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Catskills Irish Arts Week needs your help

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A new CD from Caitlin nic Gabhann will be launched at the CIAW.


Much like the summer weather mixing hot and cold air masses leading to bright sunny spells and thunderous rain storms, the fate of the Irish Catskills always seems to wobble between optimism and pessimism all in the same timeframe.

Granted it has been decades since the area of Greene County from Leeds to Durham was the go-to place for the Irish-born emigrants and their Irish American offspring throughout the Northeast. But many who loved the Catskill Mountains and its getaway qualities a car ride away stubbornly hung on to keeping an Irish presence there down through the years.

Along with the Irish resorts and pubs, the non-profit Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre all sought to “Keep the Tradition Alive” through Irish entertainment and cultural activities filling the short recreational calendar from May until October.

In 1995 the Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW) took root there in East Durham under the auspices of the Quill Centre, and for 17 years the week-long summer school not only carried the cultural agenda to a high level but also made it the most successful week economically for the area’s merchants and businesses.

Many factors have gone into making the CIAW the amazing festival that it is, including a world-class faculty that hones the skills of student musicians by day, and turns into dazzling and indefatigable performers at night on the concert and ceili stages during the programmed elements of the nightly scene.

Some of their best work is done in the late night to early morning music sessions scattered throughout the area, building community and repertoire alongside those same students who paid rapt attention in classes and concerts all week.  And if the bottom line of the sponsoring pubs also derived benefits as well as the soaring camaraderie, it was a win-win scenario.

While others before me worked hard to develop the CIAW for its first decade, when I assumed the mantle of artistic director in 2004 I saw the opportunity to shine the spotlight on the unique talents of some of the recruited staff each year through adding lectures and CD launches.

The late afternoon lectures or workshops showed the scholarly side of our guest presenters or the lifelong achievements of our senior musicians like Felix Dolan, Mike Rafferty, Martin Mulhaire and Jimmy Kelly.

Monsignor Charles Coen, now retired in Greenville, will be recognized for his service to Irish music in America this July.   New CDs display the creative talents and vibrancy of Irish music today and sharing it with a targeted audience like the annual CIAW devotees mean it wasn’t just a calling card release with no impact beyond a quick grab for cash.

So in the hopper on the lecture circuit this year are presentations from our Sliabh Luachra core of Paul deGrae, one of Ireland’s top guitar accompanists who will talk about the art of accompaniment in Irish music, and Matt Cranitch on the legacy of the late fiddler Seamus Creagh.

From the Dublin area, piper and CEO of Na Piobairi Uilleann Gabriel McKeon will bring us up to date on the state of uilleann piping today, and Catherine McEvoy will tell us about the contributions of blind musicians in the tradition. It is also the subject of a new CD she produced and is releasing at the CIAW, A Musical Vision, a recording of blind musicians at the school where she works.

Two men from the north of Ireland will be featured, with journalist/musician Fintan Vallely from
Armagh attending for the first time along with teaching flute offering two lectures.  One is on percussion and its place in Irish music, and the other is actually a U.S. book launch for his very important and newly edited second edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music which will be a feature of the week.

Flute player and singer Cathal McConnell from Fermanagh, one of the original Boys of the Lough will release his combination book and DVD of songs called I Have Traveled this Country enhancing the week as well.

New CDs to be showcased during the week include the aforementioned McEvoy work, plus her Meath neighbor Caitlin nic Gabhann is putting the finishing touches on her first solo self-titled release.

The focus shifts to the American-born staffers who very much felt the influences of the Catskills on their music from an early age for the other CD releases.  Loretta Egan Murphy, who cut her teeth when the Irish Catskills was still a thriving community, will have a launch night at the Blackthorne (the old Mullins House) on Tuesday.

Two youngsters, Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, whose homes were in close proximity to the Catskills, showed very early promise at the Catskills Irish Arts Week over the years and have turned into outstanding musicians respected on both sides of the Atlantic, released their own solo CDs in the past year. 

Schedules for all of these will be posted on the catskillsirishartsweek.org website so stay tuned.

The financial picture of the CIAW is in peril because this dogged economic downturn is causing financial woes for the Quill Irish Centre, its host over the years.

We have launched a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter.com to help raise cash for this year’s program, and we are hopeful that the many fans and supporters of valuable programs like this will come aboard and help out even if they can’t attend the week’s classes, concerts or dances and contribute directly.

Donations can be sent to the M.J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre, P.O. Box 320, East Durham, New York, 12423 earmarked for the CIAW fund.

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