When you live in the New York Metropolitan area there are always so many choices for entertainment no matter what your taste is, and that holds true for those who look for the best Irish cultural activities around town.
I suppose we could be out every night of the week if our wallet and constitution would allow, and many performing artists vie for that opportunity to do a gig in the tri-state area and especially the Big Apple.
But it is always important to remind ourselves of the great talent and outlets we are fortunate to have in New York. And nowhere is that more important than at the opening Blarney Star concert of the year on Friday, January 31 at Glucksman Ireland House featuring three natives of the Bronx in Rose Conway Flanagan, Patty Conway Furlong and Margie Mulvihill Reynolds.
For well over two decades the Blarney Star Concert Series, which had its origins at the Eagle Tavern and then the Blarney Star on Murray Street, has featured top traditional musicians touring from Ireland or from around the U.S., and equally put the spotlight on local musicians who deserved a night out playing for their friends and family nearby.
Under the careful custodianship of the knowledgeable musician Don Meade, the lineup was always first rate and the concerts well organized to ensure everyone who attended had an enjoyable night. The track record down through the years has been exceptional and lauded on both sides of the Atlantic.
Friday’s show will be an historic one because the major premise behind it is celebrating the role of Irish music in the family and between mothers and daughters from the rich Rockland County redoubt of Pearl River, the epicenter for traditional Irish music this past decade. Rose Flanagan will have her two daughters Maeve and Bernadette with her and Margie Mulvihill will have her three daughters Erin, Blaithin and Neiden on hand. Patty Furlong will have her daughter Caitriona there.
Rose, Patty and Margie are all from the Bronx and started their Irish music training with the legendary West Limerick teacher Martin Mulvihill from Glin (a first-cousin of Margie’s father Tom Mulvihill from Moyvane over the Kerry border).
They were part of that first golden era of Irish music education with teachers from the other side like Mulvihill, Pete Kelly, John Glynn and later the Brooklyn-born Maureen Glynn turning out students from the first generation in many cases of American children.
Familiar with one another through the lessons back then and also the intense ceili band practices for Mulvihill bands like the Tara and the Glenside Ceili Band, they became friends in music throughout the years and the developing Fleadh Cheoil scene in New York and in Ireland where further bonds were established.
Around that time the phenomenon we now know as Cherish the Ladies was born, and two interesting patterns were emerging according to musicologist Dr. Mick Moloney, the most prevalent being the number of young women who stuck with the music long after the lessons ceased, and for many of them musical Irish immigrant fathers who influenced their daughters while passing on their own music to them. And for some it went deeper and encouraged them towards professional entertaining or ceili bands or teaching down the road.
Fast forward a couple of decades later, and the three of them wound up independently in Pearl River rearing their families and open to teaching music themselves. For almost 20 years Flanagan and Furlong have taught in their homes in Pearl River, starting out very small with Rose with her own daughter Maeve and other friends her age on the fiddle and Patty on the button accordion.
Seven years later Mulvihill settled in Pearl River and started tin whistle and flute classes in her home. Gradually the number of students multiplied significantly in Rockland County and North Jersey, so much so that the New York Fleadh was moved to Pearl River to make things more convenient than the location at Manhattan College in the Bronx.
And the teaching trio who had so much in common and had children taking classes from one another started working much closer together, and the Pearl River School of Music sprung up organically as a result with hundreds of students benefitting from it. And the similar grounding from Martin Mulvihill was an advantage as well.
So the second golden age of Irish music education has been a factor for a decade or more thanks not only to the Pearl River School but to other teachers like Annmarie Acosta, Mattie Mancuso, Sean Quinn, Frankie McCormick, Michelle Bergin, Deirdre Connolly, Mary Rafferty, and Siobhan and Willie Kelly and who have fortified the annual fleadh in New York as well as the greater New York music scene.
But the Pearl River scene was leading the pack because of the numbers and proximity which made ceili band coordination and practices that much easier (especially with the busy schedules of today’s youngsters).
There was also that very strong social element that comes with the music that forged friendships among the older folks who took lessons, and now in their own children. So it was no wonder that the young professional group Girsa would emerge as a band for terrific young musicians and singers from Pearl River, all young ladies who came from the Pearl River School of Music.
If today’s young music students have so many resources available via technology and the Internet and exposure to so many great Irish bands, radio shows, recordings and even house parties, then it is no wonder they seem to pick up the music so quickly, keeping these teachers on their toes.
But Flanagan, Furlong and Mulvihill are well able for it, and increasingly they have been able to travel more and interact with a wider circle of peer musicians around the country and in Ireland at the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann.
Their teaching prowess has preceded them in many cases and they are now seen as linchpins of the thriving New York Irish music scene like the Old World Masters who gave them their start. Keeping the tradition alive is one of the important reasons all three have been inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Regional Hall of Fame.
What makes the Friday night concert at Ireland House so interesting is that is one of those rare opportunities to see the Living Tradition of Irish music performed right in front of your eyes.
You’ll hear it when Mulvihill, Flanagan and Furlong start off the evening on their flute, fiddle and button accordion respectively in a style that is precise and tight, just like the old master Martin Mulvihill would appreciate.
Then they will perform with their progeny for individual sets as mothers and daughters which will be fascinating to observe. Let’s hope the older ladies aren’t too intimidated by the three members of Girsa (Maeve and Bernadette Flanagan and Blaithin Loughran) being there and calling the tunes.
And while Friday will be mostly a ladies night, it will come to a fine finish when the menfolk who share their households join in the musical mayhem when they call on husband Mike and son Kieran Flanagan, husband John and John Paul Reynolds, and husband Kevin Furlong to join them.
It will definitely be a night to savor in the New York Irish music scene, and that has always been one of the hallmarks of the Blarney Star Concert Series under Meade who keeps a watchful eye on the local talent and looks for the opportunities to showcase it.
For a number of years now the library rooms of Glucksman Ireland House have opened their doors to the series, allowing Meade to use the premises for the monthly event that runs from September to May. It remains a choice venue to play in New York, with many artists hopeful of capturing a slot there while on tour, or to launch a new CD for an audience that makes it a point to be there.
Singer Donal Clancy will be there on February 21 launching his new CD Songs of a Roving Blade, piper extraordinaire Paddy Keenan is in residence on March 28, singer John Faulkner is set for April 25, and box player Sean McComiskey closes out the season on May 16.
There are two performance sets starting at 8 p.m. at Glucksman Ireland House (1 Washington Mews on Fifth Avenue between 8th Street and Washington Square). Admission is only $15 and GIH members and NYU students can attend for free. Call 212-998-3950 or visit www.blarneystar.com.