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By Virginia Mullery
As a “wee kid” in Derry City in Northern Ireland, Gavin Coyle said he had a fondness for America, fostered by endless TV programs. From the time he was very young, he also had a beautiful singing voice, enabling him at age 14 to win the title of All-Ireland Singing Champion.
Now, he’s here, living in Aurora, sharing that beautiful voice and a repertoire of Irish songs with American audiences.
“People immigrate for a variety of reasons,” Coyle said, “for me it was a woman.” He was 21 and a student at St. Mary College in Belfast in 1992 when he was asked to serve as chaperone for a group of teenagers coming to the U.S. under the Ulster Project. For more than 30 years, that program has sent Protestant and Catholic young people to the United States for a month, so they can learn to trust and work together in a neutral setting, far from the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Coyle had been to the States himself as a teenager under a similar program and called that experience “surreal, like walking onto a TV set.” Then, at 21 and more mature, he fell in love with his hosts’ daughter, Bridget, who would become his wife.
He returned to Ireland, however, to finish college and graduated with a degree in education and fine arts.
Coyle said that in the days before e-mail, many long letters crossed the Atlantic during that time. In 1995, he returned to the U.S. for good, where he enhanced his musical career with a few private lessons with a Northwestern University professor (he had never had any formal voice training before that) and some classes in music theory at the College of DuPage. He plays the guitar, the bodhran (Irish drum) and flute. In 2000, he and Bridget were married in St. Petronille Church in Glen Ellyn.
His day job is teacher of music at St. Petronille School. His Sunday job is cantor at St. John the Baptist Church in Winfield. “When I was a child, it was ‘if you can sing, get to the chapel,’” he said. “It was expected of you to share that talent. I cannot imagine not doing it. I have done it my whole life.”
Singing for weddings and funerals and at bars and clubs fills many of his weekend and evening hours. After hearing Coyle sing at a funeral, Bob Salveson approached him and suggested an album. The two have become partners in Ocean Songs Ltd., a production company.
Coyle recorded Whisper of the Waves in 1999. It includes such favorites as “Come Back Paddy Reilly,” “Whiskey in the Jar” and “The Wild Rover.” There is also a tune in Irish. He admitted that he does not really speak Irish and regrets it. “It is the language of my forefathers,” he said wistfully. There is nostalgia in Coyle’s voice when he sings “Back Home in Derry,” on his second CD, titled Three. He said that he used to go back to Ireland several times a year when he first moved here. His parents and four sisters still live in Derry. Now, with a wife and family, the visits are more infrequent. “But, you know,” Coyle said, “years ago when you left, you were gone, often forever. Now, you are only a credit card away.” This past summer, he and his wife visited Ireland with their three young daughters, Fiona, Niamh and Orla.
Another song of nostalgia for the old country on Three is titled “The City of Chicago;” the lyrics tell you, “in the City of Chicago, as the evening shadows fall, there are people dreaming of the hills of Donegal.” Many summers of his youth were spent in a seaside village in County Donegal in the Republic, birthplace of his maternal grandmother, he said. It was a respite from the troubles in the streets of Northern Ireland.
But, two of the pieces are also love songs which speak to Gavin Coyle’s heart: “In Your Arms” and “The Voyage.”
He also has a Christmas CD, Gentle Christmas, and in Feb. 2009, he recorded an album of show tunes, Footlights. Asked about his reaction to “Danny Boy,” the requisite Irish song for American audiences, Coyle said, “I appreciate the song for what it is. The lyrics were written by an Englishman but the melody is ‘The Derry Air,’ which is very old. Also, if people want to hear it, why would I not sing it? Sometimes, though, I’ll say, let’s wait till the end.”
In addition to his regular gigs, Coyle has done benefit concerts for a variety of charitable organizations, including DuPage Habitat for Humanity and the People’s Resource Center of Wheaton. “If I can open my mouth and sing a wee bit and help someone I will,” he said. And, now that kid, who thought he was walking onto a TV set of America, has done the real all-American thing of singing the National Anthem at Cubs, Bears and Bulls games. “Because of watching TV and movies like The Natural, I was aware of baseball,” he said, “and for some reason, the Cubs were baseball. When I was asked to sing at Wrigley Field, I was blown away.”
“I love America,” he said, “and I also miss Ireland. But, where my wife and kids are, that is home.” Gavin Coyle’s CDs can be purchased on his Web site: gavincoyle.com; or by calling 800-289-6923.