There’s a case to be argued for genetic memory, the Jungian theory, that certain memories and proclivities are bequeathed to us at birth from our forbearers. As a Scots-Irish descendant on every branch of my family tree, it seems my blood is imbued with a haunting, genetically ingrained longing; some deep-seated calibration to my ancestral lineage, which has spawned poets, writers, and musicians, who have seemingly come into this world with aptitudes waiting to be developed throughout life. I was drawn to the arts long before I had the facts on my antecedents, just as I’ve carried a mysterious affinity with certain proprieties specific to the United Kingdom: its cool, misty climate, sweeping vistas; its close proximity to the sea. I’ve lived with this overarching, ineffable partiality for as long as I can remember, and every once in a while, some magical happenstance springs forth and brings it straight into my home.
Last May, Anthony McCann paid us a visit. He is Irish as the soil, younger than me, and someone who was part of my daily life years ago, when I lived on the western coast of Ireland. We worked side by side for a common goal in Galway. At the time, he was casting about for his bearings in life, but for me as an outsider, this young lad was emblematic of what it means to be Irish. Anthony comes from a line of historians: some amateur, others by trade. I sensed he would put this to use one day, which he did, for today he is a professor of ethnomusicology, who lectures at universities throughout the world, which is why he had cause to be in Santa Barbara, California, one hour’s drive from my home.
It’s funny to see people out of context; most times it brings to mind a fish out of water, yet there are those unique souls who can walk into your life as you’ve been leading it and make you question your vantage point; Anthony McCann is one of those. He sauntered into my Southern California living room, all long limbed and russet- haired, with that lightning-quick spin on his “How ye been keeping?” I’d told my husband I needn’t prepare for his visit. Anthony is the kind of guy who feels at home wherever he goes because he’s in possession of those distinct Irish traits common to all from that self-sufficient island all covered in green: he’s comfortable in his own skin, present in the moment, devoid of pretense, under no expectations, and able to rise to any occasion.
Now, the Irish are not a lot to offer themselves freely, but neither are they the sort to be coerced after dinner. And I, being wise to honoring my guest, leaned comfortably back in my chair and said, “Anthony, give us a tune.” I felt the air shift in my kitchen to a whirring, vibratory force that hovered like a mantle upon Anthony’s shoulders. He centered himself; I could feel it, and watching him furrow his brow to a serious line, it seemed he reached back through the veil of time and aligned himself with something ancient; something that was his right to claim, for Anthony is no imposter; he simply slipped into something already there on his skin. It began with a hum in the back of his throat: a low, resonate, otherworldly invocation that set a pace, which he rode like the swell of a wave. With pitches and free-falls, he regained a flat center line, which was all the more poignant having been contrasted with his vocal ornamentation. It was an old tune, yet in that moment it belonged to none other: “Una ni Chonchuir bhain,” or “Blonde Una O’Connor,” sung in Irish sean nos, in the lament that “I loved her, she didn’t love me; I missed my chance, oh woe is me.” I couldn’t recall if I’d heard the tune before, but something within me remembered the spirit of its intention. It didn’t seem to be a singular expression; it was an intonation that spoke for us all as initiates of an ancestral inner circle, and I knew in that moment something archival had been trigger within me; that one doesn’t have to be born in Ireland to own its spirit. Ireland’s spirit is vested in its children at birth: a sacred, atavistic, spectral commodity residing as genetic memory passed down through family lines.