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Liam Lawton on St. Patrick
John Feister
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Thursday, March 17, 2016
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St. Patrick is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Mary's Basilica in Phoenix.
Beyond the colorful tales of snakes and shamrocks, what do we know about the real person? We turned to an Irish priest for answers, and found one with a story of his own. To understand Father Liam’s interest in St. Patrick, the fifth-century missionary, it first will help to understand Liam.

Father Liam Lawton, of Carlow, Ireland, is a platinum-record-selling musician whose passion is Irish history. How often do you find those three—priest, star, history buff—in one package? His is a household name in Ireland. His musical programs have been narrated by Gregory Peck, John Malkovich, Frank McCourt, and others; he has recorded 15 albums. He has performed in Chicago Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall in New York, the White House, the Vatican, on TV and radio specials, on national stages in Ireland.

He came to know St. Patrick well due to some American friends. Leaders at Old St. Patrick parish in Chicago—the family of famed sociologist and fiction writer Father Andrew Greeley, to be specific—wanted to commission original music for the renovated church’s rededication. After meeting Liam in Carlow, Joyce Durkin, Andrew Greeley’s sister, invited Liam to Chicago to see the church.

Liam, keen on Irish tradition, was blown away. A century earlier, artist Thomas O’Shaugh-nessy had created stained-glass windows and wall paintings for the church inspired by Ireland’s ninth-century Book of Kells. That illuminated, hand-lettered book of the Gospels is a world treasure.

“Basically, he recreated the Book of Kells in the church, right on the ceilings and walls. It was just amazing!” recalls Liam of his first visit to Old St. Pat’s. “It’s the only thing like it in the world.” In the mid-1900s, as church membership dwindled, the building had fallen into disrepair. The 1990s saw a renaissance of membership. Now, in 1997, Liam was seeing the newly renovated church. The Greeleys were looking for music for the rededication Mass. Would Father Liam write for the occasion?

The performance of the subsequent setting, “Mass of the Celtic Saints,” along with a new collection he created, “The Clouds’ Veil,” became a turning point in Father Liam’s growing popularity. More to our point, the rededication Mass became an entrée for Liam to write music for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration at Chicago’s Symphony Hall. “The Shepherd Boy,” which Father Liam composed, based upon the life of St. Patrick, was performed there in 2000, with orchestra and Irish musicians, with film icon Gregory Peck serving as narrator. (It would be Peck’s last public performance.) For two days he and Liam worked on the script, as Peck made the telling of St. Patrick’s story his own.

Send a St. Patrick's Day Catholic Greeting! 

“He was 84 years of age, and he was so gracious,” recalls Liam. In the coming years Liam’s warm music on life’s themes, to be recorded by EMI record label (of Beatles fame), would find a stronger home in the United States. The Church-devoted portion of his music would be distributed by GIA, the Chicago company behind many of the hymnals and musicians serving parishes in this country.

Father Liam gladly took on the piece about St. Patrick because of his own Irish tradition. He grew up in a bilingual, working-class household, in a small town where Irish (Gaelic) and English both were spoken. His father came from a region where Irish was the main language (a Gaeltacht). A favorite uncle, Patrick, an accomplished traditional musician, had taken young Liam under his wing and passed along a love of traditional Irish culture.

Now, perhaps, you can see why we called this priest about St. Patrick. We rang Liam up, as he might say, a few months ago at his rectory across the Atlantic. He had a few days off between concerts across the country and a Christmas special on the BBC radio/TV network—all that before the three parish Masses on Christmas Eve. Yet it didn’t take much to get the St. Patrick stories coming.


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