DURING the 1850s thousands of Irish immigrants landed in Savannah’s port. Of those thousands, over half came from the Irish county of Wexford.
This bit of historical knowledge led the Savannah Children’s Choir to choose Ireland for its 10 Year Anniversary performance tour and making Wexford a point of destination.
This was not the first trip abroad that the Choir has made. The Premier Choir, the SCC’s highest level choir, travels abroad every two years, traveling in past years to, England, the Czech Republic and Italy.
For many choir members, ranging in age from 10 to 14, this was their first trip abroad and for some it was their first time traveling in a plane.
The Choir had four scheduled performances in Ireland, led by Rebecca Flaherty and Janet Wooten, who shared conducting duties during the trip. But they sang far more often that those four performances.
The choir served as Savannah emissaries, performing for Jerry O’Dea, the Mayor of Limerick, who admitted that getting to meet people like them made his job worthwhile.
The Savannah Children’s Choir prides itself not only in the excellence of its performances but in providing transformational opportunities for its members. Travel is itself one of these opportunities but there were several special interactions and educational components built into the trip to bring the kids closer to the culture and people of Ireland.
Perhaps the most amazing example was working with the Irish choir Anúna, Ireland’s internationally reknowned choir. What began as an opportunity to watch a rehearsal, at the Wexford National Opera House, turned into an onstage workshop and performance of Media Vita, a Latin antiphony dating back that back as far as the year 750 and here arranged by Anuna’s own Michael McGlynn. The Anúna group members then spent time with individual members of the Choir, giving feedback and answering questions.
Another interaction also began as a structured performance at Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford. The Choir was scheduled to perform with the Children’s Choir from the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). They met the choir prior to the performance. What unfolded is best told by Mrs. Flaherty.
“Our Savannah kids filed inside nervously, awkwardly trying to assess these Irish kids, and them doing the same. The tension broke when WIT’s director, Niall Crowley, invited them to play one of their favorite warm-up games, Zip-Zap,” she says.
“Our kids’ faces broke into smiles as they shouted, ‘I love that game! I know that one!’ From then on, friendships came quickly and easily. The small room was filled with laughing, chatter, and huge smiles.” The two choirs discovered a song they both knew and performed it together during the performance, a spontaneous example of music bringing people together.”
To complete the circle of travel begun the 1850s the Choir visited the town of New Ross, the inland port where so many Irish families boarded so called famine ships to try their luck in the city the Choir calls home.
The Dunbrody Famine ship is a replica of a ship that made several journeys between Ireland and Savannah. The names on the manifest of the Dunbrody would be familiar to anyone in Savannah. Savannah Children’s choir member Morgan Soukhamneut found this part of the trip particularly educational.
“When we got to see the famine ship, I learned about the hardships of all the people onboard and what their lives were like traveling overseas to Savannah,” Morgan says.
Perhaps the most intense interaction came at the Choir’s final performance, given at a nursing home in Glendalough.
“I looked up from my music to see that a group of our singers had gone outside to pick flowers. They came back with the daisies and dandelions that grew wild in the grass. Some of them had pansies from the cultivated garden . . . oops. It didn’t matter once I saw what came next,” says Flaherty.
“These angels began greeting each member of their audience with a smile and a flower. I noticed little conversations starting between the old Irish and the young Americans.”
Later as the choir performed, she says, “Some were moved to sing along, and some cried. As our choir sang, they began to cry too. They experienced in that little place the enormity of what they had to give. They felt the power of music, and marveled that they, these young kids who don’t seem to have control over anything, have the power to move souls with their voices and their sweet faces.”
The Choir did have some opportunities for fun and a little education in between performances and meeting local dignitaries. The choir visited a working sheep farm where they watched a sheep being shorn and received their first taste of real Irish tea.
They toured several beautiful Irish castles, highlighted by a visit to Castle Blarney where they each, bravely, kissed the Blarney Stone.
To end the trip the choir visited Trinity College in Dublin to view the famous Book of Kells.
Choir member Haley English summed it up best: “The thing I liked most about Ireland was how nice and genuine every single person was that I met. I really appreciated the hospitality and how people treated me.”
More information about the Savannah Children's Choir can be found at savannahchoir.org