As relations between London and Dublin remain sunk in mutual mistrust over the Northern Ireland protocol, the Irish Embassy in London's Grosvenor Place has become a frenzy of Anglo-Irish amity. Prince Charles was there on Wednesday evening for a private view of John Lavery's portraits of the British and Irish teams that negotiated the Treaty 100 years ago this month.
He met descendants of some of those whose portraits hung on the walls, on loan from the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. They were Éamon Ó Cúiv TD, great grandson of Eamon de Valera; Margaret Behan, great granddaughter of the Earl of Birkenhead; former Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill; and Aenghus O'Malley, grand nephew of Michael Collins.
On Friday night, the Embassy will host a hooley when Other Voices comes to London for a livestream presented by broadcaster Annie Mac and featuring Saint Sister, The Unthanks, Michael McGoldrick and Katie Melua. Ambassador Adrian O'Neill describes the event as a celebration of "the vibrant cultural ties and rich musical conversation that continue to link our two islands".
Other Voices founder Philip King said it was when he curated an event at the Albert Hall in 2014 during President Michael D Higgins's visit to Britain that he saw the power of music to bring people together.
"So many shades of Irishness and Englishness were in that room on that night. And I always remember when the Band of the Irish Guards, which is a British army regiment and the Band of the Irish Army, Óglaigh na hÉireann, came onto the stage together and played and Emer Quinn sang The Minstrel Boy to the War Is Gone and Elvis Costello then sang, What's so Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding," he said.
“We had a sensation that we were well able to sing in harmony together. And I think there was something very powerful and emotionally powerful about that, that here was something that we have that we share. So when you think about the relationship between Ireland and England musically, I mean, where would you like to start?”
He lists Irish musicians like Christy Moore, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine who learned their trade in the folk clubs of England before identifying three of the Beatles, Boy George, the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Guy Garvey from Elbow and the late Dusty Springfield as Irish. He believes the interwoven musical world of Britain and Ireland can bring the two peoples together in times of difficulty.
“Those Lavery paintings are all up in the Embassy right now. It’s going back 100 years for the time of the Treaty, those negotiations would have been happening right now. We have different shades of identity on these islands. But I think that what music can do is not just celebrate difference but can bring us together to sing in harmony,” he said.
‘Beacon of hope’
“Those tensions and those difficulties and those mistrusts may be happening in one part of the forest, but that doesn’t mean to say that we’re not going to sing and play with each other. And with the community of musicians and artists and writers and singers that have traditionally worked together and will continue to do so. I would see this as a shaft of light, a beacon of hope and a pathway towards a place where things might be like, out of tune, but we might find our way tuning something together that might be a portrait of a possibility for better relations in the future.”
For both the musicians and the audience, it will also be a celebration of emerging from coronavirus restrictions that King says have been especially cruel for performers.
“If you can’t do what it is that you do in your daily life, both in terms emotionally of the activity that you take part, but also that the remuneration that’s available and how you make your living, if that has been denied to you by this pernicious virus, you will have found yourself in a very difficult place,” he said.
“So to emerge from the silence, if you like, of the imposed silence that the virus has brought and to be able to merge back into a world of clamour and noise and raise your voice to sing again is a fantastic feeling. And we hope we can share that feeling with the world by streaming this thing live from the beautiful rooms of the Embassy. I think it’s very, very important. I think it will ameliorate some anxieties. I think it will bring us together. I think it collapses distance and makes us feel just that little bit better and that little bit more human.”