Giulia Lorimer has French and Spanish ancestry, an American mother, a Swiss passport and a childhood spent in Bulgaria. She caught the last Orient Express out of Sofia and later went to the U.S., where she married an American journalist. They came to Italy over 50 years ago and raised their 11 children in a farmhouse in the hills of Florence. For years, the Poggio all’Arrigo house was a meeting place for musicians, poets and artists from all over the world who had come to Italy to find inspiration.
It was during that time that Giulia discovered her passion for Irish music, which led to the founding of the internationally renowned Irish folk music group, Whisky Trail. The group has produced 10 successful albums and has performed all over Italy and Europe. Giulia sat down with The Florentine to talk about how hospitality and creativity joined forces to create an Irish folk band in Tuscany.
After having lived all over the world as a child, how did you end up in Florence?
In 1955 my husband was a journalist and had just finished his degree from Georgetown University and taken the Foreign Service exam. He was going to Rome to study political science, and I was going to join him with our two children after he had gotten settled. When he got to La Sapienza, he went to sign up for classes and they shut the window in his face because it was lunchtime or some such thing. He got annoyed and left—he was a very impulsive man. He came up to Florence where he heard they were looking for writers for a left-wing newspaper. I got a telegram that said: ‘No more Rome, but Florence. Get ready.’
We had a rather large farmhouse up in the hills above Florence, and my husband began working in the fields, tending to the land and all it required. At that point we had four children and, being Catholic, we began to feel quite guilty about how big the house and the surroundings were. So we went to talk to a priest and he said, ‘If you feel guilty, then open your house to others’. So we did.
Who came to stay? How long did they stay?
Well, we did have rules. Anyone staying with us had to stay at least two weeks. Our first ‘temporary’ guest was a painter and he stayed for seven years. After that, loads of people started coming and our house turned into a place where you could come and discuss and write and be creative. We had some very well-known people come to stay with us, including the American artist Harry Jackson, who was the first living person to have a work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We had poets, writers, musicians and artists from all over the world come to stay.
Is that how the music started?
More or less, yes. We began exchanging music of all kinds, French and Spanish lullabies that my mother had taught me, and other influences from friends and guests throughout the years.
So where did the Irish come in?
The Irish groups were the liveliest, always finding something to sing about and a musical instrument to play. But it really developed after my husband and I took a long trip all over Ireland with Ned O’Gorman, the American poet. We left our (then) five children with my mother and took off in search of our musical roots.
When we got back to Italy we began playing more seriously and in 1975, we formed the group Whisky Trail.
What does the name mean?
The name refers to the path taken by Irish immigrants as they made their way to America. Immigration, along with whiskey (which was a sort of consolation for the difficult condition of being an immigrant), created a type of music that really took off in the States. It can be considered the beginning of ‘modern’ popular music in the US, where it blended with gospel to create pop.
How were you initially received in Italy?
Wonderfully, even though we were very different from anything else that was going on at that time. We played at festivals all over the country, especially in piazzas during the summer. Nowadays you see people all dancing together in squares and at concerts, but it didn’t used to be like that. We were the first musicians to really get people moving together.
When did you start recording?
We started making records right from the beginning. We made our first album in Milan. It was an immediate success. This was during the folk music revival, so we were in demand. We began recording more and more, collaborating with well-known Irish singers and groups like the Chieftains and Sineaid O’Connor.
What has surprised you most about the success of Irish music in Tuscany?
One thing that stands out is being approached by a school in Prato that had incorporated Irish dancing into its gym lessons—that was the first time we saw an example of Irish music in a Tuscan classroom. We were impressed!