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Catskills Irish Arts week thrives in its 18th year

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Glasgow twin sisters Anna and Sheila Friel lend a musical hand to one another's flutes in the Catskills.

The magical powers of traditional Irish music and dance have to be been seen and experienced to be truly appreciated for their uplifting qualities.  Nowhere is that case made more dramatically than up in the Irish resort region around East Durham in the Northern Catskills some two and half hours north of New York City.

For 18 years, the Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW) has brought the faded hamlet to life and prosperity in Brigadoon fashion every summer, in good times and in bad, and just a few short weeks ago it seemed like this year’s 18th edition might suffer a loss for the very first time.

But like the Blackthorne Resort just a year ago which rose from ashes to a state of the art lodge, the CIAW fought back thanks to the support of so many musicians, dancers, students and many admirers who rallied around to help provide a financial base to the week, coupled with an exceptional display of non-stop music and dance from all the participants assembled around town.  

Over 300 contributors dipped into their pockets to ensure that the huge educational and cultural event would survive the week in advance, and provide the necessary stability to meet the cultural mission of the host organization, the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre.

The core of that generosity came through the Kickstarter.com campaign called “Rally Around the Catskills Irish Arts Week” which had a three week run up to the eve of the CIAW itself.  In that time over $22,000 was pledged, mostly by people who knew first hand the value of the internationally known and respected summer school and by others who may not have been personally familiar with it, but made contributions when aware of some dire economic forecasts.

A number of other donations followed in a similar vein and continue as I write from people who wanted to more directly aid the Quill Centre in its largest activity of their very short season from the spring to the fall.

A number of businesses in the area that have principally benefited from the program’s success over the years also stepped up to the plate with contributions beyond those in-kind that were made in the past.

While the financial capital helped ease the concerns about the CIAW’s viability in East Durham under the Quill Center’s auspices, equally important was the reservoir of goodwill and affirmation for the no-frills and focused summer school that gathers the largest number of traditional musicians and students in North America each summer into one spirited community all week. 

Exposure to some of the top artists to be found anywhere is part of the core curriculum each summer, even though it carries a higher price tag when you are importing a number of artists from Ireland to give the week a good mix and the cross-fertilization that has been at the heart of its success for many years. 

The measuring stick isn’t limited to what takes place during the CIAW -- though that is truly significant in itself in terms of cultural transmission from generation to generation -- but the wider cultural contributions beyond the week to a broader community in this country and beyond.

The CIAW is valuable as a feeder program sowing seeds among its students, some of whom can replant them elsewhere in their own localities. Or in assisting staff artists to take their talents further afield to other venues around the country, strengthening Irish traditional music and dance as a result as the living tradition we know it is.

Listening room session in the Catskills with special guest artists Floriane Blancke, Dermot Byrne, Chrissy Crowley, Mick Connelly, Brid Harper, Fintan Vallely, Bernadette nic Gabhann and Cathal McConnell.  (Photos by Tim Raab)

It will take another week to evaluate all that I saw and heard on the entertainment side – and to recover as well -- but I wanted to acknowledge how valuable the assets of the Irish American community are when it comes to supporting what is important to us as part of our heritage. 

The fruits can be enjoyed long after the CIAW as you can see from the following events.
Dermot Byrne and Floriane Blancke continue their U.S. tour this week, enhanced by the exquisite fiddling of Donegal native Brid Harper from Castlefin who astounded the Catskills crowd all week with her teaching and playing. 

On Wednesday, July 25 they are slated for a backroom session at the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts, and then on the 27th it is down to Philadelphia to the Commodore Barry Club Irish Center (www.theirishcenter.com) for a show with the threesome. 

On Saturday night they return to Connecticut for another house concert with Jody Cormack in Middletown (860-983-7963). 

If you are within an easy driving distance of any of these three venues, it is well worth making your way to hear three excellent musicians in intimate settings where you will appreciate their artistry.
Harper’s appearances in the U.S. are very rare and spell-binding as she is one of the finest Irish fiddlers in Ireland.

Dermot and Flo have added one more appearance to their U.S. tour on Monday, July 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Rocky Sullivan’s (34 Van Dyke Street, Brooklyn, 718-246-8050). 

Monday night is their session night so a few tunes after the concert set would be in order. This venue is served by mass transit by land (B61 bus) and by sea with the Water Taxi pier down the block, and there is plenty of street parking in the evening as well.

One of the highlights from the CIAW were the concert sets with Willie Kelly, Dympna O’Sullivan, Eimear Arkins and Regan Wick for some luscious music in the Co. Clare style. 

Eimear has returned home to Clare but Willie and Dympna are taking that musical treat on the road to Assonet, Massachusetts for a house concert with Gary Martin as host on Wednesday, July 25 at 7 p.m. Contact gary.martin@umass.edu.

Once again Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies made a big splash up in the Catskills at the Thursday night concert on the Quill Festival Grounds before tearing off to the Cleveland Irish Festival. 

Joanie has an extraordinary talent for producing a magnificent show seemingly in a moment’s notice, using as many ingredients that are around her enhancing her own Cherish quartet of Mary Coogan, Mirella Murray, Kathleen Boyle and Grainne Murphy. 

Her partner in creativity is the dance master par excellence Donny Golden, who also knows how to generate excitement by adding dancers with different styles to the last minute mix.

Cherish the Ladies will be around the New York area this week, starting with Friday night at the Kerry Hall (305 McLean Avenue, Yonkers) for a concert ceili at 9 p.m. for the HOPe charity (www.kerrymen.com). 

On Saturday the 28th at 8:30 p.m. they are at the Towne Crier in Pawling, still going at their Route 22 venue (www.townecrier.com).

On Sunday they are part of an all-day extravaganza from 2-10 p.m. called OurLand at Lincoln Center. More details at www.lcoutofdoors.org for this program produced by Joe Hurley with assistance from the Irish Consulate and Culture Ireland.

Nicgaviskey, the trans-Atlantic quartet spawned at the Catskills Irish Arts Week by Bernadette and Caitlin nic Gabhann, Sean McComiskey and Sean Gavin in July of 2009, are making another targeted foray in America post-Catskills.

This week they have house concerts in Albany at Jimmy and Anna Mary Kelly’s house on Friday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m. and then in Dover, New Hampshire at Bob and Sue Dunlavey’s on the 28th at 6:30 p.m. 

On Sunday at 6:30 p.m. their brief tour will come to a rousing crescendo at Margie and John Reynolds’ house in Pearl River for a concert at 6:30 p.m. (phone 845-735-1204 or reelwhister@aol.com) which will be outside if the weather permits, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own chair.
Reservations are strongly recommended for this one.

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