United by Song

Left to right: Eugene Monteith, Mary mcCague, and Cian Dowling.

By Bridget English, Contributor
December / January 2006

The Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland fosters good relations between North and South.


What does it take for people to forget the past and live in the moment? According to the members of the Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland, putting the past behind them requires no more than getting a bunch of enthusiastic kids from both sides of the border together and teaching them to play music they enjoy.

While it may seem idealistic to believe that centuries of conflict can be laid to rest in a moving rendition of “Danny Boy,” attending a performance by the Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland is enough to convert any skeptic. Conceived in 1995, the orchestra was formed by schoolteacher Sharon Tracey-Dunne. Inspired by the new era of peace in Ireland, Dunne sought to undertake an artistic venture that would further good relations between the North and South.

The group brings together 140 young Catholics and Protestants ranging in age from twelve to twenty-four, from Irish border counties of Down. Armagh, Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Cavan.

These young people are talented musicians, The orchestra has received various prizes at Feis Ceol competitions, toured England, the Czech Republic, and Finland as well as the United States. Wherever they travel, the Cross-Border Orchestra gains high praise. Donal Denham, the Consul General to the Western USA, described the orchestra members as “the real Ambassadors of Ireland” and called the performance “inspirational.”

The celebration of their ten-year anniversary brought the Cross-Border Orchestra to New York’s Carnegie Hall on November 1. For the orchestra members the show was the culmination of years of hard work and practice. Violinist Julie Morgan, a nineteen-year-old from County Louth, called the experience “a dream come true.” Morgan has been with the orchestra for eight years and plans to continue touring with the group for as long as possible while she pursues a degree in music. Inspired by her experience with the Cross-Border Orchestra, Morgan hopes to teach music to others. She praises the orchestra for its ability to bridge the gap between older and younger kids and to bring together people from different religious backgrounds. “Everybody knows everybody.” Morgan explained: “There are no hard feelings, it’s just about the music.”

These friendships and sense of unity are fostered by the orchestra’s unique education system whereby older members tutor the younger ones. At twenty-four, lead trumpeter Eugene Monteith is one of the oldest members, taking on the responsibility of teaching younger members.

Monteith calls the orchestra “key” to the border area, explaining that the organization “offers children a mutual background to get to know one another with no stigma attached. You aren’t judged on who you are hut on how you perform,” he says.

Monteith is a graduate of Queens College with a degree in music. He was particularly attracted by the orchestra’s eclectic program, which features everything from traditional Irish medleys, songs from Grease, Broadway show tunes and even some Abba. Eugene feels that this variety allowed him to break away from the classical music he was used to playing and to just have fun.

“The great thing about this orchestra is that even if you’re playing something for the millionth time, it still seems new because of the enthusiasm the kids have for it,” he says.

Much of this energy can be attributed to the enthusiasm of Gearoid Grant, who has been the orchestra’s principal conductor since 1996. Born in Dublin, Grant is one of Europe’s leading conductors of Youth Orchestras.

The Associate Music Director of the Irish Film Orchestra, Grant has conducted premieres of Shaun Davey’s “Relief of Deny Symphony,” “Concerts for Uilleann Pipes” as well as Davey’s most recent work, “Gulliver.” Grant also performed with the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia, in Rome.

His passion and talent for coaxing music from such young performers is essential to the group’s many successes.

Eugene Monteith fondly describes Grant as “a madman,” and “the most amazing dancer.” Grant’s exuberant style of conducting was certainly visible at Carnegie Hall where he bounced around the podium, alternately conducting the members of the Cross-Border Orchestra and the assembled choirs from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, which were also taking part. During a crowd-pleasing rendition of the rousing Irish ditty, “Phil the Fluter’s Ball,” Grant even turned his baton on the audience, who gladly followed his lead.

It is this obvious love and enjoyment of music that draws vibrancy from Grant’s young performers. During a pre-performance rehearsal at Carnegie Hall Grant coaxed the ensemble to “Say something.” His emphasis on not only hearing but feeling the music is what makes a performance by the Cross-Border Orchestra truly memorable.

As well as the young musicians the Cross-Border Orchestra also features solo talents such as alto Kathy Nugent, uilleann piper Patrick Martin and the renowned Irish tenor Emmanuel Lawler.

Lawler began his career singing in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral and has since performed on Irish and British television and throughout Europe, North and South America and Australia. During the Carnegie performance Lawler served as a kind of master of ceremonies, beginning the evening by telling the audience the history of the Cross-Border Orchestra as a children’s story.

In brief narratives between the pieces he provided anecdotes about how they were inspired. While these brief asides showed Lawler’s humorous side, it was his singing that brought the crowd to their feet. His renditions of “Galway Bay,” “Bring Him Home” and “Danny Boy” were extremely affecting. As was his demonstrated mastery of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” which as a young boy he had vowed to perfect. The aria ended with Lawler raising his fist in victory, producing a roar of approval from the crowd.

Soloist alto Kathy Nugent was radiant, performing her numbers in stunning attire, which she changed to fit the mood of each song. Among her best pieces was her lively rendition of “New York, New York.” Nugent has appeared at Waterfront Hall, Belfast with the Ulster Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, performing in Bell Canto, Can Belto with Lawler and Grant.

Uilleann piper Patrick Martin comes from Inniskeen and has performed in Israel, Scotland and the Czech Republic. Despite his being much sought after by various recording artists as well as live musicians, Martin appeared quite humble on stage, projecting a sense of inner peace as his hands skillfully maneuvered the pipes.

The concert ended in a grand style with a moving rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which incorporated not only the orchestra and all three soloists but the four American choirs as well. Perhaps this was the feeling Monteith was speaking of when he described the hairs on the back of his neck standing up during a performance. The power of the group was incredible, creating an almost tangible energy in the room. In that moment, with people of all ages and different backgrounds united as one sound, it seemed as if anything were possible. ♦

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