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Rambling Irish men and women - fleadhs, festivals and music

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Len Graham
It has always been my impression that the mission of any good summer school program would be to provide as much value and information as a curious student body or audience could soak up beyond the obvious hours of classroom instructions. And it is a very valuable outlet and way to show off the credentials of the faculty when they can share their greater insights into our very rich cultural heritage.

Nowhere has that practice been put to greater effect than at the Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW, catskillsirishartsweek.org) in East Durham which is commencing its 17th annual program in the mountains next week from July 10-16. There is a great array of extra offerings that will stimulate, educate, entertain and produce a laugh and tear every day at the action-packed week.

Leading the programming lineup is a lecture by Len Graham, the very professional Irish folk singer and song collector who has devoted his life to this very colorful and important part of Irish life and legend.  His focus, in particular, has been on the songs and the people who carried them from the north of Ireland and the province of Ulster.

He is a proud son of Antrim who has made his home in nearby Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh for decades.  Last year around this time, he published a book with the Folklore Council of Ireland distributed by Four Courts Press in Dublin called Joe Holmes, Here I am Amongst You: Songs, Music and Traditions of an Ulsterman chronicling the life and times of his fellow Antrim man Joe Holmes, who opened Graham’s eyes and repertoire widely in the course of their 15 year friendship before Holmes passed on in 1978.    

Len Graham & Joe Holmes
The older Holmes was a shy singer full of stories and verses that the younger Graham valued immediately even at the tender age of 19, recognizing that he had much to learn from the venerable character who also played the fiddle and was very representative of the traditional Irish household where entertainment and heritage intertwined as one.

The pair rambled around Ireland at fleadhs, festivals and all kinds of gatherings where people had time to listen to a song no matter how many verses it might contain and that kind of “field work” produced fodder aplenty for a tome describing the life of the Ulsterman.

Featuring a canon of songs – 80 -- associated with Holmes and Graham like the “Rambling Irishman” over the years, as well as dance music displaying 53 tunes garnered from 60 years of fiddling by Holmes in the house dance tradition, Graham deftly works in as much history surrounding these treasures as possible with his own research, period photos, sketches and broadsheets.

Graham will bring much of this to life at a Thursday afternoon lecture at 4 p.m. on July 14 in a multimedia presentation, and he will have copies of the book for sale also.  It is also available via paperback at ISBS in Portland, Oregon (www.isbs.com or phone 800-944-6190). And hopefully he will bring along some of the companion CDs for sale featuring their songs and music together.

For more details on Graham and his distinguished discography visit his website: www.songsandstories.com.

Some of this singing tradition will be continued nightly at the Frank Harte Singing Club at the Gavin’s Resort tea room every night starting at 10 p.m.  Each night a featured singer from the CIAW faculty will start things off at the singing sessions drawing from their own repertoire.

Slated to perform are Robbie O’Connell (Monday), Mary Staunton from Mayo (Tuesday), Graham (Wednesday), Dan Milner (Thursday) and Julee Glaub and Mark Weems (Friday).

And you can be sure that other wonderful singers on the faculty like Mairtin de Cogain, Catherine Crowe and Gabriel Donahue will also lift their voices in song in good company.
Also on the CIAW lecture docket are NYU’s Bobst Library music maven Brendan Dolan, who will give a glimpse of the multi-faceted exploration of Irish American musical lore gathered up by Dr. Mick Moloney over the 37 years of fishing these waters in North America (Monday, July 11).

Jesse Smith, originally from Maryland but living in Ireland these days, has a ton of research on the recordings and tunes of Michael Coleman which he will share with the Catskills audience on Tuesday, July 12.

On Wednesday, July 13 lectures double up with harper Kathleen Loughnane from Galway talking about 17th century harpists the Connellan Brothers, while elsewhere Dr. Roxanne O’Connell takes us back to the early days of Irish music recordings and the impact it had on Irish music from her academic research.

Folklorist and singer Dan Milner will give us some insight on what goes into Irish ballads and the cultural context behind them on Friday, July 15.  Also on Friday at 4 p.m. at the Blackthorne Pub, there will be a presentation and tribute to drummer Jimmy Kelly, Sr. and his wife Annie led by Don Meade and Marlow Palleja.

The soiree will zero in on the happy couple, whose families have played an integral part in New York’s Irish music history for decades and who have lived a very colorful life between Albany and the Catskills linking scores and generations of musicians along the way.

There are also two documentaries that are being screened as part of the CIAW programming.  On Tuesday, July 12 at the Weldon House there will be a screening of the 2009 Documentary The Yellow Bittern, the bittersweet review of the life of Liam Clancy, “the last man standing,” of the fabled folk singing clan of brothers from Tipperary who teamed up with Armagh singer Tommy Makem in New York.

The impact of the Clancy Brothers was as huge as it was controversial, and much of that is explored through a very reflective period at the end of Liam Clancy’s life in the film which was completed before his death.

On hand to introduce it and provide more background is Robbie O’Connell, “the nephew,” who has made a living singing songs in America also who performed with the Clancy Brothers over the years.

The second focuses on the longest running continuous Irish music session in Manhattan’s East Village at Dempsey’s Pub, where filmmaker Sam Adelman introduces us to the “Beautiful People” who frequent the session led by John Nevin.

In keeping with a social setting of the film this will be shown at 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in the Blackthorne Pub where food and drink will be available during the supper time break prior to the evening concerts at the Quill Center’s festival grounds.

The week would not be complete without proper attention being paid to the very creative forces that really are the heart and soul of the Catskills Irish Arts Week, the musicians themselves.

There are a number of launches on tap highlighting new recordings from this year’s faculty or invited guests.  Girsa’s A Sweeter Place kicks off the week on Monday in the opening night concert and later at a session at the Blackthorne Pub.

Also on Monday evening will be John Carty’s launch of his recording with Brian Rooney of At Ease at the former Darby’s Pub now operating as the Saloon in the middle of town.
Tuesday night out at the Hollowbrook Inn (July 12 in Freehold), Boston’s Colm Gannon and Maryland’s Jesse Smith celebrate a terrific CD, Ewe With A Crooked Horn, released in Ireland where the two Yanks have taken up residence for over a decade.
Midwest native Shannon Heaton lives in Boston with her husband Matt, and she released a new CD called The Blue Dress which will be launched at the new pub the Stone Castle Inn on Thursday night.

Also on Thursday night, Greenwich Village comes to the mountains in the form of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra with a Catskills launch at the Thursday night concert and also at Gavin’s Resort afterwards.

A little second city craic blows in to join CIAW teacher Pauline Conneely when her Chicago bandmates come in to join her to launch a new recording called For the Love of the Music and an East Coast debut on Friday night at Gavin’s Resort afterwards and a special appearance at the Andy McGann Festival on Saturday, July 16 from noon-7 p.m.

All of this is open to the general public with the lectures and screenings asking for a modest donation towards the operations of the CIAW.

If you can’t make the mountains, head for Lincoln Center on Wednesday, July 13 for a taste at Midsummer Night Swing Irish Night from 6 to 10 pm.

Or better, take the afternoon off and go visit the “Ireland/America: Ties That Bind” exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center beforehand. An extra bonus is the Summer Salon Series starting Wednesday, July 13 there featuring novelists Michael Collins and Belinda McKeon with singer Louise Sullivan at 6:30 p.m. in the plaza lobby.

All of these made possible with the help of Culture Ireland as part of Imagine Ireland (www.imagineireland.com).

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