Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Easter Rising? I'll sing to that

Raconteur and tenor Noel O'Grady brings 1916 songs and stories to a new audience

Celine Naughton

Published 05/05/2016 | 02:30

Any venue's a stage: Noel O'Grady, pictured outside the GPO in Dublin Photo: Caroline Quinn.
Any venue's a stage: Noel O'Grady, pictured outside the GPO in Dublin Photo: Caroline Quinn.

You don't have to be descended from someone who fought in the Easter Rising to feel a connection with this key event in history. Singer, raconteur and retired Irish Army Commandant, Noel O'Grady stakes his claim to 1916 as enthusiastically as anyone with a direct bloodline to the rebels.

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"I don't have a relative, but I have a passion," says the man who's spent much of this year commemorating the event at venues big and small, from a cosy pub outside Trim, to Listowel in his native Kerry, Áras an Uachtaráin at President Higgin's invitation, and the centre stage of the rebellion itself, the GPO on Easter Monday.

He's also been invited to perform in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in celebration of Easter 1916's influence on India's insurrections and eventual independence.

"I hadn't planned on being involved with the commemoration activities," he says. "If anything, as a former weapons instructor, I had an underlying sense that if I ever saw a gun, or even an image of a gun again, it would be too soon. Then the 1916 Relatives Association asked me to perform in the GPO. I finished with The Soldier's Song, which most of the GPO rebels sang on Friday evening in the burning building whose roof was about to cave in."

It's not just the lyrical quality of his tenor voice that has audiences captivated. Whether he's singing as Gaeilge, or breathing new life into old standards, it's as much his stories between songs that bring the music, poetry, art and culture of 100 years ago to life.

"As I sing There's No Place Like Home, I think of the executed leaders and their bereft loved ones," he says. "Home resonates with people facing death. When a gun was put to my head during a UN tour in El Salvador in 1993, my only thought was of home, and that knock on the door...

"James Connolly's last thoughts were also of home. During his wife Lillie's final visit, he urged her to entrust his poems, plays, songs, and other works to Francis Sheehy Skeffington to sell, keeping the wolf from the family door. She broke the news that Skeffington was executed during Easter Week."

Noel also relates to Roger Casement, who spent years in the Congo and Peru exposing human rights violations of slaves in the rubber plantations. Noel's final overseas posting was to the Congo, where he contracted malaria.

"I recovered quickly thanks to modern medicine. Casement and the slaves he championed endured far worse, yet he later managed to negotiate a shipment of armaments from Germany for Easter 1916. He was physically exhausted as he struggled onto Banna Strand, his dreams sank with the arms, yet he subsequently 'walked like a prince' to the gallows."

The volunteer scheduled to pilot the Aud into Fenit Harbour, Murt O'Leary from the Maharees in west Kerry, was a neighbour and friend of Noel's mother, Eileen O'Grady - 91 next month. Noel's father Harry, a member of An Gárda Siochána, was stationed in several Kerry towns with links to the Rising. Noel himself was commissioned into Cathal Brugha Barracks where Skeffington was executed and where Michael Collins lived until ambushed at Béal na Bláth.

James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man whose centenary is this year, also resonates with Noel whose one-man show, Ode to James Joyce: Portrait of a Tenor tours worldwide. Joyce attended Irish language classes given by Padraig Pearse.

"Art for me, in all its forms, is about connection," says Noel. "Leadership, likewise. And though as a military man I'd question some of the 1916 strategies - locking themselves into buildings and not expecting to be artillery-shelled, and digging in Stephen's Green without first controlling any of the surrounding buildings - I'm in awe of their valour and vision.

"For them, the Rising was a sea change in a gradual path for freedom. James Connolly exemplified this in his 1903 composition, A Rebel Song: 'Our march is nearer done, with each setting of the sun.'

"What his and his comrades' heartfelt plea was: this isn't simple, it will take time, there will be twists, but our blood sacrifice will further the cause for future generations.

"One of the central figures of the Fenian Rising of 1867 was Westmeath-born John Keegan Casey, whose pen was mightier than his pike. Just a teenager when he wrote The Rising of the Moon, he died on St Patrick's Day 1870, mainly from punishments sustained in Mountjoy Prison. In his short 23 years, he helped prepare the fuse that ignited in Easter 1916."

Noel remembers these heroes in the haunting lament, Táimse Im' Chodhladh, an 'aisling' or dream poem. "Momentous events don't just happen, they're caused - by artists, dreamers, visionaries. Their dream and defiance paved the way. As Yeats said, 'It was the dream itself enchanted me.' For centuries, we couldn't express our mother tongue, our religion… we could only dream.

"On today's centenary of Joseph Mary Plunkett's execution, I feel that, as a young independent nation, we've come a long way."

For more information on Noel's events, see noelogrady.com

Irish Independent

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