The Catskilll Mountains will once again ring melodically with the sound of Irish music as the 15th edition of the Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW) unfolds in all its abundance next week in the tiny hamlet of East Durham, N.Y.
Even in a very tough economic environment, especially in an area that has known hard times for a long while, over 1,000 people will make the pilgrimage to the Irish-American resort town to take in the very best traditional music and dance that North America has to offer.
Seamus Connolly, the esteemed Irish music director at Boston College Irish Studies Program, dubbed the CIAW the “Willie Week of the West.” As a veteran of many a music or fiddle camp -- including his own highly respected Gaelic Roots Week at BC -- he wouldn’t use the approbation without merit.
People will come from the very western extremities of the U.S. like Hawaii and Alaska because they can have their fill of the pure drop from morning to -- ah well -- morning in the 24/7 environment during the week, and meet many others who share that devotion to traditional Irish music.
Having been involved in the formation and evolution of the CIAW over its 15-year lifespan, I still continue to be amazed at its accomplishments and resiliency in the face of so many obstacles that fate metes out each year.
Transition and change and challenging economic realities do make it anything but a sure-fire prospect despite its notoriety around the world as a hell of a good week and good time, even if it brings you to the brink of exhaustion by week’s end. But like the underdog boxer with the heart of a lion, it roars back up off the canvas and continues to make history every year.
And the opportunity not only to study history and make it as new bonds in the nomadic community are forged every year, and links established that are renewed in many places around the world motivates many people to keep returning.
Because so much of the activity takes place in very historic – yes dated to some – resorts or roadhouses every summer, one can almost see and hear the ghosts of the past savoring every note along with the attendees.
Celebrating Paddy O'Brien
One of the people coming over this year to celebrate the life of her late father, Paddy O’Brien, is his daughter Eileen O’Brien Minogue as she launches a new book about her father’s wonderful legacy, much of it while in New York in the 1950s.
Paddy O’Brien composed many popular tunes as well as popularized the B/C button accordion in Irish music. She has the opportunity to trace some of his steps and play in some of the places he would have played in over 50 years ago.
She comes to share that history in the written word and through the medium of music as a fiddle teacher so that future generations will understand why the Catskills and Irish music go so well together.
Pride of New York Band
Another important link happens a few days later when an Irish American quartet who call themselves the Pride of New York Band (wait a minute, I think I actually called them that when they played in the Catskills back in 2005) will launch a very important self-titled CD on the Thursday night at the Shamrock House.
As individuals, Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway and Brendan Dolan have distinguished themselves wherever Irish music is revered, but collectively they have that special something that is the very essence of what being a proud Irish American is all about.
All were fortunate enough to learn their music from direct tradition bearers from the other side or very near to it like native New Yorkers Felix Dolan and Andy McGann.
By osmosis as much as inclination they learned so much more than tunes from masters like Joe Madden, Jack Coen, Mike Preston, Sean McGlynn, Martin Mulvihill, Martin Wynne, Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds, and it went to the very core of their being.
Not surprisingly, they are actively passing on the tradition through their own teaching, recording and performing without sacrificing one iota as they navigate in a very modern world that doesn’t always have time for the traditional arts.
Summer schools like the CIAW serve to reinforce the tradition and keep it not only alive but thriving and as innovative as it needs to be to attract the younger generation.
Important to the growth of the CIAW was not only its wider appeal across the country and in Ireland, itself, but the very proximity to a special geographic locality in Rockland County where Irish traditional music was blossoming as quickly as anywhere in Ireland or America.
The town of Pearl River gave rise to many great Irish American teachers who began to reach hundreds of children in a similar manner to what they experienced growing up in an earlier Golden Age in New York for Irish music education.
Out of that milieu springs a young teenage band of Irish American women named GIRSA (Young Girls) who parlayed their individual talents into a self-titled CD this past March that has had the greater New York community abuzz and busting its buttons over their solid and soulful approach to Irish music.
Since many of the GIRSA girls enhanced their skills at the CIAW over the summers, it is wholly appropriate that the week will draw to a close on Friday night with their very own CD launch in the Catskill Mountains, adding yet more footnotes to the continuing saga of Irish music in the Mountains.
As we look to the future of Irish music in the Catskills, it is important to glean some perspective on the past and why it has been such a dominating influence in Irish American history.
As talented academically as he is musically, Brendan Dolan of New York University will enlighten us with a dedicated lecture on Irish America and the Catskills also at week’s end on Friday afternoon at the Weldon House (4 p.m.) which will give us all further insight on what was so valuable to us in the past, in hopes that it will remain so in the future.
One of the extremely important aspects of the CIAW is the sense of community that is shared by those who attend it who have a greater awareness of the larger community who inspired it.
Tribute to Joe Madden
The week will draw to a close with two concerts dedicated to men who symbolized all that was great about Irish music in New York. The Friday night concert is a tribute to the late Joe Madden, who passed away last November after a tragic fall just a few months after he made memorable visit and appearance in a Galway night concert last year in the Catskills.
Joe was the heart of soul of that Galway/New York influential sphere that has predominated traditional Irish music in this region. His fidelity to the music will be celebrated in a most historic concert that Friday night as the CIAW summer school ends.
The spirit of Andy McGann
On Saturday, a day long celebration takes place on the Quill Festival Grounds where the spirit of Andy McGann lives on in the festival named in honor of him. His passing in a New York hospice while the 2004 CIAW was underway sent tears and memories flooding around East Durham as people reflected on his own influence and mastery of the Sligo New York style carried on very much today because of people like him.
The CIAW is no ordinarily summer school, and East Durham is more a state of mind when this annual convocation occurs. All those memories that come with the lessons are priceless, and it is why history is not just a thing of the past in the Irish Catskills.