A Ramble Through Irish History

Diarmuid Johnson brings old Ireland to life through music and history.

In the mid-1990s, the Celtic Tiger swept through Ireland, bringing unprecedented economic growth to the ancient island and introducing the world to its music and dance. But Riverdance and The Corrs are merely the pop side of Erin’s contemporary culture; dig a bit deeper, and you find the tapestry of music, storytelling, and language that shaped the soul of the Emerald Isle — which is exactly what Diarmuid Johnson does in his program The Crooked Road.

A scholar, musician, poet, and multilinguist — “I speak languages from the Celtic, Germanic, Romance, and Slavic families — one for each day of the week and two for Sunday,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, in a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent — Johnson has put together an evening that incorporates his areas of expertise. “To understand life in Ireland in the past without understanding Gaelic — it’s very difficult to penetrate it,” Johnson told me in a recent interview. Because the people thought in Gaelic, expressed themselves in Gaelic, sung in Gaelic, and their whole world was built up of cross-references of things in the Gaelic language. So [in the show] sometimes I recite a piece in Gaelic or try to sing a piece in Gaelic so people have an impression then — so it’s not an intellectual thing, it’s more an emotional reaction to the sound, to the resonance.”

The Crooked Road tour, which included several stops on the East Coast, was designed for Irish Americans, Johnson explained. “[They] might be aware of things that happened in history even from the 17th century with the flight of the Earls and the emergence of British power, but before that, the medieval period and early Christianity, is less well known,” he said. The show in its entirety is 10 chapters, but Johnson pares it down for time’s sake. “I might do three or four or a selection so each chapter is between about eight and 15 minutes long. There’s usually a piece of music, maybe a song or a text of some sort, and then an anecdote. … So people find themselves discovering something new, even though they’re not sure what it is,” he laughed.

Johnson will present The Crooked Road Sunday, March 13, at 2 p.m. at Hillside House, 1235 Veronica Springs Road. Seating is limited. For tickets, call (805) 687-0788.


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