It is that time of the year again when I am very much in the New York state of mind as the days rapidly approach for another gathering of the trad music universe known as the Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW).
The annual celebration of Irish traditional music that takes place in East Durham, New York every July is much anticipated and attended by many from all around the U.S. and Canada and increasingly from Ireland itself as its international reputation grows as one of the key North American festivals devoted to the music and dance scene.
This Catskills crossroads has many programming variants, but its essential core is a celebration of the trad music scene as it has developed over the decades in and around New York City.
Celebrating the 15th year of the CIAW this July, it seems like a good opportunity to give that focal point a very high profile all week as the faithful gather to worship at the wellspring of tradition, Catskill mountain style, and make some new history at the same time.
Most of the readers here know that another hat that I wear is as the artistic director of CIAW, the annual summer school founded in 1995 up in East Durham under the auspices of the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Center.
As one of the original consultants and teachers there we catered to just 60 students or so in the first year, and have watched in amazement as it grew to over 600 in the past two years when a stronger economy encouraged folks from as many as 36 states including Alaska and Hawaii.
Fanatical fans flock every year from all quarters, but it remains THE place where all the traditional musicians around the greater New York area convene and so it marks a very special place in the evolution of the music associated with the area.
Like that Tammany Hall scoundrel of many years ago, George Washington Plunkitt, to whom is ascribed one of the great quotes about political corruption and honest graft, “I seen my opportunities and I took them” I borrowed that philosophy when I put together much of the special programming for this year.
Foremost in the programming will be a celebration of traditional Irish music through the prism of four middle-aged Irish Americans who are direct tradition-bearers themselves, who learned most of their music from the last generation of Irish-born masters who emigrated out of Ireland in the middle of the last century when large waves of immigration was still possible or necessary.
Back in 2005, I recruited Joanie Madden, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey and Brendan Dolan to be part of the CIAW staff and put them together in a shape-up band that I introduced as the Pride of New York Ceili Band of which I have written about before in this space.
One of the objectives was to encourage them to record and produce a CD that would document their brand of New York trad music that defines the era of the old masters in the brash but contemporary urban New York City scene that remains a brimming reservoir for the pure drop.
I am proud to say that the objective has been met and that the highly anticipated “Pride of New York” CD will be launched at the Shamrock House Ceili on July 16 in East Durham.
Along with the 95 classes in all the traditional music instruments, singing Irish songs in the Irish and English language, set and sean nos dance classes and step dancing with Donny Golden from Monday to Friday, there are other attractions that non-students are welcome to attend, like the daily lectures, open-air concerts and ceilithe (eight all week) every evening.
Keeping on topic, the weekday lecture series kicks off with a screening of the seminal video documentary “From Shore to Shore: Irish Traditional Music in New York City” giving a slice of life from the Big Apple in the 1980s and 1990s which will be hosted by its producer Patrick Mullins visiting from Texas.
During the week, youth will be well served with a Catskills launch of the well-received Girsa CD touting the teenage Pearl River lassies who sported and played from the Catskills to Pearl River as they learned their music and now hold so much promise for the future as well.
On Friday afternoon, July 17 , Bronx-born Brendan Dolan (Pride of New York member) offers a historic look backward to an earlier era of Irish music in the Catskills that was a large part of his research at NYU where he recently completed a master’s in Irish studies.
That evening at the Quill Festival Grounds in East Durham the weekend concert series (M-F from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.) draws to a close with a special tribute to the late great Joe Madden, who made one of his last concert appearances in East Durham last summer in a wonderful Galway musicians night.
It will include some of the staff artists like Mike Rafferty, Monsignor Charlie Coen, Willie Kelly and friends of Joe’s who played with him over the years like Mattie and Deirdre Connolly and Martin Mulhaire and John Nolan.
There will be loads of other influences on display like the Sliabh Luachra craic of Jackie Daly, Matt Cranitch and Paul DeGrae, the Galway girls Liz and Yvonne Kane, a special launch of Mary Bergin’s new tin whistle tutor and two Cavan stalwarts in fiddler Antoin MacGabhann and box player Martin Donohoe.
There is also an amazing trio of singers from Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh in Len Graham, Patricia Flynn and 82-year-young Mick Quinn, who will highlight that part of the world. Throw in a good mixture of teachers and performers from Toronto, Chicago and Baltimore who add their own brand of music and merriment to the delightful mix, and the Big Apple may have to lend its moniker as the City That Never Sleeps to the Catskills hamlet of East Durham as the multiple nightly music sessions make sleep deprivation a worthy objective.
CIAW concludes with the day-long Andy McGann Festival (noon-7 p.m.) dedicated to much admired New York fiddler who passed away in 2004 during the CIAW, which serves a sampler for those who are not able to attend the week-long feast of Irish music and dance.