Monday 21 January 2019

Music brought consolation on that black day

Reality was suspended as we entertained at a festival in Norway, writes John Sheahan of The Dubliners

Barney, Sean, Eamonn, Patsy and myself flew into Oslo and drove west for three hours through breathtaking scenery to the town of Bo. We attended dinner arranged in our honour by renowned local Hardanger fiddle player, Torgeir Straand. An inevitable impromptu session followed. A truce was called in the early hours.

Next evening, we assembled to go to the festival site. A silent huddle of souls gathered round the television in the hotel lobby. Facial expressions reflected a sense of disbelief as news of a crime against humanity unfolded.

A car bomb had just exploded at government buildings in Oslo, claiming the lives of several people and causing extensive damage. First suspicions were that an international terrorist organisation was responsible. Later, news filtered through that a lone Norwegian was the perpetrator.

At that stage we were not aware that he was already on his way to execute part two of a mass murder which he had plotted and planned for years. This is the background against which we left the hotel for our sound check. We arrived at the festival site shadowed by a black cloud which had plunged the country into deep shock. We were in a bubble of unreality -- aware of a terrible atrocity, yet distracted by our professional responsibility to entertain.

The festival committee deliberated on whether to cancel the evening's concert. After due consideration, they favoured the power of music as a source of consolation in the midst of sorrow and bereavement.

Reality was put on hold. We were joined on stage by Norwegian singer, Ingebjorg Bratland for a heart-breaking rendition of The Foggy Dew, which she dedicated to all who suffered on that tragic day. Straand, joined us again for a fiddle duet, Farewell to Harstad, a lament which I composed on a visit to Norway 30 years ago. The plaintive mood of the melody touched a nerve of suppressed reality.

Next, a Norwegian Wedding March to the chant of a thousand voices. Sean weaved a Celtic spell with Fainne Geal An Lae. Barney and Eamonn had everyone on their feet for a rousing set of reels. Patsy responded to requests for Dirty Old Town. The evening was brought to a close with Whiskey in the Jar and The Wild Rover. With midnight strains of Molly Malone echoing through the valley, we took our leave.

In our dressing room, stark reality assaulted us. Anders Behring Breivik has staged a massacre at Utoya Island, where he posed as a police officer, brutally gunning down a peaceful youth rally. Suddenly, the backstage mood was uplifted by an invasion of fans geared up for a party. Norwegian dance tunes mingled with jigs and reels. Barney was on the floor battering out sean nos rhythms with Connemara journalist Aine Ni Chuaig. The session continued with a see-saw of emotions luring us in and out of reality.

Barney, Sean, Eamonn and Patsy returned home on Saturday. I accepted an invitation to stay, a guest in the home of Norwegian friends Kari and Oivind. This peaceful country has been shrouded in sorrow. Regular television programmes suspended, there was only one news story. Together we watched a spontaneous rally of peace and solidarity -- king and people united in a silent outpouring of grief -- a hundred thousand souls afloat in a sea of roses. An unspoken resolve was tangible.

"We will not surrender to violence, nor abandon our open society." Dignified emotion spilled across the air waves, moving us to tears.

Next morning, I took my leave. The power of music consoles, but the memory of Norway's blackest Friday will remain etched in my mind forever.

Sunday Independent

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