This time of year, everyone has a little Irish in them, even if only for a day, maybe no one more than the Englishman who founded Port Townsend’s Irish band.
“Everybody is Irish by the end of the show, even the English,” joked Seamus Liam O’Flaherty, guitarist for Happenstance, a Port Townsend band specializing in Irish music.
Happenstance Founder Chris Gilbert was born in London, headquarters of Northern Ireland’s longtime enemy.
“What I am doing is actually trying to compensate in a little way for all the harm, because I am English, right?” said Gilbert, who sings and plays the bodhran drum, kazoo and 5-stringed banjo. “Everytime I hear Seamus or one of the others talking about this I think, ‘God, I shouldn’t be doing this.’ But I do it because I am trying to give back.”
Gilbert gets a pass from the Irish members of the band because his wife was born in Belfast and lived through “The Troubles”, the late 20th century conflict in Northern Ireland in which republican and loyalist forces, British security forces and gangsters killed 3,500.
“She lived through some of the things we sing about,” Gilbert said. “She knows it firsthand. If we put a finger wrong, or a tongue wrong, she tells us about it.”
Gilbert might worry he’s an imposter, but St. Patrick was born a Briton, too. Kidnapped by Irish pirates, wee Padraig escaped and returned home, but upon completing his training made his way back to Ireland as a Christian missionary and is now revered as the Patron Saint of the Irish people.
St. Patrick’s Day in Port Townsend isn’t much of a stretch, considering the similarity between it and towns like Dingle on Ireland’s west coast: cool, grey, brick-built and with a busy shipyard, they could be sister cities.
“We do a lot of Irish songs, so this is really our most busy time. We like the atmosphere. We pack ‘em in and everybody is happy and dancing and clapping and singing.”
Happenstance will perform at 4 p.m. March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — at the Pourhouse, 2231 Washington St. in Port Townsend. The show is free to attend.
In addition to Gilbert and O’Flaherty, the show will feature Cherry Chenruk-Geelan on vocals, ukulele, tambourine and tin whistle; Abe Christian on drums, bodhran and Stumpf fiddle; Jack Reinhardt on fiddle and vocals; and Hap Smith on bass. Again this year, special guest Nancy Fredrick will join the band on bagpipes.
“At the Pourhouse it will be second time we have had Highland pipes with a bass drum,” O’Flaherty said. “Nancy Fredrick played once before and she will be coming into the Pourhouse with full highlands regalia and full-sized highland pipes.”
Chenruk-Geelan said the bagpipes add a powerful element to the band’s sound.
“I think volume and then the drumming that occurs with the pipes really gets you going. We look forward to blasting people at the Pourhouse.”
Much more than drinking songs
The songs performed by Happenstance are much more than the stereotypical pub songs associated with hard drinking, Gilbert said.
“We sing songs of intense and powerful emotions — joyful, playful, defiant and romantic,” he said. “The Irish have so many great songs about their centuries of suffering, their passion for their island and love for each other.”
O’Flaherty said during a break from a recent rehearsal that Irish music holds deep meaning and explores the turbulent history of the Emerald Isle.
“The song we just sang, ‘Fields of Athenry’ is about the Great Hunger, the great starvation,” he said. “We do songs about rebellion, the failed rebellions and a successful one at the end. Homage to the heroes who fell and inspired generations after them. Also, songs of betrayal.”
Some of the songs are sad, and rightfully so.
“I’ve gotten choked up singing ‘Foggy Dew,’ which is about the seven men who (holed up) in the general post office in Dublin,” O’Flaherty said. “When Cherry sings it, it draws tears. People have cried during ‘Danny Boy.’”
Gilbert finds the song, “Paddy’s Lamentation,” to be particularly moving.
“I can’t finish the song without tearing up. It is about an Irishman who leaves Ireland to get away from the famine, and he comes over here (to the United States) and finds there is a Civil War going on. He ends up being given a gun and being sent to the Civil War. He is basically writing a postcard telling his fellow Irishmen not to bother coming over.”
Another song, “The Wearing of the Green,” is full of a rebellious spirit.
“After the 1798 rebellion, the English tried to suppress the Irish culture and they outlawed the shamrock and hung people for wearing green,” O’Flaherty said. “It was a sign of defiance to the British rule. So the Irish, in defiance, what did they do? Wear green.”
The songs are rife with real loss and pain, O’Flaherty continued.
“There is no angst in these songs. It is life and death stuff and when it is not life and death, it is drinking and sex. It’s true.”
Perhaps because of their troubles, the Irish sure do know how to party.
“We confess, we also enjoy some of their quite bawdy songs,” Gilbert said. “And drinking songs, to be sure. We know we’re doing a good job when the audience is singing along, and the bars are selling lots of beer. You’d be surprised how many people in Port Townsend know every word to some of these epic songs of rebellion and celebration.”
Chenruk-Geelan enjoys learning of the stories behind the music.
“It is neat to be playing the music and actually learning about the deep history connected to the songs,” she said. “We get to appreciate it more because of that. I know this time of year it is busier for us because I feel like it is the time when the rest of the world realizes there is this Irish thing going on. We are going to go listen and do a little drinking and then maybe partake in some of the history.”
The ultimate goal of the band is to make Irish music popular year round, not just during the holiday, Chenruk-Geelan said.
“Right now, this is when we shine because this is when people start talking about Irish history and things like that. We would love it to become a little bit more. And, lots of the folk history of just lots of fun songs, silly songs and love songs that are rich in history. And lots of drinking songs. That is our goal for others, come dancing, come listen to this year round.”
Christian echoed Chenruk-Geelan’s comments.
“You can play the music anytime of year,” he said. “It is just fun to play. Not just March.”
Chenruk-Geelan said she is happily surprised by the response the band gets from the audience during their shows.
“I think it is really neat because people really do connect to the songs although they don’t realize that they are connecting,” she said. “A lot of people are already familiar with the melodies but they don’t realize it. Each gig we go to, we have people come in saying, ‘we do love Irish music. Do you know this one song?’ It is kind of neat to make those connections with people when they feel like you are playing something familiar.”
Songs of the United Kingdom
Happenstance also performs English songs, and other music from the British Isles.
“For me personally, since I am the old fart here,” Gilbert began.
“... you are fartier than I am,” O’Flaherty quipped.
“... and since I was born in England these are songs from my youth, when I was very young,” Gilbert continued unabashed. “Part of what I am trying to do is actually bring them over to Port Townsend with this group. This music is appreciated and the beer drinkers sure like it. Our ultimate goal is to sell more beer.”
When he founded Happenstance, Gilbert at first resisted being labeled an “Irish” band, he said.
“But then, I just caved in. We were playing songs from the British Isles, but now we brand ourselves as Irish. We are Port Townsend's favorite Irish band.”