“When midnight comes and people homeward tread
Seek now your blanket and your feather bed
Home comes the rover, his journey's over
Yield up the nighttime to old John O' Dreams.” -Bill Caddick
Unexpectedly when Jefferson Hamer intoned this moving song, “John O’Dreams,” at the finale of last weekend’s tribute to Mick Moloney at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, it become an emotional moment for me.
As my eyes elevated to the screen above the 33 performers amassed on stage portraying a photograph of a smiling Moloney, they also filled with water as if the finality of his passing was hitting me still. Perhaps it was a last moment of grieving, but it had come after witnessing a brilliant community celebration extolling the “the tiller of America’s Green Fields,” as I liked to call Mick, on display over four shows at the new Irish Arts Center from last Thursday to Saturday evening.
And together we close an incredible week, in celebration of Mick Moloney, with these amazing artists and with all of those who were able to join us.
“And for your boatman, choose old John O Dreams…”. Here’s to you, Mick. pic.twitter.com/SdMzBSqjSI— Irish Arts Center (@IrishArtsCenter) April 2, 2023
Over the course of three hours, a beautiful tapestry of creativity was unfurled in the state-of-the-art theater woven in large part by Moloney himself over 50 years in America. It was executed by 33 artists who were inspired by him and followed him all around the world as he sought to educate and entertain us in equal measure and sophistication.
Full credit goes to the Irish Arts Center itself, Glucksman Ireland House, and Joe and Mary Lou Quinlan for mounting such an ambitious undertaking. Four sold-out shows met the need to remember the memory of the man who made Irish America famous and relevant in so many ways.
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The hard job of building such a credible production on so many levels was curated by Athena Tergis, Seamus Egan, Daniel Neely, and Irish Arts Center Executive Director Aidan Connolly and Director of Programming Rachael Gilkey who collectively had learned so much from Dr. Mick and channeled that influence in a historic first effort to reflect that in a significant artistically centered way.
While never attempting to encapsulate Moloney’s full palette of artistic endeavors in one production, the curators relied on a representative sample among the many musicians, singers, and dancers, many of whom would have come through the ranks of the Green Fields of America or Irish Arts Center shows.
Green Fields could boast of eight National Heritage Award winners in their roster of 80 performers over the years, with five featuring on stage this past weekend (Donny Golden, Liz Carroll, Billy McComiskey, Joanie Madden, and Mick Moloney RIP).
Still a daunting task to cover so much territory and talent at hand, but for the hundreds of people who came along, they saw a very professional and passionate performance with the large cast giving their all and moving deftly through 26 themed pieces on the setlist.
Each demonstrated the scope and command and vision of Moloney as he recognized the wider impact between Ireland and America culturally and historically. It demonstrated how he married his skills as a scholar with great depth with strong entertainment sense, paired with finding performers who could transform them into action.
The cast was well selected and perhaps there could have been more drafted if time or opportunity allowed, but they delivered the goods and articulated in their introductions his direct impact on them personally or helped put it context.
First and foremost was the assignment of Lenwood Sloan, a prominent Afro-American scholar and dance historian who aligned with Moloney on the fascinating relationship between the Irish and Black people in our country who served as a narrator throughout the show. Leni and Mick spent their last week in the Catskills together in July continuing their joint scholarship on Two Roads Diverged, which will emerge as a documentary in the future, much of it built on crossover influences or commonality like percussive dance.
Speaking of percussive dance, Jean Butler, the star of "Riverdance" and one of Mick’s prized young Irish Americans as a stepdancer out of the Donny Golden School founded by another master dancer, Donny Golden, who populated Mick’s rising world and cognizance, gave a tour de force presentation.
She gave a stunning solo choreographed stepdance routine, accompanied by a brilliantly articulated verbal rap about her own evolution as a dancer crediting both Golden and Moloney as giving “soul to her sole” as a young dancer and later as an academic colleague of Moloney’s at NYU.
Other dancers in the show led by Mick’s well-traveled partner in crime Niall O’Leary, Kieran Jordan, Darrah Carr, Megan Downes, and even Golden himself gave ample evidence of Moloney’s grasp on how dance related so importantly to Irish music.
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High praise to the musical directors for sharing an awesome burden, and Egan and Tergis met the challenge head-on and in doing so complimented Mick’s vision for them over the years as collaborators.
Space precludes me from mentioning the other stars who toiled long and hard to give us a glimpse of their inspirational mentor. Hats off to Tom Britton, Nora Brown, Donie Carroll, Liz Carroll, Brenda Castles, Stephanie Coleman, Mary Coogan, Rosemary Cooper, Cheick Hamala Diabate, Brendan Dolan, Megan Downes, Seamus Egan, Ivan Goff, Jefferson Hamer, Liz Hanley, Kieran Jordan, James Keane, Tomar Korn, Dan Levinson, Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Don Meade, Mirella Murray, Dan Neely, Eamon O’Leary, John Roberts, Leni Sloan, and Caitlin Warbelow for their performances.
Two artists who rendered slow airs entitled after Irish rivers were Joanie Madden on whistle and Ivan Goff on uilleann pipes as part of their poignant salutes to Moloney. Goff referenced a river as an allegorical symbol of Mick, the creative force who flowed through all our lives and made it a remarkable journey and made so many dreams come through as he elevated our cultural heritage.
Weren’t we the fortunate ones to have such a “Boatman” like Dr. Mick Moloney.
*This column first appeared in the April 5 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.