Near the end of Saturday's star-studded Irish music and dance jubilee at the Kennedy Center, emcee Frank McCourt thanked the folks who had once subjugated his ancestors. Without centuries of English occupation, he explained, the artistic output of his homeland could never have been so bountiful.
"We would be devoid of poetry and song," he said with a sly chuckle.
Two-and-a-half hours of reels, traditional and modern folk songs and other, primarily joyful, byproducts of that foreign rule had the crowd veritably jigging in their seats. Those on hand included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, several Irish dignitaries and a gaggle of Kennedys.
After Hothouse Flowers vocalist Liam O'Maonlai opened with a Gaelic folk song delivered in its original dialect, Ricky Skaggs came on to confess, more with his fiddle and bow than with words, that he and all other domestic purveyors of bluegrass stole their music from the Emerald Isle. Evidence of a less fortunate appropriation, aesthetically speaking, came when a "Riverdance" troupe took the stage for a brief line dance.
Elvis Costello, calling himself "an accidental Englishman," offered the most intense performance. He covered U2's "Please," an angry plea to the Irish to slough the emotional shackles of subjugation, before introducing "Heart-Shaped Bruise," a new number that, like most Costello ditties, mingles melody and cynicism.
Emmylou Harris requested and received a mulligan after flubbing the start of her duet with Mary Black on "You'll Never Be the Sun," and let monitor problems get the best of her while singing backup to Steve Earle on his "Goodbye."
Earle, who has made Galway something of a second home, wasn't going to let a little technical glitch or anything else kill his buzz on this night. He roused the crowd with "Galway Girl," a new song written on a recent trip across the Pond and performed here with Sharon Shannon, accordionist for the Waterboys and a native of County Clare, and Donal Lunny, a founding member of Planxty, on bouzouki.
The proceedings, which opened a 15-day Irish arts festival sponsored by the Kennedy Center, were videotaped for eventual broadcast on PBS.