John Carty, Mary Bergin and Paul deGrae at a 2011 session at the Saloon in East Durham. (Photo by Tim Raab)
When it comes to traditional Irish music instruction opportunities abound on both sides of the Atlantic, many of them inspired by the renowned Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay celebrating its 40th year this July in memory of the great West Clare uilleann piper.
The largest summer school of its kind burnished its worldwide reputation over four decades and sparked the set-dancing revival movement as well. And it brought people from all over the world to West Clare for one week in July which served as a huge economic engine for Clare while buttressing its claim as the home of traditional music in Ireland.
It also served as the primary inspiration for the Catskills Irish Arts Week looking forward to its 18th summer in the Irish American resort town of East Durham, the heart of the Irish Catskills in upstate New York during the week of July 15-21.
When the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre based in East Durham sought to build upon a small traditional festival that was held in a neighboring county by expanding it to a full week of instruction and concerts it seemed like a no-brainer and a natural fit.
Operating on its mantra of “Keeping the Tradition Alive” down through the years, a true Irish village provided the backdrop for a growing summer school that would develop an international reputation of its own while harkening back to the days of yesteryear when legendary Irish musicians were a regular part of the Irish Catskills.
It has become the most popular week all year for the East Durham resorts, pubs and businesses that welcome the business from the eager fanatical fans of traditional Irish music and dance who flock to the Catskills each July for the week.
Last summer two newly renovated pubs on Route 145 joined the merriment as the Stone Castle Inn and the Saloon opened its doors and welcomed the faithful through their portals for classes and sessions for the first time. Extraordinarily, the Phoenix-like rebuilding of the Blackthorne Resort’s main building housing its dining hall, pub and hotel office after a devastating fire burned the old edifice to the ground sent the strongest signal of the resilience of this Catskill area whose obituary has been written so many times before.
The Handel family, who also owned the Weldon House motel units, “exported” much of the pub staff from the previously shuttered Furlong’s Riverside Pub to service the expansive new pub and spacious beer garden, including Yvonne Furlong, who kept the fires and music going well into the wee hours.
The Shamrock House under new management and Gavin’s Golden Hill Resort were rock steady, and the smaller resorts like McGrath’s and Stack’s played meaningful roles.
With a large mix of classes graded for different student levels in all the major instruments used in traditional Irish music and daily topical lectures, concerts, ceilithe and music sessions, it attracts students from all over the country and Canada, many making long journeys to spend a week with a highly regarded faculty of experienced teachers and performers.
The opportunity to learn from a veteran group of teachers is only surpassed by seeing them perform in the nightly open air concerts or dances, and perhaps later on the chance to sit and play alongside them at the myriad music sessions up and down Route 145, the connective roadway to all the craic.
Once again the outstanding faculty for the 2012 Catskills Irish Arts Week is a combination of some of the top talent from Ireland and North America.
Regular returnees from the Ould Sod include Mary Bergin, Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Paul deGrae, Jimmy Crowley, Mirella Murray, Kathleen Boyle, Caitlin and Bernadette nic Gabhann and Catherine McEvoy.
This year they’ll be joined by first-timers Dermot Byrne, Mick Conneely, Brid Harper, Cathal McConnell, Dympna O’Sullivan, Fintan Vallely, Floriane Blancke, Eimear Arkins and Gabriel McKeon.
Michael Black of the Black Family will also be there teaching singing, and for the first time a Cape Breton fiddler, Chrissy Crowley, who also has Irish roots in Newfoundland. Set dancing master Padraig McEneany is also coming over and he would be familiar to many from the Cape May set dancing weekend.
The North American staff features Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Rose Flanagan, Willie Kelly, Tony DeMarco, Patrick Ourceau, Grainne Murphy, Don Meade, Felix Dolan, Monsignor Charles Coen, Shannon and Matt Heaton, Mike McHale, Benedict Koehler, Loretta Murphy, Patty Furlong, Pauline Conneely, Eileen Gannon, Anna Colliton, Mary Coogan, Donny Golden, Kieran Jordan, Bridie and John Dal Pizzol, Mairtin de Cogain, Vincent Crotty and Regan Wick.
All that talent will be on display all week (Monday to Friday) at the Catskills Irish Arts Week for classes for all levels, with prior registration for full and half time tuition and in some cases per diem registrations accepted according to the class and ability.
The classes are from 10-11:30 a.m. and again from 1:30-3 p.m., and a special children’s program will be available for kids from five to 12 15 minutes before and after those class times once again at the Durham Elementary School.
The Monday to Friday schedule is following its usual routine, with topical lectures at 4 p.m. and the evening concerts from 7:30-9:30 p.m. on the Quill Festival Grounds (2267 Route 145) with sessions starting around 10 p.m.
The nightly ceilithe will be from 9 p.m. until midnight at either the Shamrock House and Weldon House in East Durham or the Inn at Leeds (Wednesday starting at 8:30 p.m.). All of these are open to the general public for nominal admission charges to support the arts week, and free to registered students who register in advance.
The Saturday Andy McGann Festival on July 21 from noon to 7 p.m. features the arts week staff. It’s a great way to experience some of the atmosphere enjoyed all week and admission is payable at the gate.
Check out www.catskillsirishartsweek.org for class assignments and other information, as well as phoning 518-634-2286 for help planning your visit to the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham where I serve as the artistic director.