During the early 1800s, Ireland’s farmers developed a dietary dependency on the potato. So profound was their poverty, they were barely living at the subsistence level, and the root vegetable was a reliable crop that easily filled their bellies. By the 1840s, the potato had become a staple of not only farmers’ diets but that of the entire Irish population. This extreme demand led to a blight that rotted out most of the potato crops, leaving the tenant farmers in a famine that stretched on for six years.
The result was starvation and migration, among other things. And though the Irish Potato Famine has long since become a well-known part of history, the traumatic impact it had on Irish families has often been glossed over. It was this hole in history that Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke was hoping to fill when he released his exceptional album, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, in late 2017.
On Sunday, Feb. 17, O’Rourke’s tour brings him to Isis Music Hall with a nine-piece band (including members of Lunasa, Celtic Woman and Altan) to perform the album in its entirety.
And though it’s been more than a year since the album was released, O’Rourke believes the stories he has to tell are just as important now. He isn’t coy about the lessons we can learn from digging into the humanity of a historical event such as the Irish famine. “If there was ever a time that it was relevant,” he says, “this is it.”
O’Rourke notes the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the suspicion of immigrants and other factors that seem to be repeating themselves in these times. He hopes his audience will open themselves to these relatable stories about what happened so long ago.
“There are some bad forces driving the fear [these days] and the lies that perpetuate that climate,” he says. “America’s history has so much to be proud of, but … let’s just consider two of the big disasters that jump off the pages of U.S. history: the decimation of Native America and slavery. Does anybody really want to see another world-class, era-defining nightmare like either of those? These things always begin with someone saying, ‘Hey — we’re above those guys.’ As someone who has studied the Great Irish Famine for almost 20 years, I’m shocked at the resonances that are popping up in modern society.”
As an artist, O’Rourke is stirred by the way people move through tragedy meeting fear with hope and trauma with resilience. He notes that most of history’s biggest moments have been the result of bad decisions on the part of leadership, which left citizens to muddle through its fallout. And while the Irish Potato Famine was full of such stories, O’Rourke’s seven albums to date have all explored the way various people press on through the hard times.
Indeed, O’Rourke has steadily grown as a songwriter, album after album, since his 2004 debut. But the theme of how humans navigate life’s darkest moments has always prevailed, as he searches for the ways we remain connected when life tries to pull us apart. There’s mortality in all of it, at least as much as there is hope.
Even his more romantic love songs indicate life gets dark sometimes and we’re better off charging through together. One of his finest, “Whatever Else Happens” from Big Bad Beautiful World (2007), asserts, “Things happen every day, mostly by accident. … Whatever else happens, I will come back for you.”
These are not light, easily digestible love stories, but they ring true. O’Rourke tends to go for the jugular, always in the interest of helping his listeners become better acquainted with their own insides. “Our job is to move people,” he says. “To make them aware of their own empathy. To speak directly to their hearts, using both music and words.”
Over the last 15-plus years, as O’Rourke has traveled the world and brought his music to audiences in various far-flung locales, he has done just that. Along the way, he has witnessed how far a story can go when it’s packed within a song.
In the case of Chronicles, these still-relevant tales of sorrow and surmounting have flown across more than a century, carrying with them lessons that we’d be well-advised to learn from. “The old maxim that ‘Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ is screaming at us,” he says, adding that there is always good reason to be optimistic.
“Music,” he notes, “is the language of the heart — even part of the language of the universe. Its possibilities are endless. … I hope we never stop feeling it. It’s spiritual, and therefore both inspirational and instructive.”
WHO: Declan O’Rourke
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m., $35