Singing Our Songs of Joy and Lament

In his blog on this site last week (6 July), Michael Joncas gave a wonderful overview of the Irish Church Music Association gathered in Maynooth, Ireland, observing their 50th year of service by remembering Vatican II as well as looking to the future. I’d like to return to that week of music and liturgy in an Irish context by first acknowledging how much I learned from both formal presentations and interactions in the liturgies and in social conversations, and second, reflect on the music as a meeting place of culture and church, as well as the powerful role that music and liturgy play in the wider reality of 21st century life.

The dominant activity all week was singing – what could be better! We had an extensive book of music for the liturgies, for the sessions with individual composers, and for the ‘pop-up’ Ave choir. But in every liturgy, there were some songs to which I listened rather than sang, or with which I managed – with practice – to sing through at least partially. These were the liturgical music choices in Irish.  I asked questions and listened to conversations about Irish language and what it means to liturgy in Ireland – but it was the unscientific way it “felt” different when singing in Irish that caught my attention. Singing in the language of a culture is a double inculturation – the melodies and/or style of the music itself, and the shape and sound and phrasing of the language. Sung Irish, linguistically and musically, is lilting, so even when sung by a larger group it resists the “God as Rambo” feel of much strophic hymnody or the forced perkiness of many contemporary compositions. A more technical way to express it might be to draw on the insights of the growing field of sonic theology which gives words to “the role of sound and vibration in the spiritual domain.” (Sadiq Alain) While much of the original academic work has been done on the role of sound and vibration in the Hindu tradition (such as Guy Beck’s seminal work, Sonic Theology), it is certainly present in long Christian tradition. It’s difficult not to think of Ignatius of Antioch in the 2nd century, who describes an auditory communion in the harmony of everyone singing together in the Ephesian church: “For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And so you become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His son.” (Letter to the Ephesians, 4).

How is it that Irish language music set to melodies discernably Irish in shape have such appeal in Ireland (and this despite the reality that even with required Irish studies in school, only 80,000 out of roughly 6 million Irish actually speak the language on a regular basis according to the 2011 census)? What does it mean for the Irish church (both the dominant Roman Catholic communion and the considerably smaller Church of Ireland – Anglican) that translations of the ‘newer’ liturgies (2004 for the Church of Ireland, 2016 for the full Irish Missal of the Roman Church) have resulted in an explosion of newer Irish music? The announcement of the new Irish Missal here in the PrayTellBlog was made by Anthony Ruff on 13 March 2016, with more information and reflection offered by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue on 17 March 2017. But it is particularly interesting to read the Irish bishops’ comment at their 2016 general meeting where the new missal was announced. “An leabhar Aifrinn Romhanach…is a unique publication, and is hugely significant not only for the Church in Ireland, but for all who cherish our culture and heritage, particularly the Irish language.” Is the use of Irish in the liturgy a preservation of culture or another expression of the praise of God? Is it heritage (the preservation of a tradition) or sonic theology in which articulated faith meets quantum physics – an embodied expression and reception of grace through particular resonance both rooted in creation and engaging with the divine? I suspect all of the above, plus political reality.

On 21 February 2018, Richard Irvine wote a brave article in the Irish Examiner entitled “We Protestants fear Gaelic, and we were raised to mock it.” He takes on an attitude that I have personally encountered with non-Roman Catholic Irish in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, saying that in spite of the slipping away of the violent animosity between these two expressions of Christianity, “liberal, open-minded and cultured, we young university-educated Protestants could embrace music, literature, art, and language from all over the earth, but could not embrace Irish. Such is the self-mutilating denial of the insecure.” Is the economic and multicultural reality that is the Republic of Ireland within the European Union such that the “self-mutilating denial of the insecure” may be turning to a cultural security strong enough to embrace Irish language and music? And, is it ironic or causal that the growing irrelevance of the church to so many in Ireland coincides with this recognition of the denial of an essential quality of one’s own cultural and national identity? 

I raise these questions because the extraordinary “feeling” that overcame a room of liturgical musicians singing beautifully and deeply in Irish reminded me of the complexity of inculturation of the liturgy and the reality that liturgy, let alone liturgical music, is not a stand-alone issue – it is embedded in the complexities of culture writ large and of ecclesial culture more narrowly. It is about aesthetics yes, but also spirituality. It is ecclesiology – an auditory communion – and politics. It is authority and the resistance to the usual avenues of authority. It is what binds a community together and increasingly, in a multicultural Ireland, also exclusive. Above all, it is a reminder for those of us who work in liturgy and music that what we sing, how we sing it, who sings it, in what language we sing, all communicate something to the community gathered. There are many ways to praise the living God in music, perhaps Ignatius of Antioch summed it up best: “in your concord and harmonious song, Jesus Christ is sung.”


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