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A Gaelic Christmas

Mary Mc Laughlin and the 2012 Cór Ainglí Singers
Mary Mc Laughlin and her Cór Ainglí Singers: L-R: Eileen Mihm, Laura Schanzer, Laura Reeve, Jennie Siegmund, Mary Mc Laughlin, Kathleen Loveless, Kathy Hopkins, Audrey Nickel. An Irish Christmas in Northern California! That’s beautiful Monterey Bay behind us.

I know what you’re thinking: “Audrey, there’s still a few weeks until Christmas. Are you writing about Christmas already?”

Well, musicians (and their long-suffering families) get started on Christmas a whole lot earlier than the rest of the world (think September…sometimes August). But my poor family does have one advantage:

A large part of my Christmas repertoire is in Irish.

A Gaelic Christmas – An Irish Gaelic Choir…in California?

I first met Irish singer and songwriter Mary Mc Laughlin about a year and a half after I started learning Irish, via a sean-nós singing class she was offering through the Santa Cruz, CA, branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (the Dublin-based international Irish musicians’ society).

(By the way, even if you’re not a musician, Comhaltas is a great organization to join if you’re learning Irish, as they’re actively engaged in promoting the Irish language and other traditional aspects of Irish culture. You can check it out here).

A native of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, who now lives in Capitola, CA, Mary grew up spending her summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area), where she both learned Irish and fell in love with traditional Irish singing.

As you know if you’ve read our August, 2012 post “Irish Gaelic Songs,” traditional sean-nós (shan nohss), or “old style” Irish singing is typically a solo performance, without accompaniment (you can read a lot about it it this article from Wikipedia).

When I met her, though, Mary had a much different idea in mind: She wanted to form a Gaelic choir. Specifically, a Christmas choir. One that could perform music she was arranging for her prospective CD: “A Gaelic Christmas.”

Before reading more about the Gaelic Christmas, would you like to learn how to wish someone Happy Christmas in Irish Gaelic? Check out the pronunciation video!

How To Say – Happy Christmas in Irish Gaelic

A Gaelic Christmas – A new approach

Putting traditional Gaelic songs in non-traditional settings isn’t new: Groups such as Clannad and Altan have been doing it since the ’70s. A choir, however, particularly an American choir singing in Irish, was something new altogether.

There were a lot of questions. Could enough people be found who were interested in and able for such an endeavor? Given that most of the recruits would not speak Irish, could they learn to pronounce the words correctly? And, perhaps most important, would people in California really turn up to hear a choral concert in Irish?

Yes, yes, and a resounding yes

Recruiting prospective singers proved to be the easy part. Training them, on the other hand, required a huge commitment of time and dedication, on both Mary’s and the choir’s part.

Workshops actually began in the summer of 2006, during which singers were evaluated and placed into their proper choral groupings. Some arrangements had to be re-written to accommodate the available voices.

Work began in earnest in early September. The Irish words were gone over painstakingly in weekly rehearsals, and each singer was also expected to work at home, using materials based on the method Mary devised for her book “Singing In Irish Gaelic,” which included phonetic renderings and CDs with the parts spoken and sung.

The choir acquired a name: Cór Ainglí  (Kohr AN-glee” — Angelic Choir,” from the first line of the Irish version of the carol “Angels We Have Heard On High”), and proved that they could, indeed, learn to pronounce Irish.

As the first early December concert approached, though, everyone was still a bit nervous. Would people really turn up for the concert? Sure there was plenty of interest in both choral music and Irish music in Santa Cruz, but would that interest be sufficient to attract people to a concert that combined elements of both?

That question was answered emphatically 20 minutes after the doors opened on opening night, when a slightly harried usher poked his head into the green room and said “Get ready…we’re sold out!”

A Gaelic Christmas – Just the beginning

That first performance was just the beginning. Mary and Cór Ainglí sold out two venues that year…and again in 2007. By 2008, it became clear that a larger venue was needed, and the group moved from the small 100-seat church that had been its primary venue to a church that seated 400 (and came close to selling that out as well!).

They also began to expand out of the Santa Cruz area. As of this writing, the group has performed in San Francisco, Oakland, Menlo Park, San Jose, and Morgan Hill (in California), and Mary was even invited to form a second Cór Ainglí in St. Louis, MO, in 2007!

For 2012, Mary has refined the Santa Cruz choir from a 25-voice community choir to a 9-voice ensemble of highly experienced choral singers (dubbed The Cór Ainglí Singers), and expanded the repertoire to include music from seasons other than Christmas to correspond with the release of her latest CD, “Sacred Days, Mythic Ways.”

(Gaelic Christmas fans need not worry, though…there will still be plenty of Christmas music!)

So what does all this say about Irish?

As I mentioned in the post “Why do the Irish Speak English?” (published 17/10/12), some of the greatest growth of interest in the Irish language is taking place outside of Ireland, particularly in countries that saw a lot of Irish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

I think the fact that so many people will come out year after year in California to hear a choral concert in Irish underscores this. There is a genuine interest in, and affection for, the language in the nations of the Irish diaspora…one that still often takes Irish people by surpise.

The really exciting thing is that these concerts also spark an interest in learning the language, or at least learning to sing in it, which is a great first step (as I tell learners, “Music is a gateway drug!”). In fact, several members of the original Cór Ainglí are now actively studying Irish!

Would you like to hear Cór Ainglí sing?

Should you happen to find yourself in Northern California in early December, we’d love to see you at one of our concerts (Feel free to come up and introduce yourself after the show. As the only member of the current ensemble with gray hair, I’m easy to spot!). Our 2012 performances are:

  • Menlo Park, December 2, 4:00 p.m. at Vallombrosa Center, 250 Oak Grove Avenue.
  • Santa Cruz, December 8, 8:00 p.m. at Holy Cross Church, 126 High Street.
  • Morgan Hill, December 15, 7:30 p.m. at Advent Lutheran Church, 16870 Murphy Avenue.

We’ll be sharing the stage with the talented vocal ensemble Zambra.

You can find more information at www.coraingli.com (please don’t contact either of the churches directly).

Here’s a performance clip:

You can also listen to a couple of performance clips here.

This blogpost is part of our free Christmas package. Get access to online courses, community and live sessions through Bitesize Irish membership.

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