2015-02-26 / Around Town

Keeping Irish Culture Alive in Song

By Pat Blakeley

The AOH Men's Singers are always quick to launch into song, whether at sacred or secular events, and boast a large repertoire. The AOH Men's Singers are always quick to launch into song, whether at sacred or secular events, and boast a large repertoire. In 1998, when diehard Irish Americans from Newport’s Ancient Order of Hibernians were in Kinsale, Ireland, conducting preliminary business for the Sister City program, they got something they never expected from their hosts: heartfelt musical performances from every one of them. “We’d never seen anything like it,” reports David Kerins, who along with the late Paul Crowley, Jerry Harrington and Joe Brady, was helping with the “Sister” effort.

The group was in Kinsale’s White House Tavern with the local representatives, and one of their new friends stepped up and started singing a cappella. “People quieted right down, and as soon as one finished another began. We were mesmerized by the simple sincerity of the music,” Kerins said.

The Newporters discovered that just about everyone in Ireland has a “party piece,” something that they can perform at the drop of a hat, extemporaneously, in any type of social gathering. They were stunned at how effortlessly the businessmen, one after another, offered a bit of themselves as a gift.

The Kinsale singers weren’t showmen, Kerins recalls, and they weren’t performing out of personal pride. “It was definitely not a ‘look at me’ sort of thing. It was just like being in someone’s kitchen, with them singing for you.” That sort of intimate atmosphere, he says, is what makes the art form work. Its purpose is twofold; the music breaks down barriers and helps people learn about their heritage.

The tradition stems from the Irish culture of the spoken word, through stories, poems and singing. “We learned that this is part of the Irish legacy – and we decided to incorporate it into our culture in Newport,” said Kerins, who along with Wick Rudd founded the AOH Men’s Singers.

The process began slowly, with just a handful of singers in 2013. Their first appearance was at the Hibernian Christmas Mass that year, and now the self-directed a cappella group numbers 20, with more and more comfortable singing solo.

They sing at Masses, funerals, parties, and “pretty much wherever we’re asked,” says Kerins. “Everyone has something to give. The songs are offered with love, without guile or embarrassment, and that’s what makes them so touching.”

“Red is the Rose,” which they dedicate to Paul Crowley, and the sacred “Lady of Knock,” based on the famous miracle, are particular favorites, but the group’s repertoire keeps increasing.

The wealth of the Irish experience is captured in pieces about social history, struggle, and of course, Kerins laughs, lost loves. Sacred songs are common, as are immigrants’ tales. The genre embraces traditions not unlike those found in country western culture; each song has a specific narrative, and people young and old appreciate the beauty of the stories.

“In Ireland, anyone who can carry a tune will step right up at a gathering,” Kerins says. “We’d like to see that tradition in Newport.”

Sessions are common around Ireland, and locally the Fastnet Pub offers regular instrumental sessions. Gatherings are quite casual, but Kerins says the AOH Singers like to keep a crisp appearance, wearing their “Kit Number 1,” a blue blazer, khakis, white shirt, and the Hibernian tie. They’ll be at the Forty Steps to kick off Irish Heritage Month on March 1 and will sing at the March 15 Irish Mass at St. Mary’s.

In the spirit of taking care of their own, the AOH Men’s Singers will host an Irish music session at the Hibernian Hall on Friday, Feb. 27, from 7-10 p.m., as a fundraiser for the family of recently-deceased Lady Hibernian Eilish Heaney. All are welcome.

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