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Queens Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann honor Jack Whelan

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It is a fairly standard practice of affixing the name of a special contributor to a building or an institution who has bestowed significant gifts that enhance the mission of the recipient. 

Usually we are talking about sizable financial capital, but sometimes human capital is worth more than its weight in gold. 

When you are dealing with an Irish cultural movement like Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann where volunteerism is one of its greatest assets, the attachment of a name belonging to a committed individual who exemplifies what the most important unit in the organization, the local branch, is all about is very significant.

For it serves as both recognition of the valuable service rendered and also an inspiration to present and future officers and members of the branch and the wider community. 

So I was delighted to hear that long-time CCE club based in Queens, the Killoran Clancy club, would add the name of John (Jack) Whelan to its official title later this month at a special ceili in Mineola, Long Island.

The genial Clareman from Ballyvaskin outside Miltown Malbay in West Clare was a dedicated organizational zealot not only for Comhaltas but for traditional music and dance.

His membership and leadership in that branch not only spanned its era of greatness at the end of the last century, but helped focus the tangible and intangible contributions of the mid-Atlantic region and the province of North America as he played a crucial role in the expansion of the CCE over here which will mark 40 years this year.

Living in Elmhurst, Queens, he and his devoted wife Mae (from Kilydysart) joined the Paddy Killoran branch (named for the Sligo fiddler) in 1974 which had evolved into a Comhaltas branch like so many others in America from one of the music clubs under the declining aegis of the Irish Musicians Association.

After six years of active membership he ascended to the chairmanship, a post he held for a decade as the branch expanded under his leadership and Mae’s sympathetic and supportive work alongside of him. 

With equal measures of unabashed enthusiasm and powers of easygoing persuasion, he created one of the more popular branches of Comhaltas that especially catered to the Irish diaspora from his own generation of immigrants who came over from the old country in the post-World War II period right up to the 1970s.

Raising four children, he was also keenly aware that for Irish culture to survive and thrive, it had to be passed on and shared with the first generation, so he was also very supportive of Pete Kelly’s Shannonaires Ceili Band and school that fostered so many wonderful Irish American musicians.

Knowing of my own interest and commitment to traditional music and dance, and a common Clare heritage, Jack recruited me to the Killoran branch and served as a mentor, apprenticing me into the world of Irish organizations walking the fine line between the Irish-born and the “narrowbacks” born over here. 

Jack loved challenges and, even more, springing them on people he carefully recruited to work with him on them as I soon discovered through the branch and the Clare Association where we often worked in tandem.  

His affinity to the Banner County was to the fore, and since he was an avid supporter of the Willie Clancy Summer School to honor the late great piper from Miltown Malbay, it came as no great surprise when he added Clancy’s name to the branch banner to salute the role of Clare in traditional music.

Jack’s leadership skills and indefatigable spirit was harnessed as the regional chairman of the mid-Atlantic region made up of New York and New Jersey branches in 1990, and later as a delegate from North American to the Comhaltas Ardchomhairle (Executive Council) for a number of years.  Once again his modern approach to planning and strategy led to a successful expansion without sacrificing the grassroots nature of the cultural body.

So on Sunday, January 29, the Killoran-Clancy branch of CCE will add the name of Jack Whelan onto its banner to honor their devoted member who passed away last April at the age of 86 as an exemplar of the Irish Immigrant who could love two countries at the same time. 

Fittingly it will take place at the Mineola Irish American Center (297 Willis Avenue) on Long Island where Jack and Mae took up residence in 1993 and added the Inis Fade Center to their long list of Irish organizations to support and enjoy.

The ceili takes place from 4-8 p.m. with dance music provided by the Cool na Croi Ceili Band from 4:30-7:30 p.m.  For more information chairperson Annemarie Acosta Williams at 718-945-9364 or email rinceceol@aol.com.

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