 am

    Great piece , made me want to be there but then feel I had.

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