Declan O'Rourke (all photos by Iain Toft)

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How it’s New York: The Irish Arts Center is in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen in New York
How it’s Irish: Declan O’Rourke is a native of Dublin

Last weekend (February 7th-10th), Declan O’Rourke and his brilliant eight-piece band (performed their song cycle, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, to sold out crowds for a four-night run at the Irish Arts Center. Released in 2017, the album, the culmination of 15 years of work, won a 2018 RTE Radio One Folk Award.

O’Rourke was compelled to create the cycle after discovering on a birth certificate that his grandfather had been born in a workhouse in 1916. For those unfamiliar, the poorhouse was a carryover from the earliest years of the famine in the 1840s. The workhouses were institutions that provided shelter and food in exchange for labour but were overcrowded, had woefully inadequate sanitation, were rife with disease and worst of all, separated families upon entering. The last of them closed in the 1920s.

Counterclockwise: Declan O’Rourke, John Sheahan, Cillian Vallely, Florian Blancke, Dermot Byrne and Chris Herzberger

O’Rourke set the stage, painting a picture of an early 19th century Ireland with a population that had doubled to eight million in less than 100 years, one dependent on a potato crop. It was common then, according to O’Rourke, for an Irish person to consume 14 pounds of potatoes daily. He spoke of politician Daniel O’Connell, known in Ireland as “The Great Emancipator”, who, in his final address to the House of Commons in January 1847, pleaded with them to save his homeland. “Ireland is in your hands, in your power…I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.” Weeks later, O’Connell, a rare Irish voice that had the attention of the British establishment, was dead. As O’Rourke and the ensemble sang in “Along the Western Seaboard”, “Brittania rules the roost with iron hands, ” as millions starved, froze or died of disease.

In O’Rourke’s program notes on the song “Buried In the Deep”, about those who reluctantly boarded ships leaving Ireland and often drowned or died aboard en route – “Its farewell to you, poor Erin” – he wrote about President Kennedy, who traveled to his family’s ancestral land in 1963. Kennedy explained that “if this national had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great-grandfather might never have left New Ross.” His words demonstrated the lasting, devastating effect of the famine well beyond the borders of Ireland.

In addition to his grandfather’s origins, O’Rourke also shared “surviving original accounts” that he had come across. In the notes  he wrote that after reading just three lines about the Buckley family in the preface of John O’Connor’s The Workhouses of Ireland: The Fate of Ireland’s Poor, “which made the hair stand up on my neck”, the profound moment “became the cornerstone for this whole collection.” As he introduced the song “Poor Boy’s Shoes”, he said ” I don’t think I ever recovered from their story. The images of the famine I had were brought to life. There was beauty and hope as well as tragedy to their stories.”

Counterclockwise: Caitriona Frost, Jack Maher, Declan O’Rourke, John Sheahan, Cillian Vallely, Floriane Blancke, Dermot Byrne, Chris Herzberger and Rob Calder

The powerful songs that O’Rourke and his band have crafted, though tinged with sadness, are a lovely, moving tribute to the lives lost during that very dark period. Although the cycle is about events that transpired 150 years ago, it is not hard to see the parallels between the desperate journeys to Canada and America the Irish took and their desire to start anew here, and the struggles of what refugees trying to get to Europe and from Central American to the US are enduring right now.

 

The band features John Sheahan (fiddle); Floriane Blancke (harp, backing vocals); Dermot Byrne (accordion); Rob Calder (bass guitar); Caitriona Frost (drums/percussion); Chris Herzberger (fiddle); Jack Maher (banjo, 2nd guitar); and Cillian Vallely (pipes and whistles).

For more on Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, Declan O’Rourke, the musicians and the tour, visit:  https://declanorourke.com/

To learn about the Irish Arts Center, go to: https://irishartscenter.org/

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