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     Volume 7 Issue 16 | April 18, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

The Flight Into Music

Neeman Sobhan

A sunny Saturday afternoon, and I am strolling down Rome's Via del Corso, with Piazza Venezia sparkling behind me. I turn left on a small street and find myself near the church where I will soon listen to a magnificent sermon on Peace and Reconciliation….. without words. The message will come across to a packed audience on the wings of that universal language: music.

Before I step into the Baroque beauty of the church of San Ignazio of Loyolla (founder of the Jesuit order) I take a look at the poster outside. 'La Fuga Dei Conti' it proclaims in Italian. I have done my research and know that in English this is 'The Flight of the Earls,' and all about a significant event in the troubled history of the romantic Irish, set to music and played by a famous Irish orchestra.

As we enter the long nave of the church crowded with the audience and the 105 man orchestra sitting near the altar, my husband whispers, "And who was this Earl? What was he in flight from?"

While looking for seats I whisper back, "He was one of the most important chieftains of Ireland who fled to Europe in 1607 to get help against English invasions. His plans went awry and he ended up in Rome, never to return to his motherland, though his spirit inspired much legend and music in Ireland." I might have saved my breath for soon enough we hear the explanation in the opening speech of the historian Dr. John McCavitt, who has written a book on this episode.

He tells the audience that the Irish are celebrating a hard earned peace and that the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland, composed of young people from all sections of the country, are commemorating in music the 400 anniversary of the event concerning the flight from Ireland of their leader, Earl Hugh O'Neill.

The diversity and youth of the orchestra says something about the goals of this orchestra, and I understand this just by listening to the music that begins to fill and soar into the heights of the cupola.

While the hundred individual instrumentalists create out of their collective heaving, breathing, strumming and fiddling a single throbbing melody, and release it high, high, high into some celestial sphere beyond the frescoed ceiling, my eyes glancing up, up, up to rest on the painted heaven, and suddenly the full force of the miracle and power of Man's spirit and imagination strikes me. I realise that the vaulted cupola I'm looking at is not a lofty dome at all. It's trompe l'oeil! It's a fake; a happy illusion. The painter has wrought a gracefully executed artistic fraud, making a flat ceiling look as if it were a concave and soaring cupola!

I am thrilled, because to me it proves that man is capable of creating in this world, out of his own ability and vision, both heaven and hell. The same human being that uses his unlimited capacity to bring war, death and tragedy to his fellow creatures is also eminently able to do just the opposite. Like, today, right here under a painted heaven, a people who were once enemies are sitting together, creating out of the illusion of ethereal music, the powerful message of peace and love. They could have chosen to do the opposite; instead music and humanity have won.

I watch the lively conductor pointing to the Scottish bagpipers, who promptly proceed to pour their soul into the piercing nostalgia of the Highlands; then directing the fife and wind instrument players to send their sweet cry into some remembered moment of an exile's memory of his beloved island. In another corner the huge Lambeg drum, a symbol for Protestants, is beaten with passion while the violinists and other string instrumentalists take up some refrain from the flautists and pipers. I look again at the programme in my hand and read about the orchestra that my heart is singing to.

The Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland gained international recognition following sellout performances at Carnegie Hall, New York and Boston Symphony Hall in 2005. This is one of the most acclaimed orchestras of Ireland. It was established as a peace initiative in the wake of the cease-fire, and the orchestra's mission is to promote Peace and Reconciliation within Ireland and internationally, using the powerful medium of music. The orchestra is made up of 130 Catholic and Protestant 12 - 24 year olds from the border counties of Ireland and is open to all young people regardless of religious belief, racial group or political opinion.

The Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland

As I watch the youthful musicians blend their diversity into a hymn of humanity, my heart brims with hope. Using music to promote peace and unity and helping a country heal, reinvent and transform itself after centuries of violence: this is truly a noble and inspiring initiative, not only for Ireland but as a precedent for all countries and communities who have been engaged in conflict and strife. Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses says, "Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred." Today, millions of people around the world, Palestinians and Israelis; Russians and Chechens; Tamils and Sri Lankans; Sunnis and Shias in Iraq; and until recently Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are living and dying through years of "force, hatred, history." Yet it was in this very Ireland, bristling with its 900 year old violent history of colonisation by Britain and conflict between Irish Protestants and Roman Catholics, that on May 8, 2007, two men who had been enemies for decades were sworn in as leaders of a new power-sharing Northern Ireland government: The Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland's leading Protestant party; and Martin McGuinness, leader of the mainly Roman Catholic Sinn Fein ("we ourselves") Party.

The Protestants did not give up their longstanding desire for union with the United Kingdom. Nor did Sinn Fein adherents give up their desire for a union between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But both sides gave up their weapons and pledged to work peacefully for their aims through democratic processes.

I felt privileged to be sitting in this gathering of musicians celebrating the gifts of compromise, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. When the last notes died, I am not sure what the dominating impetus for the long and thundering applause was. It was certainly for the perfection of the music; and also for the idealistic raison d'etre of the orchestra; but fundamentally, I think it was for the tribute we paid to our common humanity that goes beyond diversity and strife and needs to be protected with the prayer of music.

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