My people (as they say over there) on my mother’s side are Irish. They, and so I, come from the Furlongs of County Wexford, a coastal county located in the Province of Leinster in southeastern Ireland. The capital city, Wexford town, is known for its medieval lanes and modern National Opera House, whose principal conductor and artistic director happens to be Maestro David Agler, who was three years ahead of me at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, back in the 1970s.
My mother’s mother, Monica Furlong, was born here in the States, in another coastal town—Baltimore in Maryland (from which I hail, as well). Her parents were immigrants; they came directly from Wexford, which means that I’m one generation too far removed to secure an Irish passport, sad to say. But I have long loved the Irish and Ireland. And the connection with Ireland is one that has marked my life in any number of significant ways over the years.
Like many Americans, my first real exposure to Ireland came through James Joyce, whose novels I met early in high school. His literary alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, was no stranger to me. I knew him well; his encounters with Jesuit retreat masters were as familiar to me as counting to ten. Much later, I set a number of Joyce’s poems in a choral cycle called “Chamber Music.”
And of course, my distant ancestor George Armstrong Custer had an Irish tune, Garry Owen, as his regimental song for the 7th Cavalry (for more on that, see here). It’s a stirring tune, and sounds like this.
Sigh. Errol Flynn as General Custer. Perfect casting. Well, anyway…
It was the poets who won my heart. G.K. Chesterton said it best in The Ballad of the White Horse,
The great Gaels of Ireland
are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
and all their songs are sad.
The bards of Erin. The minstrels. The seanachies and story tellers and truth tellers, all. Theirs were the words that captured my soul. So it was no surprise to me that as a student at Westminster Choir College, I was deeply moved to sing Joseph Flummerfelt’s haunting arrangement of Danny Boy from manuscript. Listen to it here, and see if you can keep a dry eye as you do (I’ll admit it: I can’t).
When I began composing, it was the lyrical language of William Butler Yeats—playwright, patriot, and poet all in one—that I first set. All these years later, I am still haunted by two of his poems in particular: The Fiddler of Dooney, which tells of the triumph of poetry over piety, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree. If I wrote nothing but the musical settings of these two poems, I would be a very happy composer indeed.
Where is your “deep heart’s core”? What do you hear there? What songs do you hold and carry in your heart, ever and always?
There’s much more to tell, of course, including meeting my friend Louise Daly O’Hanlon and her choirs at Herricks High School, an encounter that changed my life and brought me to the piece which I’ll be hearing in Dublin, so very soon. But that can wait for now. The tale, as they say, is always in the telling.