Nyawal Lia, a native of South Sudan, thinks Portland’s immigrant community has much in common with the Irish.
Immigration, of course, is a huge part of Irish history, and it’s the reason why St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday all over the U.S. So when Lia heard that the multicultural Portland chorus she sings with – Pihcintu – would be performing Saturday at the Maine Irish Heritage Center with a group from Northern Ireland, she thought it made perfect sense.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing, for two choruses who represent people from all over the world, can come together to maybe help connect people,” said Lia, 25, who spent much of her youth in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The headliners of Saturday’s free show will be Voices of the Foyle, a community chorus from Derry, in Northern Ireland. That city has seen its share of strife and violence over the past 50 years, as one of the centers of tension between Catholics and Protestants there.
But the 20-member group doesn’t sing about politics. Because their members are from all over Derry, they try to remain neutral, said Ruth McPhillips, the musical director. Their music is mostly traditional Irish favorites, she said.
“We are a cross-community, cross-border choir and being from Derry, in the North of Ireland, it is important for us that we appreciate and respect each other’s cultures and values,” McPhillips wrote in an email from Derry. “We appreciate music and love how it can unite communities even during tense times.”
And like Lia, McPhillips feels the plight of immigrants is something Irish people feel strongly and share with immigrants around the world.
“We see it as a privilege to visit heritage centers (in the United States) and get to connect with people whose families (emigrated) from Ireland,” McPhillips wrote. “So many Irish made the long trip to America for a better life, the story of immigration is global.”
The group gets its name from The River Foyle, which runs through Derry. Members range in age from 18 to 64.
The concert is being held the day before St. Patrick’s Day because Voices of the Foyle will be performing in Boston on the actual holiday.
Vinny O’Malley, executive director of the Maine Irish Heritage Center, was aware of Voices of the Foyle through a network of Irish heritage centers. When he heard they’d be in Boston, he convinced them that Portland was “just up the road” and a convenient place to play.
Once the group was booked to perform at the center, which is in the former St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, O’Malley started looking for ways to broaden the community appeal of the event. So he booked Pihcintu, a Portland-based chorus for girls and women that included immigrants from around the world. The group has more than 30 members and has sung around the country, including a December performance at the United Nations General Assembly.
“I wanted to include some of our new immigrants, and this was a perfect way,” said O’Malley. “We want this to be a welcoming place, a community center really.”