Songs of the Irish American and Canadian Diaspora

The National Famine Museum, Strokestown Park and Irish Heritage Trust have released a new film, Songs of the Irish American and Canadian Diaspora (with Brendan Graham). It is funded by the Government of Ireland Emigrant Support Programme. Brendan Graham’s songs such as You Raise Me Up and Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears have become modern-day classics, while his Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids and The Voice were Ireland’s two last winning songs at the Eurovision Song Contest. He is also the author of the best-selling The Whitest Flower, a ‘documentary novel’ set in the times of the Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.

The film shares Brendan Graham’s music that was inspired by the historical experiences of Irish migrant communities in the United States and Canada. It features stirring performances of Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears about the arrival of Annie Moore on Ellis Island, March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande) with Liam Neeson and Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains about the San Patricios battalions during the Mexican-American War, the haunting emigrant lament The Fair Haired Boy, the creation of a “transatlantic Ireland” on The Coast of Labrador, and the rousing anthem O, America! Renowned singers Séan and Dolores Keane, Cathy Jordan, and Anthony Kearns, and the Irish Tenors perform these classic songs.

Graham found inspiration to write Isle of Hope, Isle Tears on a visit to Ellis Island where Irish teenager Annie Moore was the first immigrant to set foot in 1892. “I always say I didn’t write the song – Annie wrote the song, I just kept out of the way,” he claims. Speaking at the Annie Moore sculpture in Cobh in Country Cork, Graham observes that she is“pointing towards America, which was over there”. A similar sculpture of Annie Moore can be found on Ellis Island. “So we have the leaving, and we have the arriving there,” he adds. “When I got to Ellis Island, and I listened to the recordings of some of the female immigrants who had come – talking about their experience – I thought of this teen-aged girl. And as I went to get the boat back to Manhattan, the thought struck me: Annie was the emblem not just for the Irish who had gone to America, but for all who had traveled to America’s waiting shore.”

Isle of Hope, Isle Tears continues to resonate. “I sing that song every night, at every concert,” says Séan Keane, who was the first to record it with his sister Dolores. “It’s a song that I cannot come off the stage without singing.”  He adds that the audience “all want to sing it and you look around at their faces, it does bring a lot of people to tears in an emotional way.  But I think that’s the healing in the song.” 

Ellis Island not only inspired the song but provided the venue for its performance. “In a strange circling of a story,” notes Graham, “it came back to Ellis Island when the Irish Tenors, introduced by Martin Sheen, performed the song in the Great Hall”. According to Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns: “that song just resonated with all of us, and it was the glove that fitted the hand.  The Irish Tenors, on the top tier of the world in the music at that time, performing a poignant song telling the story of the first person, a young girl, entering Ellis Island. It was a resounding success and it resonated with Irish Americans and the Irish all over”.

All over the Irish diaspora, Brendan Graham’s songs have found a receptive audience. They help bind Ireland and Irish Americans together. “We carry our songs,” says Kearns. The Irish “love their songs, they love their stories, and they never forget their roots and their homeland. And there’s always a longing and a harking to go home and these songs bring a bit of that to them,” he adds.  “As our people went abroad they brought their songs with them into every corner of America,” says Graham.

Songs of the Irish American and Canadian Diaspora (with Brendan Graham) can be viewed below at any time and on Sunday, June 13th join a free, live online Carragh Sunday Session with Séan Keane dedicated to Brendan Graham’s songs at 2:30 in the United States and Canada (EST); 7:30 PM in Ireland.

Great Famine Voices Roadshow 2021 is pleased to welcome Irish America as a media partner.

Learn more about the Great Famine Voices Roadshow 2021 and the scheduled virtual events beginning May 2, 2021 – June 20, 2021. 

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