Gerry Timlin is one of the busiest men in the Irish music business.
So why is he fitting time into his crowded schedule to run a seminar series on Irish history?
“My wife Lois was the catalyst,” Timlin explains over a midday breakfast at the Red Lion Diner in Horsham. “She said, ‘You have such a keen interest. You have to find a place to do it.’”
In at least one respect, Timlin’s “keen interest” is completely understandable. Although he’s been living in the United States for more than 40 years, he’s from the small town of Coalisland, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. But more than that, Gerry Timlin has been singing songs of his homeland since forever, and so many of those songs are tied to Irish history.
Timlin also has an extensive collection of books on Irish history, and many volumes of poetry, “like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ultimately, the history of Ireland is inextricably bound up into who Gerry Timlin is. The map of Ireland may be written all over his face, but it’s also written, in indelible ink, all over his heart and soul.
“I have always wanted to do something like this, but I never felt like I had the time to put in the hours, all the work, and the research.”
Enter the Celtic Cultural Alliance, which runs the Celtic Classic in Bethlehem every September. Timlin, together with his long-time music partner Tom Kane, is no stranger to the Classic. He and Kane are frequent performers.
The Alliance liked Timlin’s idea, and saw it as just an extension of their year-round mission to “promote and preserve Celtic culture.” The first series, about modern Irish history, ran last year.
This year the Alliance looked around for a space to host the six-week series, and settled on McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub, 534 Main Street in Bethlehem. This year’s series focuses on Irish history from ancient Celtic times to Oliver Cromwell’s bloody conquest of Ireland in the 17th century. The series begins January 14 and wraps up on February 18. The cost for the entire series is $50.
You get a lot for your money. Each night’s seminar is two hours long, and Timlin shares what he knows about Ireland’s history in stories—Gerry Timlin is nothing if not a master storyteller—song, and poetry.
Timlin intends his series to be more of a primer than a complete course.
“I break it down into segments each night,” Timlin says. “I just want to whet their appetite. I know I can’t spend any more than 15 to 20 minutes on each segment. You could do two nights alone on Cromwell—you could have an entire course right there.”
Timlin helps bring those brief segments to life with songs like “Ramblin’ Irishman” Or “Dobbin’s Flowery Vale”—whatever seems appropriate to the particular moment in time. Timlin has a deep love for the poetry of Ireland, so you might hear the lines rich with meaning, emotion—and history—from Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies”:
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
Timlin’s series can only go so far, he realizes, but he always brings in “books galore” from his collection to help his “students” learn where to look if they want to know more.
And though, as Timlin admits, “it’s hard work,” running this series is incredibly gratifying. He hopes it catches on. The time seems to be right.
“Over the past 20 to 25 years, there’s such an interest in people of Irish stock. So many people feel they need to know who I am. People are so many generations removed, but they have such a strong interest in their history, the invasions—the Danes, the Saxons, the Normans, the Brits. Last year, stories of the Great Hunger. They hear these horror stories about how people were affected by it. Then it becomes very personal to them.”