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30 Days of songs: Day 7

May 29, 2011

day 07 – a song that reminds you of a certain event Ave Maris Stella (on first seeing the 12 Bens in County Galway, Ireland)

The summer of 1992, I finally went to Ireland. I’d been wanting to go there for years, ever since a college friend (who later became a post-college flatmate) introduced me to Irish music. I had hoped to go in 1991, tacking a trip there on to my summer session at the Conservatoire at Fontainebleau, to which I’d been granted a scholarship. But I came down with a nasty case of mono in June of 1991 and had to scratch plans of additional travel. I barely made it to France.

So when my friend D-J announced she was getting married in Scotland and asked me to play in her wedding, I jumped at the chance to visit Ireland on the way. I’m not sure what made me decide to tour by bicycle. Maybe I saw a travel article somewhere. I’d been biking a lot in Chicago as a way of surviving graduate school, riding up the lakefront from my campus on the south side to the Northwestern campus in Evanston, just north of the city a couple of times a week, with shorter rides in between. My bike then was an old, cheap 10-speed that a friend of mine had given me – it had belonged to his ex-girlfriend before she moved overseas. It was pink. But it got me where I needed to go and I could keep up with the peloton of lycra-clad men who tended to ride at the same time as I did every day. It was nice to have a posse through some of those neighborhoods.

When I decided to bike around Ireland, I thought it might be better not to go alone, so I invited my mom to come with me. I flew to Dublin a few days before she did and spent my time skulking around the city. By day, I toured the many churches and visited evensongs and choir rehearsals. I stood on O’Connell Street near the bridge and listened to the street musicians. In the evenings, I banded together with others I met in my hostel and went out to pubs, listening to more music and watching the bartenders draw long, slow Guinnesses from the taps. It’s hard to beat Ireland for musical tourism.

When my mom arrived, we spent one night in a Bed and Breakfast and the next morning hopped on a train to Galway City. We found a place to rent us bicycles and store our luggage, with our wedding clothes, for us. They helped us map out a route and we were off, with no reservations and no fixed plans. I’d never traveled with so little advanced work before and it was liberating. It was also, hands down, the best vacation I have ever had.

We left Galway City early the next day. Because it was so far to the next place to stay and there was not much in between, we knew we would have to bike nearly 80 miles that day if we wanted to sleep indoors (which, since we had no camping gear, we very much wished to do). I no longer remember the details of the route – it’s been nearly 20 years, after all. But I do remember at one point coming around a bend and seeing a great plain laid out before us. I gasped. It was spectacular. Everything was a brilliant, emerald green. Down below, you could see the occasional wisps of smoke from the fires they used to dry out the newly harvested peat. And in the distance, surrounded by mist, were the 12 Bens. As we watched, we saw swans fly up from a brilliant blue lake and circle into the sky. It looked like a fairy tale. It was awesome.

I got to the spot first and stopped to look. My mother was a way behind me and while I waited for her, I sang the first thing that came into my head, a song that seemed made for the occasion of witnessing this spot at this moment: the plainchant hymn “Ave maris stella.” And as I stood there on my bicycle, waiting for my mother, I sang it.


I sang it a lot during that trip, in which we covered most of County Galway by bicycle. It became my mantra. Sometimes I sang it to keep my cycling rhythm. Often I sang it because I was blown away by the beauty of the place. At night the thought of it lulled me to sleep.

Ave maris stella
Dei mater alma
Atque semper Virgo
Felix caeli porta

Hail, star of the sea
Nurturing mother of God
And Ever Virgin
Happy gate of heaven.

[You can find the rest of the verses and a translation here]

It’s a very old hymn. We don’t know much about where it comes from, but it’s been around at least since the 8th century and it’s been set by dozens of composers. Here’s a setting written by Guillaume Dufay in the 15th century. It’s one of my favorites.

And here is another lovely setting by Josquin des Prez (maybe – there’s some question about that, and I’ve only just stumbled onto the controversy, so I can’t speak to it at the moment) that I found when I unsuccessfully searched for a setting of his Missa ave maris stella. Alas, the much better known missa is MIA on youtube, at least in the search I could manage with my present attention span.

I used to sing Ave maris stella to AJ too, when he was a baby. He doesn’t remember it. I remember one time in particular when I was sitting on the balcony of my parents’ bedroom nursing AJ and looking out at the sun setting over the lagoon. Everything was green and warm and beautiful and amazing. I could hear the waves hitting the beach on the other side of the trees. I thought of Ireland and the star of the sea and the sleepy baby in my lap and sang to all of them.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2011 1:11 pm

    Beautiful – great choice.

  2. May 30, 2011 12:55 pm

    I am really enjoying this series of yours. DJ and I were just saying that you write about music in a very interesting and knowledgeable way. Almost like it’s your thing.

  3. May 30, 2011 4:37 pm

    Thanks. I’ve been having fun writing them, in part because it’s so different from the kind of writing about music I do most of the time. It’s nice to be able to get back to what’s personal about it, and what I’m passionate about, which is, after all, why I got into this field in the first place.

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