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Singing out for spirit, soul and society

Living

MARRYING KIND James Kilbane’s new venture marries Christian faith, music and heritage.

Interview
Anton McNulty

WITH the rain lashing against the window of the Birmingham Lounge in Hotel Westport you would forgive James Kilbane for thinking about sunnier climes. The Achill-based singer is about to jet off to Florida for the first of up to half a dozen week-long Stateside trips he makes every year to perform for his loyal US following.
The last 15 years or so has been some journey for Kilbane, who first shot to fame in 2003 on the RTÉ talent show, ‘You’re a Star’. Since then he has released 13 albums, and his music has been downloaded in far-flung countries all around the world. Not a bad return for an Achill sheep farmer.
Before jetting off to Florida, James was in Westport to promote his new enterprise – a holiday package called Spirit and Soul of Mayo. Provided in conjunction with Hotel Westport, it incorporates three of his main interests: singing, cultural heritage and, most importantly for him, Christian faith.
Spirit and Soul of Mayo is a five-night package that includes spiritual heritage tours of the locality, with trips to places like Croagh Patrick, Murrisk Abbey, the Museum of Country Life, Foxford Woollen Mills and the Round Tower in Killala.
There are also historical talks and exhibits, meditation and mindfulness, cookery demonstrations and gatherings with James for ‘fellowship and song’.

Uniting Christian strands
A graduate with a degree in Heritage and Cultural Studies, James believes the get-away offering is unique in that it incorporates many sectors of tourism in Mayo linked in with the Christian faith.
“One of the great things around Spirit and Soul is that it is not a pilgrimage, it is a Christian-based holiday,” he explains.
“It’s been quite amazing. I had a vision that there could be more done than what the norms were. The hotel [Hotel Westport] approached me. They wanted something different. I said if we are going to do it, it will have to be a Christian-based holiday around the culture and the history and good things of county Mayo.
“One of the key things I deal with is pre-Christian activity because that’s what influenced [St] Patrick to take the chances that he did. Within four miles of the road out of Westport to the foot of Croagh Patrick you go through 4,000 years of life and people’s activity.”
The sixth Spirit and Soul of Mayo takes place on February 4, with further dates planned for June and October. The majority of the participants are from Ireland, taking in all the Christian traditions on the island.  
“It’s Christian is with a big C. It casts its net out to all the Christian traditions in Ireland  … Anglian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Baptist,” he says.
Given that he is organising a holiday package based around the Christian faith, it is not surprising to hear James describe his faith as his ‘rock’. “To me my faith is one of my everythings. It is everything in life,” he explains.
He describes himself as a Christian first, raised in the Roman Catholic faith. However, he maintains his faith has been influenced by other Christian traditions.  
“I certainly spend a lot of time with and take a great amount of guidance from my Presbyterian, Baptist and Anglican friends. If I’m working and cannot get to a Roman Catholic Church but the Anglican Church has a service, I will go to that service on a Sunday morning. I’m not being a Roman Catholic, I’m being a Christian.
“I had no choice when I was being baptised. That is the traditions of my parents and generations back. The word of God passes over [between Christian traditions] and I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. I try to inform my mind and by doing that I have learned so much in the richness of sharing with other people,” he explains.
James’s latest album, released by religious publisher and retailer Veritas, is called ‘James Kilbane – The Family Collection’. It’s a collection of the many Christian songs and hymns he has recorded, released to coincide with the World Meetings of Families which will take place in Dublin in August with Pope Francis to attend.

Family man
James married his teenage love, Christina, in 1989, and they have two grown-up children, Diana and Daniel. He believes that the World Meetings of Families will be important in opening up discussion on the ‘evolving Christian family life’.
“After 28 years [of marriage] I do feel I can’t take anything for granted. Relationships take ongoing work. There has been 28 years of growing up, with happy times and a lot of challenging ones. I have been the cause of many of the upsets, but we work through things, making time for each other,” he reveals.
The entertainer also reveals that his own family may not be seen as conforming to traditionally held views of the Christian way, but he hopes that those views will soon soften and evolve to reflect the realities of modern society.    
“Today, personally, the Christian family unit remains important. However, in our family, Christina and I, in the beginning we had our first child, we were not married. We were still a family starting in 1989.
“I hope during the World Meeting of Families there will be many open discussions, opinions and views about the different structure of an evolving Christian family life and deal seriously with family problems for Christians attending as well as all the positive things.
“There is a wider family experience today for Christians, [whether] in family relationships, friends, communities, church [or acceptance of] Christians traditions in Ireland that believe in God and followers of Jesus.”

King and country
While James stresses that he sings more than just Christian music, he has no regrets with the career path he has chosen.
“I went into You’re a Star and sang ‘How Great Thou Art’. A close friend of mine, after seeing the programme on the telly, said to me had I lost the plot. I didn’t feel I had lost the plot because that was the journey I wanted to take.
“I’ve no regrets; it was my choice. I stood out in a national audience and nobody knew who I was. I was singing Gospel songs. That is what I wanted to do,” he explains. After a few moments of thoughtfulness, he adds, “I still sing lots of folk and country, but I follow one King.”

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