Maura O’Connell’s special link with Ted Kennedy
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09/03/2009 08:55 PM
Once again the world’s fascination with the Kennedy family and its legacy captivated all of us last week after the death of Senator Edward Kennedy at the age of 77.
Because of the importance of the Kennedys in Irish American history, perhaps the impact seemed larger to us especially as we watched along with the world the final ceremonies including the Irish Wake at the JFK Library in South Boston.
Endless tributes and commentaries filled the broadcast airwaves and print media providing a larger more complete picture of the complex youngest son of Joe and Rose Kennedy.
One of more eloquent remembrances that I saw came from Maura O’Connell, a singer based in Nashville who unexpectedly became a friend who penned her personal thoughts for CNN.com late last week and shared some further thoughts with this writer.
Like politicians, singers -- particularly those close to the folk tradition like O’Connell -- deal with the human condition and are often defined by their ability to interpret it. Those who see a common humanity and accept that we all have faults within our makeup find inspiration in reaching out to those who can help us understand ourselves and those all around us, whether they are close to our hearts or the community at large.
Kennedy and Maura O’Connell share an Irish connection, of course, but that isn’t necessarily the link that drew them together.
In her essay for CNN entitled “Why I Sang at Kennedy’s Wedding” we learned more about their little-known relationship that was one more telling example of the senator’s own personal style in relating to a host of people and allowing them to influence his life.
Most of us may remember that Maura O’Connell first came to prominence in Ireland and America as the vocalist with the popular trad group De Danann at the beginning of the 1980s with songs like “Maggie” and “Molly-O” that she rendered in her own inimitable style.
But even though she grew up in the traditional music bastion of Co. Clare, the Ennis native had much more eclectic taste in songs and a sense of adventure that eventually brought her to Nashville in the mid-1980s where she fell into the New Grass music scene that was a little bit country, little bit folk and roots.
It was a scene that was growing more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in its reach while still being topical, romantic, dramatic or humorous as it described our lives and times.
Around the time that Senator Kennedy was courting Victoria Reggie on his “redemptive” path in 1991 and 1992, O’Connell was well on her way to the prolific career that has produced 11 solo recordings out of Nashville. In particular her CDs Helpless Heart (1989) and New Life (1991) contained songs that called out to the reforming youngest son of the Kennedy male line.
O’Connell was on the road in San Francisco when Kennedy tried to contact her Nashville home out of the blue to book her for one of the most important gigs of his life. Not sure if she should take the phone message seriously, she called him back a day later.
While she was honored to be asked to sing at the upcoming nuptials, she accepted the invitation after the senator convinced her that her songs had made a huge impact on him, and that he and Vicki wanted her to sing at their small private wedding ceremony in his D.C. area home.
In particular, the Hugh Priestwood song “A Family Tie” that O’Connell included on 1991 album describing both an alcoholic husband and a wayward son who still needed the support of the family was pivotal in the discussion drawing them together.
The wedding in 1992 saved Kennedy and allowed his greater attributes to flourish once again. By all accounts true love had smitten him, and O’Connell found him to be utterly charming and devoted to his new wife.
“It was a beautiful day and we were treated royally like honored guests and not some band that came in the back door,” she told me by phone.
“He was so much at ease and personable as he put us at ease as well as he told us so many details about all the iconic Kennedy photos that adorned his private office where we sat before the ceremony.”
In recalling the song she sang for their first dance, the standard “You’ll Never Know,” appropriately enough from her CD New Life O’Connell said Kennedy was the very picture of a man “who was very happy to be marrying the woman he loved and the whole occasion was charming, intimate and beautiful.”
It also was the beginning of an enduring friendship with her family and the Kennedys.
While the gregarious Kennedy loved to sing in true Irish fashion, his ability to do so didn’t match the formidable songstress, though she found his efforts endearing both on his wedding day and at times when he came to see her perform at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia or at other functions he invited her to over the years.
On CNN she wrote, “God bless him, he hadn’t a note in his head,” but in our conversation she elaborated on that saying, “He genuinely loved to sing and I love to see people sing just for the nature of singing without regard to the quality of their voice.”
Sharing the words of a song is another valuable form of communication to people like O’Connell and Kennedy which became a bond between them. Teddy and Victoria thoughtfully sent gifts and notes to Maura upon her own marriage to Mac Bennett the following April and upon the birth of their son Jesse.
Three years ago, O’Connell accompanied Jesse, 13, on a trip to Washington, D.C. for a camp for young leaders of America. Disappointed that the activities did not include any opportunity to meet with any serving politicians, she made a call to the senator’s office.
Time was immediately carved out for Kennedy to meet with the group of children giving a personal example of why public service was important, and an instant civic lesson that made a lasting impression.
Young Jesse, who is disabled and wheelchair bound, saw first hand the kindness and dedication of a legislator who not only helped write the Americans With Disabilities Act, but went beyond the letter of the law and expressed the spirit of it as well.
Many of us recall the special place of reverence on the wall in Irish households for a picture of Jack Kennedy along side that of the current Pope. In the Ennis household of the O’Connell family atop the piano was a framed photo of Maura’s father with a younger Teddy Kennedy taken at the nearby Shannon Duty Free Shop in the early 1960s.
That picture now stands in Nashville home of Maura O’Connell as another fitting example of a family tie that binds, but one that reflects a much happier connection than the song suggested so many years ago when this Irish connection was made.
O’Connell’s latest CD released earlier this year, Naked With Friends, on Sugar Hill Records, features a number of duets with the singer and friends in Ireland and America with an emphasis on sharing songs familiar and not so familiar and can be ordered at www.mauraoconnell.com.
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