The idea of writing an extensive piece on Irish melodies would not have occurred to me without the suggestion made by Professor John Cody Birdwell of Texas Tech University.
When Cody approached ma about a commission, he didn't tell me to write an "Irish piece", but he told me of his own personal love of things Celtic. He also put me in touch with Professor Chris Smith, a musicologist at TTU who had a lifelong affection for pub band music: jugs, reels, slip-jigs, marches, and the lot. It was the combined efforts of these two passionate devotees of the music of Eire that convinced me.
I decided on a two-movement layout, because the beautiful slow airs couldn't combine very easily in a single movement format with all the dance tunes I wanted to use. Chris Smith supplied me with enough good tunes for a dozen pieces, and I went through them all. It seemed best to label the first movement Airs in the Mist and put three lovely (and lesser-known) Irish melodies together, then follow it with a dance medley that I have named Reelin' and Jiggin'. Because I knew that there was a large interest in "pub band" music at Texas Tech, also, I included an optional insert (with vamp) so that a real Irish pub band might interpolate a "set" into the second movement.
Airs in the Mist consists of three old melodies, with a little slip-jig added in the last of them for spice. Irish ballads always tell stories, and these three tunes are no exception. When an Irishman begins to sing a ballad, it is usually because something in the conversation has reminded him of a song. But I have chosen these three for their musical contrast, not for any extra musical storytelling. The three tunes are Loch na gCaor, Port na bPucai and Blind Mary.
The first is, like many Irish ballads, a heroic epic involving great loss on the field of battle, re-drafted by Lord Byron into the poem Darklochnagen. The second is a whaling song, also known as Song of the Ghosts, and I've attempted to put the sounds of whales, seagulls, and the sea into my setting of it. And Blind Mary, the only one of the three with an acknowledged author (Turlough O'Carolan, an itinerant harpist who flourished in the early 1700s), is set with two slip-jigs interpolated between the phrases: Hardiman the Fiddler and Drops of Springwater. The movement ends in sweet sadness.
Reelin' and Jiggin' is completely the reverse of the first movement, in terms of spirit. Marked "Relentlessly happy", it consists of a chain of ever-brighter reels and jigs (in that order). These, unlike the airs, have no stories to tell, despite their colorful titles - they are simply good dance tunes. The dance tunes are: Come West Along the Road, Ger the Rigger, Gypsy Princess, Road to Lisdoonvarna, The Wild Irishman, and (after a tin whistle reprise of Come West and Ger), The Humours of Ennistymon.
Minstrels of the Kells was commissioned by the big Twelve Band Directors Association and a supporting consortium of the following university band programs: Michigan State University, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Ohio State University, Arizona State University, University of New Mexico, University of South Carolina, University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University, Illinois State University, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, University of Tennessee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Western Kentucky University, Stephen F. Austin University, Hart School of Music, Tennessee Tech University, Sam Houston State University, and the United States Air Force Band.
The work was premiered on April 21, 2002 by the Texas Tech University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, John Cody Birdwell, Conductor, and is dedicated to the memory of the late James Sudduth, former Director of Bands at Texas Tech University.