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Fiona Molloy sang for peace; she sings of Ireland

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 25, 2011 - On many a mild day, the door to O'Malley's Irish Gift Shop in Maplewood is open; and Irish jigs, reels and ballads drift out onto the sidewalk. Chances are high the music will lure in passers-by for a chat with proprietor John Gage. Chances are also high that Gage's visitor will end up buying a CD by the artists: mostly independent artists who Gage showcases because he loves them.

And when Fiona Molloy is the siren of the sidewalk, people sometimes buy more than one.

I know this because when I was window shopping recently on Sutton Boulevard I ended up with four of Molloy's CDs - two for me and two for gifts.

Malloy will be in St. Louis for two concerts April 29 and 30.

Dave Holmes, chairman of the St. Louis chapter of NORAID, (Northern Irish Aid) says the proceeds from the concert will go to buy youth soccer in St. Louis and Country Antrim in Northern Ireland. In response to a question about NORAID money going to arm the IRA, he said that would be illegal and is an image his group is working to escape.

In the late '70s, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Molloy was the dubbed the Songbird of Peace in that war-torn land. In her late teens, a resident of Derry, she sang at peace rallies throughout Ireland and the British Isles. She also sang in Stockholm when Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, co-founders of Peace People, a group that works for peace in Northern Ireland, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Molloy now calls Wisconsin home by summer and Florida home by winter. She spends much of her time on the road doing concerts, travelling with her husband, Walter Lepperd, who she says is a ringer for John Wayne.

"I always said I'd find me an American cowboy," said Molloy. She has, as they say, the map of Ireland on her oval face with rosy cheeks and large green eyes.

This year as part of a family reunion she will be singing in Brittany in France. A performance is also planned for Moville in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. That is her late father's birthplace. She has also sung on Irish music cruises plying the Caribbean.

Her voice is deep and smooth. She manages to conjure up sorrow and solace almost simultaneously.

"What happens when I sing is a video runs through with images, feelings and memories," she said. She was classically trained, which she says allows her to perform for almost three straight hours, at the age of 53. Her concerts are no frills - an acoustic guitar and her voice.

Molloy first started using that voice as a tot. She says she sang before she could talk. She comes from a musical family; her mother and grandmother were music teachers and started her on her way. Her father, John Molloy, a baritone, once appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

As a teenager she sang in competitions and nursing homes. A legislator in Northern Ireland, Danny Feeney and a friend wrote a song begging for the changes in heart that could lead to peace. And Feeney recruited Malloy who, he said, had a voice as clear as the air in winter. In front of crowds of people, most of whom had family killed in the strife, she would sing: "Say peace. Think peace. Walk with peace in your heart. Pray peace. Live for peace."

She doesn't sing that song now. She doesn't talk about those days.

"Too much emotion," she says.

To show how deep the hurt goes, she tells one story. When she was 14, she was walking along with a friend, who ran back onto the road to retrieve dropped books. A bullet ricocheted off a lamp post, hit her friend's head and killed her.

That friend was Kathleen Feeney, also 14, Danny Feeney's sister.

The violence in Northern Ireland has lessened since the Good Friday Peace Accord in 1998. But not all sectarian trouble has ended.

In the late '70s, after trying to build a career in London, Molloy accepted an invitation from her Aunt Francis Feeney, no relation to Kathleen and Danny Feeney, to come and live in the states.

Molloy says she never looked back. She built a career singing in Irish pubs along the East Coast.

Then came her first marriage and children. A son Christopher Crespo, who is now 23. And a son Nicholas, who died at 4 and a half. At about the time of his death, she got a divorce and her parents died.

For awhile, she couldn't bring herself to sing. But at a reunion, family members urged her onto the stage. As she sang "Amazing Grace," the band stopped playing, leaving just her voice to fill the room, where people began lighting matches and cigarette lighters. She was ready to perform again.

The Gages - John and his son, Tommy, who owns O'Malley's Pub on Cherokee Street - heard about her through another independent Irish musician Seamus Kennedy. Kennedy told them to give Molloy, "an Irish singer with a fine voice," a hearing.

It was love at first listen and the Gages first brought Molloy to St. Louis four years ago, to sing at Tommy Gage's pub. The Gages use the name O'Malley in their businesses because it's the maiden name of John Gage's mother and, he notes, it has more of a Celtic kick than Gage.

Molloy's first visit was nearly her last. The Gages put her up at the Lemp Mansion near the pub, thinking it would be convenient and interesting. The Mansion, however, is rumored to be the home of not one but several ghosts.

John Gage recalls that Molloy began gasping for breath and saying something was wrong when she entered the mansion. Molloy says she sensed two ghosts in her bedroom and felt indentations in the bed. She says she held up her rosary. She told the ghosts she wouldn't bother them and to leave her alone, because she had a show to do the next day.

Since then Gages have found her less interesting places to stay.

Molloy says she knows 500 songs - some in Spanish, French and German. But Irish and American folk songs usually fill her shows. To please the crowd she generally serves up "Danny Boy," the "Black Velvet Band," "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" and the like.

Some fans say Molloy is best on songs that make real the waste of war.

One of those songs, often heard at O'Malley's shop is, "The Green Fields of France." It tells of Pvt. William McBride, killed in World War I, the War to End All Wars. People have been known to tear up when they hear Molloy sing: "Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind? ... To that loyal heart, are you forever 19?"

Theresa Tighe is a freelance writer.

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