Students in the Marquette University theology classes of Fr. Ryan Duns, S.J., get more than just lessons in theology: they also get quite a bit of exposure to Irish music.
In addition to his priestly vocation and duties as an assistant professor of theology, Fr. Duns is an accomplished Irish musician with nearly 6 million total views on his YouTube channel.
“I think my students get tired of my music stories or my using a tin whistle to make a theological point,” Fr. Duns told the Milwaukee Catholic Herald.
“To be honest, though, I do try to bring in Irish music – and music in general – as often as possible,” he said.
Fr. Duns was inspired to enter the Society of Jesus after attending a Jesuit high school and college. There, he “had a few really great Jesuit teachers and mentors” who were “on fire for what they did.”
“In them, I saw the kind of man I wanted to become,” he said. After taking a period of discernment, he entered the Midwest province of Jesuits two years after graduating from college. He was ordained a priest in 2015.
Fr. Duns began playing Irish music as a child, growing up in what he described as “a big Irish family.” While his siblings took Irish dance lessons, Fr. Duns took the Irish music route instead.
“I showed a real interest in the music, and (my parents) were supportive of that interest,” he said. He also joked that he “has no physical coordination” and would “have been a danger to others” if he had followed his siblings into dance.
Now, Fr. Duns plays the tin whistle and the piano accordion.
“I think my favorite instrument is the tin whistle: it was my first instrument and it’s the one I’m best at,” said Fr. Duns. “That said, I play the piano accordion for Irish dancers so more people know me as an accordion player.”
At Feiseanna (Irish dancing competitions), Fr. Duns plays the accordion as a live music accompaniment to Irish dancers. In addition to smaller local competitions, Fr. Duns has played at major competitions around the country, including the “Oireachtas” – regional qualifying competitions for the World Championships. He also celebrates Mass at the competition venues for bigger competitions.
“I first saw the accordion played for Irish music at Irish dancing competitions,” Fr. Duns said. “Since I didn’t dance, but loved the dancing and the dance community, I was happy to be asked to play at these events. I play quite a few of them throughout the year and I’m always honored to be asked to play ‘big’ competitions.”
When Fr. Duns entered the Jesuits, he thought that would mean trading in his tin whistle and accordion for a Roman collar. On the contrary, he found that his musical talents were encouraged by superiors.
“What I discovered is that the Jesuits recognized that Irish music is central to who I am — it is a part of my vocation — and they have encouraged me to play and teach,” he said.
His musical teaching extends beyond the classroom, onto YouTube. His channel, which was founded in August 2006, features tin whistle tutorials and performances.
“The YouTube channel started as a diversion: it was new, I had my own computer, so I put up videos,” he said. “But I soon realized that there were a lot of people who had an interest in Irish music, people from around the world who wanted to learn to play the tin whistle. So I started recording lessons and they took on a life of their own.”
When his YouTube channel started making the news and gaining popularity, Fr. Duns said that his superiors were unbothered by his side hobby.
“(The videos) are generally pretty innocent: I show how to play an instrument, so it’s hard to commit a heresy,” he said.
For Fr. Duns, music is the perfect complement to his spiritual life as a Jesuit.
“I say this all the time, but playing music is a form of prayer,” he said. “When I play for dancers, I’m playing in a way that lets them do what they’re called to do. I succeed, therefore, the more I recede into the background. I’m doing my job when you don’t notice me and you fix your attention on the dancer.”
The idea of fixing one’s attention on a central figure aligns with Christianity, said Fr. Duns.
“But isn’t that what our baptism asks of us? Aren’t we called to point beyond ourselves to Jesus?”
“I don’t always do this well – either as a musician or a priest – but it’s the ideal I try to reach,” he said.