Back in the 1970s when the Comhaltas movement was making its move to America, it had some advantages in establishing a firm footing over here for its grass-roots branch network.
The Irish music organization was waning, but key people and places proved ready-made branches ripe for takeover under the CCE aegis.
Helping to establish that beachhead, certainly in the New York area, was the already-tested system of music competitions in Ireland that we commonly refer to as fleadhs now, and the New York Fleadh was one of the first and longest running in America. It was only possible because there was already a solid teaching base for Irish musicians extant in New York City at the time led by people like Martin Mulvihill, Pete Kelly and John and Maureen Glynn, who organized students into schools that dominated the early fleadhs in the seventies.
They produced what I call the first golden age of Irish American musicians who were learning from Irish-born tradition bearers who passed on their love of the native music of Ireland to their students, who carried it with pride and talent to Ireland and brought back many All-Ireland championships and medals.
Eventually that first wave inspired and produced many excellent teachers, some of them first-generation Irish Americans who took up the cause.
The fruits of their labors have taken root the past decade or so in what I deem is the second golden age of music in New York, and much of it takes place around the epicenter of Pearl River, New York in the very Irish county of Rockland.
The annual Mid-Atlantic Region Fleadh has been based in Pearl River for the past six years where a vibrant community of teachers sprung up coincidentally.
The recent CCE Parsippany convention in April and fleadh held over a week once again showed the array of music talent and fervent set dancing community that makes this area second to none and compares well with Ireland’s strongest footholds.
The fleadh in Pearl River was another excellent weekend that maintained the very high standards that we have been used to around these parts for a long time. The Friday night ceili with the Pride of New York Ceili Band delighted 16 sets on the fine timber floor in West Nyack for a lively start.
The fleadh hotel features a newly-named National Heritage Award winner in Mike Rafferty, who along with his New Broom-mate Willie Kelly led a delightful Saturday night music session where Rafferty validated the recent honor in sharing his music with so many younger musicians.
The Pearl River Middle School held two days of competitions for solo, duets, trios, grupai cheoils and ceili bands in an efficient and timely fashion.
It even drew the rapt attention of a visiting Irish dignitary, Irish Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs Pat Carey, who was impressed with the great spirit of volunteerism and the Comhaltas cultural mission in full bloom during his Saturday afternoon visit.
The fleadh came to a successful conclusion when many of the teachers and organizers took to the auditorium stage strongly encouraged by the fleadh secretary Terry Rafferty so at least one senior ceili band was entered.
It mattered not what the obvious decision of the adjudicators would be because they were already winners for having made the day necessary, as Yogi Berra might have put it. Their work, commitment and talent was on display the whole weekend and with the help of so many great families, volunteers and supporters the New York area will reap the benefits for years to come.
With the competitions over now, the daunting task of organizing and assembling musicians with their families for the August sojourn to Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann ( HYPERLINK "http://www.fleadh2010.ie/" \t "_blank" www.fleadh2010.ie ) in Cavan town over the week of August 16-22 starts in earnest now.
Now the teachers and students reach out to the wider Irish community to help support the cause of Irish music education and keeping the tradition alive by attending a series of fundraisers for the local New York schools fronting the current renaissance.
This places an even greater burden on the families who embrace Irish music, so they look for financial assistance from the fans of Irish music that is so vital to dent the expenses facing those heading to Ireland for the fleadh experience.
Once again, Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers is the place to be over the next few weeks to come out and support the youngsters through three of the larger schools who have organized fundraisers.
First up is this Thursday night when the Woodlawn House of Irish Music (WHIM) hosts a fundraiser from 6-10 p.m. with the incomparable Joanie Madden as the mistress of ceremonies just a couple of weeks after the Bronx native had a Bronx Street named after her and her group of 25 years, Cherish the Ladies.
Donating their time and talent for entertainment are Mattie Connolly, Mike Rafferty, Felix and Brendan Dolan, Tony Demarco and Anna Cotillon, Chris McLoughlin and others along with the WHIM teaching staff of Michelle Bergin McLoughlin, Deirdre Connolly, Mary Coogan, Brendan Fahey and John Redmond) and students.