Niamh Hyland sang “Silent Night” in Irish, and a hush fell over the room – a splendid room with tall windows, looking out over Central Park.
So often at Irish events, music is the thread that holds it all together, acting as the link to the ancestors across the generations, and this occasion was no different.
It was December 12, and some 250 Irish and Irish Americans were gathered for the annual Business 100 luncheon honoring Irish and Irish-American executives.
It was a grand occasion that drew people from around the country; from California to St. Louis, from Philadelphia to Boston; and across the generations from fifth- to Irish-born, each honoree with his or her own memory of someone meaningful in their lives who had encouraged them to never give up on themselves.
The splendor of the Metropolitan Club, decked out in its Christmas finery, gave me pause. Earlier, as Niamh, from County Leitrim, and her guitarist, Shu Nakamura, who was born in Japan, did their pre-lunch sound check, I looked out the window of the ballroom.
From the height of the third floor, I could see over the horse and carriage drivers into the park. I was reminded that there was once a thriving village in Central Park called Seneca. Founded in 1825 by African Americans, the village flourished, and by the 1840s it included Irish and German immigrants.
The village midwife was Irish, a fact that struck a chord with me when I first read about Seneca in an article submitted to Irish America. I think of her helping to birth babies who would grow up to fight in the Civil War and travel beyond the confines of New York, building this great nation.
Alas, as with many Irish stories, there is a sad note. Seneca was destroyed, its villagers scattered to make way for Central Park.
I’ve heard the phrase “the great scattering” used in the context of the Irish diaspora, for indeed, we were scattered to the four corners of the world by conflict and starvation.
But, as with all great Irish gatherings, the focus on this occasion was celebrating life, and success, with a nod to past generations who helped make that success possible.
Eileen McDonnell, the chairman and CEO of life insurance giant Penn Mutual, gave an evocative keynote address that paid homage to her grandparents, all four of whom had immigrated from Ireland, and one of whom (her grandfather), was a musician from County Clare.
Her words reminded us that earlier generations, who made the journey across the ocean and across the land, to find work in mining camps and dig canals, didn’t have much in the way of material goods, but that they carried their music with them.
And on this grand occasion, Niamh’s soaring voice, paired with Shu’s guitar notes, provided a soulful connection to the ancestors. And, both being immigrants, they reminded us of our nation’s melting-pot heritage.
For more on Niamh Hyland, including her new album, “Live to Love”, see: