When we were constructing our journey through Ireland – almost 18 months ago – we decided to make a counter-clockwise excursion around the perimeter of the island. This would afford us stops at several places that are unique by way of the Irish landscape.
For as important a place as Dublin is, I always enjoy bringing our ensemble into the West of Ireland – to County Clare, especially. The place is bursting with history, literature, and sights for the eye to behold. We have a wonderful set of contacts (Joan Culloo McNamara is a longtime friend), and through her own generous efforts we were able to secure an evening concert at Ennis Cathedral.
But when we arrived at the cathedral, a surprise awaited us: a body had just been received in the church (the Irish custom is for the coffin to lie in state the entire evening, with the funeral mass to be celebrated the following morning).
Our Irish friends were not rattled by the fact that a concert of sacred music was to take place. The deceased’s name was Nell Hanley, and, in fact, she was an organist who had played liturgies and funerals all over the Diocese of Killaloe. So, in fact, what most Americans might’ve thought inappropriate turned out to be a wonderful benediction to this woman’s labors throughout her life.
The cathedral was packed – we sang with a group of about seventy young children, all of whom had learned “Set Your Heart on the Higher Gifts,” “I Have Been Anointed,” and “How Can I Keep From Singing.”
I couldn’t help but think that Nell was smiling down on this crowd of singers, all raising their voices, all addressing the mystery that now surrounded her in the afterlife. It was a night of strong emotion, deeply felt song, and gratitude for all that was.