Liam Lawton, a Carlow-based priest, talks to Sue Leonard about his extraordinary success as composer and performer of spiritual music.
It took a while to organise an interview with Liam Lawton, the priest from Edenderry, Co Offaly, who has become a composer and performer of spiritual music. When I first rang, he was busy organising music from Carlow cathedral for RTÉ television. And the Easter programmes elicited an overwhelming response, he tells me, as he answers the door of his Carlow house.
An atypical priest
He makes a pot of coffee, then shows me into his sitting room, which is dominated by a piano and a sophisticated sound system. Dressed casually in cords and a check shirt, he doesn’t seem like a priest. He laughs, admitting he’s not typical.
“I don’t know another priest who has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on four occasions,” he says. “Or who has had a number two hit in Norway, or been runner up in Eurosong” (in 1998).
Although Lawton still celebrates Mass in a local convent, helps out in old people’s homes, and teaches occasionally, he no longer works in a traditional priestly role.
“You can preach the gospel in many different ways,” he says, aware that he doesn’t fit people’s expectation of what a priest should be. “I’ve taken a sacred space and presented it in a new way. People are hungry for spiritual music. I’ve had standing ovations at all my concerts in the past two years.”
On September 11th, 2001, the story that touched Lawton most was that of the 40 schoolchildren in the Bronx who had not been collected at the end of the day.
“In the end the teachers divided the children up and took them to their own homes. But that story stayed with me,” says Lawton. “I kept thinking about those children. And last June a letter arrived from a teacher at that school. She said she’d used one of my songs in the healing process of the children.”
One of Lawton’s songs, ‘The Cloud’s Veil,’ was chosen by the Americans to be used at the memorial services around September 11th.
“They chose it because it contained the words, ‘when the dark clouds veil the sky, I am by your side.’” And it was an appropriate choice, as Lawton had written the haunting melody some years earlier when he was mourning an uncle who had been killed in a car crash. “It was a difficult time. I’d lost the desire to write, and a lady sent a card with a Celtic Prayer. It really helped me, so I wrote the music,” he says.
Feeling of restlessness
Today, Lawton seems at peace with himself and the life path he has chosen. But it wasn’t always so. Growing up in a musical family in the 1970’s, Lawton adored the pop music of the day. At college in Maynooth, where he and his twin brother took Arts degrees, Lawton kept winning the university song writing competitions. He played in a band, adored his music, and was determined to make it in that world. Yet he felt restless. Meeting seminarians, he began to think about the priesthood. But it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I remember thinking, am I crazy? Will my friends reject me? I wanted to make a difference in the world,” he says. “I was attracted by idealism, not the institution.”
Joining the seminary in second year, Lawton finished his arts degree, before taking a degree in theology. But the doubts continued. Shortly before being ordained as a deacon, he won a song contest in Galway, and a record company made an approach.
“I remember crying with frustration. I felt terribly torn,” he says. Yet for seven years, working in Carlow cathedral, Lawton forgot his music, and shut out his ambition. “I felt a loss in my life, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Becoming a spiritual composer
Then, hearing an American spiritual composer, Lawton realised he could compose that way too. Starting in Gaelic, he began by using traditional and modern instruments in a style he describes as ‘Spiritual Clannad.’ Around this time, Lawton was transferred to Knockbeg College, a nearby boarding school, where he taught Geography and English, having gained his H. Dip.
With his weekends free, the composing flowed. An English collection followed the Gaelic one, and when The Vards formed, Sony commissioned Liam to write songs for them. In 1997, Trocaire commissioned a piece. Then, after meeting an American, Marty Haugen, at the Maynooth Summer School, he gained a recording contract with the major religious recording company, GIA, which wanted him to perform as well as record.
“In 1999 I made the decision to quit teaching,” says Lawton, who then took a year studying voice and composition at the Royal College of Music. “My bishop has been very supportive all along,” he stresses.
Success all the way
Since then, it’s been success all the way for Liam. His music has been translated into Swedish and German, and he is huge in Australia as well as America. A friend, attending the funeral of an ANC leader in South Africa, reported that Liam’s composition, ‘The Silence and the Sorrow,’ was performed by the choir from a black township.
“It was presented as a parting gift of peace,” he says, explaining that the music had been sent out from Ireland. “There’s a huge hunger out there,” he says.
In America, he has been commissioned three times to produce work for St Patrick’s Day. The first, based on the boy Patrick, was narrated by Gregory Peck.
Taking pride in professionalism
There are commissions in Ireland too. Recently, Liam was asked to write a piece for the beatification of Mother Teresa.
Employing 15 professional musicians and good technicians, Liam prides himself on the professionalism of his concerts and recordings.
“My music has taken me beyond my wildest dreams, “ he says, naming his first performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as perhaps his proudest moment. “All my family were there, and it meant an awful lot to me; to have that ability and to allow people to cry.
Making a difference
“I believe I’ve made a difference to people who have been hurt in life,” he says. His song, ‘The Silence and the Sorrow,’ has become associated with Omagh, and is to be included in a book. “One night in Donegal, a man approached me after a concert, crying,” says Liam. “He was the brother of the man who lost his wife, daughter, her unborn twins, and his grandson at Omagh, and he wanted the words of the song.”
But perhaps most moving of all was the woman whose husband was buried in rubble under the Pentagon on September 11th.
“She used my song, putting it on repeat for seven hours. She kept listening and believing, and he was pulled out alive.”
This article first appeared in Reality, a magazine of the Irish Redemptorists.