Clare horgan

Sean-nós singer becomes advocate

Clare Horgan performing at an outside broadcast in Boston. PHOTO/WILL DANIELS

By Peter McDermott

Clare Horgan had her heart set on Alaska, 3,400 miles to the northwest. Instead she was soon back in Cahersiveen, helping newcomers from the east and the south.

The sean-nós singer came to the U.S. last summer on a P3 visa with the support of Culture Ireland, and was in Boston at the time of the lockdown. It was a particularly busy couple of months. She had been in New York in late February to teach a singing workshop hosted by the Folk Music Society of New York at its venue in Manhattan. From there she traveled to Boston for WGBH’s “Celtic Sojourn,” a St. Patrick’s series of concerts (there’s also a Christmas series), hosted by Brian O’Donovan. Each year, the event has a guest folk singer and Horgan was selected for this year's series, which would tour “beautiful towns in Massachusetts.”

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The “Celtic Sojourn” had been deep in rehearsals for weeks, had done an outside broadcast and one concert when the remainder of the tour was cancelled.

Horgan then heard from family members that the government was recommending that Irish citizens temporarily in the U.S. travel home. She flew on a mostly empty plane — a “dozen musicians” — on St. Patrick’s Day, although she speculated that it was likely much more full on its return journey. The singer still had provisional tickets for Alaska and had hopes of returning to fulfill her engagements there before too long.

“In my innocence,” she said. “Because I had worked so hard to secure the visa [the P3 is granted to a culturally unique performer] and I still had a full eight weeks, the idea of not using it was unthinkable.

“Ebola was the only thing we’d experienced, peripherally. We know about builders and engineers who went out [from Ireland]. But it did seem to come and go without affecting us personally. Maybe this would pass and be just a storm in a teacup,” she said.

Much as she’d been looking forward to it, though, Alaska would have to wait.

Even before Horgan left the U.S. for Ireland, a close friend in Dublin had made contact to tell her that more than 100 asylum-seekers were being sent on buses to live in the town, Cahersiveen (pop. 1,000), nearest her home in rural South Kerry. “He said: ‘Make them feel welcome,’” she recalled. “He didn’t even need to ask me to do that. He knew I would.

“Initially, I thought, ‘What a nice idea. Take them to the safety of our beautiful countryside, away from the danger of Dublin and it would be nice to have to have a more multicultural society for a while,” she said.

The range of nationalities included Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Sri Lankans, Albanians and Georgians.

Horgan was a friend remotely for a couple of weeks, and then met them through glass screens and masks. In time, as part of a local group, she took on the role of advocate. “Gradually, I’ve become very, very involved,” the singer said.

Ireland is obliged by international law to house asylum-seekers. Critics, however, say Ireland’s policy of “direct provision” is degrading and inhuman with far too many restrictions on what people can do in their day-to-day lives.

Horgan is from an extended family that has had a range of involvements in various political parties, movements and causes. Her brother Seán O hArgáin, for instance, is the president of the Irish language schools in Ireland, and is a former Labour Party councilor and lord mayor of Kilkenny.

“My family is very political and very well-read. I’m the weak link when it comes to knowledge in international and even national politics,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had any idea of what direct provision was. I’ve been living in my own artistic bubble for a while.”

She experienced a “sense of disbelief” that “no engagement had been done with the local community beforehand.” She said that a “perfectly viable hotel” had been turned into a “virtual prison.”

Critics say all of this was done in the midst of a pandemic, with few added precautions taken. Horgan argued that moving people to the countryside was “dictatorial,” and yet asylum-seekers have been impressed that local advocates could speak up, have conversations with government politicians and draw national media attention to their plight.

Still, they remain “institutionalized.”

"Direct provision has been in place for 20 years now," Horgan said. "What is seriously depressing is the thought that it might last another 20.”

Meantime, she is running errands for the newcomers and taking some of them on trips to view Kerry’s beautiful coastline. And she’s completing her latest CD, which is devoted to Kerry songs, and doing live concerts on Facebook. For more information about Clare Horgan, go to