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Old St. Pat's 'Siamsa na nGael' Celebrates Cross-Cultural Irish Heritage

CHICAGO — St. Patrick's Day may be an inherently Irish holiday, but Chicago's capital for the event, Old St. Patrick's Church in the West Loop, wants the city to know about the Emerald Isle's lesser-known connections to America's and Chicago's histories.

"[To] think everything Irish just happened on that little island across the Atlantic is not a full appreciation. It's not even true," said the Rev. Thomas Hurley, Old St. Pat's pastor. "All culture has always been the intersection of folks from across the globe. There are really fascinating historical pieces and very unique intersections that have formed not only the Irish, but other cultures as well."

So before the river turns green and the beer starts flowing, Old St. Pat's has made it a tradition to celebrate Ireland's less iconic histories, which the church has done for the past 17 years with its annual Siamsa na nGael concert, a "celebration of the gift of song and story and dance," as Hurley describes it.

"Siamsa na nGael" is Gaelic for "a Celtic celebration," Hurley said.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this year, the 2013 Siamsa na nGael show, titled "Voices of Freedom," spotlights Ireland's role in Chicago and America's fight for civil rights.

"We try to tell stories of the Celts or the Irish as they meet with other cultures, and how the Irish are shaped by those cultures and those cultures are shaped by the Irish," said Bill Fraher, music director at Old St. Pat's. "We end up telling stories that most people have never heard of."

Like the story of how abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was smuggled to Ireland for safety after writing a particularly scathing anti-slavery narrative, and how Irish politician Daniel O'Connell eventually paid for Douglass' freedom.

Or the Irish Brigade, a group of more than 600 Irish men from Chicago who volunteered to represent the the Union during the Civil War.

Those and more stories about Ireland's role in African-American history will be enacted through song and dance at the Chicago Symphony Center March 11.

Performers include soloist Rodrick Dixon, Alfreda Burke, Catherine O’Connell, The Trinity Irish Dancers, The Soul Children of Chicago Choir, Traditional Irish Players, Metropolis Symphony Orchestra and Old St. Patrick’s Concert Choir.

The evening will be hosted by Chicago Sun-Times correspondent Carol Marin.

Fraher said this year's event is the product of years of organization and planning.

"Our church is definitely very diverse, and celebrates the gift of culture," Hurley said. "This is just one more way of doing that, in a beautiful, cultural expression."

Tickets are still available for the show at 7:30 p.m. March 11, and can be bought in advance for $25 to $55 at CSO.org.