Last month I had the opportunity to visit the inspirational new home for the Irish World Academy of Irish music and Dance resting on the Clare side of the Shannon River at the foot of the iconic “Living Bridge,” as director Micheal O’Suilleabhain proclaims it as the spring semester was winding down.
Faculty, staff and students were eagerly using the purpose-built facility on the campus of the University of Limerick from Easter on to get away from the cramped quarters they were housed in since the inception of the innovative center for the Irish performing arts was created by Dr. O’Suilleabhain back in 1994 when he was lured from UCC to UL.
The grandeur and spaciousness of the new 20 million euro palace was too long a vision not to be exploited at the earliest opportunity so even with a few weeks remaining in the current term everything moved over to it, including many of the year-end or final performances of students who were finishing their undergraduate or graduate training there in the ever-expanding program now known as the Irish World Academy of Irish Music and Dance.
So it was there that I had the opportunity to see the final recital of Erin Loughran, a young 21-year-old fiddler from Pearl River, New York on May 10.
It was only five years ago when the accomplished young fiddling student of Rose Conway Flanagan and Brian Conway was ready to leave behind the world of fleadh music competition (for the sake of competing against other musicians) and enter into a more challenging and mind-expanding world.
She was good enough to share first place in an All-Ireland trio competition in 2005 in Clonmel, remarkably with two other fiddlers from Pearl River, Maeve Flanagan and Deirdre Brennan, while also garnering a second-place solo finish.
Just as she was in the vanguard of the still-flowing tide of young musicians from Rockland County, she was the first of that generation to enroll as an undergraduate for a bachelor’s in Irish music and dance from New York and in August this year, the first New Yorker to graduate with that degree.
She was in the original edition of Girsa before studies abroad made it too difficult to continue with the troop that went on to record their album last year.
As a youngster, Loughran, whose father Frank hails from Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone and mother Margie Mulvihill from the Bronx with Kerry roots and linkage to the great Martin Mulvihill of Glin, West Limerick, had ample opportunities for holiday visits to the Ould Sod, so it instilled a desire to attend college over there.
When UL decided to establish an undergraduate program for attracting students to go along with their pioneering graduate programs in music and dance just a couple of years before Erin was ready, it seemed like the opportunity to study in Ireland and further advance her love for traditional music could be joined, and so it was.
For four years she took academic classes like other Irish college students and focused on her major which was introducing her to the world of performing Irish traditional music and learning more about it in depth. She would have to learn about solo and ensemble playing and getting a performance together while sharpening her technique on the fiddle and building a repertoire both inside the Irish tradition and outside of it.
There is still a large respect for the American influence in Irish music which meant that in the communal atmosphere encouraged by the teaching staff at UL’s IWMA, Loughran could impart as well as take in new material.
There was also the added bonus of working with Ireland’s top musicians or meeting legends like Paul Brady, who performed at UL earlier in the spring when he established a special scholarship there at the opening of the new premises.
With apprehension, she prepared her final performance in the new tall cylindrical acoustic chamber known as the Drum Theatre. She designed a comprehensive program that complimented her American roots and influences and also what she had learned, particularly from her foremost fiddle tutor, Siobhan Peoples, who taught her Highlands from the North of Ireland among others things.
As it happened, Maeve Flanagan, a junior at Stonehill College, was doing a semester abroad at UCG in Galway, so she appropriately joined her for some tunes learned from Brian Conway and Joanie Madden.
In a nod to her illustrious relation Martin Mulvihill, who she said “was responsible for much of the Irish music in New York today,” her cousin from Glin, Diarmuid O’Brien, added a familial touch to their playing of the “High and Low Road to Glin” and the “Pride of Moyvane.”
Her final selection were three polkas learned from her mother Margie, who wouldn’t let a little ash cloud keep her from attending her first-born daughter’s big day in Limerick as she sat in for the finale.
The overall performance went down a bomb (in the Irish sense), and while it played a large part of her senior grade, the day was just a microcosm of what she learned over four years on her own in Limerick about how to marry the music that is her inheritance and making her way in the world.
Fittingly, her graduation at UL will come just after Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann concludes in Cavan, and you can be sure that many more meaningful musical adventures await Erin Loughran of Pearl River.