Mick Moloney Returns to St. Malachy’s for the 25th Year
By Kathy McGee Burns
This year St. Malachy’s will celebrate 25 years of something special–25 years of a unique friendship, 25 years of commitment, dedication and love.
On Sunday November 4, at 2 PM, Mick Moloney will once again arrive at St. Malachy’s Church to perform his annual concert.
I’ve been attending for many years, and the whole event is magical. The church is wearing its autumnal best: orange pumpkins, shafts of wheat, bouquets of yellow mums, baskets of multi-colored leaves and copper-tinged husks of corn. The light presses through the stained glass windows spilling a warm glow on the church’s vast nave.
Mick and his loyal, faithful musicians, who come from far and near to perform each year, begin their musical journey. The church always filled. To the side, Father John McNamee, now the pastor emeritus of the mission church in North Philadelphia, will be sitting in a pew, gazing with admiration at his long-time friend.
I talked to Mick a few weeks ago on the phone and asked him how it all started. “I can’t really remember whether John asked me or I volunteered,” he said. “I told him I’d be pleased to do some concerts with Eugene O’Donnell.” The Derry-born O’Donnell, a fiddler who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1957, performed with Moloney on the classic recording, “The Music of Ed Reavy.” Reavy, also an Irish-born Philadelphian, is considered one of the most important composers of Irish music of the 20th century.
Father Mac, as he’s known, said he met Mick through the late historian Dennis Clark, at the Balch Institute. Introducing himself, Mick said, ”Oh, I know who you are, John. I want to come and do a benefit concert for your school.”
And so this is how it began.
Mick Moloney admired what St. Malachy’s had done in its little corner of Philadelphia. Everyone was welcomed. No one who needed help was ever turned away. It was the kind of think Mick wanted to support.
“You know, 25 years ago, that neighborhood was really tough,” says Mick, who originally came to Philadelphia from Limerick to get his PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. “It had lots of crime and lots of people who were victims of violence in many ways. John McNamee was an amazing figure in the middle of all the chaos, poverty, crime and violence. He was a mighty man!”
That, he says, is the highest accolade one can be called. “He defines the word vocation. He defines the word commitment and he defines the words, generosity of spirit. John is a big man in every way. He’s bursting with humanity and he’s a great poet. I love the twinkle in his eye.”
Mick wanted to bring music to St. Malachy’s. And it had to be Irish music. St. Malachy’s parish was founded by Irish immigrants and the Sisters of Mercy in 1850 as “the church in the woods.” In the early 20th century, the neighborhood was home to numerous manufacturing companies. When they declined, so did the neighborhood. It and its people fell on hard times.
Music was the art that was formed in Ireland in the troubled times, Mick told me. The people who performed the best songs, the best music, the best dances and the best stories were all the poor farmers and fishermen.
“I thought wouldn’t it be lovely to have all this music at a service for this wonderful church and this wonderful man.”
John McNamee says, “Every year, for 25 years, Mick Moloney arrives. Half of life is showing up.” He softly chuckles as he says this. “His musicians are with him, his bagpipes, flutes, banjos. You know what I like about Mick Moloney? He is so casual. He has seemingly dissimilar characteristics of intense and serious and casual. Something like, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. As the great Irishman said, ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously.””
Father Mac says he feels completely comfortable with Mick and thinks Mick feels the same way. “There is no pretense about him. He knows that he’s good but it doesn’t matter. He enjoys what he’s doing and that’s good enough. If he seems unprepared about what the program is going to be, it doesn’t matter because he begins to unfold; he lets the musicians shine in turn and it all works out very well.”
I asked Mick why 25 years? He said he loves to see art put at the disposal of good causes. “This art helps people through hard times. I can’t think of a better thing to do. This is like coming home.”
Father Mac says if you try and thank Mick for coming and bringing the others with him, he humbly says,” It’s my pleasure, John.”
This concert has probably raised a million dollars over the years. Mick and the musicians come from wherever they are in the US or the world, paying their own way. This year, expect to see Robbie O’Connell, a member of the amazing Clancy family; uillean piper Joey Arbata, button accordionist Billy McComiskey; fiddler Dana Lyn, and folk singer and harmonica player Saul Broudy, vocalist Murray Callahan, and, of course, Mick Moloney.