Recipe has equal parts Irish music and poetry

HoCoPoLitSo: Having `something for everyone' has helped the event grow into its 25th year.

February 06, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

In 25 years, the audience has grown and the venue has changed, but the formula has remained constant for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's Evening of Irish Music and Poetry: A renowned Irish author followed by lively Irish music equals success.

The group will celebrate its silver anniversary of Irish evenings tomorrow with a reading by writer and poet Ciaran Carson and performances by Irish musicians and dancers at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia.

"The key is we have something for everyone," said Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, a Columbia real estate agent who has coordinated the event for 19 years. An Irish emigre who visits her native country often, she has persuaded more than two dozen prominent Irish writers to cross the ocean and take the stage in Columbia.

That job has been made easier as the event has grown in attendance and reputation.

The list of previous participants includes Edna O'Brien, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Nuala O'Faolain and Seamus Heaney, who appeared three times, including the year before he won the Nobel Prize.

Since 1979, when Pauline Flanagan read and a harpist provided music for an enthusiastic crowd in the Kittamaqundi Room in the Rouse building, the Irish evening has outgrown that venue and the 420-seat Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, settling in the 736-seat Rouse Theatre in 1998.

For many years, the Irish ambassador to the United States has introduced the evening's writer, often with in-depth comments about literature, politics and events in that country. This year, Noel Fahey will be the fifth ambassador to do the honors.

Each year, the event "grows in reputation and prestige on the other side of the ocean, and here," said Padraic Kennedy, the evening's co-chairman. "It kind of creates an atmosphere ... that draws other writers as well."

Carson wrote in an e-mail from Ireland: "Several other Irish poets who have fulfilled this engagement, such as Michael Longley and Paula Meehan, have spoken warmly about the organization and the general ambience."

Carson, author of eight books of poetry and four of prose, was born in Belfast in 1948 and lives there with his wife and three children. His background and years of study have made him a leading expert on urban Belfast, rural Ireland and Irish oral and musical traditions.

Critics have praised his attention to language, complex imagery and insight into political, social and cultural issues. Tomorrow, Carson will read from his Selected Poems, from a new book called Breaking News, to be published next month, and from his translation of Dante's Inferno.

"I'm interested in how people might respond to my work," Carson said in his e-mail. "Some of my poetry deals with the political situation in my home of Northern Ireland, and it'll be interesting to see how this might be seen in the light of current international relations."

He also said he hopes audiences will take away from the evening "the impression that words matter, in a world where words are sometimes used sloppily to justify otherwise unjustifiable actions."

Words have mattered to HoCoPoLitSo since its founding in 1974. The organization brings notable authors to Columbia for readings, sponsors a poet in residence at area schools and produces a local cable television series called The Writing Life.

The Irish evening was the first event for which the group charged admission. Now it is a key fund-raiser for the group's school and community programs.

While the writers offer different voices each year, the music remains more consistent. The society has formed a lasting relationship with a group of top area Irish musicians, including current and former members of the band Celtic Thunder.

Terry Winch, an accordionist, songwriter and founding member of Celtic Thunder, has been at every Irish evening except the first one.

"It's always fresh for us," Winch said. "We know there is a real history there. ... We check the set list to avoid repeating material."

He said the music is "almost a cathartic experience for the audience" as it follows the intellectual challenge of the reading.

This year's lineup includes other Irish evening regulars: bodhran player Jesse Winch, flutist and tin whistle player Linda Hickman, fiddler Tony DeMarco, guitarist and singer Dominick Murray and singer Grace Griffith.

This year will blur the divisions between the writing and musical segments. Carson, a talented musician, plans to play the flute, and Terry Winch, a poet and fiction writer, plans to shares some of his written works.

"It is the only event ... that I've been aware of in a lifetime of playing Irish music and of being a writer, that does in fact combine Irish writing and Irish music," Winch said.

"Of course, the Irish are known for both," he added.

The country is also known for traditional step-dancing, and that, too, will be on display. World competitor Maura Hodgetts and Irish Dancing World Champion Shane Kelly, both 16, will demonstrate their talents tomorrow evening.

"I think Americans have always had something of a romance with Irish writers, and Irish writers have exploited that affection as much as possible," Terry Winch said. "I don't see that disappearing at all."

After a quarter-century, HoCoPoLitSo's Irish evenings seem bound for longevity, as well.

Kennedy has watched the Irish evenings flourish. He is the husband of HoCoPoLitSo's founder and president, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, and is former president of the Columbia Association. He helped get the first event off the ground. "The early audiences came to see if it was good," he said. "Now, I think the audience comes expecting it to be good."

The Evening of Irish Music and Poetry will begin at 8 o'clock tomorrow at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Wilde Lake. Tickets are $26 each. Tickets and information: HoCoPoLitSo, 410-730-7524.

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