When I went to the launch of Slí Cholmcille at the Linenhall Library last night, the last person I expected to see was George Ivan Morrison, Van the Man to you and me.

Linenhall Librarian John Killen giving his autograph to Van Morrison!
Linenhall Librarian John Killen giving his autograph to Van Morrison!

Slí Cholmcille or the St Columba Trail is the first visitor trail between Scotland and Ireland and is named after St Colmcille or Columba, a native of Donegal. The trail stretches from Gleann Cholm Cille in south west Donegal to the Western Isles of Scotland. There are nine interlinked routes, including three in Donegal, one in the City of Derry, and another between Coleraine and Limavady. The trail can be seen at www.colmcille.org, and can also be viewed on a screen at the Linenhall library throughout February.

But why would the legendary Irish singer be at such an event? The answer came from the always entertaining Dr Ian Adamson, a man who wears his erudition lightly.

The former Lord Mayor of Belfast talked of his family connections to the Hebrides – his great granny came from Íle (Islay) – and the young Ian Adamson was taken by his grandfather to Íle and na Hearadh (Harris) and Leòdhas (Lewis) where he imagined the songs of the people to be related to the beautiful birdsong he heard on the islands.

“The love-song of the Wandering Greenshank, for example, is one of the most beautiful birdsongs in the world. It has a haunting quality that is replicated by the Gaelic Singers of the area and I think that is a very important factor in the development of that singing,” he says, before talking about the Ó Muirgheasáins, hereditary bards and brieves (lawmakers, from the Irish word breitheamh) who left Ulster in the 15th and 16th centuries and moved to Harris in the Outer Hebrides where they were bards to the MacLeans and MacClouds.”

The songs of the Macleans were never written down and haven’t survived but the Ó Muirgheasáins did, later became Morrisons.

Another family, the MacGilleMhoire clan, also emigrated from Ulster to the Northern Hebrides and had their name Anglicised to Morrison.

But, according to Adamson, the tradition of the hereditary bards lives on, that innate, intuitive sense that has lived on generation after generation.

“We have a modern bard, one who has written transcendental lyrics, the greatest of all lyrics ever written by a person of Hebridean extraction, George Ivan Morrison.”

So the Gaelic poets who left Ulster in the late Middle Ages brought their skills to the Scottish islands and centuries later brought their culture to America where it developed into early American music, call it what you will – folk, spiritual, gospel and arguably through to soul and R&B with some scholars claiming that American gospel music has its roots in the Gaelic psalm singing of Lewis.
Van the man is part of that ancient cultural give and take.

Enjoy the Odyssey gigs, folks.

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