When Boston College assertively decided to boost its Irish Studies program with more focus on Irish music education, Connolly was brought onboard in 1991 to teach music just a year after an extraordinary weekend of Irish fiddle music was organized by Dr. Micheal O’Suilleabhain and Connolly in Gasson Hall’s Irish Room which resulted in a seminal CD of Irish fiddlers old and young playing in America at the time.
To bring more attention to Boston College’s evolving plans and to develop more programs like this, the Gaelic Roots programming was germinating and would reach full flower in 1996 when their first week-long summer school at the college’s Chestnut Hill campus was unfolded.
Connolly’s connections and comprehensive knowledge of the old masters and young performers and teachers who were ready to play their part in keeping the tradition alive made him the perfect candidate to direct the nascent program that took full advantage of being in Irish Boston, which added fun (harbor ceili cruises, Fenway Park and Irish pub session crawls) to go along with the solid tutelage during the week.
With organizational help from Sandy Walters, Connolly’s late wife and senior official within the U.S. National Park Service, he annually organized an outstanding faculty, including many of the older masters from Ireland and Scotland whose presence alone added to the massive reputation of the Gaelic Roots Summer School that drew people from all over the country for its eight-year run as one of America’s top summer schools for Celtic music and dance.
Since most of the teaching and performing staff were from overseas, post- 9/11 logistics and expenses hampered the continuation of Gaelic Roots as a week-long school. Connolly shifted focus to smaller offerings during the academic year, keeping the mission of preserving and educating people about the “Living Tradition” of Irish music and dance.
It afforded him the opportunity to teach more at other summer schools around the county like the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Augusta Heritage Center and the Swannanoa Gathering and many of the multicultural fiddling camps as well.
When the National Heritage Awards are being juried, I am sure the panels charged with the task of sorting through all the candidates work very hard to narrow it down to those who justify the criteria of folk artists of the highest caliber who have left their mark on the cultural tapestry that is the United States of America.
Connolly, 69, carried his intense passion and respect for those who gave the music to him in his native Ireland and made that his mission in America for the past 37 years in as many ways as he possibly could.
He is a very worthy candidate to join the ranks of Joe Heaney, Martin Mulvihill, Joe Shannon, Jack Coen, Michael Flatley, Donny Golden, Liz Carroll, Mick Moloney, Kevin Burke, Joe Derrane and Mike Rafferty as the 12th traditional Irish musician or dancer in that select group of folk artists and to earn its $25,000 fellowship.
“It is great to follow in the footsteps of all those great Irish musicians and dancers on that short list of people who have been chosen for this award and I am honored and humbled by it,” he told me by phone recently.
“I will accept this award (in September) on behalf of all the musicians, singers and dancers who kept Irish music alive in a great country like America.”
Connolly still has projects in the hopper, and he isn’t resting on his laurels. Foremost on his list is the publication and release of an ambitious recording of Irish tunes collected over the years in his private archive.
They contain music that warrant greater exposure either as his own compositions or those of other musicians in the tradition that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve thus far. The 10-disc compendium will also include transcriptions of the original music to aid in learning them and disseminating them much in the manner of a mentoring Julia Clifford, the Sliabh Luachra fiddle player who encouraged Seamus long ago to learn one of her tunes by asking, “You Don’t Have it Do You?” as she taped it for him.
Connolly is hopeful that the sesquicentennial of Boston College next year will provide a convenient opportunity for this life’s work to be shared for generations to come.
It also shows why he is a treasured resource for Irish America who will stand tall in the hallowed Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as truly a legend in his time.