The evening was more a display of hometown pride than a debutant “coming out” soiree in the Rockland County redoubt of Irish America last Friday night.
The parking lot of the Pearl River High School was overflowing, and long lines of hopeful ticket seekers stood outside the auditorium entrance for what was billed as the midwest summer tour kickoff concert for a talented home-grown group of young women (and one New Jerseyite) collectively known as Girsa.
So massive was the crowd that extra chairs were necessary for the sold-out performance space, with over 700 theater style seats in place making the night successful beyond the organizer’s dreams. It also went a long way towards providing a proper springboard to the summer of their lives for the eight talented and fast developing artists who comprise the emerging force in Irish music in America.
Since producing a self-titled debut CD last year, it has been an exceptionally busy time for the octet that formed six years ago as a performance unit that grew up together in Pearl River in the vanguard of that blossoming community rapidly becoming known as the epicenter for traditional music in New York.
As of last week all are now college age and looking to supplement their income gigging together, and with appearances later this summer at the Dublin, Ohio Irish Festival, the grandmother of them all, the Milwaukee Irish Fest, and the Kansas City Irish Festival over Labor Day, it is like winning the trifecta. Their future does indeed look bright and full of further potential.
But nights like last Friday night are to be savored and remembered also because of the love and support they received from their parents, friends and neighbors who turned out. And were they ever rewarded with a great show that night, auguring well for their appearances later this summer on some of the finest stages in the U.S. that also includes the Catskills Irish Arts Week on Thursday (July 15) and Saturday (July 17) at the Andy McGann Festival.
Girsa follows the lead of Maeve Flanagan, 20, who just finished her third year at Stonehill College and a semester abroad at NUI-Galway, who is the musical arranger for the tunes and accompaniment.
Joining her on fiddles are Margaret Dudasik (Nutley, New Jersey), Kristen McShane (Pearl River) and Deirdre Brennan. Brennan and Dudasik are also standout vocalists along with cousins Pamela Geraghty (accordion and guitar) and Emily McShane (guitar and keyboards). Flanagan’s sister Bernadette (keyboards, bodhran and dancing feet with Dudasik) and Blaithin Loughran (accordion) round out the troupe.
They effectively used this occasion as their first full-length concert in Pearl River to show off how far they have come as a very savvy and entertaining group of musicians catering for all ages within the audience that night.
With great poise, humor and stagecraft they weaved a spell over the audience who were probably hearing and seeing them live with proper sound equipment in a first-class venue that has heretofore eluded them locally. It made a huge impression and garnered them a standing ovation at the end.
They also featured three young stepdancers from the Verlin School of Dance (Ellen Riordan Ross, teacher) in Catriona Furlong, 13, and Brian, 12, and Sean Shapiro, 13, and a lively group of setdancers from the O’Flynn and O’Sullivan families who gave us a few figures of the Borlin Set.
And not to be forgotten was the sensational master of ceremonies, Dermot Henry, who moved the audience all night with his unique mix of humor and sentiment that added so much to the occasion.
Catskills Week Takes Shape
GIVEN the preponderance of very late nights that characterize the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, you might think that the many students taking classes burning the candles at both ends would be looking to catch some shuteye where they could.
So the notion of late afternoon lecture topics every day would seem a lost cause in a very busy daily regimen of classes morning and afternoon and post supper concert, dances and late night music sessions around town. But in recent years they have provided some of the most fascinating and educational contributions to the annual festival, giving the upstate New York another cultural component to foster traditional Irish music in the region.
Making it all possible, of course, is the deep reservoir of talent and expertise among the recruited teaching staff at the summer school who are willing to give that extra measure each year and the insatiable and genuine interest of the student body and general public for the selected topics or profiles.
This year is no exception as attendees will be able to see special craftspeople at work taking us behind the scenes of producing traditional music for the ages. Here is what they can look forward to:
Starting on Monday, July 12 is Damien Connolly, the Ennis-born box and fiddle player who learned his music from his father Martin and uncle Seamus, along with the Brooklyn-born Maureen Glynn Connolly before he immigrated to America. He will lead an afternoon “teaching” session on how to construct tune selections and key changes for maximum effect. Those familiar with Irish music usually notice when a tune changes from one to another with a knowing yelp when the music is in full flight.
On Tuesday, July 13, the week welcomes Jeff Ksiazek from the Ward Irish Music Archives (WIMA) based in Milwaukee as part of its famed Irish Fest organization now celebrating 30 years as the largest Irish music festival in the U.S. (www.irishfest.com).
The archives house over 40,000 items relating to Irish music, and Ksiazek works there along with the director Barry Stapleton curating the material and developing traveling exhibits that are provided courtesy of the Irish Fest to Irish festivals and organizations throughout the year.
His topic will deal with the lost and found cylinders of Captain Francis O’Neill from the early 20th century containing some of the earliest recordings of musicians of his day now known as the Dunn Family Collection, who donated them to the Library of Congress and the WIMA.
On Wednesday, July 14, the spotlight shines on accordion player Martin Mulhaire from Eyrecourt in East Galway in an afternoon interlude hosted by the respected Irish music journalist Earle Hitchner which will focus on Mulhaire’s compositions played throughout the world.
A resident of New York since leaving the All-Ireland champion Tulla Ceili Band in 1958, the shy and retired musician now living in Pearl River will receive some long-overdue exposure as one of the most respected Irish musicians in America.
On Thursday, July 15 the action doubles up with piper Jerry O’Sullivan introducing us to a second CD continuing his musical scholarship of baroque music and the music of 18th century piper O’Farrell.
Simultaneously, Antoin MacGabhann, visiting the Catskills week for his second year will launch a posthumously-produced four CD package of recordings from mouth organ player, Eddie Clarke, a fellow Cavan native.
Entitled Eddie Clarke: Unheard, it contains three CDs of personal music recordings (and one of songs) from a musician who popularized the harmonica in Irish music in Ireland. This special occasion will be led by Don Meade, an All-Ireland champion on the harmonica living in New York and past director of the Catskills week.
The week’s series concludes on Friday, July 16 with a long-anticipated opportunity to laud the prolific American composer Liz Carroll, the Chicago native and fiddler extraordinaire, who is just publishing a book of 185 compositions called Liz Carroll: Collected, with partial sponsorship of the Shamrock Irish Traditional Music Society.
Doing the hosting honors will be Dr. Lawrence McCullough, a fellow musician from the Midwest who has studied Irish music in Chicago and the Midwest.
All the lectures will take place from 4-5:30 p.m. at the Weldon House (2119 Route 145, East Durham), graciously provided by its new owners the Blackthorn Resort except for O’Sullivan’s Thursday afternoon piping lecture which will be in the Shamrock House.
For more visit www.irishvillageusa.com or call the Quill Irish Centre at 518-634-2286.