Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Irish Blessing

Back in mid-September, my high school class held its fortieth anniversary reunion. Many classmates came from as far as California for the weekend festivities, and afterwards all said they had a wonderful time. Only a few classmates who attended, however, knew that an Irish celebrity had given our gathering her blessing a full month before the reunion.

I was on the committee preparing for the reunion. My chief responsibility had been researching and compiling information about classmates who had died. At one of our Saturday morning committee meetings back in July, we were discussing what kind of memorial presentation we wanted to do for our departed classmates. Sharon, the committee member in charge of the memorial, was outlining her thoughts: that we could do a PowerPoint slide show with some recorded background music. I then suggested that, since our class was known for its musical talent, perhaps we could have live music instead of recorded music. The committee all thought that was a wonderful idea, so of course they put me in charge of arranging for the music.

The first thing I had to do was pick appropriate musical selections. I figured that two pieces would be enough to get us through the slide presentation. The first selection was easy. I wanted to use a setting of Psalm 23, since that’s often read or sung at memorials and funerals, and I remembered that the high school concert choir had sung a setting of Ps. 23 called “Brother James’ Air” that I thought many of the singers would remember.

But I was stumped about the second piece until the following morning, when we sang the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” during our Sunday worship service in my home church. I recalled that many of our classmates had loved that hymn during our high school years.

I found some simple arrangements of the two selections and began contacting singers.

The first weekend in August is always the weekend of the Dublin, Ohio, Irish Festival. Dublin is a suburb of Columbus, and we always look forward to attending the festival, most notably because we can hear some of the top Irish bands perform live. And we especially like to go on the Sunday of the festival, because several worship services are held in the morning, and admission to the festival is free if we bring canned donations for the local food pantry. The free admission allows us to attend worship and then stay for the rest of the day’s activities. So on this first Sunday in August my wife and I, along with our second son and daughter-in-law, climbed into the car with about eight cans of beans for the donation and drove to Coffman Park for a day at the festival.

The Dublin stage, a large, open-air pole building, is normally the venue for the biggest and best-known acts that attract the largest crowds. On Sunday morning it was being used for the most heavily attended worship service: a Roman Catholic Mass that was being said in the Irish language. A local priest who has learned the language presides over this service, which is held every year at the festival. We decided to attend the Mass to hear the Irish language spoken—we thought that would be something different and interesting. (At right: the front page of the bulletin for the Mass. Photos below left: Some last-minute preparations before the Mass began)

Before the Mass began, the organizers of the service introduced a choir—I think they were mostly from St. Brendan’s Catholic parish in Dublin—and then they introduced a singer named Moya Brennan, who was sitting with the choir in the front.

Some of my readers here may know who Moya Brennan is. I didn’t. I had absolutely no idea at the time that she is an Irish music celebrity. I honestly thought she was just a local talent, perhaps from St. Brendan’s. Readers who haven’t heard of Moya Brennan may recognize the name of her better-known sister: Enya. I didn’t learn who Ms. Brennan is until after all this happened.

I am sure that readers can guess what the opening hymn for the Mass was. Indeed, it was “Be Thou My Vision”! (Well, it is an Irish hymn, after all.) Moya Brennan sang the first verse in Irish, and then we all sang three verses in English. My heart melted when I heard the Irish words being sung:
Bí Thusa mo shúile
a Rí mhór na ndúil…
Moya sang it in that lilting Irish soprano that is so captivating. I was so touched by the words and by Moya’s singing that I told my wife I had to go speak with her after the service was over. She told me, though, that Ms. Brennan was scheduled to perform some music on her own at noon, according to the schedule in her hand. I replied that I wouldn’t be taking much of her time; I just wanted to ask her a question.

So, without knowing who she is, I did approach Moya Brennan after the service. She was setting up for her gig behind the stage area. I went up to her and asked her where or how I could learn to pronounce the Irish words to the hymn that she had sung.

She looked at me, smiled and then said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a phonetic rendering.”

As soon as she opened her mouth to speak with her Irish accent, I knew she wasn’t from St. Brendan’s. Although she was quite busy getting ready for her performance, she graciously took the time to help me with the pronunciations.

I stayed and listened to her performance while the rest of the family visited other attractions at the festival. About two hours later, after Moya’s performance was finished, I stood in her reception line. She was selling CD's, chatting with appreciative fans, and posing for photographs as well. When I got to the front of the line, I purchased one of her CD's, out of gratitude to her for her willingness to help me out even though she was so busy. (Photo below right: Moya Brennan in her reception line, talking with an appreciative fan)

I then took the CD and gave it to her for her autograph. I looked at her, smiled and said, “I wish to thank you for your gracious willingness to take time out of preparing for your performance to help teach me the Irish words to ‘Be Thou My Vision.’”

She smiled and replied, “It was my pleasure.”

“I want to tell you the reason I am interested in that particular hymn.”


“I’m on the anniversary reunion committee for my high school class, and I was planning to use that hymn during our memorial presentation for our classmates who have died. Those Irish words truly inspired me.”

She looked at me, smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and very kindly said, “Go for it!”

I will never forget that experience. Now our reunion, and especially our memorial presentation, has the blessing of an Irish celebrity! What more could I ever ask for?

The reunion was held during the third weekend in September. It was a marvelous experience and an emotional watershed for me as well as for many others. As it turned out, the elaborate memorial presentation we had planned, with the live singing and the PowerPoint slides, never materialized. Instead, Sharon simply read a poem that another classmate had written for the occasion and then read the names of the classmates who had passed. It was a very moving moment. (I did sing the two Irish verses of “Be Thou My Vision” that I had learned from Ms. Brennan privately to a few classmates.)

But most importantly, it was clear to me that Moya Brennan’s gracious and generous spirit permeated the reunion and all who attended it. After it was all over, many commented on how kind and friendly everyone was. Moya’s blessing certainly carried us through the weekend—her kindness, friendliness, and generosity being reflected in the attitudes and actions of all who were there.