It is one of those amazing aspects of organizational life in that an event that can be a year in the planning and organizing can rapidly unfurl in a fast and furious four days and be well behind you before you have a chance to dwell on it.
Such an experience is the annual North American convention of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann which I and my many colleagues in the New York and New Jersey branches of the movement were deeply involved in over a long weekend from April 8-11.
Granted it was familiar environs in the Parsippany Hilton Hotel in New Jersey for this indoor fleadh, hosting it for the fourth time, but it had its own character this time that separated it from the others.
Regular readers of this column will know that I am usually singing the praises of the many wonderful teachers, volunteers and music students to be found in the greater New York area. And never was that more apparent than on a weekend like this when anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people paraded throughout the first floor of the hotel for this venture seeing the region’s riches in full flower.
From the moment the Pete Kelly Premier Ceili Band (Pete Kelly, Martin Mulhaire, Hugh O’Neill and Tommy Brady) struck up the first notes, the dancers were on notice that this was another weekend to treasure on a fine tailor-made timber floor created by dancer Bob Bahrs and trucked in from Kansas City for occasions just like this all over the country.
The country sets were many and varied and new ones taught over the weekend by the dancing masters from Ireland, the popular husband and wife duo of Padraig and Roisin McEneany as well as some ceili steps by Maura Mulligan and sean nos dancing by Shannon Dunne, a New Jersey native and member of Footworks.
On Friday night the Green Gates Ceili Band did the honors of keeping the dancers hopping and happy for four hours. Eileen Clune Goodman, Rose Flanagan, Dennis O’Driscoll, John Kennedy and Brendan Fahey are the usual complement, but they were enhanced by the addition of Linda Hickman and Dylan Foley creating a mighty sound that encouraged and complemented great dancing on the floor. It certainly proved a welcome elixir after eight hours of meetings that day for many of us and helped set a tone for non-stop music around the hotel atrium into Sunday.
Saturday was a busy day for workshops as hundreds availed themselves of the expertise on offer in the workshop program ranging from all the musical instruments to Irish language and recitation classes.
In addition, area schools and last year’s convention hosts, St. Louis Irish Arts, prepared showcases that were featured on Friday and Saturday in the open atrium area that operated like a town square for this busy but very enthusiastic community that amassed over the weekend. It was another opportunity to show off the bumper crop of students currently being taught by the dedicated teachers in the region and elsewhere.
The highlight of Saturday evening was the gala banquet where over 700 people filled the banquet from all over North America. During the supper special tributes were paid to the provincial vice chair and Canadian regional chair Anne McConnell Strong, who was stepping down after 18 years of dedicated service since CCE was granted provincial status in 1992 at the Montreal convention, and also to Deputy Consul General of Ireland Brendan O’Caollai and his wife Carmel who are returning to Ireland this summer after a distinguished tour of duty in the New York Consulate.
Senator Labhras O’Murchu, the director general of CCE, once again quieted and stirred the crowd with another oration that spoke of Ireland's unique cultural heritage and influence around the globe.
GIRSA delighted the crowd with a brilliant stage show with outstanding dancing from Jonathan and Josh Srour and Catriona Furlong. It was only in 2008 when the teenage girl band from New York were considered musicians of the future, but invitations to prestigious festivals in Dublin (Ohio), Milwaukee and Kansas City suggest they have arrived already after a recording debut last year.
The banquet was capped to a fair-thee-well with a ceili mor that featured not only the Pride of New York (Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway and Brendan Dolan) but special weekend guests like Mirella Murray, Jimmy Keane, Sean Cleland, Jerry O’Sullivan, Oisin MacDiarmada, Dylan Foley and the man with the beat giving it stick, the incomparable drummer Jimmy Kelly from Albany.
This orchestra was firing on all jets to the delight of the 30 sets out on the floor all night. More all night sessions ensued leading right up to the 9 a.m. Irish Mass on Sunday celebrated by Father Sean McDonnell, the regional chaplain.
Sunday was a day for parting and farewells and complements on a wonderful weekend that went out as it came in with another superb ceili band on stage.
The Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band featured Margie Mulvihill (Moyvane is her father’s homeplace on the West Limerick/Kerry border), John Reynolds, Paddy Furlong and Frankie McCormick. Not only did they provide fabulous music to send the dancers off, but as teachers and key officers and organizers they provide the generational glue that helps make the Mid-Atlantic Region of CCE the envy of the Comhaltas movement worldwide.
It was another resounding success for the CCE team working under the leadership of convention chair Tom Vesey, and they can rest on their laurels at least until it is time to reconvene in Parsippany, and don’t bet on that being too far off given weekends like this and the memories it produced once again. Next year San Antonio does the honors for the first Texan convention.
Keane and Quinn Reminisce
ALSO in the Comhaltas pipeline this coming Sunday, April 25, from 5-7 p.m. will be a fascinating fireside chat and musical interlude at the Irish American Center (297 Willis Avenue, Mineola, Long Island) hosted by the resident CCE club, the Mulligan-Quinn Branch.
The session is reels and reminiscences with James Keane and Sean Quinn, accompanied by Gabe Donahue, centered around parallel formative years for James and Sean on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both grew up in households where traditional Irish music was important in their own musical training, but was greatly aided and abetted by the visitors who frequented their homes, many of whom constituted a veritable Hall of Fame in Irish music both in Ireland and America.
It would be hard to imagine a more august corps of tradition-bearers than Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy, Ed Reavy, Larry Redican, Andy McGann, Mike Preston, Sonny Brogan, Sean Maguire and Johnny Doherty just to name of few of the great musicians that the Keane and Quinn families were fortunate to call upon as musical friends.
The recollections will be informal and spiced with the music that they received from bygone musicians, so don’t fear any boring lecture approach as they intend to sit around in a circle and share memories and perhaps hear some from the audience as well as questions about that era. The chat will be followed by a music session for all to participate.
There will be tea and coffee and snacks for your refreshment as well as the usual great service at the Irish American Center. For more information contact Pat Kearney at 631-698-3305.
And finally, we were sad to hear of the passing of a great and gracious Comhaltas lady, Mary O’Halloran from Co. Leitrim, who was a longtime resident in Sunnyside.
Along with her late husband John O’Halloran from Co. Clare, she was a bulwark of the Killoran Clancy Branch of CCE in Queens for many years and also the early ceili scene at St. Raphael’s Parish where her funeral Mass will be Saturday morning at 10 a.m.
Her wake will be this Friday, April 23 at Lynch’s Funeral Home (43-07 Queens Blvd in Sunnyside) from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. May she rest in peace.