How it’s New York: At The Irish Arts Center in New York City
How it’s Irish: Irish Artists sharing words and music from and about World War I

Neuve Chappelle curtain call

It was fitting that on the night following the centenary of the death of World War I activist and unionizer Joe Hill, The Irish Arts Center presented a lively show of songs, poems and stories from and about the war entitled “From Neuve Chappelle to New York“.

The brainchild of singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke, with a script by Myles Dungan, the show is a raucous and touching journey through the years of the “Great War”.  The show featured songs both old and new, stories read by actor John Keating and poetry read by renowned Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

The trio of performers wove a web of memories from the perspectives of those in the trenches, as well as those at home in both Ireland and England. One piece was a hilarious take from a woman left behind who is happier with the “2 pound a week” than having her man safely at home. There were songs and poems of those who died in the war before they were even old enough to vote.  Readings included wrenching tributes from poets like Francis Ledwidge who gave a veteran’s birds-eye view (as in Soliloquy read with aplomb by Paul Muldoon). These were interspersed with anecdotes from the compelling script by Myles Dungan, detailing stories of family life, battle weary soldiers and remorseful officials, read with verve and character by John Keating.

Opening the show with a stroll down the aisle singing “We’re all Part of Jacky’s Army” with a lantern, Declan O’Rourke embodied all the songs as though he had lived them, or written them himself.  He talked of the inspiration for the piece, a great-great-grandfather who died in the war, and his journey to find out more about him and his two brothers who all left Ireland to fight.

One of the most touching moments of the night came in the song “Christmas 1915” by Cormac MacConnell, taken from a true account of a German soldier who sang “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve in the trenches, bringing a sense of peace and sorrow to those hearing it who knew that in the morning they would likely die.  This brought to the forefront the true fear and longing in the hearts of these tough men fighting to keep their part of the world free.  Here’s a performance of the song from Jerry Lynch on Peace Day at the U.N. from 2010: Silent Night 1915

The show also touched on the correlations to the 1916 Rising and the feelings heightened by those in Ireland now fighting against those they had fought alongside.  O’Rourke sang the stalwart standards “The Foggy Dew“, “Willie McBride“, “Salonika” and Eric Bogle‘s modern song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda“.

Once again The Irish Arts Center has brought together many elements of what touches us all from our Irish heritage, keeping them alive for generations to come.  Hopefully this show will come back to grace their stage again soon, and I have it on a good authority that an audio version may be coming in the future.  Until then, you can check out news of Declan‘s upcoming album on his website Declan O’

Look for Paul Muldoon‘s Picnic coming to The Irish Arts Center in Spring 2016 and featuring the likes of Kait O’Riordan and Laurie Anderson.  John Keating can be seen in the upcoming film from New York writer/director Colin BroderickEmerald City.


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