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A week all about the fans

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McGrath's music session brings dancer Maureen Berry to the floor. (Photos by Tim Raab)
The table at the 11th Street Bar in New York at the Sunday night session was surrounded by musicians who came down from the mountains with still plenty of chunes and enthusiasm in the reserve tank.

Fueled in part by a wonderful meal at Il Fornaio hosted by Tony DeMarco, who also hosts the Sunday night soiree that draws some of the best traditional musicians all year, they were also still in celebratory mode after a phenomenal week of Irish music in the Catskills.

The annual exercise in sleep deprivation known as the Catskills Irish Arts Week for the 17th year in a row rocked the sleepy hamlet of East Durham from one end of the week to the other and left hundreds of people on a trad music high like nothing this side of the Atlantic, and some yearning for more in the East Village.

Every year poses new challenges for events like the Catskills Irish Arts Week trying to carry on as if the sluggish worldwide economy was not the grim-faced reality that it is, forcing many to forego cultural adventures like this in upstate New York.

While all the town’s accommodations were booked, class registrations were down slightly and attendance at the revenue producing concerts, ceilithe and the closing Andy McGann Festival that generate income for the hosting Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre was off, a victim of folks having less cash to expend on them.

The Quill Centre and its most dedicated volunteers, however, were winners in showing that their vision for a creating a cultural non-profit organization serving as an economic engine to give people a reason to come back to the Irish Catskills still was a viable and necessary conduit.

Decades worth of fundraising have produced an office and staff and excellent facilities like the festival grounds for mounting an annual exercise like the Catskills Irish Arts Week and other events that draw people into town.  And very often it seems like a thankless task while always being a labor-intensive struggle by many volunteers to keep the Irish traditions alive.

The year 2011 at the Catskills Irish Arts Week played out as an interesting mix of the old and the new in a natural way, and I suppose that balance could be seen as one of its many assets.

Many of the customary resorts and houses like Gavin’s Golden Hill, the Shamrock House, McGrath’s Motel and Stack’s Lamp Post Motel provided valuable accommodations for the attendees while offering necessary spaces for classes and sessions.

Classes in the daytime make the first connections for teachers and students that are enhanced for many hours in the evening in the multiple sessions that ensue around town.   So it is important that these businesses support those activities as best they can to ensure their own survival.

Coming into play this year were two newly restored restaurant-pubs in the Saloon and the Stone Castle Inn, and they made sensational debuts among the week’s clientele.  Their more appetizing food menus, upgraded facilities and easy access along the main drag of Route 145 more than offset the loss of two venerable houses from years past in the session-flow.

But the most significant development of the 2011 week which presented the most extraordinary example of the resiliency of the scrappy East Durham town was the born-again Blackthorne Resort.  Ravaged by an accidental fire last September that in a half-hour’s time disintegrated their hotel office, dining room and pub, there was a miraculous comeback led by the fiercely determined Handel family who own it.

With a great deal of community help, a spanking new state of the art facility replacing all three vital parts of the resort arose in just four months over a very severe winter in time to open the season at the end of April.

As the artistic director of the Catskills Irish Arts Week whose job it is to figure out how to make everything work and flow in a manner that suits the program’s objectives, I must confess that the new facility and its larger, more accessible size scared me a bit.

But there are some bold and intrepid enough to turn negatives into positives, and the serendipitous collaboration between the Furlongs and Handels proved to be an indomitable team that fortified the whole week.

For 24 years, Tom Furlong (Offaly) and Yvonne Furlong (Clare) operated the most Irish pub in East Durham until Tommy suffered a debilitating and life-threatening stroke in January of this year.  A hard decision was made to close it and put it up for sale, and it looked like another nail in the oft-built coffin for the town was ready to be hammered.

But the plucky Ennis-born, spoon-playing Yvonne sought out the Handel family who she had coaxed to buy the old Mullan’s Resort over 18 years ago and arranged for the transfer of the GAA games to the new pub at the Blackthorne.  She then set about making it suitable to take on the mantle of the late night craic for the arts week crowd who manage to fit as much into the after-hours as they do in the daylight hours.

Working with more space inside and outside than the old Furlongs, the Furlong/Handel team created a village square type environ that Busch Gardens would be proud of.  The back beer garden wasn’t damaged by the fire but was in need of some careful and more decorous attention which Yvonne and her dedicated staff made a priority in time for the arts week invasion.

Every bit of the outside space was commandeered for use, and as many as five sessions were taking place there including a huge one on the deck outside the dining room overlooking the back beer garden on the closing Saturday night.

There was a lot of talk once about an Irish village in East Durham, but the camaraderie and music that are characteristic of a great fleadh town were in evidence all week long at the Blackthorne Resort conveniently nestled -- and hidden -- in the woods well off Route 145.

There is no question that it became the crossroads of the Irish traditional music world as musicians from Ireland, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and many other parts of the world all gathered there to share music, jokes and kinship.

The real magic of the Catskills Irish Arts Week does not lie in the facilities, but rather in the people who inhabit them all week long.  Once again it would be hard to top them for their intense interest in Irish traditional music and dance.

They face a “commuting week” with so much spread around a 10-mile radius, yet they manage to show up in significant numbers at all events at all hours to make the annual pilgrimage worth it.

And the world-class talent that attracts them did not disappoint this year, and we’ll have to wait another week to share all of that with you as deadlines are cruel masters most times and mine approaches.

More Catskills Entertainment
Just because the CIAW cavalcade has left town doesn’t mean that there isn’t loads more entertainment up there in East Durham coming up -- and wanted to share two special events that are once-offs in the next two weeks.

The world-renowned Irish tenor Ronan Tynan will make his first-ever appearance there in a benefit for the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre on Saturday, July 23 in an action-packed evening also featuring music by Andy Cooney and Kitty Kelly, two Catskills mainstays.

Tickets are still available through center (518-634-2286) and there are special deals with area resorts or restaurants worth taking advantage of which they can tell you about.

At Gavin’s Golden Hill Resort on Thursday, July 28, is the first show of an extensive U.S. tour by a young Irish band called Goitse (pronounced gwi-cha) formed at the University of Limerick’s prestigious Irish World Music Center founded by Dr. Micheal O’Suilleabhain.

The band consists of phenomenal musicians like Tadhg O’Meacair, Aine McGeeney, James Harvey, Conal O’Kane (from Philadelphia) and Colm Phelan who I have heard several times on trips to Ireland and also via their excellent and innovative CD.

Their two month tour supported by Culture Ireland investing in Irish artists abroad brings them to many of the major Irish festivals here in the U.S. You can learn more about the group at www.goitse.ie and you will be impressed with the way Irish traditional music is evolving.

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