Texans host Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann North American Convention with aplomb

The lobby of the San Antonio Airport Hilton was comfortably filled with around 50 guests who were extending their stay on Sunday night after the just completed 60th anniversary Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann North American Convention.

They were enjoying one more night of Irish music from a random group of about 10 musicians and singers from as far west as California and east in counties Clare and Westmeath who gathered around in horseshoe arrangement. This never say die contingent were emblematic of the spirit that infused the hotel since last Thursday night, filling it with spontaneity and bonhomie that marked a great gathering of Gaels at a Comhaltas weekend.

With its fabulous River Walk attraction and the historic Alamo, San Antonio is a popular tourist destination year round, and the warm weather a special treat for those up north who experienced a longer winter than anyone cared for. When the year-old branch now officially named for Father Sean Egan, the adventurous Holy Ghost father who served as an U.S. Air Force chaplain in San Antonio, stepped up bravely last April to host the largest CCE event in North America, no one knew what to expect.

But co-chairs Tom Macken and Jim Fox suspected it was an opportunity too good to miss for promoting their fledgling branch in Texas as the newest member of the Southern Region of CCE. Taking on big challenges is nothing new in Texas as Father Sean and Fox could tell you when their Irish music band went to Ireland in 1986 and won first place in the Senior Ceili Band competition for Grupai Cheoil or ensemble arrangements.

Hundreds of devoted Irish music and dance devotees descended upon San Antonio for the weekend. Some parts of the entertainment and instructional roster would have looked very familiar from the Parsippany 2010 convention as musicians were recruited from the Mid-Atlantic region to play for the ceilithe.

The Green Gates and Pride of Moyane ceili bands have impressed many dancing fanatics outside of their New York and New Jersey bases, and were happy to lend their hands and talents to help San Antonio put on a good show.

Musicians Rose Flanagan, Patty Furlong, John Reynolds, Margie Mulvihill, Eileen Clune Goodman, Dennis O’Driscoll, Frankie McCormick and John Whelan formed a musical flying column that was buttressed by young musicians Erin and Blaithin Loughran and Pamela Geraghty from Pearl River keeping dancers on their heels and toes all weekend when they weren’t in the thick of music sessions around the hotel.

Dance instruction was well catered for with the visitation of Padraig and Roisin McEneany from Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, who are familiar set dance instructors from their regular appearances at the Connie Ryan Memorial Weekend in Cape May and Rehoboth and past CCE conventions in Parsippany in 2008 and 2010.

The weekend in the U.S. allowed them to launch the second volume of their instructional DVD series Faoi Do Chois (On Your Feet): The Full Set 2 (www.faoidochois.ie) featuring four sets danced to the music of the Matt Cunningham Band. The sets on the DVD are the Tory Island, the Boyne Set, the Valentia Right and Left Set and the Moycullen Set which were taught over the weekend and are part of the expansive list of quadrille dances found all over Ireland, some danced for hundreds of years.

The sets are carefully detailed in print and on screen in the new DVD package, making it the latest in valuable instructional tools for new dancers and teachers who value the heritage contained in Irish folk dancing.

Sadly the weekend ended a day earlier for Padraig and Roisin when news came overnight Saturday that Roisin’s mother passed away from injuries suffered in a fall, forcing a return home under somber circumstances.

Another Irish dancing teacher who made a very large first impression was Emma O’Sullivan of Renvyle in Northern Connemara, who is one of more graceful of the new generation of sean nos dancers springing up in Ireland.

Finishing up a tour with an Irish dance show troupe in Florida, she made her way to San Antonio for the weekend and proved to be a most effective teacher in breaking down the “impromptu percussive steps” that are the hallmark of sean nos dancing.

During her multiple performances on Saturday and Sunday she gave new meaning to the expression “everything old was new again.” The 25-year-old dancer added more youth to the banquet entertainment along with 19-year-old champion step dancer Jason Hays, who danced to the lovely music of Girsa girls Pamela Geraghty and Blaithin Loughran, joined by sister Erin Loughran later joined by Neidin Loughran at one of the lobby sessions.

The lobby entrance served as a de facto crossroads all weekend, with special entertainment scheduled for the enjoyment of the visitors and to showcase local talent as well as visiting talent.

It was wonderful to see, for instance, the great ballad singer and Gaelgoier from the Aran Islands (Inishmore) Danny O’Flaherty, who had to relocate from New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina which forced the closure of one of the great Irish pubs in America.

Whether it was serendipity or an inspired choice, chairman Tom Macken hails from Mullingar, where CCE was formed 60 years ago in 1951. To help celebrate the occasion he invited his old mate Aodan Moynahan to visit and share some history made by his parents Cait and Eamonn there at the formation and valuable CCE assets at the time.

It was especially good timing because Aodan became reachtaire (regional chair) of the latest resource center in Mullingar open by former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen in his wanting days of office.

Macken and his wife Kathy led a terrific, well organized team in assembling and executing the demanding weekend. Their feat was all the more impressive because they had less than a year to pull it all together for Comhaltas. One wonders what they could achieve with even more time in the future.

The CCE North American Community is still awaiting some “white smoke” on where the 2012 convention will be, so stay tuned.

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