"The bad times."
That's how Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney first remembers hearing his mother and other adults in Ireland refer to the great potato famine that decimated the Emerald Isle 150 years ago.
To this day, half a century since Moloney was a tyke knocking about the Slieve Bloom Mountains of central Ireland, the phrase still strikes him as something used to mask a family secret.
"It was a rather frightening thing, the whole famine experience, and it's something that the Irish kept very quiet about," Moloney, 56, said. "They had a complex about it--they felt rather ashamed that it should have happened. So they always referred to it as 'the bad times.' "
Moloney hopes to remind the world just how bad those times were with the Famine Symphony he is composing. It is just one of many public commemorations of this year's 150th anniversary of the onset of the Great Famine. As with most of those events, Moloney's goal is twofold: to honor the millions who died or emigrated because of the famine, and to encourage relief efforts on behalf of famine in the world today.
In Ireland's case, disease destroyed back-to-back potato harvests of 1845 and 1846, wreaking disaster on a vast scale because of social and political conditions created during centuries of fighting with the British.
Modern estimates put the minimum number of people who died of starvation at 1 million. At least another 1 1/2 million left the country within the next five years. Because the vast majority of those were the Irish-speaking poor, the famine forever changed the face of the country--politically, culturally and socially.
"It was our Holocaust," Moloney said during a recent interview at his hotel while he was in Southern California briefly for interviews in conjunction with the Chieftains' new "Long Black Veil" album, which has quickly become its biggest seller ever. (Story, F2.) Tonight, the Chieftains appear in a sold-out concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
The Famine Symphony, which Moloney is still writing, is perhaps the most ambitious project yet for him and band mates Matt Molloy, Kevin Conneff, Martin Fay, Derek Bell and Sean Keane. The group is scheduled to premiere the piece with the Quebec Symphony on July 12 in Quebec.
The 50-minute piece will be rooted in the traditional Irish music that has been the group's forte for more than three decades.
While Moloney casually described the hit "Long Black Veil" album as "just another project," the symphony has been on his mind for the past six years. Moloney is keenly aware of the pressure to do justice to so significant an event.
In their 1972 book "The Story of Ireland" (Viking Press), historians Maire and Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote: "The famine is the great dividing line in modern Irish history. Before it, Ireland had been a country of notably early marriages; after it, late marriages are the rule, and the most conspicuous social feature of contemporary Ireland. . . . Before the famine, Ireland was to a great extent Irish-speaking; after it, English was soon spoken almost everywhere. . . . One may also feel that there was a certain change in the character of the people. . . . After the famine, one senses a new quality, something grimmer and tougher, among the survivors and their children, the Irish of the later 19th Century."
Although the blight that wiped out Ireland's crops was simultaneously ravaging potatoes across much of Europe and North America, it hit Ireland especially hard because the nation's poor had become almost entirely dependent upon the potato for food.
Adding to the tragedy was "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation," wrote English historian Cecil Woodham-Smith in his 1962 chronicle of the famine, "The Great Hunger" (Harper & Row).
In that respect, Moloney believes Ireland's famine was no different from so many others.
"It had nothing to do with a shortage of food. It was all politics. There was plenty of food in the rest of Ireland, but it was being transported to England. It's like any famine in the world today: We all have food mountains, butter mountains in Europe, beef mountains, wine lakes--these are all terms for stuff that's just lying there. It all has to do with politics, greedy people and warring factions and God only knows what."
Contemporary historians have downplayed the assertion that much of the suffering would have been alleviated had the exports been curtailed. Nevertheless, in Ireland, there remains "a very strong popular consciousness of the famine," said David Fitzpatrick, associate professor of modern history at Trinity College, by phone last week from Dublin.
"It is usually blamed on British malevolence or ineptitude. Very few Irish people do not have an opinion about it."
But Moloney's motivation for writing a symphony isn't to dredge up arguments over who was to blame.
"The feel of the thing is certainly commemoration (that) our Holocaust took place," said Moloney, noting that the Irish have a national holiday to mark the 1916 rebellion for independence from British rule but nothing to commemorate the famine.
Musically, the symphony touches on the various bits that took place, from the arrival of coffin ships (so called because thousands of the emigrants died on the crossing) at Grosse Isle in Canada to Queen Victoria's visit to Dublin.
The queen, Moloney said with a sly chuckle, "came over for some reason to have a look-round."
The famine's impact, however, is not limited to the past, nor to that green island about the size of South Carolina.
To reflect what he sees as the universality of the famine experience, Moloney is incorporating Kodo drummers from Japan, an African American gospel choir, the Rankin Family folk group from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Native American musicians.
(Moloney points out that members of the Choctaw tribe collected and sent $700 to Ireland for relief when the famine was at its worst. Showing that the sympathetic feeling between the Choctaw and the Irish remains, on Friday, the Chieftains will be made honorary chiefs of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the first time any musical act has been so honored.)
The symphony will consist predominantly of original music, Moloney said, adding that he also plans to use some 19th-Century Irish music he has come across while researching the period at Dublin's Trinity College, the same institution that in 1988 awarded him a doctorate in music.
That, however, was an honorary degree recognizing the Chieftains' role in keeping traditional Irish music alive. Moloney has no formal schooling in composition, though he has had plenty of practice scoring and orchestrating the music that the Chieftains have provided for films, including "Barry Lyndon," "The Grey Fox, "Far and Away" and the forthcoming Irish film "Circle of Friends."
In any case, he doesn't feel daunted about tackling a symphony. In fact, while he originally planned to rely heavily on film composer, arranger and conductor Michael Kamen to do most of the orchestrating, Moloney said that so far, he's done it all himself.
He has enlisted one of his countrymen, actor Richard Harris, to narrate, and Kamen to lead the Quebec Symphony at the premiere. The work will be recorded by the Chieftains' label, RCA Victor, and is scheduled for release in October.
The various Canadian elements provide a reminder that Canada was one of the major entry points to North America for Irish emigrants. Moloney said he recently visited Grosse Isle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"About 30,000 were buried in these mass graves," he recalled. "I visited it recently and was inspired to play a little tune as I walked across. To me, although it was a very peaceful resting place, with the wildflowers it reminded me of a little island off the west coast of Ireland," he said, his voice trailing off slightly, "and in a sense I suppose it was."
* The Chieftains play a sold-out show tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. (800) 300-4345.