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Passing the baton at Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Convention

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Seamus McCormack, Senator Labhras O'Murchu, Tomas Maoldomnaigh, Helen Gannon and Tom Vesey. (Photo by Peter Maher/ Irish Focus)

When you are 40 years a growing out in the Midwest like the St. Louis Irish Arts branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and CCE North America, there are bound to be tempests along the way for the international cultural movement dedicated to the preservation of Irish traditional music and dance.

So when they were hosting the annual North American convention of CCE there in the Gateway City last weekend they managed to overcome the two severe storm systems on Saturday that wreaked some havoc through the region, and even caused a fatality at the nearby Busch Stadium just a few blocks away when a collapsed tent for a post-game reception caused many injuries.

Later at the Ballpark Hilton as hailstones fell on the pavement outside, there was a symbolic handoff of leadership within Comhaltas North America from a Limerick lady to a Mayo man that ensured an orderly organization succession and an appropriate salute to the outgoing provincial chair, Helen Gannon.

It seemed so fitting that after a very successful six year tenure as head of the 46 branch province covering the U.S. coast to coast and Canada that Gannon should pass on the conductor’s baton in her home city to Tom Vesey from the Mid-Atlantic region’s Martin Mulvihill branch.

Not only was she feted by CCE for her Trojan work, but the North American Feis Committee also inducted her into its Hall of Fame for her many years as a dance teacher and tireless worker promoting the learning and competition spheres of Irish dance in the Midwest.

Kudos rained down on her all weekend from the many distinguished guests who came from Ireland who have worked with Gannon over the years in her multiple roles as a delegate to the Ardchomhairle (executive council) of CCE and as provincial chair.

Foremost among the salutors was Senator Labhras O’Murchu, the director general of Comhaltas, a long-time friend and supporter who lionized her efforts both in the private reception prior to the banquet on Saturday and during his stirring remarks that always seem to rally the CCE faithful to greater heights.

Among the other Ardchomhairle members in attendance were CCE president Seamus McCormack, secretary Tomas Maoldomnaigh, Assunta Ni Chaisaigh, Tadgh Mulcahy, Ena O’Brien (from Canada) and myself (I also serve as public relations officer for CCE North America in the interest of disclosure).

The annual gathering of the CCE delegates and members is called the North American Convention due to its origins as the primary meeting to discuss Comhaltas business and operations in North America.

It received its start in 1972 under the visionary hand of Bill McEvoy from Co. Laois, who orchestrated the annual concert tours from Ireland that blossomed into a branch network that obtained provincial status in 1992 in Montreal (along with the Four Provinces of Ireland and of Britain).

McEvoy is still hale and hearty and inspiring at the age of 89, and he was in attendance as well to sing the praises of one of his real success stories in the person of Gannon.

As important as the business meetings are, these weekends are better known as non-stop celebrations of Irish music and dance by the majority of the people who attend them as they rotate around the continent of North America.  They have legendary status on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the principal assemblages of Irish music and dance fanatics each year.

So it is not surprising that a number of overseas guests arrived this year to target the North American audiences with information about important events back in Ireland this year and next and beyond, all in mind with gathering more of the clan known as the diaspora to help spur economic recovery back at home. 

From Cavan, where the fruits of cultural tourism have been much in evidence in both 2010 and 2011 when they served as formidable hosts of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Cavan Town came four representatives to help flog the third year of the fleadh in the Breffni County this August (www.fleadhcheoil.ie).

On hand were county manager Jack Keyes and Cavan Mayor Sean McKiernan from the political wing, and musicians Antoin MacGabhann and Martin Gaffney (doubling as the highly efficient fleadh public relations officer), all mindful that the ****70 million brought into the county over the first two years could still do with a top-up in 2012 in their last year of hosting the fleadh before it moves onto Derry in 2013.

When your aim is to attract visitors in 2013 to Ireland and especially to a historic fleadh in the north of Ireland where it has never been before, signally that early to the Comhaltas brethren assembled is a good start.  Eibhlin Ni Dhorchartaigh and Ann Marie Gallagher from the Derry Fleadh team came to St. Louis to speak to the business meeting.

Ennis hopefuls Frank Whelan and Micheal O’Reavey came along to push a potential “Fleadh Down in Ennis” for 2014, but while they were there they screened a wonderful video entitled Last Night As I Lay Dreaming which was produced a couple of years ago on the marvelous character from Spancil Hill, Robbie McMahon, best known for championing the song about the Fair of Spancil Hill, an unofficial anthem of the Banner County.

The film features the life of a colorful singer and composer of songs that depicts the rural way of life that infuses those who follow traditional music and culture in Ireland.

Another Clareman, Oliver O’Connell, from Doolin, was also on hand all weekend with songs and stories and to promote his excellent history of the traveling community and Irish traditional music called Free Spirits released late last year.

From the University of Limerick came Dr. Catherine Foley, director of ethnochoreology at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the university.

She offered a lecture last Thursday on the transmission of Irish culture through its music and dance, and her own experiences in collecting it and notating it to keep it from dying out.

The convention was mostly notable for the fine music displayed all weekend at every ceilithe from Thursday through Sunday by the Banks and the Broken Pledge ceili bands, assisted at times by visiting musicians.  And it wouldn’t be a good CCE gathering without the fine hotel sessions at all hours.

But any trip to St. Louis, and especially one that salutes the 40th anniversary of St. Louis Irish Arts, is always going to center around the exceptional students of music and dance to be found in its ranks.

Thanks to Mrs. G, as she is affectionately called by her many students and her great team of music and dance teachers, it is always impressive to see the sensational floor show that is the centerpiece of any St. Louis convention banquet.

Helen and P.J. Gannon’s son Niall and daughter Eileen are musical directors of the school, and they received a great assist from musician Eimear Arkins and James Mounsey from Ireland this year.

Mounsey danced a wonderful trad pas de deux with Shannon Flecke from SLIA as part of the entertainment, and Flecke is one of SLIA’s students turned teacher and a former youth officer for CCE North America.

Congratulations on a job well done and a weekend to remember to Mrs. G and her team, and best wishes to Vesey from Ballaghaderreen, Co. Mayo.

Along with Brendan, Sean and the late P.J., the band of brothers have kept the traditional music flag flying high over Northern New Jersey for many years, so we can expect nothing less from Tom now in the driver’s seat for North America.

Finally, we would like to express our best wishes for a full recovery to one of the special guests this weekend, Una O’Murchu (from Kilmaley, Co. Clare) who suffered a bad fall requiring surgery in St. Louis.

She is the wife of Labhras O’Murchu and a long time friend of America as well.

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