Kiran Young Wimberly on the Celtic Psalms Project

When she moved to Northern Ireland, Kiran Young Wimberly was surprised to discover how few Presbyterians there knew the Irish and Scottish melodies she’d grown to love in the U.S. Her Celtic Psalms project is helping Protestants and Catholics reconnect with their shared heritage.

Kiran Young Wimberly is an American Presbyterian minister who served in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for over six years. She arranges psalms to Irish, English and Scottish melodies and has recorded two Celtic Psalms albums with Irish Catholic musicians. In this edited conversation, she talks about how this music builds bridges.

How do psalm singing traditions differ between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland?

Protestant worship services wouldn't necessarily reserve time for covering one psalm per week. However, psalms are certainly interspersed throughout the services as special music or hymns. Psalm 23 is a particular favorite, and a few versions are sung frequently in Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) churches.

Singing psalms was more common in past generations, especially among the Covenanters. When we lived there, though, I didn't sense a huge emphasis on psalm singing among Protestants or Catholics. Yet, it appeals generally to both communities and doesn't belong to one any more than the other. It's something we all can share. That's how I got the idea of the Celtic Psalms project being “cross-community.”

What have you learned about the roots of traditional music in Northern Ireland?

Some people believe that traditional music “belongs” to Catholics, but the truth is more nuanced. Traditional music means the songs have been passed down through the generations, adjusted by individual performers and kept alive by a community. Traditional music in Ireland is a hybrid of rural tunes and Irish poetry, supplemented by music from English and Scottish planters and migrants. Traditional music, whether Irish, English or Scottish, has been both played and shunned by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Churches have often rejected it so as not to be associated with the sectarian politics that have co-opted traditional music and instruments. I like exploring how traditional melodies can take on a new meaning that connects Northern Irish people to the distant roots of their webbed history—and to find common cultural roots there.

Why did you start pairing the Psalms with Celtic tunes?

At the same time I began participating in a monthly Celtic prayer service, co-led by Protestants and Catholics, I also began taking classes with the Belfast Traditional Music Society. Hearing those old Irish and Scottish songs in a classroom or quiet pub was an undeniably sacred experience, even though God was never mentioned. During one term we learned different versions of the love song “The Banks of the Bann.” Its melody, Slane, is also the melody for “Be Thou My Vision,” one of the few traditional melodies regularly sung in the PCI. I began listening for Celtic melodies with a sacred quality.

Late one Sunday, after preaching from Psalm 63 on what it means to be thirsty for God, I listened to a 17th century melody by the Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. I researched and found that this tune, Eleanor Plunkett, is usually played as an instrumental piece and had been commissioned by a wealthy patron who had lost her entire family in a fire. The tune’s longing and lament fit Psalm 63 so well. Over three years I listened for and arranged soulful Irish and Scottish melodies with psalms.

Can you give a story about a specific Celtic psalm?

According to statistics, more than half the people in Northern Ireland know someone who was injured or killed during the Troubles. Lines became blurred between perpetrators, witnesses and victims. Yet it hasn’t been socially acceptable for middle-class Irish Presbyterians to talk about these experiences. When we released our first album, Celtic Psalms, I remember how it felt to be with people sitting in Protestant pews and singing Catholic melodies to words from psalms that both groups could claim as their own. We sang Psalm 67 set to a Scottish air: “May God be gracious unto us, May God’s face shine on to us…and God’s face shine on all nations.” It seemed everyone present felt God’s healing presence.

Also, by singing and praying Psalm 104, we join with early Irish Christians in praising God for the wonders of creation and simple gifts of daily life: “You give us breath, new life to all. Praise the Lord, all the earth!”

What gave you the idea to team up with the McGrath family to record Celtic Psalms?

Catholic theologian Siobhán Garrigan writes about how worship can create a more inclusive space through small but significant changes in ritual. When I eventually sang a few Celtic psalms in my home Presbyterian church in Belfast, people asked, “Why is no one else doing this?”

I had heard the McGraths sing at a cross-community worship service, and I was captivated by their ethereal yet earthy sound. I had arranged an album of psalms, and, when I was considering who to partner with for a recording, I thought of them. We didn't know each other, but I got their contact information from a common friend. Out of the blue, I rang them up and asked if they would record a CD with me. Thank God, they said yes—and the rest is history!

How can singing Celtic psalms together bring healing in Northern Ireland?

Although there is less violence in Northern Ireland now than in past decades, many schools, neighborhoods and public housing projects are tacitly separated by religion. It's deeply important for Protestants and Catholics there to have opportunities for finding common ground. The Psalms are for everyone. Singing psalms to soulful Celtic melodies provides a positive way to gather—rather than a way to remain divided by identities that began to form 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation.

At the Celtic Psalms launch concert in 2013 and since then, I believe we have been singing peace into being. Catholics and Protestants have been embracing our shared musical culture in the context of shared worship.

LEARN MORE

Register for the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship so you can hear and sing with Kiran Young Wimberly. Her second volume, Celtic Psalms: The Lord’s My Shepherd, lifts up psalms about how the Israelites (and all of us) are implicated in the web of conflict, and we all need God’s forgiveness and grace. Read The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism by Siobhán Garrigan.

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