Singing across Ireland

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What do you get when you cross 45 Newfoundland 50-plus choir members and an oversees flight to Ireland? A lot of singing and laughing and basically no sleep for anyone on board.

That was the scene on Sept. 19 when members of the St. John's based Fortissimos and The Legatos Choirs, both directed by Janet Bradbury-Pennell boarded the Air Canada flight. With the assistance of a phenomenal tour leader, Hilda Pollard-Milley, there was a to-die-for itinerary awaiting them in Ireland.

From start to finish, said Pennell, it was an exceptional experience! The whole idea of the trip was for those who hadn't experienced Ireland before to do so and also it was meant to bond the choir members, some of whom have been with the choir for seven years — some for only a few months. But from the get-go it was one-for all and all-for-one.

We did three performances: one in Galway where we helped fundraise for a new roof for the 300-year old St. Kummins Church and where we met and spoke with most of the audience who all seemed to have a story to tell about Newfoundland and our connection.

One of the local people was from our very own Avondale, a Mr. Flynn, who met and married an Irish lady while teaching in Labrador and then they both moved back to Galway 30 years ago. From Galway the choir travelled to Waterford where they performed at City Hall — the area where so many of the choirs' ancestors had left those very shores approximately 160 years ago. There were countless Powers, Butlers, O'Briens and Murphys and they all look like Newfoundlanders!

A few days later it was on to All Saints Church in a picturesque little village called Kilmacthomas just outside Waterford. The choir members were treated royally wherever they went. They were photographed, interviewed, sung for, played for, fed traditional food and the odd Guinness.

Says Pennell, "In Kilmacthomas, the locals were awaiting our arrival to unveil a plaque on a tiny 350 year-old stone one-storey structure which had served secretly as a school in the 1700s where the Irish children were taught all the basics by a man who refused to accept the British rule of no education for the Irish.

They proudly spoke of this tremendous teacher who had such an impact on the small village. Following this unveiling, we peformed at the Roman Catholic church, along with a primary school choir who sang in Gaelic — referred to simply as "Irish" In Ireland — along with the local Adult Choir. The parish priest, Fr. Keogh, welcomed the Newfoundland Choir to his church and also invited them to an evening of song and dance at the local pub directly across the street.

Janet said: "if you can picture a very old-fashioned stone, low-ceilinged, dimly lit, one-story pub with a big fire roaring and all sorts of smiling Irish people, that's what we walked into. Outside the door of the pub, they had even erected a Newfoundland and Canadian flag for our visit. Everyone — choir members and the local residents, stood up in their turn, and sang or recited something.

Our very own Newfoundland Irish tenor of the choir, Gus Connors in his 80s, regailed the residents with The Rose of Tralee, I'll take You Home Again, Kathleen and, of course, Danny Boy in a voice as pristine as it was 50 years before. Janet dedicated and sang a cappella "How Can You Buy Killarney, in memory of her father, Thomas Bradbury, whom she sang and played that song for hundreds of times as a child. When all the singing and dancing was done, a long table was cleared and a huge meal of Colcannon (potatos, salt ribs and cabbage) was served to everyone in sight including the children who were having a late night. Says Pennell, it was a night so memorable, heart-warming and absolutely magical. It was indeed a wonderful feeling of goodwill, fellowship, and family.

In Waterford, we experienced the traditional dancing done by a group of Irish girls in their gorgeous costumes, traditional music at every turn — and believe it or not four Irish "Elvis" impersonators. Said Janet, "you haven't heard "Hunk, a-Hunk A-Burnin' Love "unless you've heard it sung with an Irish accent. Elvis would've loved it .

The Irish wit and humor appeared to be identical to our own — the hospitality was as well quite on par. The bus driver for the choir was a 33 year-old Kerryman by the name of Brendan MacDermott who when asked how he managed to get the huge bus around all the small turns said in his quiet and witty Irish way; “Ah, sure, I just closes me eyes!!”

While touring Ireland, it was an unusual feeling of "coming home" even though most of us had never been there. There is indeed an invisible tie which you feel profoundly when you talk to the Irish people — there's a definite connection.

Landing back home at Torbay airport the first week of October, singing a rousing chorus of "Amen", the choir members are much richer for the opportunity and anxious to go again. Said Pennell, "this is what music is all about — to experience that joyful sensation of wellbeing from harmonious voices and to put a smile on someone's face" and she advises that if you have any Irish roots, this is a must for your bucket list.


Submitted by Janet Bradbury-Pennell

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