The history of Ireland is a long and bloody one, especially from the point of view of the Irish. Here in America, we have romanticized and corrupted the cultural references until we end up with our version of St. Patrick’s Day where the beer is more important than the true traditions. Columbia musician Tom Gregory, with his traditional Irish music band The Knock Climb, is attempting to set the record straight and play the real traditional tunes from the Emerald Isle. This week’s history and music lessons will be held at the University of South Carolina’s campus, with a symposium on Friends of Irish Freedom from speaker Cathleen O’Brien on Friday evening and a performance from the Knock Climb at the Clarion Hotel on Saturday evening.
Like many American music fans, Gregory admits his knowledge of real Irish music was limited to rock bands such as Dropkick Murphys, but after spending the last few summers traveling Ireland and soaking up the local music and culture, he’s a particularly vociferous convert musically and politically. (To wit: Proceeds from the concert benefit Friends of Irish Freedom, an Irish-American Republican organization connected to the Fianna Fáil political party.)
“What impacted me is how the music there is a vehicle for the most important part of the song [and] the story it was telling,” Gregory says. “Everyone knows the words to these songs and what they mean, and even people in Ireland who claim they have no love for [traditional] music can recite the words of ‘Kevin Barry,’ ‘A Nation Once Again’ and ‘Go On Home, British Soldiers.’ I think this … speaks to the culture, especially in contrast to our own, where few [Americans] can accurately recall the lyrics to our national anthem.”
Gregory admits that despite his Irish heritage, playing Irish music didn’t come easily.
“It was very difficult for me to transition musically at first because the music is very straightforward,” he says. “I struggled to not play so many embellishments on the guitar, and move my voice around with vibrato and texture. I have always trained myself to play and sing more, but here the mission is to hold that back and keep it simple.”
The songs Gregory references are part of what is referred to as the “rebel songs” of Ireland, tunes primarily concerned with Irish Republicanism that thumb their noses at the British occupation of the north. There is power still in them, he says, something he felt firsthand while playing them in Ireland.
“While sitting on the patio of Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast surrounded by locals singing, the atmosphere was electric,” Gregory says. “Lads in the crowd started requesting the rebel songs, and we played snippets — some wanted to stand up and shout them, others looked around nervously for police presence or loyalist dissenters.”
Why Gregory, an American citizen of Irish heritage, is now so invested in these issues and these songs, he says, is that it just seems like the right thing to do, at least for him.
“Sometimes we don’t find great causes, they find us,” Gregory says. “If we want to make a difference we must follow the causes which impact our hearts and captivate our minds — for me, there are now very real faces to the struggles in Ireland, struggles which are not yet resolved.” It is that struggle, and the stories it has left behind in song, that engages him in the process, he says.
“The heart of Irish music is the stories,” Gregory says. “Before you can understand the music you have to understand what it is about.”
The Clarion Hotel is at 1615 Gervais St.; The Knock Climb performs in the Magnolia Room. Music begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $10; proceeds benefit Friends of Irish Freedom. Gregory and Cathleen O’Brien speak in Room 201 of the University of South Carolina Humanities Building from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday; the talk covers Friends of Irish Freedom. Call 622-0235 for more information.
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