Connection in the “Thin Places”
Frank Hallock, Director of Music, United Methodist Church of Vista, talks about the extraordinary moments on his 2019 tour to Ireland.
I have always loved travel, from the days of old-fashioned family road trips, to my experiences on several choral tours as both participant and director. These choral tours have been my only access to world travel, and I have seen most of Western Europe through them. The experience of travel has been one of the contributing factors to my personal growth: Seeing other lands and becoming steeped in histories and cultures not my own have truly helped to shape me as a human being.
I was extremely blessed to work with ACFEA in 2019 to take my Chancel Choir on a tour of Scotland and Ireland. My family bloodlines are Irish, and I looked forward to what it might feel like to set foot on the land of my forbears. The blessing was even deeper, as I was able to travel with my wife, all three adult children and five grandchildren, plus my oldest niece. A true family affair!
I was prepared to be excited about places I have read about – St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Trinity College Library in Dublin, the cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands. Singing in that great Cathedral was thrilling and meaningful; hearing our gifted young organist play on a world class instrument, and the reception of the audience, were very gratifying. To an avid book collector and reader, Trinity College Library was amazing, and the natural wonders of Moher and Aran created an instant “We’ve got to come here again” response and a longing to stay – almost a sense of coming home.
The Irish have a special affinity to connection with special places and people. The mystics among the Irish note that Ireland has many “thin places,” where the line between the normal world and the mythic is blurred. Connection, for me, goes beyond the pleasure of being somewhere beautiful or historic or significant. It is instead a feeling that extends beyond the limits of time and space; it speaks to my soul. In the words of William Butler Yeats, “I hear it in the deep heart’s core” (The Lake Isle of Innisfree, 1888). I felt this connection several times on our tour, but two experiences stand out with special meaning, and both occurred on the same day.
The first was a concert that we shared with Credo Vocal Ensemble, a well-known singing ensemble based in Trim, County Meath. We were hosted by the St. James Church of Ireland, Athboy, whose rector and parishioners could not have been more welcoming. The Ensemble, under the direction of Tracy Nagle, were equally engaging. The connection started with this hospitality, and extended into the rehearsal time, for we had agreed to share four pieces of music, two selected by each conductor. One of those pieces was my arrangement of the American folk song “Shenandoah.”
In my introduction to the song, I mentioned, “This song is a lover’s lament from a French-Canadian fur trapper to his Native American princess, traveling the plains of America before it was a country, sung tonight by a combined choir of Southern Californians and an ensemble from Trim, in an Irish church. It doesn’t get much more international than that!” As I was speaking, my words became, for me, much more that a humorous aside. I was acutely aware of the universal language of music, which calls people together in a way nothing else can. Songs of love, songs of longing, songs of travel, songs of home exist in every culture, and for that moment, a room full of diversity became united by the power of music. Again, this magic is very familiar to the Irish, and that magic touched all of us that night.
The second experience happened the morning of the concert. On our way to Athboy, we visited the Hill of Tara. I was anticipating this moment, as I have long been fascinated by ancient history and places. And the Hill of Tara, as the seat of the ancient Kings of Ireland, has been considered to be one of those “thin places.” When we arrived and looked over the rolling green mounds, dotted with a few standing stones and an ancient barrow burial site, I felt the sense of the ‘presence’ of history.
However, as we gathered to hear the first chat from our guide in the graveyard behind the St. Patrick Chapel there, my four-year-old granddaughter Amelia wandered away from the group, and my wife followed, shepherding as grandmothers have done for millennia. Suddenly, Amelia squatted down on a gravesite and began to pat the ground gently. “Are you ok? I hope you are feeling better…it’s ok.” She continued her blessing for several moments at two or three final resting places, for burials both modern and very old. She then told my wife, “Somebody hurt them, or something happened to them, and that’s why we put flowers on them … to make them feel better. They feel better now,” and off she went, to charm our guide to the degree he called her “the wee princess.”
What really struck me was her openness to conversation with the departed with no regard to time, and with a tenderness of the heart of innocence that was transcendent. This graveyard is behind the Chapel, and there is a long mound directly behind it. It is likely, I believe, that in that mound are the remains of folks that may have lived and been buried in honor there more than a thousand years ago, or even in pre-historic times. All those probable folks lay beneath her feet, and this thoroughly modern child with ringlets in her hair, with a brief act of blessing, connected us all. I was swept into almost a waking vision of this ancient sacred place. And I was deeply and profoundly aware of my connection, not only with my own Irish ancestry, but with humanity, for it is in these moments that our world becomes as wild and wonderful as any of us could wish.
Moments of connection can occur anywhere of course. But part of the deep joy of travel is that through it, we will often find the unexpected moment in which we are united in common with all of humanity. These moments I will cherish forever, and I commend you to seek them on your own.